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Brian Grafton Articles
An Odd Way to View WWII
Bomber Command

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Bomber Command
Bomber Command 
by Brian Grafton

The Allied armies had been overpowered, first in Norway and then, very rapidly indeed, in Holland, Belgium and France. The "Miracle at Dunkirk", the final act of a strategic and tactical rout which began in the Ardennes, had deposited 330,000 bedraggled troops in Britain with weapons little larger than rifle calibre. Britain herself was open for invasion, defended only by over- and under-aged Local Defence Volunteers[1] armed with little more than pitch-forks and hunting rifles and by scattered commonwealth troops with few weapons, haphazard training and no combat experience. At sea, the Royal Navy had had mixed success and was still a major force. The loss of Courageous and the early embarrassment of U-47's success in Scapa Flow had been off-set by the hunting down of Graf Spee. But the fall of Europe to the Wehrmacht and the loss of the French fleet had drastically skewed the role the Royal Navy was expected to play in any European war (keeping the sea-lanes open; and blockade). With all of the coastline from Sweden to Spain at her disposal, the Kriegsmarine had a substantially increased opportunity to sever England's lifelines to her commonwealth and empire and starve her into submission. The Royal Navy had neither the weapons, the ships, the tactics nor the personnel to conduct effective counter-measures to the threat the U-boats presented, a bleak reality that was not to change for three years. At the same time, the threat from surface raiders would keep many of Britain's capital ships hog-tied at Scapa for years to come.

On December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, forcing the Americans into a war with Japan. Meeting a commitment he had made to the Japanese ambassador earlier in the year, and despite advice to the contrary, on December 11 Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States, thus bringing the U.S. into the European war. These events form the backdrop against which Bomber Command played its role in 1941. It was the hardest year that Bomber Command was to face. Strategically, the goals of Bomber Command did not change with the changing year. Synthetic oil production facilities continued to receive top priority early in the year because it was thought Germany's oil supplies were dwindling. Enemy-held ports and harbours; always the easiest targets to find; continued to receive attention. General industrial areas were still target options when weather or ground haze made precision bombing impossible. During the long winter months in northern Europe, there were many nights when industrial urban targets were the only ones that were realistically available. Operationally, however, Bomber Command's targets shifted according to the requirements of the nation or the whim of its leaders. By late February, the slaughter of merchant ships in the Atlantic, coupled with the continued threat posed by Kriegsmarine surface vessels ( Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Tirpitz were the main concern), caused new directives to be issued for bomber assaults on U-boat pens and capital ships along the entire Atlantic coastline, from Norway to the Bay of Biscay. The Blenheims, for their part, were to share their time between "hit-and-run" raids ("Circuses") against towns in France and the Low Countries and; after the end of April; attacks on enemy coastal shipping ("Channel Stop").

Between the departure of Peirse (January 8) and the arrival of Harris (Feb. 22), Bomber Command was under the interim command of Air Vice-Marshal Baldwin, commander of 3 Group. It was on Baldwin's "watch" that Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen humiliated the Royal Navy by sailing in daylight through the English Channel from Brest on their way to safer harbours. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had arrived in Brest in April, 1941, where Prinz Eugen joined them on June 1 after separating from Bismarck on May 24. Because of the threat to shipping they represented, their presence was of great concern to the Admiralty. Bomber Command had attacked them countless times since their arrival, without success, though 22 Squadron of Coastal Command had disabled Gneisenau in a suicidal torpedo raid on April 6, 1941 When the German ships sailed from Brest just before midnight on February 11, they did so with a modest escort of 13 motor torpedo boats and five destroyers, and with expectation of air cover for most of their journey. They sailed in foul weather ; a sensible precaution ; and they steamed into the English Channel. The Royal Navy did not see them. Coastal Command did not spot them (reportedly because of problems with their air-to-ship radar). The radar stations along the coast of Britain noted them and ignored them. Not until 11:30 a.m., when the ships were almost entering the Straits of Dover, were they spotted accidentally by a pilot with Fighter Command and reported to the authorities. Two hours later, at 1:35 p.m., the first aircraft of Bomber Command were airborne: by this time Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen were through the Straits of Dover. Between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., 242 sorties were flown by Bomber Command against the ships, though many aircraft could not locate them because of the inclement weather. In addition, elements of Coastal and Fighter Command, together with Fleet Air Arm "Swordfish", joined in the attack. So did the Royal Navy, with World War I destroyers and MTBs. No damage was inflicted. Only later did Scharnhorst and Gneisenau strike mines dropped by 5 Group aircraft and incur some damage. By daybreak of 13 February all three ships were safe in German ports.
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Copyright © 2001 Brian Grafton. All rights reserved. Duplication of text or materials in any form prohibited except with the express written consent of Brian Grafton.

Written by Brian Grafton. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Brian Grafton at:

Published online: 09/20/2001.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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