5. "IF ONLY WE COULD PUT UP A THOUSAND ..."
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Before he took over at Bomber Command, Harris had been out of Britain for eight months leading the R.A.F. Delegations in Washington, arranging and expediting the delivery of planes and other war equipment. It was Saundby's task to brief him on the current situation. Harris was in for some shocks.
"How many bombers have we got?"
"Available daily with crews—about three hundred and seventy-five. That includes the light bombers of 2 Group."
"But we had over three hundred in 1939. Surely we've expanded more than that?"
"We added nearly twenty squadrons last year," said Saundby, "and lost the lot to Coastal Command and North Africa. The only bright spot is that we've now got forty or fifty heavy bombers—Stirlings and Halifaxes."
"What about the Lancaster?"
"We'll be getting the first Lancasters next month. But only enough to equip two squadrons."
"What about Lease-Lend? What about the stuff I've been getting from America?"
"All the heavies are going to Coastal. Most of the medium and light bombers are going to Russia and the Middle East."
It was a dismal situation—two and a half years after the outbreak of war, and the front-line strength of the Command had changed hardly at all. There was actually a reduction in numbers since 1940, with a small improvement in bomb-carrying capacity due to the introduction of new types. Bomber Command remained the ugly duckling of the fighting commands at home, still the smallest of the big three.
When Saundby went on to describe the pressure being applied by the Admiralty and the War Office to divert practically the entire bomber force to tasks for which it was not designed and for which the crews had not been trained, at the expense of the strategic offensive against Germany, Harris exploded. In arguing his case he compared those who advocated the breaking-up of Bomber Command for the purpose of strengthening Coastal and Army Cooperation Commands and the overseas theatres to the amateur Socialist who wanted the total available wealth divided equally among all. Nobody would get anything worthwhile and in a very short time all would be squandered, while our only offensive weapon against Germany would be destroyed. "One cannot win wars by defending oneself," declared Harris. Manifestations of enemy power had of course to be contained, and our sea communications had to be safeguarded, but the application of air forces for defensive purposes should be restricted to the irreducible minimum necessary to survival. However, Harris was basically a man for deeds, not words, and he saw clearly enough that only one course of action lay open to him. Somehow, by the skilful use of the meagre force at his disposal, he had to achieve quick and spectacular results, impressing the War Cabinet with the potential of the bomber, reversing the tide and earning that share of the country's industrial backing without which the bomber force would always remain inadequate.
There was, too, another factor of crucial importance, one that Harris had been in the best possible position to evaluate. America was in the war, and although the Americans had not yet been able to bring their strength to bear in Europe, they were watching the strategic situation keenly. Agreement had been reached to treat Germany as the principal enemy and to defeat her first before concentrating on Japan, but powerful factions in America were opposed to this view. The notion of a combined bomber offensive, American and British, had received a severe jolt from the revelations of 1941. If the British were unable to do their part, for whatever reason, would an American air offensive be worth mounting, with all its risks? Were not the two interdependent? Harris recognised that only the magnet of success could ensure that when it came to it the American bombers were not diverted elsewhere.
In many ways Harris's predecessors had prepared the ground well. Ludlow-Hewitt, C-in-C on the outbreak of war, had developed a large, efficient and essential training organisation within the Command. Peirse, who took over from Portal in October 1940, strongly supported by Saundby, had urged the development and provision of radar aids to navigation and blind bombing, and the first of these, known as "Gee", was coming into squadron service, with an expected useful life of six months. (By that time the Germans would have learnt to jam it.) And the gradual re-equipment of the squadrons with the new four-engined bombers, although putting a brake on expansion during the conversion period, would ultimately double and treble the bomb-carrying capacity. But the effect of all these improvements lay in the future, a future whose very existence was problematical. Unless convincing evidence could be produced soon, the aircraft of the Command were doomed to diversion to a long list of defensive and inessential tasks.
Thus, in addition to the many problems of hitting targets at night, and to the growing threat of unacceptable losses through the expanding German fighter and anti-aircraft defences, there was a serious danger of the citadel of the bomber offensive falling virtually from within.
Harris's predecessors, for all the wisdom of their general planning, had lacked his practical experience of bomber operations. (Harris had been A.O.C. 4 Group in peacetime and A.O.C. 5 Group for twelve months in wartime.) Being mainly theorists, they believed in being careful not to oversaturate targets. Fifteen bombers, it was thought, were sufficient to wipe out a small oil target. Thus numerous targets at great distances apart could be attacked simultaneously, scattering the defences. This was an operational concept which Harris and Saundby believed to be false. Forces of this size could be picked off easily by alert defences. And with the weapons and aids of the time it was almost impossible to over-saturate even the smallest targets. In these opinions they were strongly supported by scientific analysis. A study was made at Bomber Command of the losses sustained during comparable raids on comparable targets in similar weather conditions and this gave a clear indication that the guiding principle ought to be concentration in time and space, concentration of the largest available force on a single target in the shortest feasible time-spread. Anti-aircraft defences could only engage a certain number of aircraft in any given period, and the number of fighters which could be controlled in one area was similarly limited: hence any additional aircraft flying across the area could not be directly engaged. The principle applied to routes as well as target areas. Concentration might also have the effect of confusing enemy defences by making it difficult to select one out of so many targets, and of cluttering up the detection devices and making it difficult to track even one selected target. These were the methods by which Harris hoped to saturate defences as well as targets and reduce bomber losses which otherwise threatened to stifle the bomber offensive quite as effectively as the threatened change in government policy.
The German air blitz on Britain had been mounted from conveniently situated airfields in France and Belgium; this was in accordance with Hitler's plan, and it explained his reliance on short-range bombers. Such bombers were under attack only while over Britain itself. The problem confronting R.A.F. aircraft was vastly more complex. To reach targets in the Ruhr they had to make a sea crossing of at least 100 miles, with another 120 miles across Holland before they entered Germany. These defensive advantages were fully exploited by General Joseph Kammhuber when he took over the newly formed German night-fighter division in July 1940, and he quickly set up three coastal night-fighter zones in northern, central and southern Holland, each zone containing ground-controlled interception by radar for the fighters and radar-controlled searchlights. Then at the end of 1940 he conceived the idea of a second line of defences to guard the Ruhr. An unbroken line of radar zones was stretched right across the Ruhr approaches, compelling R.A.F. bombers to pass through one or other of the zones or embark on a very wide detour. In each zone a night-fighter was waiting to pounce. Immediately behind the radar zones were the searchlights, with which the fighters were expected to cooperate, and the flak. The whole system of second-line defence, which by the spring of 1941 stretched from south of the Ruhr to the Danish border, was nicknamed the "Kammhuber Line."
In the next twelve months the line was extended and deepened until by the time Harris took over at Bomber Command it had joined up with and embraced the original searchlight belts along the road. The whole system was aided and abetted by a network of early warning radar stations along the coast, backed by large central plotting rooms which gave a picture of operations throughout each area. Germany, and especially the Ruhr, now had defence in depth; detours to avoid the Kammhuber Line were no longer possible, and as the bombers flew singly across the contiguous radar zones, one night-fighter after another was vectored into the attack. It was impossible to penetrate into Germany without running the gauntlet of these powerful defences; and all these hazards had to be faced a second time, for a period of at least an hour, on the return flight, with a hundred miles of sea still to cross. There remained the formidable flak, searchlight and local night-fighter defences of the main target area. This was what faced the young airman in Bomber Command as he set out at the beginning of his thirty operational trips over enemy territory.
To some extent Harris was an inheritor in much the same sense as Montgomery was in the Desert. Just as Montgomery had to liberate the Eighth Army from the stranglehold of inferiority complex and the philosophy of retreat, so Harris had to convince his crews that they were not doomed forever to ineffectual sporadic raiding and crippling losses. As in the Desert, the reasons for past failures were clear, and new equipment and techniques were being developed which it was expected would turn these failures into success. Harris had also inherited the new area bombing policy. He had inherited the decision, based on our experience of the German bombing of our cities, to concentrate on incendiarism. (There was a limit to the damage which could be caused by a given quantity of high explosive, but the Germans had demonstrated how fire-raising took advantage of the combustible energy within the target itself.) But unlike Montgomery, who took over a rapidly expanding Army, Harris inherited a force at the nadir of its fortunes over which hung the threat of disbandment.
The most promising frozen asset taken over by Harris was the new radar aid called Gee. Between 100 and 150 aircraft equipped with Gee were ready to start operating, and it was in this new navigational aid that most of the hopes of improving the accuracy of our night bombing rested.1 Harris indeed hoped that with the aid of Gee it would be possible to concentrate large forces of bombers over a single target in a short space of time, saturating the defences. He fired a question at Saundby.
1 For a short description of the Gee system, see Appendix A.
"How many aircraft can we concentrate using Gee in a short raid of fifteen to twenty minutes?"
Although to some extent Saundby held a privileged position in his relations with Harris, he never departed from a few firm principles in dealing with him. One was never to say more, when asked for an opinion, than he could state with absolute confidence. When pressed it was better to say "I don't know" or "I'll find out" than to make any kind of pronouncement without being able to quote chapter and verse. In the case in question, however, Saundby had an expert on his air staff with whom he had worked almost throughout the war, first at the Air Ministry and then at High Wycombe. This was the Command Radar Officer, the tall, youthful, blue-eyed Wing Commander Dudley Saward. Saundby sent for him and took him in to see Harris.
Harris was continually hurling this sort of question at his officers, and Saward was ready for this one.
"If the entire force were equipped with Gee, we could safely put eight bombers across the target per minute. In fifteen minutes, say a hundred and twenty."
"How do you know that?"
"It's a question of accuracy in timing and tracking. Gee will give the crews that."
The Gee campaign opened on 8th March 1942 with the first of a series of attacks on Essen. Because only about a third of the force was Gee-equipped, nothing like the concentration suggested by Saward as feasible was attempted at first. A complementary technique, involving the employment of a flare-dropping force to lead the raid and a target-marking force using incendiaries to follow up, was evolved. In this way it was hoped to produce a concentrated area of fire into which the non-equipped aircraft could drop their high explosives. The limitations of Gee as a bombing device, however, were quickly exposed. In eight major attacks, all involving between 100 and 200 bombers, only one bomb in twenty fell within five miles of Essen.
Essen, with its powerful defences and ubiquitous industrial haze, was of course the hardest of all area targets to find and hit. Better results were obtained during the same period in a similar raid on Cologne, when 120 aircraft delivered their attack in the space of twenty minutes. But even here the damage was too little and too scattered, while the defences remained unsaturated by this scale of attack. Although Gee had many uses it could not solve the problem of target recognition unaided, and the bomber force was still much too small.
Another technique that needed proper developing and testing was that of fire-raising. This was tried out for the first time in force on 28th March 1942 against Lubeck, when 234 bombers devastated large areas of this very vulnerable target. For the second trial a month later another highly inflammable target—Rostock—was chosen. Like Lubeck, although outside Gee range it was an easily identifiable port, not too strongly defended. The town was raided on four successive nights and spectacular damage was done. In both these attacks—Lubeck and Rostock—the area bombing was accompanied by a pinpoint attack on an important factory, a pattern which soon became standard procedure in an attempt to get the best of both worlds.
The success of these attacks inspired enthusiasm in Britain and shocked the Germans. But neither Lubeck nor Rostock, important as they were, was a vital, heavily defended industrial target, central to the German war machine. To those who cast covetous eyes at the bomber force these minor successes in small skirmishes seemed irrelevant. The big industrial centres would be a different proposition. Two more raids on Essen in April 1942, on much the same scale as the raid on Lubeck, failed to achieve concentration, and at Dortmund and Hamburg in the same month results were similar. Bomber Command had still to demonstrate its ability to hit and seriously damage important and well-defended targets in Germany, and it became increasingly obvious that against these targets a force of even 250 bombers was too small to achieve the concentration in time and space necessary to break down resistance and produce a high degree of devastation. Thus Bomber Command remained without a major victory, and to all appearances without the means to achieve one.
Meanwhile in other spheres the situation of the Allies was deteriorating. The entry of the United States into the war, so passionately longed for, seemed at first only to exacerbate the dangers on all fronts. The loss of Malaya and the fall of Singapore in February 1942 were followed by the invasion of Burma, the loss of the Dutch East Indies, and the imminent threat of invasion to Australia, India and Ceylon. Our own offensive in the Western Desert, designed to end the Axis threat to the Middle East, had resulted in dismal defeat. Supplies for Rommel were pouring across the Mediterranean into Tripoli and Benghazi, and there were strong indications of an imminent airborne invasion of Malta. In the first two months of 1942, 117 Allied ships totalling over three-quarters of a million tons were sunk in the Atlantic, the heaviest losses of the war so far, at a cost to the enemy of no more than two U-Boats a month. And worse was to come. Clearly the U-Boat war had to be won. Clearly Australia must be held, virtually at all costs. So must Egypt, Suez, the Levant and the route to the Caucasus. So must India and Ceylon. Demands for the reinforcement of these theatres seemed overwhelming. Meanwhile, on the Russian front, the Germans, profiting from their mistakes of the previous year, were about to develop a concentrated spring offensive, aimed at overrunning the Caucasus, gaining possession of Russia's main oil supply area and simultaneously opening the way for a link-up with the advancing Afrika Korps and for the domination of the entire Middle East. The temptation to apply every unit of air power to hold the enemy at bay seemed irresistible. Above all, the entire strategic situation still turned on the supply of shipping, partly on the rate of replacement, but immediately and urgently on the protection of existing tonnage.
Demands for the reassignment of the bomber force thus became vehement and clamorous. The Admiralty were agitating for their overseas Coastal Commands and for the employment of all other available bombers in the anti-submarine campaign; a most elaborate paper, written by Professor P. M. S. Blackett, head of the Admiralty's operational research section, supporting these proposals with a wealth of statistics, was presented to the War Cabinet by the First Sea Lord. The War Office were pointing to the breakdown of Auchinleck's Desert offensive as evidence of the R.A.F.'s failure to interrupt Rommel's lines of communication, the essential preliminary to success in the Desert war; all available heavy bombers ought to be sent to North Africa at once. The Japanese, too, could only be halted by bombing. The pressure on Churchill was so terrific that he felt compelled, in a cable to Roosevelt of 29th March 1942, to make an attempt to justify the continued existence of Bomber Command as an effective strategic force.1 Everywhere the call was for more bombers—more and more long-range bombers. Harris and Saundby had their backs to the wall.
1 The Second World War, by Winston S. Churchill, Vol. IV (Cassell).
"If only we could put on something really big," said Harris one evening at Springfield to Saundby. At Harris's suggestion, Saundby had gone to live at Springfield so that the two men could be in constant personal touch. "One spectacular raid, big enough to wipe out a really important target. Something that would capture the imagination of the public. " In his restless impatience and frustration Harris could not keep still. "A thousand aircraft!" he said. The thousand bombers over Germany! If only we could do something like that, we might get the support we need."
It was not the first time that Harris had spoken to Saundby in this strain. As usual Saundby listened and said nothing. The front-line strength of the Command was now roughly 400 aircraft. If they threw in their reserves they might mount some-thing like 500 heavy and medium bombers in all. The magic figure of a thousand was well out of reach, quite unattainable. Nevertheless the totals were improving. Saundby made a private resolve to go into the figures more closely next morning and see what could be done.
Saundby's careful, conservative arithmetic, relying on figure from many stations and units, took some days, and meanwhile Harris did not raise the subject again. It was a wild notion, beyond their strength and perhaps impracticable anyway. Meanwhile, as April passed into May, an urgent demand was presented to the War Cabinet for the immediate transfer of 50 per cent of the bomber force, to be divided between the Atlantic, the Middle East and India, further transfers to be made as necessary. Under this continuous pressure from the Admiralty and War Office—whose needs were real enough— the War Cabinet wavered. Even Churchill, hitherto an enthusiastic advocate of the bomber offensive, had had his confidence undermined by the experience of 1941 and had become Bomber Command's severest—and most penetrating—critic. Only his determination to retain an offensive weapon to attack Germany had saved the Command for so long. The time had come when he might no longer be able to carry his colleagues in the War Cabinet with him.
It was a pleasant evening early in May at Springfield when Harris referred again to the need for a single bold stroke. For once there were no visitors, and the party at dinner had been confined to Harris and his wife, Saundby and Paul Tomlinson, Harris's personal aide. It was an informal atmosphere. The three men wore their basic uniform, but Harris had designed a plum-coloured velvet dinner jacket which they wore over the uniform trousers and shirt. If they were called out suddenly to the operations room or for some other emergency, all they had to do was to change their jackets.
The Air Ministry had wanted to put a guard on Springfield, but Harris wouldn't have it. Already, following the raids on Lubeck and Rostock, Lord Haw-Haw was talking about "Hangman Harris", and reprisals, in the form of the "Baedeker" raids on small cathedral towns, had been begun.1 The Air Ministry were afraid that the Germans might put down a parachutist team to get Harris. But Harris didn't want his home to be turned into a fortress. That would have destroyed all the valued relaxations of family life. And in any case he believed that to fortify Springfield was to invite attention. Any commando force would surely look for a strongly defended headquarters for the C-in-Cs residence, crawling with sentries, bristling with ack-ack guns. They would hardly credit that this quiet Victorian facade, half-hidden by cedar trees, lacking so much as a flagstaff, could house the notorious "Hangman". The only defences Harris permitted were a number of rifles with which he and Saundby proposed to protect the women and sell their own lives dearly from the top of the stairs.
1 Hitler spoke of taking Baedeker's guide and marking each British City off the guide-book as and when it was "eradicated".
After dinner on this evening in early May, Harris returned once more to the subject that was tormenting him. "It's the only way we can prove our theories about concentration," he said. "It's the only way to saturate the defences. And if we can't put on something big pretty soon it'll be too late. How long is it going to be before we can muster a really crushing force— something like a thousand?"
"We could do it now, you know," said Saundby.
"But we could."
Saundby had been waiting for this moment. While Harris remained silent, Saundby spoke quietly and without emphasis, letting the words do their work. And from his pocket he produced the figures in support of what he said, figures he had taken great trouble to confirm.
"If we make use of the conversion and training planes, using instructor and if necessary pupil crews, I think we could put out a force of nearly double our front-line strength. Say seven hundred plus. If we can get the War Cabinet to support us, we ought to be able to call on all the bomber aircraft, together with their trained bomber crews, which have been transferred to Coastal Command in the past twelve months. That would add another two hundred and fifty aircraft and bring us within reach of a thousand."
"A thousand, eh."
Harris made no histrionic gestures. Perhaps he had known all along that Saundby would come up with something like this.
The difference was in the set of his shoulders, the expression in his eyes.
"We'll try it. We've got to try it. We'll start working it out tomorrow."
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