The Combined Bomber Offensive: Classical and Revolutionary,
Combined and Divided, Planned and Fortuitous
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The Combine Bomber Offensive: a British Comment

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor

I don't think that I can add much in a way of comment on these very interesting papers to what I wrote in my book The Central Blue more than twelve years ago.[1]

One thing I would perhaps say. Mr. Futrell in his paper quotes a sentence from a book by me in 1936.[2] Nothing I have done, or seen, or heard, or read since that date shakes that belief. Out of perhaps millions of words I have written and spoken about air strategy, nothing remains more true than those two lines. Air superiority is only a means to an end—and the end (or the aim or the object or the intention or whatever staff jargon you select to describe it) is to impose upon the enemy the utterly disastrous situation which no unprejudiced critic can deny that ultimately the British and U. S. Bomber Offensive imposed upon the Germans. The aim, object, or what not of the bomber is not to destroy enemy aircraft in the air—though that is a useful by-product; it is to drop sufficient bombs sufficiently accurately to destroy the enemy's capacity to wage war effectively—whether by drying up his oil supply, disrupting his war production, or paralyzing his armies' capacity to move—as the attack on transportation before and in the early stages of OVERLORD did with such unexaggerable importance to the success of our invasion of the continent.

It is by doing that, in the course of which you force him onto the defensive in the widest sense, that you win the fight for air superiority. In fact, "going straight for the end is the best, in fact the only sure, way of achieving the means." [3]

Of course, you have got to have the resources to enable you effectively to pursue that end. As I have repeatedly admitted, we grossly underestimated the numbers and technological efficiency of aircraft and their equipment necessary for that purpose. We made the mistake also in imagining that day bombers could do it unescorted; we thought that even if the necessary range could be built into fighters, when the bombers and their escort met enemy fighter opposition the latter would have to turn and fight, leaving the bombers to go on unescorted to bump into the next wave of enemy fighters. And we did not believe the range could be built in— curiously enough even with the Merlin Mustang we did not at first appreciate the immense capacity for range that could be built into it. (Incidentally Frankland's account of the birth of the Merlin Mustang is accurate—I was very closely associated with it at the time.) In fact among our many mistakes—and remember this was the first air war, to all practical purposes—we thought the bomber could get through with the help of its own guns. We found it could only get through with the help of guns in escort fighters. But the whole object of the exercise was to enable the bomber to get through. And it was that which led to air superiority—not the other way around.

I'm afraid I am not much interested in academic arguments about 'classical strategy'—much though I admire Admiral Mahan (you may be surprised to hear I have never read Douhet!) In my view, the defeat of enemy forces, whether on land, at sea, or in the air, is always the means, not the end. Armies don't defeat armies as an end in itself—they do it to enable them to occupy enemy territory (or prevent their own territory from being occupied). As far as I know, no responsible airman has ever suggested that strategic bombing could achieve its end without having air superiority to enable it to do so. But, given the necessary priorities and resources, they could do so without the massive land battles of 1914-18 or even 1939-45.

This leads me to the only other comment, which I think of any real importance, that I'd like to make on the papers by Frankland, Higham, and Futrell. Trenchard used to say "all war is muddle and confusion and mistakes, and the chap who wins, is he who makes fewer muddles and confusions and mistakes than the other fellow." Our ultimate victory in the air owed much to Goering and Hitler— they were our 'secret weapons' all right! But a thing that struck me as very strange is that not one of these papers—including Frankland's—pointed out that our persistence in the Bomber Offensive, however amateur and ineffective in the early years, had the effect of making the Germans build fighters instead of bombers. Futrell notes in his paper that in about eight months, over the winter 1943-44, the number of U. S. bombers increased by more than three times and that of escort fighters by four and one-half times. On the other hand, the German fighters opposing them increased by only 50%, and there is no mention of German bombers because by that time their relative numbers and efficiency were negligible. Thank God the Germans took this cockeyed view of air defence and did not follow up their extraordinary initiative in developing heavy bombers that Fredette described so well in his book on the First Battle of Britain in 1917-18.[4] I wonder what would have been the result if, instead of building more and more fighters to be shot down by the Mustangs and Thunderbolts and by the Spitfires in the Tactical Air Force, Speer had been allowed to concentrate a far higher proportion of the German production effort on building really good bombers—lineal descendants of the Gothas and Giants of 1917-18. I shudder to think of the effect on our British centres of population, ports, war industry, and crowded airfields. I believe at least that OVERLORD would have been impossible.

However, that's all mere speculation and not very profitable. Actually all this, in this age of nuclear missiles, is of no more than academic historical interest. Still—it is interesting and perhaps not altogether a waste of time. But do let us get our facts and premises right.

There are a few more unimportant holes I could pick in these three very good papers. I will content myself with two.

Higham states in his paper that it was Tedder "who forced Bomber Command into a strategic role to aid the D-Day landings" —(incidentally here is another example of the dangers of this loose use of the word "strategic"). It was not Tedder, for he had no authority to do any such thing. As was his natural duty, he brought what pressure he could to bear in order to get full support of Bomber Command for OVERLORD. But except for some opposition by Churchill to the railway bombing plan on the grounds of casualties to French civilians, I am aware of no other except from Harris, who though a great commander in his way was a difficult chap and lacked any real strategic sense. It was the Chiefs of Staff—including and by no means least Portal—who insisted that all our resources should be put into ensuring the success of OVERLORD. And if Tedder or anyone else suggests that he "forced" Bomber Command into that role, it is quite simply not true.

As a matter of interest, in the first Chiefs of Staff paper on the reorganization of the RAF for the invasion (which I personally wrote in the summer of 1942), the Air Staff proposed that Bomber Command should be put under the orders of the Supreme Commander. In the event, the Command only acted in support of the invasion, under the direction of the Chiefs of Staff. But this may help to convince people that there was no question of the Air Ministry hanging back in this context; the Chiefs of Staff certainly did not.

The only other point is that l agree with Mr. Futrell that if we had given the necessary priority to the bombers and their equipment, Germany's economy (and hence ability to sustain the war) could have been destroyed before the Normandy invasion. The armies would have had subsequently to go in to restore order and occupy enemy territory till a peace settlement, but on a much smaller scale and without a massive operation like OVERLORD. I am on record as saying that repeatedly at the time.[5]


1. Sir John Slessor, The Central Blue: The Autobiography of Sir John Slessor, Marshal of the Royal Air Force (New York, 1957). See especially Chapter XIV, "1941-1942: Bomber Group Commander," and pp. 203-207, 211-212, 231-233, 429-432.

2. John Slessor, Air Power and Armies (London, 1936), p. 10.

3. Slessor, The Central Blue, p. 390.

4. Raymond H. Fredette, The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain 1917-1918 and the Birth of the Royal Air Force (New York, 1966), passim.

5. Slessor, The Central Blue, pp. 434-435.