How the RAF won the war

As the RAF marks its centenary, now is the time to acknowledge that the air force was Britain's most potent weapon in the fight against the Nazis, says Patrick Bishop

A flight of Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft of No 73 Squadron RAF, over France, 19 April 1940. (Photo by S. A. Devon/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Early in 1944 the chief information officer with the Royal Air Force permanent delegation in Washington DC reported back to his bosses in London on how the service was regarded in the US. “We cannot hope to enhance the prestige of the RAF,” he wrote. “Throughout the world it is a household word, and in the United States its reputation is so high that in some quarters it is almost regarded as something apart from, and superior to, Britain.” When I came across these words in the files of the National Archives it set me thinking about a question that is seldom posed. Which of the three services contributed most to Allied victory in the Second World War? Was it the army, the navy or the air force?

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In the course of researching my latest book, Air Force Blue, the answer to me seemed clear. It was the RAF – hence the book’s subtitle: ‘Spearhead of Victory.’ The pre-eminence of the air force in the struggle, which was surely the high point of its hundred-year existence, is a sub-theme of the narrative. It was one that some reviewers contested. Max Hastings, for my money the outstanding British historian of the war, thought the palm should be awarded to the Royal Navy.

Nonetheless, I stand by my judgment. Without in any way denigrating the achievements and sacrifices of the traditional services, I maintain that it was the new men and women of the air force who played the most significant part in Britain’s war. That view is based on many considerations such as efficiency, outlook, leadership and conceptual and operational flexibility. And in forming it, I took into account the US view of the relative merits of the British services.

Edward, Prince of Wales, in the rear seat of a Bristol F.2B Fighter with Captain WG Barker of No. 139 Squadron during his flight in 1918, while on a visit to the Italian Front. (Crown Copyright/Air Historical Branch image H1608)

The verdict of the Americans is important. After joining Britain in the fight, they rapidly became the senior partners in the alliance. They came to us not as colonial cousins but as the new masters of the free world with their own strong notions of how things should be done. The feeling that cultural and historical connections meant that the US owed Britain deference had long ago passed.

The Americans believed they had little to learn from a nation that was fast losing its world-power status and, in the space of a generation, had twice been forced to turn to them for salvation. They measured the worth of their allies with a beady and unsentimental eye. Attitudes among the American brass ranged from admiration to indulgent condescension to outright hostility. The chief of the US navy, Ernest King, was (in the words of Winston Churchill’s chief of staff, ‘Pug’ Ismay) “intolerant and suspicious of all things British, especially the Royal Navy”.

Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander in Europe, took a much warmer view of the British Army. Yet he too could be critical of the generals he had to work with, feeling understandably intense exasperation with the in subordinate and egomaniacal Bernard Montgomery.

The Americans’ first impressions of the RAF were, though, highly favourable. In the early autumn of 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor, a US delegation toured Egypt. Colonel Harvey S Bur-well of the US Army Air Forces was greatly impressed by the RAF aircrew and ground staff he encountered, praising their “superb morale, extraordinary patience and wonderful courage”. He met Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, head of Middle East Command, and his senior officers, and was relieved to find that the British “supercilious superiority so objectionable to Americans is rarely exhibited”.

This impression persisted. So much so that the Washington information officer was able to state in his 1944 report that “many people who dislike the British would not say a word against the RAF”.

The Americans came to regard their air force counterparts as sharing the qualities they admired in themselves: they were energetic, efficient, can-do. When Eisenhower was chosen to command the invasion of north-west Europe, he picked Tedder of the RAF as his second in command. The two had got to know each other intimately in the north Africa and Italy campaigns, and Ike regarded him as a “warm personal friend” and the man he most admired and trusted in the British high command.

To what extent was the American view justified? Any dispassionate assessment would have to conclude that the army’s record in the first phase of the war was unimpressive. Its chiefs could reasonably argue that this was at least partly the result of being starved of money and resources by politicians who preferred to give budgetary priority to the air force. Nonetheless, the first 10 months were a story of debacle and defeat. The bungled intervention in Norway was followed by the ignominy of Dunkirk. In north Africa, they floundered against the Italians, missing several golden opportunities to wrap the whole thing up before Rommel and the Afrika Korps arrived.

The famous victory at El Alamein in 1942 was the result of a marked numerical superiority in men, guns, tanks and aircraft. It was the first and last time that a British and Commonwealth force would beat the Germans on their own. Thereafter almost all the army’s efforts in the west would be in conjunction with, and subordinate to, the Americans.

El Alamein battle in the Libyan desert, c1942. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

The British performance during the ground campaigns in Europe brought mixed results. In the battle for Normandy in 1944, Montgomery took six weeks to capture Caen, a key objective he had boasted would fall in days. The British-led Market Garden operation in September 1944 to speed up progress by seizing bridges in the Netherlands over the Rhine was a spectacular failure.

It is true that British and Commonwealth forces led the campaign to kick the Japanese out of India and Burma. But then it was British and Commonwealth forces who had failed to prevent them from invading in the first place following the fall of Singapore in early 1942 (which was described by Churchill as “the worst disaster” in British military history).

For centuries, Britain had prided itself on the power of the Royal Navy. But the war at sea did not develop along the lines that the Admiralty had planned for. After the sinking of the Bismarck in May 1941 there would be no major fleet showdown with the Kriegsmarine, while the huge and expensive battleships that the admirals set such store by absorbed commensurate resources and manpower.

The navy’s contribution to the war effort was undoubtedly enormous. Without it, Britain would have lost the Battle of the Atlantic and been starved into surrender. British sea power was essential to sustaining the campaigns in the Mediterranean theatre and the far east, keeping the Arctic convoys sailing and launching the D-Day landings. But much of the effort was a struggle for survival rather than an advance towards victory. Fighting this struggle took all the navy’s time, and British warships did not contribute anything to the US navy’s campaign in the Pacific until January 1945.

The advent of air power had transformed warfare as dramatically as did the invention of gunpowder. By 1939 no victory on land or sea was possible without adequate air resources. The strength of the Luftwaffe had been an essential element in the success of the German Blitzkrieg, just as the weakness of the Armée de l’Air had hastened French defeat.

After the fall of France, Britain needed a powerful air force if it was to stay in the war. It has often been said – quite rightly – that the navy, rather than the RAF, was Britain’s ultimate line of defence against an attempted German invasion. However, with Churchill’s position still insecure, a devastating preliminary air offensive might have brought a political collapse and a Vichy-style accommodation with the Nazis that would have rendered invasion unnecessary.

By winning the Battle of Britain, the new service had a victory to match the navy and army’s immortal triumphs at Trafalgar and Waterloo. Success was due to two factors. One was the steadfastness and skill of the airmen in Fighter Command. The other was the foresight and organisational abilities of RAF commanders, who had ensured that they not only had the right fighters, but also a radar-directed command and control system able to make maximum use of resources to counter the threat.

The exploits of the air force in the summer of 1940 confirmed its place in the hearts of the British public as the service they most admired. The excitement of aviation meant that those who wore air force blue were already gilded with an aura of glamour and modernity. “The RAF are the darlings of the nation,” wrote John Thornley, a 29-year-old salesman from Preston, in his diary in July that year. “What magnificent chaps the RAF chaps must be,” he declared a month later when the Battle of Britain was reaching its climax.

The RAF’s war had in fact got off to just as bad a start as the other two services, with many examples of poor equipment and faulty tactics leading to pointless sacrifices. Yet after the Battle of Britain, its reputation was unassailable. Britons proved remarkably willing to overlook Fighter Command’s inability to protect them from the winter Blitz of 1940/41, preferring to blame politicians for the lack of countermeasures.

The public relished instead the feeling that the air force was paying Germany back. Energetic publicity announced that the squadrons were going forth nightly to wreak destruction on the German war machine. The effectiveness of these raids was wildly exaggerated, and it was not until well into 1942 that propaganda began to even approach reality. But an impression had been created that here was one area where we had the edge over the Nazis, lifting the gloom generated by the setbacks on land and sea.

The overall narrative was one of more or less continuously improving performance. The RAF’s leaders were quick to adapt, to learn from mistakes and to grasp the possibilities of new technologies that spring up under the stimulus of war. These were the foundations that enabled the air force to play a critical role in the war effort – not just in ensuring Britain’s survival but in carrying it to victory.

The RAF was blessed by some far-sighted commanders. In north Africa, Tedder had a hard job getting his army counterparts to understand that successful warfare depended on the maximum integration of land and air power, and seethed at their lack of vision and urgency. “The army direction here makes me shudder,” he wrote in his diary in April 1941 as Rommel was pressing forward in Cyrenaica. “We have got all our reorganisation to meet a new situation practically complete and working but they are still dithering as to whether General So-and-so is not too junior to take command because George So-and-so is in the offing. ‘Orrible!”

Tedder kept such thoughts to himself. In his dealings with his opposite numbers he was a model of patience, forging a partnership that would come to be cited as a paradigm of inter-service co-operation. By the time the RAF finished in north Africa, together with the Americans it had created a methodology of combined air-ground warfare that would carry the Allies onwards through the landings in Sicily and Italy.

Overwhelming air power was fundamental to the success of D-Day. In the months before the landings, British and American bomber squadrons prepared the ground, smashing up road and rail communications in a largely successful attempt to hamper swift reinforcement by the enemy when the blow fell. More than 3,200 photo reconnaissance missions were flown so that every foot of the terrain was mapped.

As the ground troops found their feet, they had little to fear from air attack – a far cry from four years previously at Dunkirk. This time there was only praise and admiration for the RAF. As they pressed forward, it was always with the Typhoons and Spitfires of the 2nd Tactical Air Force roaring overhead, hacking at the retreating Germans and easing the path to Berlin.

In the east, victory in Burma would have been impossible without the logistical support of the air force, resupplying units fighting in impenetrable jungle. And despite the navy’s titanic role in maintaining the transatlantic lifeline, the U-boats might have prevailed had it not been for the efforts of Coastal Command.

In all these areas the air force played an essential role. It was doing so, though, in conjunction with the other services. Success was a combined effort. But at the core of the RAF’s war was an enterprise in which it acted alone. The strategic bombing of Germany was more than just a campaign. It was the execution of a theory of air warfare that ruled the thinking of the RAF leaders in the run up to the war and which they had successfully embedded in the consciousness of successive governments. This held that heavy bomber fleets could cripple Germany’s war industry, fatally undermining its ability to fight, demoralising its population and, if not winning the war single-handedly, significantly reducing the task of the soldiers on the ground.

It was this proposition that had led the upstarts of the air force, even before the war began, to present themselves as the most important of the services. Paradoxically it is here that their achievements are less clear cut. Certainly, strategic bombing was one area in which Britain showed the Americans the way, more than pulling its weight in terms of operations mounted and losses sustained. The first US raids started in July 1942. In the 30 months that followed, American bombers never matched the tonnages showered down by the RAF. They didn’t pull ahead until January 1945.

The question is, how effective were the 873,348 tonnes of ordnance that Bomber Command dropped? The controversy as to whether the results were worth the effort began before the war was over and has continued ever since. It is unlikely to ever be resolved.

It is true that the German war economy proved far more resilient to bombing than the air marshals had proclaimed and that German civilian morale was no less robust than that of British victims of the Blitz. On the other hand, the RAF inflicted enormous damage and forced the Germans to divert huge resources from the Soviet Union to the home front.

The uncomfortable conclusion I have reached is that the biggest achievement of the strategic air campaign was that it contributed to a profound change in the mindset of the German people, one that persists to this day. The destruction of virtually every town of any size and the appalling civilian death toll that resulted taught the Germans a terrible lesson about the price of following Hitler.

Saturation bombing may not have broken the Germans’ spirit. But it helped powerfully to bring about their postwar conversion to a peaceful democracy. In that respect, the RAF’s achievement transcends its great contribution to military victory. It laid the foundation for the enduring peace we enjoy today.

Patrick Bishop is one of Britain’s leading military historians. His latest book, Air Force Blue: The RAF in World War Two, has just been published in paperback by William Collins.

BBC One will be covering a public celebration of the RAF in July as part of a season of programming on TV and radio to mark its centenary.

Do you agree that the RAF was the most important of the three services during the Second World War? Write us a letter or share your thoughts via our Twitter or Facebook pages.

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This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine