3. CRISIS FOR BOMBER COMMAND
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When, in September 1940, the Luftwaffe was defeated in the Battle of Britain, the full significance of the victory was not at first comprehended. The diversion of scientific and industrial effort from defensive to offensive channels which might have been expected to follow came slowly. Until, in June 1941, Hitler attacked Russia, few people were confident that the danger of invasion was over. And throughout 1941 the threat from the German submarine and surface raiders to our seaborne supplies dominated the minds of all our leaders. This preoccupation, together with the demands of overseas theatres, meant that the considerable expansion achieved in Bomber Command during the year was entirely leaked away to other tasks.
By the autumn of 1941 a climate of disillusion surrounded the bomber offensive. A statistical analysis of night photographs taken by the bomber crews themselves showed that in raids over the Ruhr, where many of the important targets were sited, not one bomb in ten fell within five miles of its target. From this startling revelation it was clear that small targets of military importance, and even closely defined industrial areas, which our bombers were still confined to, were impossible to hit regularly with existing facilities. This had two major political repercussions. One was the institution, in February 1942, of the area bombing policy, in which aiming points were to be chosen in large built-up areas, and not confined to important industrial targets within those areas. The other was increased pressure from the Admiralty and the War Office for a drastic review of Government policy for winning the war and a rapid reassignment of the bomber force. They argued that it was sheer obstinate stupidity to pursue an offensive that was so tragically wasteful of effort while there was such urgent need for a concentration of air power in direct support of the other Services. "If we lose the war at sea," said Sir Dudley Pound, Chief of Naval Staff, "we lose the war", and this was undeniable. The First Lord of the Admiralty demanded the immediate transfer of six and a half Wellington squadrons to Coastal Command and two further Bomber Command squadrons to Ceylon for long-range reconnaissance work, and warned that these requirements were by no means final. Further bomber squadrons should be thoroughly trained in the technique of homing on to enemy naval forces and of bombing moving targets at sea. These minimum immediate requirements were quickly followed by demands for the establishment of replica Coastal Commands in all overseas theatres and the transfer to them and to Coastal Command at home of further long-range bombers for anti-submarine and reconnaissance duties. Meanwhile the War Office were asking for the transfer of further squadrons to the Middle East for an offensive against Rommel's communications, and to the Far East for the defense of India. In both cases the demands included the specialised training of air crews for the tasks involved. The only possible source of aircraft and crews lay in the further denudation of Bomber Command.
In naval and military circles it was felt at this time that the only well-founded ground of criticism of the higher direction of the war lay in the control and direction of the Air Force.1 Both Pound and Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, urged that it was the province of the Chiefs of Staff to advise on the allocation of aircraft as between the Services in the various theatres and for the bombing of Germany. It was quite unacceptable that the Air Force should continue to decide these allocations more or less independently. All other arms were subject to the overriding direction of the Chiefs of Staff. Why not the Air Force?
1 The Business of War, by Major-General Sir John Kennedy (Hutchinson).
The attitude of the Naval and General Staffs was that the order of priority for the allocation of air forces should be:
1. The fighter defence of the British Isles.
2. The essential needs of the Navy.
3. The essential needs of the Army.
4. Anything left over—long-range bombing.
The Air Staff attitude was that the first two tasks were" essentially defensive while the third did not and could not for a very long time involve major conflict with the chief enemy, Germany. The true function of the heavy bomber was to concentrate on strategic attacks against the heart of the enemy. In so doing it threatened the sources of all enemy strength.
There was, however, yet another argument which militated against Bomber Command's claims. Since Hitler had attacked Russia, and declared war on the United States following the aggression of Japan, the whole war strategy had become much more diffuse. It was very much more difficult to see the bomber offensive as the only possible Allied means of attacking Germany in the foreseeable future, especially in the light of its admitted failures of 1940 and 1941. It was time to end the scattering of bombs across the German countryside and concentrate all our armed forces on fresh strategic conceptions for winning the war.
The crowning humiliation for Bomber Command, in the eyes of its enemies, and even of some of its friends and of the general public, came on 12th February 1942, when the German battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, together with the cruiser Prinz Eugen, passed unscathed through the Channel. Two hundred and fifty bombers, virtually the entire strength of the Command, failed to score a single hit. The fact that the day had been well chosen by the Germans for its appalling weather, and that conditions were hopeless for bombing, was not understood. Nor was it generally known that both battle-cruisers had been damaged, one of them seriously, by mines laid ahead of them by Bomber Command. The plain truth seemed to be that Bomber Command, whose much-advertised destruction of precision targets in Germany at night had been proved to be mythical, couldn't even hit a target 250 yards long in broad daylight on its own doorstep.
A two-day debate on the war situation followed within a fortnight in the House of Commons. In the course of this debate, many doubts were expressed by Members about the policy for the bombing of Germany, and whether the continued devotion of a considerable part of our war effort to the building up of the bomber force was the best use that could be made of our resources. Winding up for the Government, Sir Stafford Cripps, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House, reminded Members that the existing policy had been initiated when Britain was fighting alone against the combined forces of Germany and Italy; a bomber offensive had then seemed the most effective way of taking the initiative against the enemy. With the enormous access of support from Russia, and the tremendous potential of the United States, the original policy was under review. "I can assure the House", he said, "that the Government are fully aware of the other uses to which our resources could be put, and the moment they arrive at a decision that the circumstances warrant a change, a change in policy will be made."
This grave crisis in the affairs of Bomber Command coincided with the arrival, on 22nd February 1942, of Air Marshal A. T. Harris as Commander-in-Chief.
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