2. "GIVE IT 'EM BACK!"
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Before the war the official Air Staff attitude had been that the bombing of targets in enemy territory would be carried out by day. This did not mean that training for night bombing was ignored—simply that no reason was apparent why our bombers should not fly to their targets and identify and bomb them in daylight. So while the policy was ostensibly a flexible one, allowing for both day and night bombing, in practice the crews were insufficiently trained in flying long distances in all weathers to find and bomb pinpoint targets at night.
Our early war experience, and that of the Germans, showed that plans for defending the bomber in daylight were inadequate, and perhaps impracticable. A decision to confine the bombing of targets in Germany to darkness became inevitable. But the requirement for aids to navigation and blind bombing that was inherent in this decision was swamped by the natural preoccupation of air leaders and scientific establishments and committees with the problems of air defence, and obscured by the absence of any scientific evaluation of the results of our night bombing. There were people who had their doubts, but the general impression given was one of highly trained crews fighting their way unerringly through stubborn enemy defences and dropping their bombs with pinpoint precision. It was taken for granted that targets were wrecked.
This was a legacy from the pre-war over-emphasis on the immediate bomber threat and over-estimate of its destructive power as then constituted. When the German air raids began, people in the big towns, and indeed outside them, confidently expected to be obliterated. It was only with experience that they learned that although a raid might cover a wide area, the wounds were generally scattered and the casualties supportable, bad as they often were. Citizens developed a resistance to the bomber threat and hoped to survive it. It was only in comparatively few instances that an effective and terrifying concentration was achieved.
There were several lessons to be learnt from the German raids. One was that morale might be toughened rather than weakened when bombing was on a relatively minor scale. In total war, civilians welcomed the chance to share dangers and divert enemy effort from their relatives and friends in uniform. "The sublime but also terrible experiences and emotions of the battlefield," said Churchill in a broadcast on 27th April 1941, "are now shared for good or ill by the entire population. All are proud to be under the fire of the enemy." Another important lesson was that damage to the war effort was not confined to the destruction of industrial plant. If the heartbeats of a city, its transport, water, power, housing and administrative services could be interrupted, the effect on output was immediate and widespread.
In his broadcast Churchill had averred that the British nation, stirred and moved by their experiences as never before in their history, were determined to conquer or die. They knew well enough by this time that they could certainly die: in air raids alone, over 40,000 of them had already done so. But, how, in the spring of 1941, were they to conquer? The only possible answer seemed to be by the proper application of air power. Just as the U-boat was the natural weapon of the vastly inferior naval power, so the destruction of industrial capacity by bombing was the natural weapon of a power outclassed on land.
There were two principal factors which dominated the public subconscious mind. First was a revulsion against the trench warfare of 1914-18; even the horrors of bombing seemed preferable to that. Second was the realisation that Britain could never win a Continental war unless her adversary were first fatally weakened by some indirect means; by blockade, by the intervention of a powerful Continental ally—or by bombing.
Between the wars the British were continually assured that the next war would be a war in the air, and that the bomber would always get through; to that extent they were conditioned to the idea of aerial bombardment. Since then they had accustomed themselves to the realities of day and night bombing by the full weight of the Luftwaffe and were ready to back themselves to stand up to it. The Germans, on the other hand, had been promised by Goering that not a single bomb would fall on the Ruhr. The British were anxious to see how they would react to similar treatment.
There can be no bilking the fact that the people of Britain, sick of defeats and humiliations at the hands of aggressor nations, desired nothing more than to see the people of Germany hurt. They had been caught up involuntarily in a war of survival against an evil tyranny, a war that had quickly become an intensely personal matter. (The fate awaiting them if they lost it is too easily forgotten.) They had been the victims of an unprovoked assault, as a nation, in their homes, on their persons, on their lives, and it was natural that they should come to identify themselves with a bomber offensive. "On every side," said Churchill in the House of Commons on 8th October 1940, "is the cry 'We can take it', but with it there is also the cry 'Give it them back'." This analysis of the feelings of bombed-out Londoners, with its hint of retribution for the future, was greeted with prolonged cheers. For two months, from September to November 1940, London was bombed by an average of 200 bombers a night as the Germans concentrated on breaking the spirit of Londoners to the point where the Government would find it impossible to continue the war in the face of a collapse in civilian morale. And when the bombing of London failed to produce the expected surrender, and the offensive was turned on the big provincial cities, it only served to spread the resolve to hit back. Despite wide-spread damage the raids failed in their intention; heavy wastage in night-flying accidents reduced their effectiveness, and they ceased at last when Hitler ordered the large-scale transfer of units to the east for his impending attack on Russia. But they had meanwhile produced a highly significant by-product in the attitude of the British people to the bombing of Germany. Just as the years of attempted appeasement had had the effect of uniting the country against the Nazis when war finally came, so the blitz created a righteous indignation against the Germans themselves.
On 22nd June 1941, following the German attack on Russia, Churchill clearly foreshadowed a bombing offensive aimed specifically at the German people. "We shall bomb Germany," he said, "by day as well as by night in ever-increasing measure, casting upon them month by month a heavier discharge of bombs, and making the German people taste and gulp each month a sharper dose of the miseries they have showered upon mankind." The powerful emotional force of this argument had overcome the last vestiges of squeamishness.
This is not to attribute the existence and subsequent growth of Bomber Command to a desire for reprisals. With a Germany immune through her vast conquests from blockade, with our land forces weakened and deprived of contact, and with a young and independent air force in being and determined to play its part, a strategic bombing was inevitable. A nation fighting for its existence, facing the alternative of defeat and subjugation, uses whatever weapon comes to hand.
The British people were not hampered or divided by academic considerations and specious arguments about who started it—who started the war, who started unrestricted bombing, who first made war against peoples. They knew who started it. Accustomed to a measure of democracy, they could not believe that Hitler and the Nazis were not thoroughly representative of German desires and German ways. Otherwise the Germans would surely never stand for them. Here was an evil that must be destroyed. If it meant the complete destruction of Germany, so much the better for their children and their children's children.
To understand the bomber offensive, of which the Thousand Plan was the first real manifestation, it is essential to project the mind back to those years. The prevailing mood was on a higher plane than self-preservation, revenge or racial hatred. It was a mood of sacrifice. People felt they were taking part in a crusade. They felt, and were encouraged to think, that they had the whole of subjugated Europe, indeed of the Free World, behind them.
It has been said, as a kind of counsel's plea on behalf of the British people, that they were not properly aware of British bombing policy from 1942 to 1945 and must therefore be acquitted of guilt—if guilt there be—for the destruction of German towns and cities and the sufferings of the Germans. It was the fault of the politicians, of the Service chiefs, perhaps even of a single fanatic. One has heard this sort of thing before, from the other side, about a heavier and more convincing burden of guilt. The truth is that the British people were well aware, through the utterances of Churchill and others, of the plans for the devastation of Germany by bombing. It was a policy of which they thoroughly approved. Indeed, they themselves had demanded it.
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