Second World War bomber boys

Patrick Bishop tells the story of the Second World War bombing of Germany and explains why the controversial campaign was a case of good men being asked to do a very ugly job

A flight of Vickers Wellington long-range bombers, used by the Royal Air Force to undertake raids into Germany and elsewhere, 8 February 1940. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine 

On the morning of Sunday, 31 May, 1942, Britain woke up to some grimly satisfying news. The previous night a thousand bombers had flown to Cologne and dropped nearly 1,500 tons of bombs on the city, killing up to 486 people.
The newspapers could barely contain their glee. “The Vengeance Begins!” shouted the Daily Express. “The ruins of Cologne are hidden under a pall of smoke rising 15,000 feet after the first thousand bomber raid in history.” It reported one pilot as saying that the skies over Cologne had been “as busy as Piccadilly circus”. The triumphant tone of the Express chimed with the mood of its readers. Bombing Germany had the almost unanimous support of the population. Britons prided themselves on their phlegmatic character and sense of fair play. But the experience of the Blitz in the winter had changed all that. Some 40,000 people had been killed and hundreds of acres of London and other important cities laid waste.
Whatever reluctance the public might have felt to retaliate disappeared with the Luftwaffe raid on Coventry on the night of 14 November 1940. It was the most concentrated attack of the Blitz. About 560 people were killed and more than half the homes in the city destroyed or damaged. Coventry was full of war industry factories and therefore a legitimate target by Britain’s own rules of war. Nonetheless the scale and the brutality of the violence swept away any sentiment for restraint. Before the raid, semi-official surveys of what was being said in the pubs and cafes of Coventry recorded that people were not in favour of taking the war to Germany, for fear of what might be done in reprisal. Afterwards the mood shifted decisively. A report by the pioneering social study group Mass Observation noted one young man as saying, “we’re fighting gangsters so we’ve got to be gangsters ourselves. We’ve been gentlemen too long”.
After Coventry, the gloves came off and stayed off. The slow but relentless escalation of the RAF campaign took place against a background of general approval. George Orwell’s famously tender conscience was untroubled by the “thousand” raid on Cologne. The Germans, he declared, in a radio broadcast a few days afterwards, deserved no quarter. “In 1940, when the Germans were bombing Britain, they did not expect retaliation on a very heavy scale,” he said. “[They] were not afraid to boast in their propaganda about the slaughter of civilians which they were bringing about and the terror which their raids aroused. Now, when the tables are turned, they are beginning to cry out against the whole business of aerial bombing… The people of this country are not revengeful, but they remember what happened to themselves two years ago, and they remember how the Germans talked when they thought themselves safe from retaliation.”

Payback time

By the middle of 1943, Britain had more than paid back Germany for what it had done. There was, however, no question of easing up and bombing continued with ever-increasing fury until the last days of the war. There were several reasons why the campaign remained at the centre of the British war effort.
Its initial importance was as much political as military. It was the only means the government had of hitting Germany on its own territory. The sight of the bombers overhead cheered the Home Front and showed the world that someone was prepared to stand up to Hitler.
The effect of the raids were far from impressive however. Before the war extravagant claims had been made by air power theorists for the might of the bomber. In practice Bomber Command sustained terrible losses in the early days without anything like commensurate results. In the first two years of the war it lost 4,823 men and 2,331 aircraft on operations. In that time it dropped only 35,194 tons of bombs. That was 2,000 tons less than it dropped in the single month of May, 1944. Despite the great effort, the resulting destruction was often small and the casualties minimal. A typical night’s work was that of 29/30 August 1941. More than 140 aircraft were sent to attack railways and harbours in Frankfurt. They reached their target successfully and began bombing. They managed to do some damage to a gasworks, a barrel warehouse and a few houses and to kill eight people. In the course of the operation seven aircraft and the lives of sixteen of the crew were lost.
The crews’ main problem was finding the target. Navigation aids were primitive. In bad weather, bombs were sometimes dropped on the wrong towns or on decoy fires lit in open countryside. The arrival of radio and radar directional devices, like Gee, Oboe and H2S were a great help in getting aircraft to the right place. The development of tactics using Pathfinder crews to mark the point of attack with colour-coded flares and bombs significantly improved precision. As the big four-engined bombers, the Stirling, Halifax, and above all the Lancaster, came into service the weight of bombs the RAF could drop increased enormously.

Trying to smash the German war effort

Yet Bomber Command remained a blunt instrument. There were occasional “rapier thrusts” like the Dams Raid of May 1943 led by Guy Gibson. But most of the work was done with the bludgeon. In the Battles of the Ruhr, Hamburg, and Berlin, launched the same year, Bomber Command set out to destroy whole cities through what became known as “area attacks”. The aim of the raids was to smash the factories and works that powered the German war effort. But given the inability to deliver bombs precisely, this inevitably caused the deaths of huge numbers of civilians. The Hamburg operation alone killed 40,000. By the end of the war the death toll had reached 600,000.
The killing of civilians, though publicly regretted, was thought to have potentially beneficial consequences. German morale was officially believed to be suspect. Directives named the undermining of civilian morale and particularly that of industrial workers as a primary goal. It was this aspect of the operation that lay at the heart of post-war criticism of the campaign.
In the end some 70 German cities were ruined by Allied bombing. It was Bomber Command’s ruthless and energetic chief, Arthur Harris, known as Bomber to the press but as Butch by those who flew for him, who bore the brunt of post-war revulsion at the destruction of Germany. But no matter how enthusiastically and unswervingly he may have pursued the policy, the idea of pulverising cities had not originated with him.
Fleeing Citizens
Women and children flee down a street devastated in a bombing raid in Germany, April 1945. (Photo by Arkady Shaikhet/Slava Katamidze Collection/Getty Images)
As he pointed out in his memoirs: “There is a widespread impression that I not only invented the policy of area bombing but also insisted on carrying it out in the face of a natural reluctance to kill women and children that was felt by everyone else. The facts are otherwise. Such decisions are not in any case made by Commanders-in-Chief in the field, but by the ministries, the Chiefs of Staff Committee and by the War Cabinet. The decision to attack large industrial areas was taken long before I became Commander-in Chief”.
This was true. For much of the war, Harris’s boss, the Chief of the Air Staff Sir Charles Portal was a vigorous advocate of the policy. But towards the end he veered away from area bombing in favour of more precise attacks and afterwards succeeded, as did Churchill, in distancing himself from the controversy. Long before the conflict was over it was clear that there would be trouble. Inside Britain deep misgivings had been voiced by politicians and churchmen while the battle was still raging. The loudest dissenting voice in Parliament belonged to Dick Stokes, the Labour member for Ipswich who challenged both the utility and the morality of the campaign.
Very few Britons shared his misgivings. The Bomber Boys were very popular. They were bringing the war to Germany and dying in huge numbers in the process. The attitude of the country was summed up in a poem by Noel Coward.
Lie in the dark and listen
It’s clear tonight so they’re flying high
Hundreds of them, thousands perhaps,
Riding the icy, moonlit sky.
Men, material, bombs and maps,
Altimeters and guns and charts,
Coffee, sandwiches, fleece-lined boots
Bones and muscles and minds and hearts
English saplings with English roots
Deep in the earth they’ve left below,
Lie in the dark and let them go,
Lie in the dark and listen.
But when the war ended Bomber Command’s activities became an embarrasment. Germany was to be an important ally in the Cold War and despite the huge sacrifice they had made, praise for the crews was lukewarm or non-existent. Churchill barely mentioned the bombing campaign in his victory speech. Hugo Sperrle, commander of German Air Fleet Three, was not charged at the Nuremberg trials with war crimes relating to the Blitz, for fear of drawing attention to the damage done to German cities.
In Britain, the bomber crews received nothing like the postwar honour and praise that was showered on the pilots of the Battle of Britain. They even became the targets of the satire of the irreverent young men of the Beyond the Fringe review of the early 1960s. It is forgotten now that the “Perkins” who is told to make “a futile gesture to raise the whole tone of the war” is a bomber pilot. The survivors kept their hurt and resentment to themselves but occasionally behind closed doors they let it show. A speech by Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir William Dickson, at Five Group’s first post war reunion, 30 years after the war ended, gives an idea of their sense of hurt. Dickson, who had served on the Joint Planning Committee, asked why it had taken so long to arrange the gathering. He believed, “it may… have something to do with a growing resentment and indignation, shared by the whole Air Force and many outside it, towards some who belittle the strategic air offensive against Germany. Some of these little people try to turn the truth upside down to sell their books or for some vested interest. We particularly resent the argument that the offensive was ineffective and caused needless casualties”.

Iconoclastic history of Bomber Command

It was not until the 1960s that the work of Bomber Command began to be properly assessed. It started with the publication in 1961 of an iconoclastic official history by Sir Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, who had served as a bomber navigator. It paid full tribute to the courage of the crews, but made clear that their achievements were limited. The great area offensive, they concluded “did not produce direct results commensurate with the hopes once entertained and at times, indeed, feared by the Germans themselves”. Huge areas of many of Germany’s great towns had been laid waste “but the will of the German people was not broken or even significantly impaired and the effect on war production was remarkably small”.
The claim that the effect on war production was negligible has since been convincingly challenged. But as Dickson said, it was the charge of brutality against the civilian population that rankled most. It resurfaced recently with the publication of the English translation of Jörg Friedrich’s The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940–1945 [see page 57 for a review], which emphasises in detail the suffering that the bombing generated. The brutality charge was never widely accepted in Britain but the reticence about Bomber Command persisted. There is no national memorial to the Bomber Boys, as there is to the pilots of Fighter Command, nor even a place where the names of the 55,000 aircrew who died are listed and honoured. The pendulum of revisionism has shifted attention away from the crews’ great contribution to the defeat of Hitler. Perhaps the greatest was in persuading the Germans of the folly of war and of following dictators, as evidenced by the institutionalised rectitude of the modern nation. It was the Bomber Boys’ misfortune to be good men who were asked to do an ugly job. That does not mean it was not necessary.
Patrick Bishop is the author of Bomber Boys: Fighting Back 1950–45 (HarperPress, April 2007).

Allied strategy: winning by air power

Britain had been wedded to the notion of strategic bombing since the end of the First World War. Strategic thinkers soon created a conventional wisdom that held that the next war would be won by the country with the heaviest air power. Giant air fleets would lay waste the war industry of the enemy in its own territory, crippling its ability to fight, so the theory ran. The doctrine fitted Britain’s circumstances, as an island that could not attack its foes by land. Germany, by contrast, never invested in heavy bombers, using the Luftwaffe as an adjunct to Blitzkrieg, blasting a path from the air for its invading armies.

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