The Combined Bomber Offensive: Classical and Revolutionary,
Combined and Divided, Planned and Fortuitous
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Comments on Higham's Commentary
Air Vice-Marshal E.J. Kingston-McCloughry
I hope that it may not seem churlish to suggest that Professor Robin Higham's commentary on Noble Frankland's paper The Combined Bomber Offensive shows distinctly the academic advantage of hindsight. No such impression is intended, especially as Professor Higham outlines with great skill and in a surprisingly short space the salient features of a situation which was very far from being quite so precise in 1940-43, and subsequently.
As he rightly suggests, the bombing policy of those years was not something which had just evolved. It was the central tenet of air power and was elevated into a dogma; but what was not a dogma, nor should have resembled a dogma, were the methods used and the target systems attacked. The real effectiveness of bomber forces necessarily had to evolve, though the process was long and perforce painful. For three years the inability of bomber forces to hit precision targets was ignored by those in command and those who should have been prepared to adjust their strategic concepts.
Yet to understand anything of the temper of the time one should be quite clear that the bombing policy was the outcome of a genuine belief on the part of our bomber commanders that their efforts would result in the collapse of Germany. It was also perhaps logical for them to suppose that only they could bring about this desirable conclusion to the war.
Thanks to the efforts of Sir Charles Webster and Dr. Noble Frankland, the deficiencies of the bombing policy and strategy are no longer in dispute. Professor Higham has concerned himself with background but goes further. He visualizes with considerable penetration what he thinks could have been a feasible development of grand strategy from 1940 onwards. What he does not altogether seem to appreciate is that the same features militated against such an enlightened view of grand strategy as were to vitiate strategic thinking, at the most crucial point of the whole war, in the invasion of Normandy. The prime defect of service mentality, which virtually ran on tramlines, permeated almost every aspect of the military machine from the organization and allocation of resources to the command structures, both national and allied.
Grand strategy, as Professor Higham sees it, was just not possible in the years 1940-43 because of the imbedded character of the service mind. Even Churchill, for all his mercurial shifts of emphasis, could not escape this imputation of being on tramlines. His tramlines may have been broader than most, but they had a certain rigidity and tended to produce rigidity in others.
To the non-service mind, the adjustment that was necessary was possible but infinitely difficult because not all the military implications were thoroughly understood. But in the service mind there was a fatal inhibition, or even prohibition, to thinking outside the demands of the particular service to which one belonged. Only an inter-service mind could make the transition to a new kind of thinking; and a thoroughly inter-service view at that time was only possible, though not inevitably so, within a non-national, inter-Allied organization such as Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) or Allied Expeditionary Air Force(s) (AEAF). There was, unfortunately, no way in which those of us in AEAF Headquarters could have any prescience of all those features of the situation that have become all too evident in the decades since.
I came to Norfolk House [SHAEF Headquarters in London] with an inter-service mind, having qualified at Andover [RAF Staff College] and Camberley [Army Staff College] and served 5 years in India, but with no real insight into the inter-service rivalries that were to bedevil much of the planning, and some of the operations, in the ensuing months. I was appointed chief air operations planner for the air force to be engaged in the invasion, and as this was an appointment of no little importance I felt greatly privileged.
The COSSAC [Chief of Staff, Supreme Allied Commander] organization, under the direction of Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan, had been in existence since January 1943 [established at Casablanca, actually organized April 1943] so that not only was the invasion of the continent an accepted proposition, but a mechanism of a kind was already in being to be evolved or stepped up if required. It was evident, however, that there was a vast amount of work in front of everyone and that things were in a considerable state of flux.
The need, after the successful campaigns of North Africa and Italy, to carry the war to the enemy brought with it a question on the efficacy of the policy of area bombing as pursued by Bomber Command. It was plain that the policy of bringing Germany to her knees was not having the desired effect, but many in the highest places were reluctant to pursue the next logical step which was to rationalize the bombing policy yet further and to load the enemy productive potential and mobility to the utmost.
Within SHAEF there was an odd air of belonging to a rather special club: that is, if you had already been through the North African Campaign then you were really part of the outfit. Fortunately, the Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) at AEAF Headquarters was Air Marshal Sir Philip Wigglesworth, whose experience in the Mediterranean, both in the air war and in personalities, made his support invaluable in the days that were to come.
The difficulties of planning the use of Allied air forces became apparent at once. The 21st Army Group 2 plan called for the bombing of a specific number of targets in France to isolate some 50 miles in radius within 24 hours of the actual H-hour of the invasion. When this was put to me, I could see that what they had in mind was quite impracticable. It was far from being a realistic plan in the context in which it was drawn up. At this juncture Solly Zuckerman arrived at Norfolk House to help with scientific advice in the planning. His knowledge of bomb damage gathered in North Africa and Italy was unique and was occasionally to confuse those who imagined that they alone could know anything of bomb damage. Solly Zuckerman and I then began work very intensively on a plan for the use of Allied air forces prior to and during the invasion that was to become known as the Transportation Plan.
Professor Higham's remarks on personalities in command are very apposite and could be developed with some advantage, but what was also very striking at that time was the command structure or hierarchy, and the physical separateness of the various headquarters located sometimes as much as two hours travel time apart. The distribution and position of the various headquarters illustrated how difficult, and indeed how absurd, it is to endeavour to run a supreme command system dependent on road communications.
We found ourselves within a mesh of constant pressures in which not only was the bombing policy at variance with the course of national and Allied strategy, but even the most responsible figures, Churchill and Lord Cherwell or the bomber "barons," for example, were not enthusiastic initially about the invasion and had hoped that the bombing of Berlin and other cities in Germany would make it unnecessary.
We had innumerable meetings where a whole gamut of chicanery and compromise was exhibited. At one of the earliest of these meetings, General Eisenhower was present and remarked that he hoped that no one was going to ask for the heavy bombers until just prior to the actual invasion. A little to Air Marshal Leigh Mallory's surprise, though not displeasure, I had the temerity to say that we required the heavy bombers a good deal earlier than that because otherwise we could not hope to neutralize the rail centers we had in mind. This plain statement of fact startled Eisenhower, but he was quick to realize that here was a practical strategical requirement which simply had to be met, though it was evident that he had already been got at by the bomber barons.
As time progressed, the picture became clearer and Tedder improved our plan by adding to it other rail and air centers inside Germany. He made it very plain that the bomber sorties called for in the plan were absolutely essential and he carried Eisenhower with him. Opposition dies hard: it continued until the somewhat ambiguous scruples of Churchill about the bombing of French civilians were overcome. All kinds of reasons were given by Bomber Command for not bombing the targets we wanted bombed, and it was not until the effects of precision bombing with the aid of Oboe 8 (with range limited to the Rhine) were shown that the Commander in Chief, Bomber Command, gave his wholehearted support. Thereafter he was inclined to provide more effort than was strictly required.
Another illustration of what we were up against was the later opposition to the use of heavy bombers in order to get the armies moving beyond Caen. It was not until Montgomery made a direct request for them to Churchill that they were provided. Many may have wondered how the operation was laid on so quickly, but the bombers were only made available so quickly because the plan for them was already in readiness, having been rejected some months before.
It is now perhaps all too easy to see the defects and essential wrongness of the Combined Bombing Offensive. There are few people who did not live through the pre-planning period and the pre-invasion command situation who could altogether understand or appreciate the implications and difficulties of what was a very complex strategic problem. In addition there were the manifold problems of personalities at the centre of it all. German cities were being destroyed with unswerving devotion, but German vital centres of potential and production remained mostly untouched because they were largely not in the city centres. At the end of hostilities German fighter aircraft production was higher than that of the Allies, which should not have been possible in view of the bombing effort we expended.
All that was clear enough, but what was not clear was how, if ever, the policy could be altered; and remember we were fighting a total war, the day-to-day exigencies of which in higher quarters called on energies, physical, nervous, and mental, which no doubt encouraged a kind of purblindness disguised as a determination to pursue the war with all the vigour possible. There is also no doubt that those very exigencies of war brought about the change in action and in purpose, however reluctant and painful it might have been.
In brief, if one were asked to propound the lessons of the war as they culminated in OVERLORD, these might be summarized as questions: first, of priorities; secondly, of personalities; thirdly, of the remarkable autonomy of the separate services, which had little relevance to the prosecution of the war at that time.
Given that the bombing policy was wrong and should have been seen earlier to be wrong by those best qualified to judge, that is, the political leadership and the bomber commanders, the emergence of other urgent roles for the bomber forces should have been seen in a more realistic light. Even the Battle of the Atlantic was hazardous, as Professor Higham observed, because of the foreshortened attitude of the bomber commanders who seemed hypnotized by the possibility of knocking Germany out on her home front, to the neglect of other needs.
Fortunately for us, to a significant extent, this dogma of air power was shared by the Luftwaffe, who made the same mistake of attaching two much importance to area and terror bombing and not enough to our airfields, ports, and assembly points.
1. See Sir Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany 1939-1945. 4 vols. (London: H.M.S.O., 1961).
2. For administration, planning, and execution of the initial OVERLORD assault, all allied ground forces were placed under Field Marshal Montgomery, C-in-C, 21st Army Group. In August 1944, when SHAEF Hq moved to the continent, Eisenhower took direct control and split the 21st Army Group into the Central Group of Armies (Bradley) and the Northern Group of Armies (Montgomery).
3. Oboe was a blind bombing radar device; described in Webster and Frankland, IV, 7-11.