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But to judge the raid purely on its material and moral results would be to forget that its main purposes, undisclosed in the operation order, were strategic and political—the preservation and expansion of Bomber Command as a war-winning weapon. "The exertions and the risks to which Air Marshal Harris had exposed his command had been justified by the event," comments the official history. 1 "Furthermore, a convincing and practical demonstration had been given of the argument for a great and speedy expansion in the front-line strength of Bomber Command." This was what Harris had been after, and he followed up the raid with the strongest possible representations to the Prime Minister. "The success of the Thousand Plan," he wrote, "has proved beyond doubt in the minds of all but wilful men that we can even today dispose of a weight of air attack which no country on which it can be brought to bear can survive." He called for the immediate return of all bomber aircraft from Coastal Command, the ultimate return of all bombers from the Middle East, the return of all suitable aircraft and crews from Army Co-operation Command, the extraction of every possible bomber from America, an approach to Stalin to transfer his bomber force to Britain and the highest possible priority for the production of heavy bombers at home. With the force envisaged, Harris believed that bombing could win the war, as quickly and as surely as the devastating American area bombing, culminating in the dropping of the atom bomb, was later to precipitate the surrender of Japan.
1 The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany (H.M.S.O.).
Churchill's support of Harris, which was always considerable and always vital, fell short of endorsement of Harris's belief that bombing either could or should be relied upon to win the war by itself. Impressed as Churchill was by the achievement of the Thousand Plan, he saw the growth and development of the bomber offensive as the first essential to victory, but a victory by land armies for whom the way had been prepared. Thus it is possible to argue, since Bomber Command never reached the Air Staff estimate of its required strength, and was therefore never strong enough to win the war by bombing alone, even in conjunction with the Americans, that the raid failed politically and strategically. But Harris's minimum object was the preservation of Bomber Command as a formidable weapon, the first and main source of victory. In this the raid succeeded. Up to this time the existence of Bomber Command as a major strategic force had been in doubt. The arguments went on, but the outcome was never seriously in doubt after Cologne. "My own opinion," wrote Harris afterwards, "is that we should never have had a real bomber offensive if it had not been for the 1,000-bomber attack on Cologne."1 It was in the forging of the weapon that Cologne was a turning point, and it was here that Harris's basic war conception was met—the avoidance of major land campaigns until the enemy was fatally weakened by bombing. This policy was finally endorsed at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943.
1 Bomber Offensive (Collins).
The immediate material and moral results, then, important though they were, were not catastrophic for Germany and the area offensive which followed had disappointing results for some time; but the raid had significant and decisive effects which stemmed naturally from its main purpose, notably in the assumption of an offensive air posture and the forcing of a defensive posture on the entire German air force. And by the end of 1943, with the aid of developments in radar and target marking, a weapon had been forged for the more selective and precise bombing that was often demanded and often accomplished.
In view of the doubts that have since been cast on the value of the bomber offensive, would it have been better if there had been no Thousand Plan, better if the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command had been a lesser man than Harris, not prepared to take such a fearful risk with his forces? In answering this question one turns inevitably to the strategic bombing surveys that were compiled immediately after the war, and to the four volumes which comprise the official British history of the strategic air offensive. From these we learn that the bombing of Germany did little to reduce the production of war material prior to about July 1944. This was for two reasons. First, the main weight of the air offensive was not brought to bear until 1944; of the total tonnage dropped by the R.A.F. and U.S.A.F. in the European war, 83 per cent was dropped after 1 January 1944, and of all tonnage dropped on Germany herself, 72 per cent was dropped after 1st July 1944.1 So it is not surprising that the effect was hardly felt in earlier years. The effort was too small. Secondly, as already stressed, Germany had such enormous idle resources on which to draw; to appreciate Germany's vast untapped industrial power it is enough to record that in aircraft, tanks, trucks, self-propelled guns and many other types of armaments, British production alone exceeded German from 1940 to 1942. When, under Speer, Germany began to mobilise her resources and put her economy on a war footing for the first time, an inadequate bomber offensive was quite unable to keep pace with the rapid industrial expansion inside Germany. Even so, as soon as the air war was launched on its full and final scale, the effect was immediate and widespread.
1 United States Strategic Bombing Survey.
Most big cities took about three months to recover to 80 per cent production after a heavy raid and six months for a return to 100 per cent. These figures have often been cited to disparage the bombing offensive, to show how quickly German industry shook off the effects of our bombing; but in retrospect they seem impressive enough. Some cities indeed never returned to 100 per cent at all. The figures do not take into account the diversion of productive and military effort from other areas for repair work—which was certainly enormous—and they quite ignore the fact that but for our bombing the production of armaments in these cities must otherwise have reached 150, 200 and even 300 per cent of the original figures under Speer's expansion schemes.
An impression, exaggerated if not actually falsified, has been built up over the years of German resilience and increased productivity under bombardment. Certainly the ability to take punishment and to come back with renewed energy was astounding and admirable. There is no intention to belittle this. But the stamina was not inexhaustible. Every bomb that fell on German cities from 1942 on widened the crack in morale, drove in the wedge between the German people and their leaders. Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Allied bombing lay in the way it discredited the Nazis and their propaganda, bringing home to millions the tangible proof of Nazi miscalculation and of Allied power. Herein lies the reason for the pathological hatred of our bombing by the Nazi regime and their desperate efforts to present it as pointless and of no military value. The violence of their reaction gives the vital clue to its insidious cumulative effects: they have protested too much. The bombing was a cancer that the Nazis could not isolate; no amount of propaganda could explain it away. "If I could hermetically seal off the Ruhr," wrote Goebbels in his diary, "if there were no such thing as letters or telephones, then I would not have allowed a word to be published about the air offensive. Not a word!" That was how much it hurt the Nazis. It was the one thing they had failed to take properly into account. The entry in Goebbel's diary referred to earlier, that we were striking at Germany's weakest point, survives and rings true.
By the beginning of 1944, even before the invasion of Europe, three-quarters of the German people regarded the war as lost, bombing having played a major part in producing a conviction of Allied superiority, even though up to that time it had had only a limited effect on production. It may be, after all that has been said to the contrary, that it is here, in the field of morale, that bombing scored its greatest victory. "Bombing," said the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, "appreciably affected the German will to resist. Its main psychological effects were defeatism, fear, hopelessness, fatalism, and apathy. It did little to stiffen resistance through the arousing of aggressive emotions of hate and anger. War weariness, willingness to surrender, loss of hope in a German victory, distrust of leaders, feelings of disunity, and demoralising fear were all more common among bombed than unbombed people." Here was one of the great imponderables, whose effect on the disintegration of the German war effort, at home and at the front, defies scientific analysis and can never be accurately assessed.
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In its early stages, up to the time of Cologne and well beyond, the British people identified themselves with the bomber offensive, recognising as they did so that they were making a Hobson's choice. The air was the only element where we could get to grips with Germany; bombs were the only things we could hit back at the Germans with. The shrewdness and resolve of our air leaders, the strength and quality of our aircraft industry, the skill and courage of our aircrews—these were the answer to criticisms that we were leaving Russia to fight the Germans virtually alone. This perhaps explains the disappointment still felt at the allegedly modest results of that offensive compared with the extravagant hopes held out for it. It should be added that in espousing this weapon they fully expected powerful German retaliation in kind, and that they backed themselves to trade punch for punch and rely on their own stamina to last the longest, never perhaps suspecting that German resilience might equal or even surpass their own. Then, some time in 1943, with their free speech, critical attitude towards Government and sympathy for the under-dog, together with a natural human amnesia about pain and injury, moral and physical, they moved into a climate in which it was possible to feel sorry for the Germans. The blitz was forgotten, the V-weapons were as yet unknown and the whole question of the moral rectitude of a bombing campaign on industrial cities was raised again and again. It is true that the Government's most vociferous critics were often people of pacifist tendencies, but it is also unfortunately true that the questions asked were seldom answered honestly and fearlessly. Those, like Harris, who did answer them honestly and fearlessly embarrassed the Government, who, with one eye on world opinion and the other on minority opinion at home, and strangely unsure of themselves, preferred at this stage to hide behind euphemisms and evasions. Even Churchill, whose earlier statements and forecasts could have left the British people in no doubt where they stood on the bombing of Germany, was silent. This was a serious mistake, one that we are still paying for. As Harris said repeatedly at the time, it was the Government's responsibility to keep the case for the bombing of Germany and the Germans firmly and clearly in the public mind, and not smother it with specious jargon about military targets, thus letting it go by default.
Harris practised what he preached by keeping his own Command well informed on this point. In an official publication called the Bomber Command Review, published quarterly, the following appeared in mid-1942:
Our bombers now have two main tasks:—
(a) to destroy the enemy's ports, ships and the mainspring of his offensive against our ocean convoys.
(b) to inflict maximum damage on German and German-controlled war industries.
In the course of such operations it is now part of our policy to create havoc in those German towns and cities which house the workers on whose efforts the Nazi war machine is dependent.
The precedence of the two main tasks is worth noting. In this period, more operation and more bomb tonnage was still being directed against naval than industrial targets; the defeat of the U-Boat remained the first charge on all our resources. But the crux of the policy statement lay in the qualifying sentence at the end.
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War has its own evolution: an early operation cannot necessarily be compared with a late one. Yet a comparison with the atomic attack on Hiroshima must be faced. The raids have obvious similarities. The object of the Thousand Plan was frankly stated—to destroy the city of Cologne. That the expected scale of destruction was not achieved is beside the point. Undoubtedly Harris believed that in mounting the raid he was aiming what was fundamentally a military as well as a political blow. But there was the tangible hope, expressed by Harris himself and transmitted to the crews at briefing, that the raid might precipitate a German surrender. "At best the result may bring the war to a more or less abrupt conclusion . . ." wrote Harris in his personal message to his group and station commanders just before the raid. This can only be interpreted as an intention to terrorise and intimidate the enemy into giving in, an intention surely the same as Hiroshima. It is pointless to deny it, and a great deal of harm has been done in trying to evade the issue. Cologne was conceived in the heat and fear of a struggle for survival that was both national and individual and yet transcended the bounds of both, a world-wide struggle against an evil tyranny, with the fingers of our enemies at our throat. To justify it, and indeed the whole conception of area or so-called terror bombing, it is necessary to put the clock back to 1939, 1940 and 1941, as well as 1942, as has been attempted earlier in this book.
The Thousand Plan stands as the most portentous air raid in history before Hiroshima. Its exact relation to Hiroshima is harder to define. Cologne was demonstrably necessary for the easing of the German stranglehold on all fronts and the forging of a war-winning weapon; the same cannot be said of Hiroshima. With the atom bomb, too, there is the question of the genetic aftermath. But we believed initially that we had killed at least 20,000 people in Cologne, perhaps many, many more. Five weeks afterwards the Ministry of Economic Warfare gave the figure as from 1,000 to 6,000. There was incredulity and even disappointment when neutral sources gave the figure as under 500. This seemed a perfectly natural reaction at the time. In such a raid it was of course accepted that there must be many thousands of maimed or injured. The truth, unpalatable though it may seem when quoted out of context, is that we would have been well content to stop the war that night by the complete destruction of Cologne and its people. Indeed we would have been jubilant. The end would have justified the means.
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Area bombing on a vast enough scale could certainly have finished the war. But the lesson of Cologne was that to defeat Germany by this means alone was beyond our power, anyway up to the end of 1944. Long before that, political ends, for which wars are fought, had demanded the occupation of territory, and it might have been disastrous if land forces had been sacrificed earlier to provide a bigger bomber offensive. (The land situation was disastrous enough as it was.)
It was such an enormous task to win a war against a great industrial nation by area bombing with the weapons available up to mid-1945 that both the U.S.A.F. and the R.A.F. tried at various times to find a short cut by attacking selected industries. When they had a big enough bomb, the Americans also plumped for area bombing; belief in it had its final enunciation at Hiroshima.
What, then, did Cologne lead to? What did the bomber offensive really achieve?
After the blitz on Britain, the bulk of the Luftwaffe was transferred to the Russian front. By concentrating their forces in this way the Germans were for a long time able to achieve air superiority almost anywhere; they were able to assemble a force of 2,750 aircraft for their Eastern offensive in the summer of 1942. This force, substantially weakened later by transfers to the Mediterranean, was fatally restricted both in numbers and potential by the new major commitment which appeared with Cologne—the defence of Germany itself.
During 1942, German night-fighter defences in the West increased by almost exactly 100 per cent, while the first-line strength in the East fell below 2,000. Then, from early 1943 until D-Day, the combined Anglo-American bomber offensive became the dominating factor in the air war. It forced the reduction of the German air force in the Mediterranean to a point at which its influence on operations became negligible, it forced the transfer from Russia to Germany of single- and twin-engined fighter units at the very moment when the growing strength of the Soviet air force demanded a stiffening of German fighter opposition. Above all, it forced a changeover in aircraft production from bomber to fighter, from offensive equipment to defensive, which altered the whole character not only of the German aix force but of the entire German prosecution of the war. Germany was forced to abandon her strategic plan in a vain attempt to meet our own.
This concentration by the Germans on the defensive in the air did not save the situation for them. On the contrary, it led to the complete defeat of the German air force, and it was German impotence in the air that made possible the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944.
The battles of Stalingrad and El Alamein have been rightly emphasised as two great turning points of the German war, the one on the Russian front, the other in the Middle East. But there was a third water-shed in the same period, this time in the West, equally emphatic if not so freely recognised. This was Cologne.
In spite of the valuable confirmation the raid gave of the theories propounded by Harris and Saundby, it did little to solve the problems of a bomber offensive. It was far more fundamental than that; it began then. The struggles for support, the clashes of opinion, the diversion to other tasks, continued and with them all went an unceasing battle for tactical, technical and scientific supremacy over the German defence mechanism. But the combined air offensive was on.
"At the beginning of the war," said a paper prepared by the German air historical branch dated 6th October 1944, "the operations of the German Air Force determined the character of events. . . . The enemy, however, exploiting the experience gained in the first years of the war, built up a strong air force suited for both strategic warfare and for ground support operations and thereby achieved the supremacy which facilitated his great successes in the West." The bomber offensive must be seen as the foundation of victory in the battle for air superiority, the decisive element of World War II.
Had the V-weapons not been largely stillborn through Allied bombing, a situation might have arisen in which the whole Allied effort in the West would have been directed towards checking these weapons. The result could have been the regaining of air superiority by the Germans, which would have meant the certain failure of the invasion.
"Allied air power," concluded the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, "was decisive in the war in Western Europe. Hindsight inevitably suggests that it might have been employed differently or better in some respects. Nevertheless, it was decisive. . . ."
The official British history of the strategic air offensive against Germany, after nearly a million words of closely reasoned argument and detailed appendices, reached the same conclusion. ". . . both cumulatively in largely indirect ways and eventually in a more immediate and direct manner, strategic bombing, and also in other roles strategic bombers, made a contribution to victory which was decisive. Those who claim that the Bomber Command contribution to the war was less than this are factually in error."
This was the weapon, the decisive weapon, that was forged that night over Cologne.