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  1942 <<<

Brian Grafton Articles
An Odd Way to View WWII
Bomber Command

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Bomber Command
Bomber Command
by Brian Grafton


At the end of 1941, the allies could only look forward to better times. Yet the early months of 1942 dealt them severe blows on nearly every front:
  the Royal Navy was humiliated (on February 12) when Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen sailed through the English Channel in daylight, despite RN and RAF attempts to stop them.
  Singapore fell to the Japanese on February 15 (Hong Kong had already fallen, on Christmas Day, 1941), effectively bringing to an end the British Empire.
  the Philippines fell (April 9), eradicating the American presence in the south and west Pacific.
  in North Africa and the Mediterranean, Rommel remained a great threat (Tobruk fell on June 21), and Malta was under unbreakable siege and was threatened with invasion.
  a so-called "dress rehearsal" for the invasion of Europe ended in slaughter at Dieppe (August 19, 1942).
  renewed German assaults against the Soviet Union conquered vast new territory.
  U-boats came close to taking control of the Atlantic and the American Atlantic coast, in a period known to the Kriegsmarine as "the Happy Time".
  convoys to Murmansk and Archangel continued to be decimated by air and sea attacks.
  Japanese advances threatened Australia.
  The Japanese Imperial Navy drove the RN from Ceylon without challenge (March 31); the RN took refuge in the Persian Gulf (April 10).
  the "Baedeker" raids (from April 24) began as reprisal raids for Bomber Command bombing of German cities.
 On the other hand, later in 1942 and in the first days of 1943, events occurred which gave clear indication that the allied cause was, if not safe, then in the ascendant. Many are known by single names:
  Midway (June 4-7, 1942: Spruance inflicted a crushing defeat on the Japanese Imperial Navy).
  Guadalcanal (US Marines landed on 7 August, 1942).
  El Alamein (Montgomery's troops attacked the Germans on October 23, 1942).
  "Torch" (allied troops landed at three locations in North Africa, beginning November 7/8, 1942).
  Leningrad (the siege was broken on January 11, 1943)
  Stalingrad (von Paulus finally surrendered at the end of January, 1943).
 Closer to the war in Europe, events reflected the growing ability of the allies to take the offensive:
  The first elements of 8th USAAF arrived in England in 1942, and a massive growth slowly followed it.
  Bomber Command was able to mount three 1,000 bomber raids against Germany.
  Navigational, bombing and other aids were developed and refined.
  Despite initial setbacks while it met its own needs, the United States was able to continue to provide Britain and the Soviet Union with war supplies and material.

The Fiasco of "the Channel Dash"

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.

"The Channel Dash" was a tremendous blow to the prestige of the Royal Navy: the English Channel was, after all, the closest of 'home waters', and the RN clearly did not control it. The 'dash' was also one more all-too-familiar blow to Bomber Command, which demonstrated once again that it had no means of navigating or target-finding in poor weather and no ability to press home a strike against targets that were heavily defended (as these ships undoubtedly were).

It is reasonable to ask how this could have happened. The first answer must be that the Royal Navy was husbanding its resources. It had been late in realizing the vulnerability of its capital ships to air attack and to plunging fire, but by early 1942 it had lost a number of ships ; Hood, Prince of Wales, Repulse and Glorious among them ; to one type of attack or the other. Despite the threat to Britain implicit in Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, Sir Dudley Pound, First Sea Lord, was unwilling or unable to commit his capital ships to a test of fire. Instead, he chose to leave the work to smaller ships and to the RAF.

The Admiralty knew that the German ships were to be moved from Brest, surmised the move would be in February, and forecast that they would take the direct route through the Channel to Germany. Under the provisions of Operation 'Fuller', set up to counter the expected German move, Bomber Command aircraft were placed on two-hour alert, though on February 10, largely because of the bad weather, this was reduced to 100 aircraft on four-hour alert. Meanwhile, Coastal Command had issued an advisory stating that weather conditions would be favourable for a break-out beginning on February 10. At the same time, it was relatively plain that after February 17 the combination of tides, moon and lengthening hours of daylight would make the break-out from Brest much less attractive to the Germans.

Once they left Brest, there is no conceivable explanation why Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen were not sighted long before they reached Dover. By that time, the three ships had been in the Channel for 12 hours. Granted, the weather was poor: that is why Coastal Command issued its advisory. But it remains a mystery how a combination of radar surveillance, Coastal Command reconnaissance and RN patrols could miss 21 ships doing what was expected of them at a time and place that was quite accurately determined. [1]

Admiralty and Air Ministry were to hurl accusations at each other over the fiasco, though in truth there was enough blame to go around. As a measure of Britain's ability to make war, the 'Channel Dash' placed British forces under a frightening microscope. The Royal Navy had implied by its inactivity that it was afraid to fight, and the RAF had provided a demonstration that it didn't have the tools to do so. After an initial spate of newspaper reports ; entirely negative and occasionally scathing ; severe restrictions were placed on the press in the interests of public morale.

Before the end of February, Bomber Command would finally catch up with Gneisenau at Kiel, inflicting severe damage and effectively knocking her out of the war. This attack killed 116 of her crew; the British had lost 127 aircraft in raids on Brest attacking the German warships in the months before the 'Channel Dash'.

After the disastrous Berlin/Mannheim raids of November 6/7, 1941, Bomber Command had seen its strategic mandate drastically curtailed and its C-in-C sent packing. But with the events of February 12 ; 242 sorties against targets less than 50 miles away, and not one hit ; Bomber Command was at the nadir of its fortunes. At this lowest point, a new commanding officer was to appear. Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris ; 'Bomber' Harris ; was to be indelibly linked to Bomber Command.

"Bomber" Harris
Sir Arthur Harris was, is and will always be a controversial figure. [2]  He stamped Bomber Command with his own vision of war, and his vision has been questioned repeatedly since war's end. He had been in the British forces ; Army, Royal Flying Corps, and RAF ; since the outbreak of the Great War, and served with distinction both in operational commands and as a member of Air Staff. As much as anyone in the RAF, he was an expert in night flying and night-fighting, but when he was asked to accept the position as C-in-C, Bomber Command, he was serving in America.

By all accounts, Harris was neither loquacious nor easy to know. He spoke little, and visited his aircrew seldom. But from the beginning, he was recognized as a man who would take charge. His subordinates admired and supported him, and his crews all but worshipped him. To many ; certainly to his aircrews ; he was known as 'Butch', or 'Butcher', which has been used as proof either that he had a softer, more playful side or that he was recognized as a man whose mission would not be deflected by losses to air crew. Both are probably true to some extent, but the aircrew, showing, perhaps, their macabre sense of black humour, used the nicknames 'Butch' or 'Butcher' without rancour and with real affection.

Harris arrived at Bomber Command at just the right moment. New crew members from the BCATP, finally completing their operational training, were becoming available for duty. New 'heavies' ; particularly the Halifax ; had gone through the worst of their teething problems, and were beginning to appear in large numbers on operational status, and the magnificent Lancaster and Mosquito were making their debuts. More important, many air crew had by now completed the sometimes difficult transition to 'heavies' in the HCUs, and were ready to return to ops. 'Gee', a potential means of finding targets with precision, was only waiting to be installed in a sufficient number of bombers to be tested operationally.

Harris was comfortable with innovation: he had himself developed new devices to make the RAF more efficient. He detested the enemy, but without allowing vengeance to cloud his judgments or decisions. Above all, he was a Douhet man. A practical man, he seldom went further in his statements than to declare that nobody knew if bombing alone could end a war, because it had never been tried before. But in his heart, he believed in strategic bombardment as a war-winning strategy, and was impatient with those who believed only other means could win the war. He would be fortunate to find allies in the men who would lead the USAAF to battle ; Eaker, and Spaatz, and Doolittle, and Arnold ; as the American presence grew in 1942 and 1943. They were all acolytes of Billy Mitchell, the outspoken American supporter of a strategic bomber offensive, [3] and were as fully prepared as Harris to commit their crews to difficult targets, often with severe losses, in the hopes of proving the war-winning capability of strategic bombing. As much as new technology and weapons, the prosecution of the air war took its direction from the men who, in 1942, became commanders of the bombing offensive.

Harris took command just eight days after a new directive, dated February 14, 1942, was issued to Bomber Command. The new directive may have grown from Churchill's recent visit to Washington, where he was meeting with his new ally Roosevelt, or in response to the 'Channel Dash', or from better flying conditions as the weather improved, or from the increasing availability of 'Gee'. It could also have grown from the desire of the Air Ministry to test new bombs and new procedures ; e.g., the new incendiaries. For whatever reasons, a new bomber offensive was under way.

The new directive was not radically different from previous ones, but was needed to countermand the order of mid-November, 1941, which called on Bomber Command to conserve its force. Once again, various precision targets were listed. In addition, Essen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf and Cologne ; in effect, the Ruhr industrial district, or Ruhrgebiet ; were targeted as "general industrial areas" suitable for Bomber Command's attention.

The difference was not in the directive but in the chances of fulfilling it. Harris had tools Peirse could only dream of: new 'heavies'; a more effective arsenal of weapons; a growing pool of trained personnel; and a new target-finding instrument. The Halifax had finally had her tailplane problems fixed and was proving a solid aircraft, the Manchester was already being phased out and replaced by the Lancaster, the Stirling was available, and the Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens were still proving serviceable. While the number of planes at Harris's disposal had not increased, the payload had. The bomb-load options were more sophisticated, ranging from 4 lb. incendiaries to 4,000 lb. 'cookies'. HCUs were coping with converting existing crews to the requirements of the new bombers, and OTUs were taking the newly fledged CATP crews and preparing them for operations. And by the spring of 1942 many of the bombers were equipped with 'Gee'.

'Gee' was not, in truth, a very sophisticated instrument. Nor was it very different from earlier German devices (Knickebein and X-Gerät), though it used cathode ray tubes rather than radio sets. 'Gee' relied on strong pulses sent from three locations in England which allowed suitably equipped planes to determine their location within a narrow margin of error. 'Gee's' effectiveness lessened as a function of distance and the pulses became less precise, and was limited in any case by the horizon. Finally, however, Bomber Command had a target-location device.

There were also new bombing techniques to try out. To counter increasingly active night fighters, for example, a practice known as 'streaming' was introduced. This concentrated the bombers in direction and time to arrive on target in a dense, relatively brief flow, reducing the attack time available to enemy night fighters, seachlights and flak.

Bomber Command returned to the offensive in March, 1942. While the number of targets was greater and more varied than the accompanying map suggests, it was clear that Harris had set his bombers certain goals.

March 3/4 saw the opening of the assault, with an attack on the Renault works at Billancourt. This was the first major night raid on a non-German town, and was undertaken only after much soul-searching by the Air Ministry. It was a striking success, testing many new techniques and devices. The bomber force was streamed; they bombed at relatively low level; they bombed by the light of flares; they hit their target with almost the full weight of available bombers (223 of 235 aircraft found their target). Losses were very light (one Wellington was lost), and damage was evaluated as 'heavy' (though this proved not to be the case: industrial equipment was amazingly resilient to bomb damage). All in all, it was a heartening beginning for Harris, and a tremendous morale booster for his aircrews. [4]

Following Billancourt, certain of the same techniques were tried against Essen in the Ruhr. On three successive nights beginning March 8/9, Bomber Command was largely frustrated: ground haze and cloud obscured the target sufficiently that bombing effectiveness was drastically reduced. This was the first indication that 'Gee' would not be accurate enough for blind-bombing of targets. Of some solace to Bomber Command: flying against Essen, in the heart of the Ruhr, meant that any bombing nearby may do some strategic damage. And 'Gee' was fully capable of placing bombers somewhere within the Ruhrgebiet.

It is interesting to note that the number of aircraft declined with each night, from 211 on March 8/9 to 187 on March 9/10 to 126 on March 10/11. Whatever other reasons may exist for this decline, damage from flak and night fighters would have taken its toll, and the number of available bombers would drop.

After a break on March 11/12, Kiel was bombed by a small group (68 Wellingtons) on March 12/13. The raid was considered a success, but carried a stiff price: seven planes (10.3 per cent) were lost. The following night Cologne was the target of 135 aircraft, and the raid was again considered a success ; the first 'Gee'-led success. After the raid on Cologne, Bomber Command conducted nuisance raids for the following two weeks. They were building up to another test ; this time, of incendiaries.

The target was Lübeck, a picturesque Baltic port relatively close to Kiel. There were some minor legitimate targets in Lübeck: there was a U-boat training school, and the docks unloaded Swedish iron ore. But the aiming point was not the school or the docks: it was the heart of the old town, with its densely packed, half-timbered medieval housing. On March 28/29, 400 tons of bombs were dropped on Lübeck, two-thirds of them incendiaries. The town was gutted more fiercely than any other German town to date, with well over 1,000 dead and injured and 16,000 left homeless. Of the 3,400 buildings damaged or destroyed, over 3,000 were residential, while 250 were industrial. The cost to Bomber Command was 12 aircraft of 234 ; a high but acceptable five per cent, given the raid's success.

That Lübeck had some strategic value is clear. That the town was a 'good test' for the deployment of incendiaries is equally clear. From recorded comments by Goebbels and others, the impact of the raid on the Germans was shattering: until Lübeck, Bomber Command attacks on German cities had been, indeed, nuisance raids of very little import. Bomber Command had been striving for just such a success since the German bombing of Rotterdam almost a year earlier. At long last, a large number of British bombers found the target they had set out to destroy. But given the aiming point (the old town), it is hard to escape the conclusion that Lübeck marked a turning point in Bomber Command's war. This was not a town in the Ruhrgebiet, that vast "industrial area" that was deemed an acceptable target. With the 'Millennium' (thousand-bomber) raids looming in the (not too distant) future, Lübeck marks the beginning of area civilian bombing as part of Bomber Command's policy.

In the two weeks after Lübeck, Harris launched his forces ; usually in small numbers ; against Essen, Hamburg, Duisburg, Dortmund and other cities within his directive. He also committed a small number of Lancasters to a daylight raid, using the argument that the Lancaster's combination of speed and defensive armament would see the aircraft through. [5]  The raid was on April 17: of 12 Lancasters sent, only five came home. With reluctance but showing a modicum of sanity, Bomber Command for the most part scrapped future undefended flights of 'heavies' in daylight.

Harris then launched a series of attacks on Rostock. Rostock, like Lübeck, was a relatively small coastal centre. Like Lübeck, it was easy to find; like Lübeck, it was a town with many medieval, half-timbered buildings. The first evening's raid on April 23/24 was not damaging enough: Harris sent further bombers on the following three nights. Over 60 per cent of the city was destroyed: the cost to Bomber Command was eight aircraft, a loss rate of 1.5 per cent. After Rostock, the Germans began using the word Terrorangriff (terror raid) to describe such attacks. The aircrew were terror flieger. It takes very little knowledge of German to appreciate what terror flieger means. [6]

Rostock was home to a Heinkel factory, and could therefore be described as a legitimate target. But it is worth noting that of the 161 aircraft dispatched on April 23/24, only 18 were sent against Heinkel: the rest were directed to bomb the city itself. Heinkel went untouched. On April 24/25, 34 of 125 planes targeted Heinkel, which again escaped unscathed. Not until the third night, when again 18 (of 128) aircraft were given the assignment, was the Heinkel factory hit. Of 414 sorties on these first three nights, only 70 ; 17 per cent ; were attacking a precise military target. Fewer than 25 percent of the 70 actually hit Heinkel. For the fourth and final night (April 26/27), official records are fuzzy: [7] the number of aircraft sent was just over 100, divided roughly equally between town and factory. Both elements of this final raid claimed success.

What did the destruction of Lübeck and Rostock prove? To German high command, it demonstrated that the British were dedicated to destroying their cultural heritage: both towns held a high place in the architectural and cultural history of Germany. Their response was to launch the so-called 'Baedeker Raids' against England. [8]  To British high command, the raids on Lübeck and Rostock ; relatively small in scale, against relatively small targets ; were a testing ground. They demonstrated that precision bombing could be accomplished by night (the Heinkel factory), and that incendiaries could indeed generate massive fires (the razing of the hearts of both towns). More, they indicated that Bomber Command was prepared to implement area bombing with only the slightest pretext of strategic importance. Two months after taking command, 'Bomber' Harris was demonstrating that he would attack the enemy in home or factory without hesitation. Or remorse.

'Millennium' and the Thousand-Bomber Raids

If Harris was pleased with the raids on Billancourt, Cologne, Lübeck and Rostock (and he was), and if the raids received official praise (which they did), he was still neither comfortable nor satisfied. He had the beginnings of a tactical modus operandi upon which to build, but he was under pressure from a number of sources for a variety of reasons. The Royal Navy, for example, felt that too much of the war effort was being directed to Bomber Command's needs and not enough to Coastal Command (which it controlled), even though many Coastal Command aircraft were "on loan" from Bomber Command; the Army, meanwhile, was desperate for increased air support in North Africa. Certain members of the War Cabinet too were still uncertain of Bomber Command's capabilities, and remained haunted by the heavy losses in November, 1941 ; less than six months earlier. Harris needed something to still the critics, to alleviate the pressure so that he could get on with the job he had been given. Bomber Command still had to prove itself.

Where the concept of the thousand-bomber raids came from has never been determined. The usual story suggests that the need for a "big statement" by Bomber Command had been on Harris's mind during the March-April offensives. He needed to stage an event that would silence his critics, ensure a growing supply of 'heavies', gain popular support for the bomber offensive and (coincidentally) establish Harris in command. The magic '1,000' was, according to this version, more an expression of fantasy than a statement of intent. [9]  Saundby, ever responsive to Harris's ideas, developed a plan by which fantasy could become reality. By mid-May Harris had raised the matter with Portal, who in turn took it to Churchill. By May 20, the plan was approved, with primary target either Hamburg or Cologne.

It is as easy to dismiss the importance of the thousand-bomber raids as it is to overemphasize their impact. The first raid, against Cologne on May 30/31, was the most successful. Over one thousand bombers (1,047) dumped just under 1,500 tons of bombs on the city in a very short space of time, with a loss rate just under four per cent. Cologne suffered heavy damage: hundreds of lives, and thousands of homes, were lost. Harris followed it up with two more 'thousand' raids, against Essen (which was less than successful) and Bremen (better than Essen, but not as successful as the initial raid on Cologne). After that, the thousand-bomber force was broken up.

The benefits of these three raids to Harris's cause, and to the cause of Bomber Command, were significant. In the devastation inflicted on Cologne, Harris had provided a demonstration of what a large force of 'heavies' could do against a significant target. With Portal as an active participant at the policy level, Harris would use Cologne (and Lübeck and Rostock) as 'counters' in an attempt to gain support in three areas: increased support for heavy bomber production; reduced dilution of Bomber Command by siphoning aircraft and air crew to Coastal Command and Army support; and increased autonomy in conducting the air war against Germany. Between them, Harris and Portal would have some success in at least two of the three areas: increased production was agreed to, though not to the levels either man wanted; [10] and the prosecution of the air war would be left largely in Harris's hands, at least for the time being.

If the thousand-bomber raids were of such significance to Harris's cause, why did he discontinue them? The simple answer is that he could not afford them. In May, 1942, Harris only had an average of about 400 serviceable aircraft in his operational squadrons. Finding an additional 600 aircraft meant stripping Bomber Command clean. A look at the make-up of the Cologne raid ; the biggest of the three ; is instructive:

The first thing to note is that 35 per cent of the aircraft were drawn from OTUs or Flight Training Command. By definition, most of these had no business being on any raid over Germany, let alone against a major target. Even if they had experienced pilots aboard ; and many of the OTU planes were flown by OTU instructors ; the majority of the crews were by definition still in training for operational status. By risking this percentage of trainees, Harris was rolling dice with the future of Bomber Command. The Berlin-Mannheim raids of November had cost 28 of 244 aircraft, a 12.5 per cent loss rate. Had Harris lost 130 aircraft (12.5 per cent of his force) over Cologne, it is certain that he would have been sacked and Bomber Command's future would have been bleak indeed. The gambler in Harris paid off, but he was literally playing the percentages.

A break-down by aircraft types is also interesting. Whitleys and Hampdens make up just ten per cent of the raiding force with 107 aircraft , and 66 of these (61.5%) are OTU aircraft. Wellingtons make up 57.5 per cent of the force and are drawn equally from operational Groups and OTUs, a tribute to the strength and capabilities of Wimpey, which would still the backbone for 6 Group a year later. The Manchester numbers are most disturbing, not just because only 46 could be mustered but because there are no Manchesters on the strength of OTUs. The Manchester was heading for the scrap heap, and not even its similarities to the Lancaster could make it valuable for operational training. The new four-engined 'heavies' ; the Lancasters, Halifaxes and Stirlings ; comprised only 28 per cent of the total group.

It is a commonplace to say that Harris took command when the new 'heavies' were coming on line, and this is true. In cobbling together even the first of the thousand-bomber raids, however, Harris drew on every aircraft he could find. On June 1/2, for a second raid ; this time against Essen ; he could muster only 956 aircraft. Thirty-one aircraft (3.2 %) were lost. When be brought the thousand-bomber concept back to life at the end of June, for the 25/26 June raid on Bremen, he fell short of the 1,000 mark again, with 960 aircraft, with 48 aircraft (5%) lost. On the Bremen raid, aircraft from the OTUs suffered disproportionately: 11.6 per cent of aircraft (23 of 198) were lost. The Essen raid was not at all a success: clouds and/or ground haze obscured the target, and bombing accuracy suffered accordingly. Damage to Essen itself was very light, but bombs fell on 11 other towns and cities in the Ruhrgebiet. For Bremen, results were somewhat better, though still a mere shadow of the Cologne raid of May 30/31.

In many ways, Harris should have quit after the first raid, while he was clearly ahead. The success of Cologne was blunted by the poor results at Essen and the high loss rate to OTUs against Bremen. But the second and third raids were not just showmanship: they were further tests of Bomber Command tactics and equipment. Tactically, the 'streaming' techniques were further tightened, reducing the total time over target substantially. "Gee", too became the subject of further assessment. The raid on Essen demonstrated that "Gee" was unable to provide accurate enough readings to find targets through ground cover such as haze or smoke; Bremen suggested that, against a more easily identified target, "Gee" ; in conjunction with good navigators and bomb aimers ; could find the target. Important lessons had been learned: to continue the thousand-bomber raids beyond Bremen was placing too great a strain on the flow of new crews to operational squadrons. In the next month, no Bomber Command target was attacked by more than 325 aircraft. It was time to evaluate, conserve, and rebuild the force.

Pathfinder Force  

Pathfinder Force (PFF) was an obvious growth arising from the growth of the bomber force and the increased use of 'streaming'. Its genesis was in November, 1941 in the Air Ministry, and was raised with 'Bomber' Harris soon after he took command. Harris was prepared to go only so far: on a number of occasions, experienced crews were used to illuminate or mark a target so that other bombers would more easily find their way. [11]  It was now proposed that such crews be taken from their squadrons to form a separate operational Group, become expert in the use and operation of the latest navigational aids, and be used in a specialized capacity as target finders.

The idea was opposed by operational leaders at nearly every level of Bomber Command, largely on grounds that the formation of an elite group, plucked from squadrons across the Command, would undermine the morale of regular bomber crews and would limit promotion opportunities for the better crews. Portal supported the concept, however, and forced Harris and the others to accept it. By the middle of August, Pathfinder Force (PFF) was a reality, though not in the form it would ultimately take. Rather than taking the best crews, one squadron from each operational Group was nominated for PFF.

The inducements offered to aircrew for joining PFF were a one-rank, across-the-board promotion for all crews that qualified as Pathfinders, together with a Badge denoting their specialty. On the down-side, the number of ops per tour was increased to 60 (but included those already flown on current tours) ; double the number of ops per tour! With hindsight, it is difficult to understand why any crews accepted transfer to PFF. Many, it seems, accepted because their tours were nearing completion and the dread of crew break-up loomed. Normally, crews were disbanded at the end of a tour, and crew members were sent on leave, transferred to OTUs as instructors, or sent on advanced training courses. They seldom flew together again. The bonding and mutual reliance that brought a crew through 30 ops was often so strong that the prospect of a further 30 ops together was more attractive than the thought of changing ; even as an instructor at an OTU, where crashes were not at all uncommon ; to a new crew of unknown temperament and untried capabilities. By the same token, some crews who were invited to join PFF rejected the opportunity because one crew member was unprepared to make the commitment.

PFF did not become a major force in 1942: its contribution came in the years to follow. But its creation in 1942, even in an imperfect form, was one more step in building Bomber Command into an effective strategic arm. The necessary aircraft ; Lancs, Hallys, Stirlings and Mozzies ; were now available. Lack of personnel was becoming only a minor irritant: CATP crews were beginning to pour into Britain. [12]  Streaming techniques had proven effective, and would be refined as the war intensified. Bomb mixes and sequences had been tested, and only needed adjustments based on the target. Target-marking devices had been experimented with, and showed promise. Only 'Gee' had failed to live up to expectations. The final piece of the puzzle ; target finding ; would be addressed by the crews of Pathfinder Force.

The Arrival of the Americans  

At the same time PFF was being established, the first units of the American 8th Air Force arrived in Britain. The 15th Bombardment Squadron were the first to arrive, in May, 1942. They represented a bit of a false spring: the U.S. 'heavies' would not appear in any real numbers until the end of July. But aircrew from 15th Bombardment Squadron made their bombing debut not, I think coincidentally on July 4, 1942. Twelve A-20s, all marked with RAF rondels but with six American and six British crews, attacked four airfields in Holland at low level. Three planes were lost all crewed by Americans but the United States had joined the war.

It can be argued that the activities of the USAAF in Europe are not strictly relevant to the story of Bomber Command. Nevertheless, the history of Bomber Command is not complete without a close look at the role of 8th Air Force. There are three reasons for this. First, senior officers of the USAAF and Air Ministry Arnold and Portal, respectively shared an almost common belief in the capacity of a strategic air offensive to shorten or dictate the end of the war. Secondly, the USAAF and Air Ministry disagreed entirely on the means by which this could be accomplished. Finally, despite their differences, the USAAF and Air Ministry were able to develop in the face of much opposition from other service chiefs complementary means by which the German ability to wage war might be destroyed. In operational terms, Harris's Bomber Command would raze German cities by night, while Eaker's 8th Air Force would pinpoint strategic industry by day.

Earlier, the strategic capabilities of any bomber force were linked with the theories of Douhet. Britain had had Douhet supporters, particularly in Sir Hugh Trenchard, the father of the RAF. 'Boom' Trenchard remained a living legend throughout the 30s and early 40s, and exuded tremendous influence on the growth and development of the RAF. [13]  A staunch advocate of a separate air arm with offensive capabilities, Trenchard lived long enough to see his RAF become a major player in World War II. The Americans, on the other hand, had Billy Mitchell, the World War I ace whose belief in the role of aviation in any future war, combined with his rather theatrical demonstration of air power against anchored warships and his histrionic disagreement with US military authorities on the issue of military air safety, led via a court martial followed by a resignation to his separation from military service. Mitchell was 'martyred' in the cause of air power, but his cause remained alive in the minds and activities of men like Henry 'Hap' Arnold, Carl 'Tooey' Spaatz, Ira Eaker and others. These acolytes, holding Mitchell's strategic banner aloft, were in positions of influence in the USAAF as it entered the war in Europe.

The two air forces recognized that each had evolved a separate means of prosecuting the air war. While the means were both distinct and different, the objective remained the same: to so overwhelm the enemy by bombing that he was incapable of continuing the war. They also realized that their common enemy was not only Germany, but also the military traditionalists in their own armed forces with whom they had to work. In this sphere, the RAF, with its separate status and organization, was much the more fortunate. For the supporters of the air offensive within the American military, the burden of the air force's continued existence within the Army added both strictures and the added zeal of wresting a new military structure out of the situation. From the time they first met in early 1942, leaders of the RAF and USAAF were more prepared to discuss approaches and techniques with each other than they were with their respective controllers.

In their approaches to air combat, however, the two forces differed dramatically. Bomber Command had learned, through the harsh experience of three years of combat, that daylight bombing was a suicidal endeavour. [14]  The USAAF, on the other hand, had determined that only through precision daylight bombing could the enemy be damaged sufficiently to render a war-winning verdict. During the first months of 1942, senior British officials did everything they could to convince senior American officials that night bombing was the most effective approach. The Americans listened politely, smiled, considered the capabilities of their bombers, and made their own decisions. They opted for daylight bombing.

A comparison of USAAF and RAF bombers underscores the different military philosophies they were designed to support. I have retained data for the Wellington, because it would fly until at least the end of 1943, and have retained early 'marks' for Bomber Command's 'heavies' to give an accurate reading of the relative merits of the 'heavies' at the time the Americans entered the war.

Clearly, the British and American bombers were roughly equivalent in size, speed and range. [15]  However, they differed in three categories: bomb load; defensive armament; and number of crew. Their bomb loads were relatively small, at roughly half the British aircrafts' lift capacity, but both aircraft carried a stunning arsenal of defensive weapons, and needed extra crew to man them.

While the British and American bombers appear in the table to have similar defensive armament, the American planes were much better protected. This was so not just because of the difference between .303 and .5 calibre guns, though that was a great difference indeed. The American planes had guns that created overlapping fields of fire from the tail, ball (belly or ventral), waist, top, nose (or chin) and (sometimes) dorsal locations.

American bombing policy was predicated on the concept of mutual inter-locking defensive fire. By creating a series of 'boxes' of aircraft, the multiple fields of fire would provide sufficient protection to keep the enemy fighters at bay: 100 B-17s flying in tight formation, for instance, would have a defensive shield of some 1,200 Brownings. The Browning was a very powerful weapon, with a good rate of fire and a relatively long reach, and its projectile (0.5 inch/12.7 mm) could do severe damage to an attacking fighter. The German pilots quickly learned to respect the gun's capabilities. They also learned its limitations, just as they learned the weaknesses of the box formation. Despite the bravery of the American aircrews, the B-17s and B-24s began to fall.

Initially, American aircrews were insufficiently trained, in part because their masters were impatient to commit their forces to the offensive. On the positive side, crew members were familiar with each other, having normally been 'crewed up' for some time. But they received less than adequate gunnery practice and in many instances minimal practical navigational training. They had no experience of the weather conditions they would meet over Europe, where haze, smog, fog and snow would make much of their training experience irrelevant. More seriously, many of the pilots had had almost no experience in formation flying the structural framework upon which American bombing policy was based. These weaknesses were corrected as the months went by. Hard-won knowledge would be passed from experienced crews to novices, and new techniques particularly in navigation would be instituted, but only after a high loss rate in crews and aircraft.

With an alacrity characteristic of the American military, 8th Air Force was activated as early as January, 1942, and, with the help of the British Air Ministry and of Bomber Command, set about building a base support network in England. By the end of July the 97th Bomber Group were in place; within two weeks on August 17, 1942 elements of the group flew against Rouen. [16]  This assault is usually taken as the beginning of America's air war in Europe. Two days later, 22 B-17s of the same group flew in support of the Dieppe slaughter, [17] joined by 31st Fighter Group flying RAF Spitfires.

The two men responsible for the deployment of 8th Air Force in Britain Maj. Gen. Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, Head of U.S. Army Forces, British Isles (Air); and Brig. Gen. Ira Eaker, Head, bomber command received full-hearted support from their superior, Lt. Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, Chief of Army Air Forces. Arnold, a long-time and vocal supporter of Billy Mitchell, was anxious to demonstrate the efficiency and effectiveness of his forces. Here, finally, was a chance to strike a blow not just for freedom, but also for the concept of an independent air force. Unfortunately, after the initial build-up the flow of aircraft slowed, and not even "Hap" Arnold could do anything about it.

General Arnold was not the only high-ranking American officer wishing to come to grips with the enemy. Even ignoring the war against Japan, the requirements in Europe were straining the military resources of the United States. Admiral King, concerned about the increased depredations caused by the U-boats, [18] wanted aircraft and manufacturing facilities in support of maritime air patrols and convoy air cover. General Marshall wanted an invasion of Europe as early as the summer of 1942 a palpable impossibility.[19]  Settling instead for "Torch", the November, 1942 landings in North Africa, created a drain on aircraft destined for Britain. Light bombers were withdrawn from Britain, as 12th Air Force (together with the P-38s of 1st Fighter Group) were transferred in support of "Torch".

The 8th Air Force, like RAF Bomber Command in 1940 and 1941, was finding that the demands of the larger struggle took precedence over the strategic air war in Europe. For the remainder of the year, "The Mighty Eighth" would make the best of the aircraft they had, but for its largest raid of 1942 on October 9 it was able to muster only 110 B-17s and B-24s, and 29 of those turned back for one reason or another. For the moment, the USAAF remained a very junior partner indeed, and would not send aircraft against Germany proper until 1943.

Summer, 1942

After the third and last 1,000-bomber raid against Bremen on June 25/26, Bomber Command paused to catch its breath, recoup its losses and rebuild its strength. Bremen was attacked three more times in the following week, but the largest force despatched was only 325 bombers. Duisburg received similar treatment, with four raids between July 13/14 and July 25/26, the largest attack being by 313 aircraft. Hamburg was hit only twice, on July 26/27 and July 28/29, but with considerable force ; 403 aircraft on the first night and 256 on the second. Saarbrücken, Düsseldorf and Osnabrück also received attention. Düsseldorf, in the largest attack since the 1,000-bomber raids, was visited on July 31/Aug. 1 by 630 aircraft, a force that once more combined both operational and OTU units.

These were not the only operations Bomber Command carried out, of course. Daylight raids continued to be conducted on a minor scale by Blenheims, Bostons and Wellingtons. The Mosquito, which made its first operational debut over Cologne on June 1, two days after the first of the thousand-bomber raids, was being cautiously allowed to test its mettle in a variety or roles.

Throughout the summer months, however, Harris's planes were relatively inactive. It is interesting to look at elements of the statistical tabulation for May 30/31 to August 17 provided by Martin Middlebrook (Bomber Command War Diaries, p. 296):

The first thing worth noting is the number of days (25, or 31.5 percent) and nights (19, or 24 percent) when there was no Bomber Command activity at all. Weather, we know, affected bombing. Reading between the lines, it appears that for this summer, cloud and other conditions were a problem: on August 4/5, for example, 38 aircraft dispatched to Essen encountered heavy icing conditions. Throughout the period under examination, there were a number of nights when bomber formations were recalled ; largely, it seems, because of weather conditions. But there were also times when they were recalled for lack of cloud: the aircraft were too exposed in full moonlight. Nevertheless, bombers must fly to wage war ; and for one day in three, and one night in four, no Bomber Command aircraft were in the air.

Secondly, the average number of sorties per night, while accurate, is somewhat skewed by four large raids. The typical number of serviceable aircraft was approximately 400 per day. Operational
records show that during these 79 days/nights, there were only 20 nights on which 200 or more aircraft ; half the available aircraft ; were on operations. In other words, Bomber Command flew at half-strength or better on 25 per cent of the nights available, and did not fly at all on 24 per cent.

Of the 20 nights, four were Herculean: three were thousand-bomber nights; the next largest single raid comprised over 630 aircraft. The total number of sorties for those four nights is 3,866, just over one-third of the total, for five percent of the total nights. On the other hand, there are 35 nights when fewer than fifty planes flew, totalling only 341 sorties: 44 percent of the total nights and only three per cent of the sorties. The remaining 40 nights ; one night in two ; saw 63 per cent of the total sorties. Twelve of these nights were classified as major raids (200+ aircraft) on single targets (3,308 sorties); thirteen were considered significant raids on single targets, using as few as 106 aircraft or as many as 194 (2,152 sorties). If the aim of this inconsistency was meant to confuse the German defences, it must have succeeded admirably: during one week, as many as 2,753 sorties; during another, only 145. A great many night fighters and flak batteries were tied up waiting for those 145 aircraft.

When the Germans got the chance, they did their job: the percentage of aircraft lost to Bomber Command was creeping upward. Earlier, we looked at statistics for July 17 to November 10, 1941. At that time, the loss rate was 3.9 per cent. By the summer of 1942 it had climbed almost half a percentage point to 4.3 per cent. This increase is not explained by the three thousand-bomber raids, which had a loss rate of four per cent. In all likelihood, increased German capabilities, through both more sophisticated night fighter direction and larger, more intensive flak batteries, accounted for the increase. For perhaps the first time in the war, Bomber Command aircrew morale began to flag; Halifax squadrons, for example, were withdrawn from the heaviest raids for a period of a month, not returning to full activity until early September. A 4.0 per cent loss rate was reckoned to be the maximum that was sustainable over any length of time, and Harris must have viewed that 4.3 per cent with alarm. The Air Ministry and the War Cabinet would not tolerate this level of losses for too long. [20]

One other intriguing point in tallying the major raids of Summer 1942: in no instance was a city targeted for a major raid on successive nights. Bremen, for instance, was attacked on May 25/26, May 27/28, May 29/30 and June 2/3. What looks like every night at first glance is really every other night. The same pattern applies to the five raids against Duisburg and the two against Hamburg. In addition, in only two instances ; Duisburg on July 25/26, followed by Hamburg on July 26/27; and Hamburg on July 28/29 followed by Saarbrücken on July 29/30 ; were 200+ raids initiated on successive nights.

The "every second night" approach may have been tactically sound. For example, 48 hours would allow sufficient time for citizens of an attacked city to overcome their fear and return to their homes, for firefighters to bring the worst conflagrations under control, for Techniche Nothilfe (TENO) battalions to begin clearing the streets and tearing down damaged buildings. A second (or subsequent) attack would then have an increased impact on citizens, civil defence workers and the entire support structure, increasing both their feelings of futility and their sense of vulnerability ; a positive outcome in a war against civilians. On a less positive note, the 48-hour break between major raids may signal the need for additional time for ground crew to repair damage suffered by aircraft, or the need to replace or rebuild aircrew. After one 17-night period in which Bomber Command mounted eight major or significant raids, for instance, there followed 18 nights when it mounted only two. In part, this may be accounted for by the withdrawal of the Hallys, but it also suggests that Harris's 'typical' bomber complement of 400 aircraft was a more fragile reality than is generally considered.

Pathfinder-led Raids  

August 17 marked ends and beginnings. It was the day Pathfinder Forces were first brought together. It marked the first separate flight of USAAF bombers against occupied Europe. The evening of August 17/18 marked the last operational flight of the Blenheim against Germany, and the first of the PFF-directed raids, a rather successful attack by 139 aircraft against Osnabrück. This was followed the next night by an attack by 118 aircraft on Flensburg. This was a dismal failure, with PFF marking the wrong city.

After a brief period of readjustment, Bomber Command unleashed a torrent of attacks against Germany. Between August 24/25 and October 15/16, 16 Pathfinder-led raids (14 of them classified as major raids, with 200+ aircraft) struck across northern Germany. The early raids were used to develop target-marking techniques, though the basic pattern was set by a successful attack on Bremen by 251 aircraft on September 4/5. Pathfinder "Illuminators" would light up the target using flares, which would be used by PFF "Visual Markers" to drop coloured marker flares, in turn followed by "Backers-Up" dropping incendiaries. The main bombing stream would look for this pattern, and bomb accordingly.

The raids were not universally successful. Pathfinders too could lose their way and mark the wrong target, or be deceived by decoy fires set by the Germans, or arrive too late to place their markers before the main stream arrived. In addition, inclement weather during the latter half of September reduced PFF effectiveness. Better navigation would get them closer to the target, but good clear weather was still necessary for accurate target-marking. There was a pattern emerging, however: when Pathfinders marked their targets, Bomber Command was much more successful than it had been previously. As they learned their new trade, the aircrew of PFF began to earn their place in the strategic bombing campaign.

The loss rate for these 16 200+ raids was appalling. For the 4,377 sorties flown on these 16 ops, 245 aircraft 5.6 per cent were lost. On three of the 16 raids, loss rates exceeded 10 per cent. The clear weather over target that was still essential for success did not help: clear weather was still night fighter weather. But it was also becoming clear that certain Bomber Command aircraft were not up to the longer, more demanding flights. Wellingtons, which still made up a good proportion of Bomber Command aircraft, were being very hard-hit: on the August 28/29 attack on Nuremberg, 34 per cent of the Wellingtons failed to return. Hampdens, too, had outlived their effective life, and after the Wilhelmshaven attack of September 14/15 they were withdrawn from further front-line operations. Yet somehow Portal and Harris were able to convince Churchill to continue to support Bomber Command. On September 17, the day after the second raid with 10+ per cent losses, the Prime Minister required that aircraft borrowed from Bomber Command be returned, and that Bomber Command be built up from 35 to 50 squadrons.

While the PFF-led raids were under way, two other raids occurred which kept alive the possibility of attacks by day. The first was on August 27/28, when nine Lancasters were sent to attack the German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, then under construction in Gdynia. Nothing came of the raid because Graf Zeppelin was obscured, but seven of the Lancs completed the journey, bombing alternate targets, without loss. The importance of the raid was that the target was fully 950 miles from the Lancasters' bases. The second attack, on October 17, was against Le Creusot, a centre for armament manufacture deep inside France. In this instance, 94 Lancasters flew at tree-top level for a late afternoon attack on the Schneider factory. The attack achieved tactical surprise but was not successful; most of the bombs fell outside the Schneider factory that was the major target. But only one of the 94 Lancasters was lost, though 4 returned with damage caused by birds hitting their aircraft! In truth, the two raids amounted to little: 103 sorties which obtained indifferent results for their effort. Harris and the Germans, without doubt, both recognized what the two raids signified. Bomber Command could strike at any time of the day or night; and targets 1,000 miles from Britain were no longer safe from attack. To achieve that with a loss rate of less than one per cent must have brought a smile to Harris's face.

After October 17, Bomber Command's focus shifted away from northern Europe, in support of campaigns developing in North Africa. Montgomery was to launch the second battle of El Alamein on October 23; and "Torch", the three-pronged invasion of North-west Africa, was to begin on the night of November 7/8. Bomber Command supported these campaigns by attacking Italy's northern industrial area, beginning October 22/23 against Genoa, and concluding seven weeks later, against Turin on December 11/12.

Of the 13 raids against Italian targets, only three all against Turin were in the major (200+) category. Six were conducted with fewer than 100 aircraft, and four were in the 100-200 range. Total sorties were 1,692, with only 33 losses (2.0 per cent), including one aircraft which crashed on its return to Britain. Nine raids were considered successful, with solid PFF marking and concentrated bombing. One raid missed Genoa entirely, when Pathfinders marked the wrong city, and three raids were unsuccessful when weather or smoke made accurate target-marking impossible. On the final raid, over half of the force of 82 aircraft turned back after encountering heavy icing.

During the same time, there were only three major raids against German targets, against Hamburg (November 9/10), Stuttgart (November 22/23) and Mannheim (December 6/7). A fourth raid, against Duisburg on December 20/21, ended Bomber Command's year. Of the four, only Duisburg was considered a success. The others were plagued by foul weather, and PFF marking suffered accordingly. Greater success was achieved in a daylight raid against Eindhoven on December 6, when 93 light bombers (Venturas, Bostons and Mosquitos) savaged the Phillips factories. The cost to Bomber Command was very high, with losses set at 14 (15 per cent), excluding three aircraft which crashed or force-landed in Britain. [21] The Phillips works were badly damaged, and did not resume full production for six months: the raid was in consequence considered a success.


[1]. There are a number of circumstances in the 'Channel Dash' that are prescient of 'Overlord', the invasion of Europe by allied troops on June 6, 1944. The weather played a major role in both: the aggressor accepted marginal weather, while the defender assumed the weather too severe for action. In both cases, military leaders were absent: Baldwin and Saundby were at the Air Ministry on 12 February, and Rommel was visiting his family on June 6, while his subordinates were holding war games away from the front.

[2].  In 1992, the British erected a statue to Harris outside St. Clement Danes church. It was pelted with paint and refuse, and had to be put under 24 hour guard. When a friend and her daughter, on a trip to England, asked a bobby where to find the statue, the answer they received was, "What d¹you want to see that bugger for?"

[3].  It is popularly believed that Mitchell was court-martialled for his advocacy of strategic bombing. This is not so: he was court-martialled for his public comments about the quality of military aircraft and his criticism of the military structure that allowed such planes to exist. His supporters turned his court-martial into a public airing of strategic bombing. Mitchell was found guilty and resigned his commission.

[4].  On this same night, four Lancasters were Œgardening¹ off the German coast. It was the first operational use of the Lancaster in the war.

[5].  The Lancaster was a splendid bombing platform, and to all accounts a joy to fly. But authorities that felt she was sufficiently armed were living in a dream world that lasted to the end of the war. The Lanc, like all other British Bombers, carried .303 calibre machine guns ; in no way a comparable weapon to a 20 mm cannon of the Germans, or even the .5 calibre Brownings of the Americans. Further, the Lanc ; like most British bombers ; had no belly protection, and was blind if approached from below. This prompted German night fighters to approach British bombers from exactly that direction, with appalling losses to Bomber Command. Even the B-17G, with more guns of a much higher calibre, was relatively helpless in the face of fighter attack unless supported by its own fighters.

[6].  Throughout the European war, at least in the West, there was an almost comradely use of nicknames for the enemy. The British called Germans "Jerry" or "Fritz", and Americans called them, for the most part, "Krauts". On the German side, the British were "Tommis" and the Americans "Amis". But with the introduction of indiscriminate area bombing in 1942, British air crew became known as terror flieger, and there was no affection in the term. The same term would be applied American aircrew. Many British and American aircrew parachuted from burning bombers only to be assaulted or butchered by German civilians when they landed. The same thing sometimes happened to German crews landing in Britain during the Battle of Britain and Œthe Blitz¹. The German military provided escorts for downed allied airmen whenever possible, to keep them safe from civilian attack.

[7].  Denis Richards (The Hardest Victory, p. 123) stipulates that a total of 521 sorties were flown, which would mean 107 on the final night. Middlebrook (Bomber Command War Diaries, p. 260) places the number at between 106 and 109.

[8].  Given their age and architecture, and the significance of germanic Œculture¹ in Nazi dogma, Lübeck and Rostock were important German icons. The name of the German reprisal raids comes from the Baedeker guide books which, from the middle of the 19th century, were used as cultural guides for travellers. The Baedeker Raids were in reprisal for Lübeck and Rostock: the cities targeted for German attack were selected, it was said, by consulting the Baedeker guides to England to determine their cultural significance to the British.

[9].  Although there is no proof whatsoever, I wonder if Harris was influenced by the audacious Tokyo raids of Jimmy Doolittle and his B-25s, which took place within two weeks of Harris's decision. There was little benefit from the Doolittle raids, but the Japanese were shocked by this first assault on Nippon, and the American public (and, if truth be told, military) were delighted and heartened by this strike against the enemy. Particularly in war, 'public relations' is a powerful and useful tool. Harris would have appreciated the effect of the Doolittle raid, and would probably have applauded both the outrageous conception and the incredible effects. I expect it touched the show man in Harris, and gave him support as he developed his own audacious scheme.

[10].  Portal had been a supporter of strategic bombing since his own days as C-in-C Bomber Command, and had been the first to advocate the creation of a 4,000-bomber force to carry the air war to Germany. Harris would upstage Portal only in the number of aircraft he dreamt of controlling: he talked about a 4,000-6,000-bomber force. Neither man would find high-level support for such a force.

[11].  In every military endeavour, men appear to come forward who were made for the job. In the air war in World War II, certain bomber crews were soon recognized as more effective in finding and hitting a target when others could not. It was not merely a matter of experience, though that certainly helped. Perhaps the navigator was particularly acute with his dead reckoning, or astute in sensing wind changes, or the pilot had the mental strength to press on through heavy flak, or the bomb-aimer was more able to Œread¹ the heart of the target from the dither of other information. Whatever the reason, these crews were known and marked as successful, and were put to good use as leaders of squadrons or groups.

[12].  By the spring of 1942 the newly-fledged aircrew from overseas were being collected in towns such as Bournemouth, because OTUs did not have the capacity to upgrade them to operational status quickly enough.

[13].  Long after he stepped down, Trenchard would appear from time to time at an operational base and meet with aircrew. His visits were enthusiastically received, for he represented in the flesh the traditions upon which the RAF was founded and flourished.

[14].  The most recent Bomber Command daylight excursion, against Augsburg on 17 April, came at the cost of seven of the 12 Lancasters despatched. They would be used only sparingly in a daylight role in future. Only in 1944, when air superiority had been achieved, would Bomber Command Œheavies¹ be relatively safe on daylight raids.

[15].  The range for the B-17G was 1,100 miles when bombed-up; it increased to 3,000 miles empty. The range for the B-24D also varied depending on bomb load; the 2,500 miles noted in the table is with a reduced payload of 5,000 lbs.

[16].  One of the B-17s "Butcher Shop" was piloted by Paul Tibbetts, who would fly the "Enola Gay" a B-29 Superfortress over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

[17].  The attack on Dieppe continues to excite passions 60 years after the event. Described as a test of the Atlantic Wall (i.e., German defences on the coast of Europe), Dieppe was ill-conceived and ill-supported, and the troops, many of them Canadian, were slaughtered or captured before remnants were withdrawn after nine hours on the beach. Nothing was gained by the attack, with the possible exception of warning by example of the dangers of attempting a landing against Hitler in 1942 something that American military leaders had been advocating with some determination.

[18].  U-boats had things much their own way on the eastern seaboard throughout 1942. Many U.S cities were not enforcing blackout precautions, which allowed U-boats to sink tankers silhouetted against a lighted background. In addition, the U-boats mined many harbours from Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, though comparatively little damage was done. Finally, U-boats were dropping German agents on American soil. At least six of eight captured agents were executed by electrocution by the U.S.

[19].  It is hard to believe that General Marshall, on whom Roosevelt relied so heavily, would have thought a 1942 invasion was possible, or could be so misinformed about the German capacity to make war. Either he was very poorly served by his advisors or was outrageously naive in assessing American military capabilities. When U.S. forces first faced Germans in North Africa they were routed: they simply did not have the experience to face what remained to the very end of the war the best fighting troops in existence. Any landing in Europe in 1942 would have been a slaughter, as Dieppe demonstrated.

[20].  When the first "Millennium" raid was proposed, Churchill was reportedly willing to accept losses of up to 100 planes. Such was his belief in the propaganda potential in the raid. I wonder what he may have done had the losses indeed been that high. More importantly, Churchill would have viewed daily attrition rates of even five per cent as catastrophic if there were no propaganda value in them. Both Portal and Harris would be aware of the dangers of creeping casualty increases to the continued existence of Bomber Command as a separate, strategic command.

[21].  Throughout his book, Middlebrook notes aircraft that crashed rather than were lost. He does not include all crashes, however: he does not note the following Wellington. Piloted by Flt./Sgt Swanson of 419 Squadron (based at Mildenhall), this Wellington was part of the 180-bomber raid against Essen on June 5/6. Badly damaged first by flak and then by a night fighter Swanson nursed his aircraft back to England with wounded aboard, crash-landing successfully outside a small village called Finchingfield. Three of the crew, including Swanson, were on their final op. All three were awarded DFMs.

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

Published online: 09/20/2001.

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