The Combined Bomber Offensive: Classical and Revolutionary,
Combined and Divided, Planned and Fortuitous
To Table of Contents


Robin Higham

I think I should preface my remarks by saying that I am going to take a sort of a British view of Dr. Frankland's paper and use it as a springboard. Personally, I have long been an admirer and a user of Sir Charles Webster and Dr. Noble Frankland's Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, and have read with profit the Director of the Imperial War Museum's Bombing Offensive against Germany: Outlines and Perspectives, which were his 1963 Lees Knowles Lectures. In these and in his paper today, Dr. Frankland has opened up what I think is rich and fertile ground. He has correctly pointed to the need for the study of the past in order to know what should be practiced and what should be avoided in the future. He has shown that war is full of parallels and contradictions, and that there is a great need for those directing it to have a broad fund of historical knowledge, to be able to see, for instance, that the oceanic ideas of a Mahan may be more applicable than the peninsular ones of a Douhet. Because, however, I find myself so much in agreement with what he has said, I hope that both he and you will pardon me if I confine most of my remarks to wondering about other aspects of command than the "classical and revolutionary, combined and divided, planned and fortuitous." So, if you will bear with me, my comments will be aimed at raising some suggestions about these.

Now Dr. Frankland's presentation stayed strictly off commanders and their personalities. Yet a number of major characters, their education, training, previous service, friendships, and outlook are deserving, I think, of someone's attention. Of the commanders of Bomber Command omitting Ludlow Hewitt, whose service terminated early, we have in the Second World War, Marshal of the RAF Viscount Portal and Marshal of the RAF Sir Arthur Harris.

Portal's posting as AOC-in-C of Bomber Command was cut short when he was recalled to the Air Ministry to replace Sir Cyril Newell as Chief of the Air Staff. We are still awaiting his memoirs in full, but we cannot but be aware of several facts about him. He was a graduate of Winchester and Oxford and follows thus much more in the pattern of British permanent civil servants than of the Air Force or the other services. And he was, so far, the only Chief of the Air Staff to have these attributes. We know, moreover, that he got along well with Churchill, and that he was no stranger to high places, having spent about half of his years in the RAF up to 1940 at the Air Ministry. Portal was able, quiet, and shrewd.

In contrast there is Sir Arthur Harris, who, it is true, also spent some time at the Air Ministry. He was there in Plans when the department was forced to abandon its full concentration upon attacking the navy and the army and to devote some of its time to a possible war with Germany. Harris had the guts and the determination of Haig without, I think, the innovative abilities to run the bomber campaign, as it turned out. He did not have and this is not simply his own fault; this was, I think, a problem with the service for all those who came in at that early stage—the education nor the historical training to understand that the classical principles of warfare applied equally to the campaign in the air. Harris had never, as far as I know, except for service schooling, passed beyond the secondary school stage on the educational ladder. Now this comment, of course, being a comment coming from a professional scholar, may perhaps be somewhat unfair.

One other person who can be noted as having an important effect upon the campaign—a man like Harris—one who has written his memoirs, is Lord Tedder. Like Portal he was a well-educated man, being a graduate of Cambridge and the author of a prizewinning study on the navy of the Restoration. It was Tedder who forced Bomber Command in 1944 into a strategic role to aid the D-day landings.

I think there is room for much more study of these people. Apart from the relationships between them and their subordinates, attention must also be called to the rather extraordinary way, at least for Britain, in which this campaign was conducted. Here was an offensive operation whose headquarters were located within easy driving distance of the Prime Minister's weekend lodge, at a time when the Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, had an exceptional interest in the outcome (not to mention the means, for a former naval person who had a subaltern's love of weapons and gadgets). With the possible exception of General Sir Frederick Pile of Anti-Aircraft Command, no other high field commander in British history was in such a unique position to bypass the chain of command and take his own case to the higher direction as was Sir Arthur Harris. So far as I know, no commander of the air defense of Great Britain under its various names was ever in quite the same position.

Then too, there is a need to explore more thoroughly the handling of technical innovations which played such an extraordinary part in this campaign and in the battle of the Atlantic. Sir Charles Webster and Dr. Noble Frankland have quite correctly noted that the DeHaviland Mosquito was a far better weapon than either the Lancaster or the Halifax, not to mention the Stirling. Constance Babbington Smith has recorded the great reluctance of Headquarters Bomber Command to accept the scientific evidence from cameras. But Air Vice Marshal D.C.T. Bennett has spoken of the hostility with which pathfinder operation was at first greeted. Again for proof, we are much indebted to that which A.J.P. Taylor has just recently called the most honest and ruthless official history ever written. In this respect, it may be noticed in passing that in overseas theaters, where material was much less plentiful and the home bureaucracies' negativism less influential, innovation was, because it had to be, much more rapid. Dr. Frankland has rightly mentioned the Mustang. Given the long colonial role of the Royal Air Force, it is surprising that long-range aircraft and even long range drop tanks were not introduced earlier. I believe the only operational attempt was with a Vickers-Wellesley which was designed strictly for colonial operations. In the Far East, both the Japanese Zeros and the Flying Tigers' P-40s were fitted with long-range tanks, while in the Middle East the crude drop tanks (technically auxiliary tanks) fitted to Hurricanes for the ferrying flights from West Africa to the Middle East were of necessity used on operations, because desert distances were considerably greater than those in Europe, even though in so doing the Hurricane's performance was considerably damaged.

At this point, let us then look at the campaign, first in theory, then in fact, and finally, within the context of the war the British fought. The theory behind the bomber offensive went back, as Dr. Frankland and I have shown elsewhere, to the First World War and even before it; though by no means to Douhet alone. In Britain, it did not originate with Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts but with F. W. Lanchester, whose ideas were passed to Smuts by Sir David Henderson, the London-based head of the Royal Flying Corps in the summer of 1917. Lord Trenchard was a tactical man and did not accept the idea of strategic bombing until late 1921 or early 1922. And then, like many converts, he embraced it too wholeheartedly, though he never provided the equipment with which to implement it. When the retaliatory independent bomber attack on Germany was proposed in 1917, Churchill, as Minister of Munitions, quite correctly opposed it, for he saw that not only could this kind of attack be mastered but it did exactly what was not desired. It strengthened the will of the home front which, if left untouched, was more likely to become discouraged and devisive. Moreover, as Allen Dulles has recently pointed out, bombing civilians places them in the hands of the government. There were in fact several lessons to be drawn from the use of air power in the First World War, which because of the—and I am sorry to have to say this— lack of intellectual and historical interest on the part of the bulk of the older air force officers, at least in Britain, were not sketched out. One might say that almost the sole British exception to this generalization was the work of Wing Commander, as he then was, Sir John Slessor in his Air Power and Armies in 1936. But that book had small impact because he was attached to what was to become Army Cooperation Command, perhaps the least respected of the RAF flying branches. Two of these neglected lessons from the First World War must be mentioned. The first is that the defense always rose to meet and defeat the offense if given time; and secondly, that man has a much greater tolerance to pain than suspected, especially when intensity is escalated slowly. In other words, it seems to me, that for an attack on the will of the people to be effective, it must, as must most successful wars, be short, sharp, and devastatingly effective.

At this point it must be noted that if tactical air power on the Western Front was not particularly effective, it was because none of the tactics used there worked well until the Germans overreached their supply system as the aftermath of the March 1918 offensive.

Tactical air power was a decided asset when combined with good generalship, as under Allenby at Megiddo, a place to which I shall return later. As for the independent air force, note simply in passing that it was so named for political reasons. It is fair to suggest, I think, that its fate very quickly would have become that of the Gothas raiding London had it attempted to attack Berlin. The legacy of these lessons of the First World War became entwined with a number of postwar myths, created to preserve the Royal Air Force as a separate service as a result of warfare between the services, as to who could more cheaply and effectively defend Britain. Out of the Sykes-Grove Memorandum of June 1918, came in 1922 the deterrent strike force concept. It was primarily aimed at France, but little equipment was ordered to implement it, despite the proposed "52 squadron" home defense air force, composed two-thirds of bombers. Even worse than this, as Webster and Frankland have shown, neither training nor planning was undertaken, nor specifications issued, nor intelligence gathered, nor assessments made, to assure that the deterrent would work. The result of this was only becoming apparent during the Munich crisis when the leisurely evaluation ordered in 1936 of the ability to intimidate Hitler began to become available. Thus, the British deterrent failed miserably in 1939 because it simply was not credible.

If this is understood, then the long failure of the Bomber Offensive against Germany is not surprising. It only really became effective in 1944 for a variety of reasons, into which I think I need not go, because Dr. Frankland has already made them plain. What does need to be asked is the question, "If the deterrent fails, what course of action do you take?" And surely this is one of the most important of all command decisions which faces the higher direction. The bombing offensive against Germany remained, despite the declaration of war, a part of the grand strategy. In fact, it is not too much to suggest that many of its problems arose from the term "strategic," which had become by the Second World War as ambiguous as the word "military." After Britain had mercifully, as Captain Roskill has remarked, been thrown off the continent, the grand strategic picture was clarified; but even in 1939, I would suggest, it was not that cloudy. It was correctly recognized that since Bomber Command was not in position to be a retaliatory force, as its daylight operation was speedily discovered to be impossible, as Dr. Frankland has noted, that the best it could do was to use leaflet dropping as a form of training. In this respect, the May 1940 attack on Berlin was a failure for it overlooked the lesson the Royal Naval Air Service learned as it emerged from its shelters on the 20th of May 1916: Don't start something against which you yourself are not protected. In the period between the beginning of the war and the fall of France, the air defense of Great Britain needed to be strengthened and Blitzkrieg studied, so that the immediate problems of the day could be solved, and the island base made a secure arsenal. Upon the fall of France it was possible to divide grand strategic necessities and choices into a very few concrete issues, all concerned with answering the question, "How, and in what order?"

These, I think, are first the defense of the United Kingdom, which meant concentrating primarily upon Fighter Command, naval and military defenses. As General Sir Frederick Morgan has shown, however, invasion was not a real danger after the end of the "daylight" period, the successful defensive Battle of Britain in September. Much more dangerous were the attacks on the ports, which would have succeeded if the Germans had continued to bomb them in the spring of 1941, in what was properly a grand strategic air offensive.

Secondly, there was a need to place the island arsenal into full production. This involved the allocation of manpower and the security of the lines of communications overseas, both for incoming raw materials and for outward-bound expeditionary forces and their logistical support. For this traditional aspect of British grand strategy the First World War had already proved the lessons, the combined air and sea offensive-defensives. But owing to the low rating given to both antisubmarine warfare and RAF Coastal Command in the interwar years, the vital forces were in extremely short supply, and in the vast reaches of the ocean numbers rather than size counted.

Third was the cleaning up of overseas wars, to which I will return in a few minutes.

Fourth, it was necessary to neutralize the neutrals, the important diplomatic aspect, by making them believe that Britain was capable of winning the war and that Germany was not. This demanded victories in the field, invisible support of sufficient dimensions to enable them to withstand German or Italian pressures, or, at the very least, the sense to understand that neutrality might actually be the best course, both for them and for Britain.

Fifth was containment of Germany with all that that implied in the whole area from the Balkans to Norway. You do not have to be told that all of these grand strategic problems were interlocked and that, in the words of Field Marshal Earl Wavell, "War is an option of difficulties." While we do have today much more knowledge and much more sophisticated machinery both for the collection and the interpretation of intelligence and for decision-making, it can be suggested nevertheless that there was available sufficient evidence and enough historical precedent in 1940-1941 to have made a different allocation of resources and create different priorities from those adopted. It is true that the fall of France was an unanticipated event with vast consequences, and that in the Battle of Britain the British were fighting for national existence, but by October 1940 it should have been possible to re-examine grand strategy. Unfortunately the Prime Minister forgot at this juncture what he had said earlier in his career about the Middle East, that it was the "belt buckle of the Empire," just as he later forgot his wise memorandum of October 1917, and, just as he had earlier, he became enamored with the Balkans, but at this time with far less resources available. The result was that Britain lost both prestige and its best theater commander.

Except for the night bombing of Britain and U-boat warfare, once Hitler had determined to attack Russia he was not a direct threat to the British Isles. Conversely there was no direct way in which Britain could attack Germany; for Bomber Command could not, as Dr. Frankland assured me, in fact be more than a nuisance.

If the key was command of the air, did the bomber offensive contribute to this until 1944? Dr. Frankland has pointed out that the Germans could defend themselves and that casualties exceeded results. This is an argument, it seems to me then, for a reappraisal of strategy or even grand strategy. The classical solution need not have been sought in fighters in 1943 but in a new direction in 1940 or 1941, in which the bombers who were not being effective against Germany might have been used strategically in another way. At the risk then of being called a "Monday morning quarterback," let me suggest that quite a different allocation of resources might have had worthwhile results. Instead of a bomber offensive against Germany, harassment of the Third Reich should have been undertaken upon an air-guerrilla basis, using, when they were available, the Mosquitos. These excellent aircraft were inexpensive to manufacture and placed less strain upon raw material resources and production facilities than did the Stirling, Lancaster, and Halifax, while, as Webster and Frankland have so properly noted, they required smaller crews, fewer engines, enjoyed far smaller casualties, and were far more accurate in striking targets. Their use in fact might have enabled employment of a military targets attack. Moreover, their tactics made them extremely hard to pinpoint for enemy counterinsurgency action. In the face of the very light German attacks, for instance, on Britain in 1944, the air defense of Great Britain still deployed 43 squadrons of fighters, as opposed to 55 at the height of the Battle of Britain and not counting 92 squadrons of the tactical air force. Some of the effort thus saved should have been allocated, it seems to me, to Coastal Command, especially in terms of developing very-long-range aircraft such as the modification of the Lancaster, or very-long-range Sunderland flying boats, which were really a much more comfortable type of machine for these patrols. This reallocation, when coupled to intensive construction of emergency port facilities and railways as well as accelerated development of night fighters, would have taken care of the grand strategic points, which I mentioned above, except those concerned with overseas wars and neutrals.

It may be suggested that the consequences of victory in the field far outstripped those of the defeat, and that policy makers worry too much about the latter and not enough about the former. The way to have impressed and reassured neutrals, including the United States which in late 1940 was contemplating lend-lease, was to win a resounding victory. The Battle of Britain was a defensive one, and its usefulness was certainly played to the hilt. But in the Middle East the British had a chance to pull off a string of victories which would have, in all probability, brought them invaluable advantages, especially when at the end of 1941 war in the Far East also became a reality. In Wavell, the British had in 1940 the ablest area and field commander of the day. With extremely thin resources, as compared to what was available at home, he was handling diverse campaigns with enviable success. Unfortunately Churchill had not for some strange reason ever met Wavell before he called him home for consultation in 1940. They didn't see "eye-to-eye" in spite of the fact that of all military men of his generation Wavell was more conscious of political necessities than anyone else at that moment, and this was to be his undoing. Wavell did so much with what can fairly be described as "ridiculous" resources that it is not impossible to suggest that had he been supplied with a relatively small increase in air power from the United Kingdom, he could have beaten the Italians not only in East Africa, which he did of course do, but more importantly in North Africa, thus preventing Rommel from landing in Tripoli and possibly also pulling off the Italian attack from Greece. An additional benefit of this victory would have been the security of Malta and the possibility of swinging French North Africa over, thus providing the British with a relatively safe line of communications through the Mediterranean to the Middle East and eventually to the Far East. In addition, neither Syria nor Iraq would have been as prepared to create trouble; Turkey would have been more warmly neutral; and Crete might even have been used as a flank guard instead of as a German air base. A realistic assessment of the Greek and Yugoslav situations would have recognized that they could not be protected, if for no other reason than that the Greek armed forces were equipped with Czech, Polish, and French arms, for which the only logistical solution was complete re-equipment, a project which, of course, was completely out of the question. Just as a small number of modern squadrons enabled Allenby to win a decisive victory at Megiddo and the complete destruction of Turkey in the First World War, so a similar infusion of modern air materiel would have enabled Wavell to employ both strategic and tactical air power, in conjunction with his ground and naval forces, to achieve a signal victory in a decisive theater.

Let me then suggest that the grand strategic air offensive against Germany before 1944 was neither grand nor correct strategy, but a violation of the principles of war. It left the lines of communication unsecured, it failed to concentrate decisive force at the decisive place at the right time, and it was not economic in its use of force. Far from being revolutionary, therefore, it was simply had "classical" grand strategy.

I cannot end, of course, without paying tribute again to the work which Sir Charles Webster and Dr. Noble Frankland have done and to the very interesting paper which Dr. Frankland has presented. I hope that he will accept my apologies for using his paper as a springboard.