Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bomber Command in Crisis, 1941–42 Part I

By the time the July 1941 directive was issued, the war had suddenly changed its character. Heavy German bombing of British cities stopped in early June, and on June 22 as many as 4 million Axis soldiers poured across the Soviet border in the largest invasion in history. That same evening Churchill broadcast to the nation, pledging British support for the Soviet Union against “the bloodthirsty guttersnipe” who had now unleashed war against another suffering people. He announced that he had offered Stalin all technical and economic assistance, but the one military pledge he made was to promise “to bomb Germany by day as well as by night with ever-increasing measure” to give the German people a taste of their own medicine. On July 7, Churchill sent a telegram to Stalin explaining that the best Britain could offer as direct military assistance was bombing; this, Churchill continued, would force Germany to divert fighters to the west, and ease the pressure on the Soviet front. Churchill hoped privately that the new campaign would prompt Soviet bombers to attack Germany from the east: “A lot of German war industry should be vulnerable especially if we are bombing from the other side.” Stalin replied that he would prefer Britain to open a second front in northern France or Scandinavia.

Churchill exaggerated what Bomber Command was capable of achieving and misunderstood the nature of Soviet air strategy, which favored ground support over long-range bombing. But Bomber Command used the German-Soviet war as a way to improve its low political stock. On July 21, 1941, Churchill and Attlee were invited to view a demonstration by the heavy bombers that were scheduled to come into large-scale service over the coming year. The party watched as five heavy four-engine bombers flew past at low altitude: a Short Stirling, an Avro Lancaster, a Handley Page Halifax, and two American bombers promised to Britain under the Lend-Lease scheme authorized in March 1941, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. The party was impressed in particular by the Lancaster, but there were reservations in the RAF about the American bombers with their more limited bomb loads. The political imperative of supporting the Soviet war effort suited Bomber Command in summer 1941 because it gave the command a prominence that its poor operational record scarcely warranted. Churchill needed bombing as something to trade with Stalin. Later in the war, Air Vice Marshal Richard Peck, in a speech surveying the course of British bombing, reminded his audience that in the summer of 1941 the air forces were given the task of supporting Russia by bombing Germany: “Not everyone has appreciated,” he continued, “the extent to which the bomber offensive was applied to aid the Russian armies.”

The political imperative masked the operational reality. On June 22, the night of the German invasion, seventy medium bombers raided the north German port of Bremen; it was covered in haze and the bombing was scattered. The following night sixty-two bombers raided Cologne, where a few bombs fell on the city but there were no reported casualties; forty-one bombers raided Düsseldorf with no clear result; twenty-six aircraft attacked Kiel with little effect and one death. These were no larger than the attacks still being mounted by the exiguous German force left in northern France after the end of the Blitz—raids on Birmingham with 94 and 88 aircraft, on Hull with 78, 64, and 114, on London with 60—and considerably less destructive. Most RAF attacks were still being made on targets on the French coast. On July 7, Churchill complained to Portal that he should stop bombing these Battle of the Atlantic targets and concentrate on “the devastation of the German cities” to take the weight off Russia. The war diary written up at Hitler’s supreme headquarters failed even to mention any of the British raids.

Summer 1941 was not the first time that bombing had been promoted for political reasons, but the fear that Germany might defeat the Soviet Union and turn back to Britain with all the resources of Eurasia at its disposal gave bombing an added urgency. It also made the operational inadequacy of Bomber Command more obtrusive. In early July, Churchill complained to Lindemann, Portal, and the air minister, Sir Archibald Sinclair, that the bomber force was little larger than it had been the year before, though it was supposed to be “indispensable for victory.” High losses and the slow buildup of bomber production had indeed reduced the plans for expansion. There was worse to come. In July 1941, Lindemann asked Bomber Command whether he might investigate bombing accuracy by analyzing photographs taken during operations. This was a project that had only become possible since the early summer. When the war broke out, the RAF had day cameras but none suitable for night photography. Trials were carried out with the standard F.24 camera using a shutter mechanism and a large flash unit released manually through the bomber’s flare chute. When the flare was at maximum intensity, one of the bomber crew had to close the shutter. The result was a complex operation designed to be undertaken at the most dangerous point over the target. Research began on an automatic night camera, but it was not ready until 1942. The force had to make do in 1941 with a simplified camera with no shutter, which produced a poorer image but one regarded as adequate. In December 1940 there were still only thirteen cameras available; Peirse asked for five hundred so that most bombers could carry them. By March 1941 there were seventy-five, by September two hundred. 

Taking an effective photograph was always difficult, with the ground obscured by smoke and the camera confused by flares, gunbursts, and searchlights. Pilots disliked the order to keep a level flight path while the picture was taken. Nevertheless, from June 1941 a growing stream of images became available for the first time, interpreted by a special unit set up at RAF Medmenham. Now that a fuller photographic record was possible, Portal willingly agreed to Lindemann’s request, perhaps not fully aware of what the results might show.

Lindemann instructed a young economist on his staff in the Statistical Section, David Bensusan-Butt, to examine 650 photographs taken from 100 raids between June 2 and July 25, 1941. The report was ready by August 18. The analysis showed that in general only one in five of all bomber aircraft sent on a mission reached within five miles of the assigned target; of those recorded as actually bombing, the proportion was one in four over Germany, one in ten over the Ruhr industrial area, and on moonless or hazy nights one in fifteen. Churchill was alarmed by the revelations: “It is an awful thought,” he wrote to Portal, “that perhaps three-quarters of our bombs go astray.” The RAF response was, not surprisingly, defensive. Portal pointed out that weather over Germany had been very poor in June and July; that the Butt Report covered only one-tenth of Bomber Command sorties; that inexperienced navigators probably took images too long after the release of the bombs (almost certainly the case, given the difficulty of operating the camera and seeing the bomb burst below); and, above all, that German raids tracked over Britain showed only 24 percent of German bombers reaching the target area. Even Lindemann admitted that conditions had not been ideal for photographic analysis in the summer months.128 Portal was no doubt correct to argue that the Butt Report was subject to substantial methodological flaws, but the RAF’s own operational evidence gathered since 1940 had consistently shown a very wide margin of error between what the crews reported and what had actually been bombed. Given Bomber Command’s continued practice of sending raids to two or three cities on the same night, and in relatively small numbers, the aircraft likely to be hitting a particular aiming point in Germany on any one raid would be in single figures.

The Butt Report has generally been regarded as a turning point in the British bomber offensive, but its significance can easily be exaggerated. Peirse had asked the Air Ministry in December 1940 to speed up camera supply so that a proper survey of accuracy and bombing effort could be made.129 Detailed examination of photographic evidence had already been carried out by Bomber Command in April 1941, and again in June, each time showing how overoptimistic were the reports of the crews and how wide the margin of error. Exaggerated reports were common to both sides in the bomber war, but the sober reality was well understood by the bomber crews. Robert Kee, a bomber pilot and future historian, later reflected on what his diary entries from late 1941 showed him:
It read pretty depressingly in terms of successful operations. . . . Here is an attempt to bomb Brunswick, hopelessly dark, bombed some incendiaries at what we hoped was Hanover. Düsseldorf also hopeless, bombed searchlight concentration. Kiel, this is three in succession. Kiel, hopeless again, very bad weather. . . . Mannheim, too much cloud, bombed searchlights.

In October the Operational Research Section of Bomber Command, established at Peirse’s request in September under the direction of Dr. Basil Dickens, reviewed accuracy for the three months following the Butt Report. It was found that the average performance was even worse than feared; only 15 percent of aircraft bombed within five miles of the target point.

In truth, the Butt Report highlighted just one of the many problems facing the force in the late summer of 1941, important though it was. Losses began to increase substantially as the result of stronger German defenses, placing a heavier burden on a training program that turned out a growing number of crewmen with limited understanding of what was required of them. “The one failing of the whole training system,” recalled a rear gunner, “was that we weren’t told more of what to expect. We just learned it strictly from experience.” Peirse told the Air Ministry that up to 40 percent of the operational squadrons’ work consisted of essential additional training, which resulted in regular accidents. Most of the nonoperational flying was done during the day, which also prepared crews poorly for what to expect of nighttime conditions. In August, Bomber Command lost 525 aircraft destroyed or severely damaged (a wastage rate of 13 percent, many lost to accidents), but received only 106 replacements. In the following three months a further 578 aircraft were written off, many again on nonoperational flights. Raids carried out on Berlin for political effect had losses of 30 percent.133 Between July and December 1941 the force showed a steady decline in its capability.

No comments:

Post a Comment