The World At War: e12 – Whirlwind: Bombing Germany (September 1939 – March 1944)


Like the episode two weeks ago about the North Atlantic Convoys, The World At War‘s twelfth episode was about a more abstract aspect of the Second World War, not a phase or a theatre of operations, marked with battles and outcomes, but an ongoing, daily thing that covered a much longer period of time, without necessarily taking on a marked shape. And its end point was not in victory but rather in a tactical shift that changed the priorities that had gone on for almost the whole length of the War to this point.

The episode set off in an unusual manner. Instead of the usual portentous Introduction by Laurence Olivier, we went straight to the voices of those who were there at the time, and these exclusively, creating a picture of Britain in war-time, the music, the dancing, the speeches. The Battle of Britain had been won by Fighter Command, Hitler’s military attention was turned eastwards, and now was the time for the RAF’s other branch, Bomber Command, under the leadership of Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, to come to the forefront. Harris is a controversial figure among War historians and later generations, though the episode did not allow this to creep in, save in Harris’s occasional faint defensiveness to accusations never made.

The tactical point was that Britain had been, and was, on the defensive. For so many reasons, not least morale, it had to fight back, be proactive in taking the fight back to Germany. It was the same need that took the War into North Africa. In Europe, there was no means to attack, except by bombing German targets: Bomber Command were the only ones able to take the offensive.

At first, this was disastrous, and almost completely ineffectual. Daylight raids meant being picked off by the Luftwaffe: bomber planes were bigger and had the greater range but were incomparably slow compared to fighter planes. So Harris switched to night operations, which were more economical of planes and crew but were hampered by the ansence of light with which to find or see targets. It was estimated that of every hundred bombs, no more than three fell within five miles of their targets.

Yet the raids were good for morale, and propaganda films made them look twenty times more effective than they were. Later in the War, technological advances would greatly alleviate the dependence on eyesight, but in the meantime Harris moved to co-ordinated mass raids, known as Strategic Bombing. What this meant was area bombing, the concerted devastation of a target area instead of a precison target. The general intention was to disrupt and destroy German industry, War manufacture of all kinds, but this indiscriminate bombing also meant massive civilian deaths.

The attitudes displayed had an horrific undertone that we can indulge in now, in an era where such choices are not being asked of us. At the time, and perhaps how else could it have been seen, it was a combination of cold-blooded revenge – they had dished it out to us in London, Coventry and Liverpool, now they could have it back (the episode title derived from Harris himself, quoting Scripture: ‘they have sewn the wind: now they will reap the whirlwind’) – and the determination to break the enemy. Indeed, after the firestorm visited upon Cologne in 1942, the first thousand strong bomber raid, Albert Speer, Minister for Armanents, stated that seven such raids would force Germany to surrender. This was the whole intent of Harris’ campaign, to shorten the War by, effectively, terrorising the enemy into surrendering.

But Bomber Command did not have the resources for what might have ended things abruptly.

The episode also discussed the different tactics of Bomber Command, with its night raids involving strings of individual planes, and the daylight actions of the US 8th Air Force, with its highly-efficient and perfected formation flying, enabling the planes to protect themselves to a very large degree, without fighter support. Interestingly, among the voices discussing the American tactics was one Squadron Commander James Stewart, yes, the Jimmy Stewart, making one of a very comments upon his distinguished War service, discussing a disastrous raid in the industrial town of Schweinfurt.

There was also a very revealing interview with William Reid, an ordinary middle-aged man, a former Bomber Pilot, talking calmly and diffidently about a raid in which his plane was hit, his navigator killed, his controls damaged. Reid talked about not being able to turn back because to do so would take him into oracross the path of the rest of his squadron, so he completed the raid and got his plane back, as if these were just difficulties that had to be overcome. Only after he’d finished speaking did the programme silently show that he had won the Victoria Cross for this action.

But it was like that then.

Though the programme did not actually exclude the issue totally, nevertheless the effects of the raids, the bombings of Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin were given plenty of exposure by local picture footage, led inevitably to a consideration of the moral aspect. Harris was not just nick-named ‘Bomber’ but also, within the RAF, ‘Butch’, from which you could not escape the echo of ‘Butcher’. The pragmatic side of me says that this was War, and war against an enemy to whom we dare not lose, and that alone justified the tactics we, or rather Harris, pursued. One of my favourite films ever is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp that, in 1943, debated the morality of copying the enemy’s vile tactics, so I have faced such questions before.

But the footage kept reminding me that these were people like us. And once you begin to identify with the ‘enemy’, and see them as human beings…

In the end, and very much against Harris’ wishes, the bombing campaign came to an abrupt ending in March 1944, just as the arrival of the American Mustang fighters broke Germany’s control of its own airspace: a fighter with the range and endurance of a bomber. It was a change of tactics. General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, took over strategic command of the RAF as well, and ordered the focus of the attacks be hanged away from the terror inflicted on German cities. Harris protested, but it was of no avail. There was now a new priority for 1944, which Bomber Command was required to support – the reinvasion of Europe.


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