6. IS IT FEASIBLE?
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It remained to be seen whether it was practicable to put so large a force on a single target, in the short space of time necessary if the desired concentration was to be achieved. There was no past experience to call upon. The largest force ever to raid London had been about 500, but this had covered a wide time-spread and achieved no real concentration. Such a scattered attack on a heavily defended target would cause insignificant damage and result in crippling losses. What would be the result of employing pupil crews, supposing they were forced to do so? It was true that, as part of their operational training, pupils were allowed to drop leaflets over France, but this was far removed from attacking a heavily defended target in Germany as members of a pioneering force setting out into the unknown.
It was clear at once to Harris that the risks involved in this operation were appalling. He would surely be the first commander in the history of warfare to commit his whole front-line strength together with his entire reserves and training backing in a single battle. Failure would mean, at the very least, the complete disruption of the training organisation, a halt to any planned expansion and the curtailing of routine operations for weeks or even months. But almost certainly it would mean very much more than that. It would be the Command's last throw. Even their convictions and theories would be finally discredited and the Command would be broken up. They would have committed the most spectacular mass suicide of all time.
Against this it could be said with equal certainty that without some dramatic proof of its potential power, political decisions were about to be taken which would liquidate the force anyway. There was very little to lose and a great deal to gain. Success would mean not only a vindication of their theories and a profound warning to Nazi Germany of what was to come. It would convince public opinion of the overwhelming case for a bomber offensive as Britain's first instrument for winning the war. In this way Harris hoped to silence the objections of political opponents and of the other Services to the development of the bomber offensive, relying on the weight of public enthusiasm to bulldoze the idea through.
First, though, he had to be absolutely satisfied that the raid was feasible. An easily recognisable target was the first prerequisite. It would have to be a coastal city, or a city on an estuary with a good lead-in, like Hamburg. Or a city pinpointed by a winding river, like Cologne. A spell of good weather was another necessity. It would take at least three or four days to get the force together, carry out the raid, and disperse it back to its own airfields. A full moon was desirable, perhaps even essential. Yes, almost certainly essential. Better time the operation for the next full moon period. That was 26th to 30th May. It left about a fortnight to plan and execute the preliminaries to the raid. Just about right. Too long a delay would be bad for security.
The problems of operating so large a force would be greatly simplified by Gee. But none of the conversion and training aircraft was Gee-equipped, and only a proportion of the main force. A similar technique to that used at Lubeck and Rostock would probably have to be employed, Gee-equipped aircraft going in first to mark the aiming-point. This suggested a target within Gee range. The accuracy of Gee was good laterally— the operator could tell exactly what line he was on—but the reading of distance along that line was less reliable. This unreliability increased as the range increased, and would affect even medium-range targets like Cologne. But on the approach to Cologne lay the Rhine, snaking through the eastern outskirts of the city. If a flare-dropping force went in first to mark the way, using Gee, it could be relied upon to track across the city within plus or minus half a mile of its planned course. The release point as indicated by the Gee fix would be less accurate, but if a sighting could be made on the river in bright moonlight, a more accurate final check point could be found. None of this clarity at the point of bomb release would be available in the vast built-up area of the Ruhr.
If Harris had a predilection for any target at all it was Hamburg. It was highly combustible and easily identifiable, but outside Gee range. Essen, which was the biggest military target in Germany, and which Churchill was known to be especially anxious to see heavily attacked, was farther afield IB than Cologne, reducing the Gee accuracy, and was notoriously ' difficult to find. Harris discussed the question of target selection with Saundby, and Saundby sent for his specialist officers, beginning with Dudley Saward. The success of the operation, and to some extent the choice of target, depended on the III progress made with the fitting of Gee.
Saward explained the position to Saundby. Most of the squadron aircraft had been modified to take Gee, but only about half had been fitted. The job was just about keeping pace with deliveries of equipment. Then there was the training of the Gee operators,
"Saward, I want you to do all you can to hurry forward the complete fitting of Gee in all front-line aircraft. How many could you have fitted within say a fortnight?"
"We could have four hundred ready, sir—virtually the whole force."
"What about the training units? Could we equip some of those as well?"
"I'm afraid not, sir. They've never been modified for Gee and it couldn't be done in the time. It's a production-line job. But we could equip the aircraft of the conversion units— Lancasters, Halifaxes and Stirlings. They're modified and it would be a simple matter to fit the Gee boxes." Saward hesitated, then decided to take the plunge. "Is there some special urgency, sir?"
Saundby peered up at Saward over his narrow reading glasses, then took them off and began polishing them in a characteristic gesture. Security was vital and it was important that as few people should be told as possible. Yet there was much to be said for letting Saward, whose drive on the work of the Gee installations could be decisive, into the secret.
"The C-in-C proposes to put out a record number of aircraft shortly in a super raid." He explained the political background, indicating that there would be no worthwhile expansion of the Command if the raid failed. "Success in my opinion will be largely dependent on Gee. In fact without Gee we couldn't do it."
"How many aircraft is it proposed to operate?"
"With the help of the other Commands," said Saundby quietly, "we hope to raise a thousand."
Because of his close personal relationship with his staff officers, Saundby did not need to add that this information was for Saward only. That the Gee-fitting programme would go forward with the right sense of urgency was now assured.
The first successful trial of concentration had been the 120-bomber raid on Cologne in March. Cologne seemed the best bet from the point of view of Gee. And the more aircraft were fitted with Gee, the more sensible it seemed to be to build the success of the raid around it. But Harris, although enthusiastic about Gee as a navigational aid, had little confidence in its suitability for blind bombing. He felt that the proper course was to use Gee to the limit of its range as a navigational device and then identify the target visually in bright moonlight. On this principle Hamburg would be as easy to hit as Cologne. And Harris still wanted to attack Hamburg. But the question of the final choice of target could be left unresolved for the moment. Harris passed it meanwhile to the operational research section at High Wycombe for scientific analysis.
There was, too, another question that Harris wanted his scientists to consider, perhaps the most vital one of all. The greatest danger in operating a mass raid of this kind was collision. The spectre of the collision risk haunted both Harris and Saundby and they badly needed reassurance before committing themselves any further with their plans for the raid.
There were two main theoretical advantages to be derived from the planned concentration in time and space—the compression of the bomb pattern, and the saturation of defences. But it would be quite pointless to succeed in reducing losses from enemy defences if they were simultaneously inflated beyond ordinary expectations by a high collision rate in the congested air space over the target, en route and at the bases. The question of the choice of target, which in any case in the final instance would depend on the weather, was secondary to the collision risk. Harris sent for his chief research scientist, the head of his operational research section, to get an opinion.
Dr. B. G. Dickins, in his middle thirties, jovial and friendly in temperament, had been writing studies of the reasons for bomber losses for nearly two years. He was typical of many scientists in that he did not concern himself with the rights and wrongs of strategic policy. Harris, he knew, was convinced that the war could be won by bombing. Dickins never considered this question seriously. Whether the bomber offensive was right or wrong did not concern him. He was far too busy studying those aspects of it which were susceptible to scientific analysis to worry about the reason why.
It was in 1940, during the German blitz, that Sir Henry Tizard had hit upon the idea of examining the experience of our own bombers over Germany in an effort to translate this into new defensive techniques to combat the German raids* Dickins, then attached to Fighter Command at Stanmore, went to High Wycombe once a month to study raid reports and write appreciations of the cause of our bomber losses. The operational research section at Stanmore was so successful that it was eventually decided to form similar sections at all the main operational headquarters. With his experience of the previous months, Dickins was the obvious choice for Bomber Command. He and his section began at once to analyse all bomber operations, their ultimate purpose being to assist in getting the maximum number of bombers over their targets with the minimum of losses. They had three main sources of information: the sortie raid report, filed by the crews with the help of an interrogating officer after the raid; photographs taken at the time of bombing; and daylight photographic reconnaissance carried out subsequently by aircraft of the P.R.U. Dickins soon became very close to both Harris and Saundby, who sent for him frequently and bombarded him with questions.
Dickins was on leave when Harris asked his question about the collision risk. When he got back he found that his deputy had been sent for and asked how many collisions would occur if 1,000 bombers were put over a target in the space of an hour. The information, as always, was wanted immediately.
Dickins found his staff gathering data that they thought would help them in their calculations. The first thing they asked themselves was—what did they know already? About half the force had been equipped with cameras and photo-flashes, and it was on the basis of pictures taken at the moment of bombing impact that the calculations had been made on the accuracy— or inaccuracy—of our bombing in the previous year, A further study of these and other more recent pictures disclosed that much additional information was available or could be deduced from them. The camera lens was open for a known period, and the photo interpreters were able, by plotting the photographs of the bombing run and the bomb explosion on charts, to pinpoint the bomber's position. They knew, from the sortie raid report, the time of the bombing. They knew the headings from the same source. The speed and height of the bomber were also established at interrogation. Thus from a study of these facts and photographs, available from any raids, they were able to build up a picture of the density of aircraft over a target at any one time. Using this data, and given the number of aircraft due to bomb a target within a specified time, they could estimate the likely spread of the force in time and space and calculate the collision risk.
Harris, hungry for reassurance, was soon on the phone asking for figures. There was no comfort for him. The first rough calculations suggested that, with the data given, the collision risk would be considerable. Harris and Saundby quickly changed their ground. They would have two aiming-points, splitting the force in half, routeing the two halves in on parallel tracks. Better still, they would have three aiming points, and three parallel approach routes. Heights would be staggered. And the time-spread would be lengthened, from sixty minutes to ninety. These revised figures and factors were fed back into the calculating machine of the O.R.S. and a fresh answer obtained. This time it was much more encouraging. Dickins was able to tell Harris that he estimated that there would be not more than one collision over the target per hour.
The staggering of heights, however, automatically posed another question of risk. With the new fire-raising technique there would be thousands of 4-lb. incendiary bombs cascading through the sky as the force crossed the target. What was the risk of losses through aircraft being hit by falling incendiaries and H.E. bombs? Dickins and his staff concluded that this risk, less easy to calculate, was nevertheless a serious one, and aircraft at different heights were given different times for crossing the target. With this precaution, Dickins was able to estimate that the combined additional risks were infinitesimal compared with the certain losses from flak and fighters in an ordinary raid, losses which it was expected would be greatly reduced by the planned concentration.
But the idea of the raid, conceived by Harris and nurtured by Saundby against the trends of political opinion, still had to win political support if it was to develop further. Fortunately, quite outside the question of protecting the bomber force from disbandment, there lay many other factors of importance. Although in theory such an operation appeared to be practicable, the only way to test it was to launch it. The lessons learnt would be of enormous value. There was the inevitable impact on morale throughout Bomber Command. There was the stimulus to the whole war effort that the raid must surely inspire on all fronts. And there were the implications of the raid for the enemy. Harris's intention was to wipe out the selected target. No doubt after a single raid even of this magnitude a town could be patched up, but the impact of such a raid, and the inherent threat of further similar raids, must have a profound effect on Germany's entire strategic thought.
The argument that the bomber offensive was the only means of hitting at Germany, and must remain so for some time to come, still retained great force. A successful raid of this magnitude would surely clinch it. Harris went to see Portal, Chief of the Air Staff, to sound him out. Portal was keen in principle but guarded about the application. "If you can produce a workable plan," he said, "I've no objection. But we shall have to convince the Chiefs of Staff of its usefulness. Such a raid is bound to attract reprisals and we must have the politicians on our side."
The possibility of political opposition to the plan seemed intolerable to Harris. But there was one politician on whose support he felt he could surely count. Churchill in many utterances had committed himself to the increasing round-the-clock bombing of Germany and the German people, and Harris was determined to remind him of it. Chequers was only a few miles from Springfield, Churchill was always interested in what Harris was planning to do, and Harris was fairly frequently invited to dine there. As Minister of Defence Churchill approved all the plans of the Chiefs of Staff, so Harris had the ear of the one man whose support was indispensable. One Sunday evening in the middle of May Harris manoeuvred himself one of these invitations to dinner.
It was still daylight as Harris drove over in his canvas-top Bentley, and it was pleasant to push along through the country lanes, hedged in as they were by the lush greenness of early summer. These sessions with Churchill always lasted far into the night, and Harris drove the car himself rather than keep a driver waiting about for many hours. On these occasions Churchill never once pressed Harris to take any particular line of action, never once made any remark which could be con-strued as an instruction. Although he would often state some personal preference, he never interfered with the running of the air war. This is remarkable in view of the pressure he is said to have applied to leaders of the other Services. No doubt the R.A.F. was fortunate in having a man like Portal at its head. He was much more successful than most other war leaders in handling Churchill. He never took Churchill's grousings too seriously, always avoided getting into direct collision with him, always succeeded in guiding him away from rash or unpromising schemes.
After dinner Harris came to the point. "I'm thinking of mounting a single mass raid, something really big, a force of over a thousand aircraft. I can put up seven or eight hundred The psychological figure of a thousand could be made up by aircraft lent to us for the one operation by Coastal and Army Co-operation Commands."
Churchill's reaction was one of warm enthusiasm. More than anyone he had had to put up with the importuning of the other Services for the dispersion of Bomber Command. More than anyone he had seen from the beginning, even during the Battle of Britain, that only offensive action could win us the war. "The Navy can lose us the war," he had said in September 1940, "but only the Air Force can win it." And his promises to Russia on the effective bombing of Germany, now nearly twelve months old, lay unfulfilled. In naval and military circles he was regarded as a man obsessed with a bombing mania, the man chiefly to blame for the fact that the Navy were still short of long-range reconnaissance aircraft and the Army lacked the support of modern heavy bombers in North Africa.
"What's going to be the target?"
"We shall have to choose one that's easy to identify. I should think Hamburg or Cologne."
"Can't you make it Essen?"
"Too risky. The whole raid might go astray."
"How many are you going to lose?"
It was a question that Harris was ready for. "We plan to concentrate the entire raid into the space of ninety minutes. The idea is to saturate the defences. I shall be very surprised if we lose more than five per cent of the force. Say fifty aircraft and crews."
"I'll be prepared for the loss of a hundred." Churchill was already thinking in terms of the political repercussions of failure.
The two men sat late discussing the raid, and it was three o'clock before Harris drove back to Springfield. "As I drove home," he wrote afterwards,1 "I found myself humming 'Malbrouch s'en va-t'en guerre'. I suddenly realised that that tune always came into my mind whenever I had just left Churchill. The spirit of Marlborough did indeed breathe in his descendent and most emphatically he was going to war." It was here that the temperaments of the two men were most in tune. Both were intent on going to war rather than have it come to them.
1 In Bomber Offensive (Collins).
It seemed to Harris now that he had done all he could to ensure not only that the raid was feasible but that it would not be sabotaged by political objections. There remained the question of the final choice of target. Dickins and his staff had evaluated the results of every raid in the previous twelve months, and they were thus able to compare relative success or failure as between one target or group of targets and another. The day after Harris's visit to Churchill, Dickins appeared in his office with a detailed analysis. Harris waved it aside.
"First, sir, my advice would be to attack a target within Gee coverage. Given this limitation, Cologne is the best." - "And Essen?"
"If you want to make sure of success, keep away from Essen."
"What about Hamburg?"
"Raids on Hamburg have been fairly successful and as a target it's combustible and easy to find. But it's outside Gee range." "I still want to make it Hamburg."
"Stay within Gee coverage," advised Dickins. "Go to Cologne."
Harris decided that the draft operation order would specify Hamburg as the target and Cologne as the alternative, with full route instructions for both targets. But from this point on he had no doubt in his mind to which target, weather permitting, he would despatch the force. He had come to rely on Dickins's flair for finding out before a raid what to expect from it. He had not consulted his specialist officers for nothing. He would despatch the force to Cologne.
The appearance of Hamburg in the final operation order was little more than a security ruse. The number of officers in the know was kept to a minimum consistent with efficiency, but the choice of two widely separated targets, with Hamburg mentioned first, would offer its own protection if enemy intelligence got wind of the raid. In any case, no matter what the strategic or tactical advantages might be, the choice would be decided by what could be seen and what could be hit. As always the final arbiter would be the weather.
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