Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bomber Command in Crisis, 1941–42 Part III

On March 3, 1941, the German Air Force established a new command system to cope with the British offensive. General Hubert Weise was appointed Luftwaffenbefehlshaber Mitte (air force commander, center) with the task of constructing an effective air defense wall around northern Germany. He centralized air defense by taking over the defensive functions of the Luftgaue (air regions) in northern, western, and central Germany. On May 1, 1941, he set up the first dedicated night-fighter organization under General Josef Kammhuber as Jagdführer Mitte (fighter leader, center) and integrated it with the searchlight and antiaircraft artillery batteries deployed in northern Germany and the Low Countries. A “Kammhuber Line”—generally known in German as Himmelbett (heavenly bed)—was constructed from the Swiss border through the Belgian city of Liège to the German-Danish border, consisting of a series of map “boxes” in each of which a small number of fighters were controlled by a new and improved radar, code-named Würzburg. Only one fighter could be controlled at a time, but once a bomber had been identified, it became with practice easier to direct a fighter to combat position. The night fighters were not yet fitted with AI (Airborne Interception) radar, like British night fighters. But the German version, code-named Lichtenstein, was in the process of development and was finally installed in 1942, though it was not popular with pilots, who assumed the large external antennae would reduce performance. The searchlights were numerous and powerful, but it was found they were wrongly positioned. From mid-1941 they were spaced out at least three kilometers apart to ensure a better prospect of trapping a bomber overhead. The antiaircraft batteries were gradually supplied with the new Würzburg radar, which, like the British experience with antiaircraft radar, proved difficult to operate with poorly trained personnel and was prone to technical problems. As radar-guided fire improved, the batteries found the supply of radar too slow. By the spring of 1942 only one-third of antiaircraft guns had the new apparatus.

The fighters worked in two distinct ways. The first echelon engaged in what was called “dark” night fighting, using radar-equipped ground controllers to guide them to their target; behind the night-fighter boxes was a line of searchlights, soon to have their own radar guidance system, which was used by a second echelon of night fighters for “light” fighting against bombers trapped in a searchlight cone. No dedicated night fighter had been developed before the start of British bombing, but the Junkers Ju88, the Messerschmitt Me110, and the Dornier Do17 (later Do217) were converted to the role in 1940 and formed the mainstay of the force thereafter. The night-fighter force had expanded by the start of 1942 to four groups totaling 265 aircraft, a modest fraction of the total German Air Force establishment. The British tactic of allowing bomber crews to work out their own route to the target meant that the raiding group became spread out in area and time, making it easier for each German night fighter to locate and destroy them in their individual boxes. By September 1941, night fighters assisted by searchlights had claimed 325 enemy aircraft, while “dark” night fighting added a further 50.152 Antiaircraft fire claimed 439 aircraft shot down between January and September 1941, though many of these, if true, were from daylight operations mounted by other RAF commands.

The steady increase in losses might well have pushed Bomber Command to adopt new tactics. The decision to focus on incendiary bombing of urban areas ought to have encouraged a tactical shift to larger and more concentrated raids. The advantages were obvious: the concentration of the bomber stream would mean that the individual fighter boxes in the Himmelbett line and the searchlight wall behind them would be swamped; most bombers would be through the line and to relative safety until they reached one of the inland gun belts. Above all, tight formation and a bomber stream would allow a raiding group to drop all its bombs in a short period of time, maximizing their impact and reducing bomber casualties. Opinion in the Air Ministry and the air staff nevertheless remained divided. Peirse favored retaining the loose, decentralized formations and encouraging the crews to find the best way to their target and back. A tighter formation, it was claimed, would place a heavier burden on pilots, while it would become easy prey for the “dark” night fighters waiting in the Kammhuber Line. Bomber Command had reached an impasse, exaggerating the threat from the German defenses, yet incapable of responding creatively to the new strategic imperatives.

Peirse’s lackluster command finally produced a growing chorus of criticism. The Directorate of Bomber Operations insisted that Bomber Command begin serious operational preparations for large-scale incendiary attacks on enemy cities. Assessments were produced by Air Intelligence of the degree of necessary concentration based on German practice. The Air Warfare Analysis Section tested the possible effects of heavy salvos of incendiaries on a large-scale map of the City of Westminster to see what damage might be done. Around 100,000 incendiary bombs were now considered a suitable load to begin a major conflagration. Zone maps of German cities were drawn up showing the most densely populated residential areas (Zones 1 and 2A), the suburban areas (Zones 2b and 3), and the outer industrial areas (Zone 4), with recommendations to deliver the maximum bomb load on the two central zones where large numbers of workers were packed together and to leave the industrial areas alone. In October, Peirse was sent detailed instructions on carrying out an experimental incendiary raid on a German city. The subsequent raid on Nuremberg on the night of October 14–15 proved an inauspicious start: most aircraft bombed a small town outside Nuremberg and only one Stirling hit targets in the city, injuring six people. No major fires were started.

The most dangerous criticism came from the top. In response to a paper from Portal in late September 1941 spelling out the long-term plan for 4,000 bombers, Churchill replied, “It is very disputable whether bombing by itself will be a decisive factor in the present war. On the contrary, all that we have learnt since the war began shows that its effects, both physical and moral, are greatly exaggerated.” Portal objected that he saw no reason to regard the bomber “as a weapon of declining importance,” but went on to ask Churchill whether the RAF should now be looking for a new strategic concept. Churchill’s reply in early October was equivocal. On the one hand he assured Portal that bombing was still a strategic priority, but on the other he played down the likelihood of a satisfactory strategic outcome:

I deprecate, however, placing unbounded confidence in this means of attack, and still more expressing that confidence in terms of arithmetic. . . . Even if all the towns of Germany were rendered uninhabitable, it does not follow that the military control would be weakened or even that war industry could not be carried on. The Air Staff would make a mistake to put their claim too high.

This was the start of Churchill’s growing disillusionment with what bombing could deliver. His initial enthusiasm had been based on a very limited understanding of what bombers were currently capable of achieving. As a politician he was interested in the prospect that air attack might provoke a political reaction in Germany, but the erratic intelligence available suggested that bombing had done very little to undermine German war willingness, while the clearer evidence nearer home showed that the British political system and social structure had survived intact. Morale was now viewed by the RAF less as a means of political pressure, more as a war of economic and social attrition, or, as Portal put it, “interference with all that goes to make up the general activity of a community.” But to Churchill, who had imagined a more immediate and politically significant effect from bombing, the idea of long-term and unpredictable attrition was an unexciting prospect.

Peirse made one final effort to redeem his reputation and that of his force. On the night of November 7–8, 1941, he marshaled the largest force yet sent out on operations over Germany, some 392 aircraft, including 43 heavy bombers. The weather forecast was poor but he persisted with the operation. The chief target was Berlin, but of the 169 bombers sent there, only 73 reached the capital, where they distributed their bomb loads with very limited effect. Only fourteen houses were destroyed, nine people killed, and thirty-two injured. Other bombers attacked Cologne, which suffered five deaths and two houses destroyed, and Mannheim, where no bombs fell at all. During the night 37 bombers were lost, more than 9 percent of the force; for the task force sent to Berlin the loss rate was 12.4 percent. One squadron recorded in its diary that the mission was “practically abortive.” Berlin was not bombed again until January 1943. Peirse was summoned to see Churchill on the following day and told to suspend the offensive over the winter to conserve his shrinking force. Small raids were carried out when possible, but the assault on morale ordered in the summer of 1941 effectively came to an end with little achieved. The air staff investigated the Berlin raid and concluded that Peirse had been negligent in sending out his force in the knowledge that high winds, storms, and icing would be met by the crews. The decision was taken in December to replace him, and he was finally removed in early January 1942 after Churchill had been shown the documents on the disastrous Berlin raid. On January 8, Peirse was appointed to command Allied air forces in Asia, facing the Japanese. Air Vice Marshal John Baldwin, commander of 3 Group, became his temporary replacement until a new commander in chief was in post.

Bomber Command found itself in a state of limbo in the last months of 1941 and the first two months of 1942. The crews were only too aware of the crisis surrounding their commander in chief and the failures of the force. Over 3,000 had been casualties during 1941. In December the Directorate of Bomber Operations investigated the views of the group commanders about the state of the force and found evidence of a feeling of “hopelessness and ineffectiveness” among the operational units, largely on account of the difficulties in navigating and target marking. When they found a target, the report continued, “they stumbled on it more by luck than judgement.” The overwhelming evidence that British raids were still dispersed and ineffective exposed Bomber Command to close scrutiny by the chiefs of staff. The talk in the interregnum imposed by Peirse’s redeployment was about the possibility of winding up the offensive. In a note on “Use of the Bomber Force” drafted early in 1942, the government scientist Patrick Blackett speculated that with a few more reverses the navy and army might insist on the “dismemberment of the Air Force as a unit.” Sir Stafford Cripps, Lord Privy Seal, told the House of Commons late in February 1942, winding up a debate on the current strategic situation, that bombing strategy was among the things under consideration: “The Government are fully aware of the other uses to which our resources could be put.” The day before this speech the new deputy director of bomber operations, Group Captain Sydney Bufton, fresh from command of a bomber squadron and a champion of concentration and target marking, warned his superior of the situation now faced by the command:

At the present time there is a great deal of criticism of our strategic bombing offensive. This is being voiced not only in Army and Navy circles and in Parliament, but also more generally by members of the public. The criticism cannot be countered by promises of results which we expect to obtain in the future, and rightly cannot be met by evidence of any decisive results which our bomber force has achieved in the past. These results so far have been nebulous, inconsistent and indecisive.

One week before this a new commander in chief had been appointed to Bomber Command—Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris.

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