Defending Bomber Command

May 1, 2007 by David Bashow

Clockwise from top: A Halifax bomber crew poses for a photo during the late stages of the war; a Halifax B. Mk. I of 405 Sqdn.; the bomb-battered town of Cleve, Germany; a Canadian crewman stands beneath a Wellington bomber. [PHOTOS: HALIFAX RESTORATION TEAM, TRENTON, ONT.; CANADIAN FORCES—PL10457; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—38662; CANADIAN FORCES—PC2475]

Clockwise from top: A Halifax bomber crew poses for a photo during the late stages of the war; a Halifax B. Mk. I of 405 Sqdn.; the bomb-battered town of Cleve, Germany; a Canadian crewman stands beneath a Wellington bomber.
PHOTOS: HALIFAX RESTORATION TEAM, TRENTON, ONT.; CANADIAN FORCES—PL10457; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—38662; CANADIAN FORCES—PC2475

In the interest of adding to the public debate over the Allied strategic bombing campaign of World War II, we present the following viewpoint by David L. Bashow who has received positive reviews for his book No Prouder Place: Canadians and the Bomber Command Experience, 1939-1945 (Legion Magazine, Off The Shelf, May/June 2006). As well, the author has written extensively in books and select periodicals on a variety of defence, foreign policy and military history topics. A former Canadian Forces fighter pilot, he is the editor of the Canadian Military Journal and an adjunct professor of history at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.

While it may appear unfashionable in today’s world, I believe a society needs its heroes, and no element of society more so than its armed forces with its examples of courage and honour to inspire.

War is a necessary evil, and hopefully an option of last resort, but I believe that a nation needs to be reminded from time to time that there will be instances when its citizens need to be prepared to fight–to take a stand for the values in which we believe and hold dear. During the 1930s and 1940s, Nazism was an obscene blight upon humanity, and it needed to be eliminated as expeditiously as possible, and by whatever means necessary.

The window of opportunity for paying proper tribute and for acknowledging our World War II veterans is rapidly closing. With these thoughts in mind, particularly in light of the recent explosion of negativism with respect to the
WW II strategic bombing offensive, I believe it is time to comment in detail on the rationale for and the results obtained by the bombing campaign.

With respect to this massive effort, various individuals, for equally various reasons, have seen fit to adopt a selective culling and manipulation of historical facts related to the bombing, marginalizing its impact as a war-winning contribution and denigrating the conduct of the participating aircrews, in short, branding the bombing as immoral and unnecessary.

However, I firmly maintain that the results of the Allied bombing were much more significant, both in terms of the direct and indirect effects achieved, and in bringing the war to a successful conclusion than has been previously broadly acknowledged. I also believe it is essential to understand that the historical decisions and actions that resulted from those decisions cannot be viewed through the moral lens of present day sensitivities. One must judge what was undertaken within the context of the times, and based upon the information and planning considerations that were available at the time. Otherwise, historical accuracy may well be trumped by political correctness, and hindsight, after all, is invariably 20/20.

In many, many respects, the new Canadian War Museum is an outstanding tribute to Canada’s proud military heritage. However, when so much military history needs to be acknowledged by an institution, there is always a danger of oversimplification (At War With The War Museum, November/December). That, I fear, is what happened with respect to coverage of the WW II Combined Bomber Offensive, in particular the display panel with the title AN ENDURING CONTROVERSY and the subtitle Strategic Bombing.

While the museum correctly notes the commitment of many resources inside the Third Reich to defend against the bombing threat, it, in my view, completely misses the point with the following misleading and simplistic generalization: “Mass bombing raids against Germany resulted in vast destruction and heavy loss of life. The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested. Bomber Command’s aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead, and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war.”

Unfortunately, this particular representation serves as a significant focal point summary or balance sheet of the campaign, becoming, in effect, Bomber Command’s enduring legacy within the museum. Additional citations only serve to highlight moral, humanitarian conclusions that largely ignore the strategic and military value of the results obtained by the bombing.

Just exactly what is the controversy surrounding the bombing campaign, and why has it become an issue? For WW II, the controversy started near the end of the war, through a lot of misinformed reporting of the late-war city bombings, particularly the bombing of the German city of Dresden on Feb. 13-14, 1945. According to historian Frederick Taylor, a lot of the disinformation associated with those raids, including grossly inflated civilian casualty figures of up to 1,000 per cent, originated in Josef Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, fed through the neutral countries to Allied news agencies.

More recently, Nazi sympathizer and Holocaust denier David Irving added further fuel to the flames, as did the Death by Moonlight episode that was part of the highly controversial series The Valour and The Horror, a production that was condemned by veterans groups after it aired on CBC television in the early 1990s. To add to this, the noted Canadian-born economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, who had been a member of the Allied Strategic Bombing Survey Team after the war, later vaguely reversed his former ‘full up’ agreement with the survey’s findings, declaring late in life and well after the fact, that he did not feel the bombing had been as effective as previously thought.

Thus, in the words of noted British historian Richard Holmes: “Many survivors have paid a high price in lost health and happiness, made worse by the denigration of their efforts by critics, ranging from the morally fastidious, through those who supported the campaign until they saw what it had done and then wished to distance themselves from it, to those with a political axe to grind. Like the firestorms that were the most dreadful expression of the bombing, condemnation of the campaign has fed upon itself until the flames of cant and the smoke of hypocrisy have obscured its many accomplishments, not least the saving of countless Allied soldiers’ lives.”

Much more recent scholarship from the likes of Richard Overy, Frederick Taylor, Robin Neillands, David Hall, Chester Wilmot and Holmes, among many others, including significant voices and scholarship from inside Germany, has credibly and effectively challenged the critics and the naysayers in regards to the effectiveness and morality of the campaign through the reassessment of archives and other primary source material. However, there are still those who do not want to believe what actually occurred, to ignore the new scholarship or to pursue their own agendas regardless.

The Allied bombing of the Third Reich and the other Axis nations was very much in keeping with Britain’s overall peripheral war strategy. It took the offensive to the enemy from the war’s early stages, demonstrating to friend and foe alike that Britain and the Dominions did not intend to acquiesce to the totalitarian regimes. It provided a ‘poor man’s second front’ to the beleaguered Soviets, when no other major commitment, such as a premature land campaign, could be initiated.

Readers should note that this issue was particularly germane, since in the early 1940s memories of the wholesale carnage exemplified by the Western Front of 1914-17 were still painfully fresh. And although the final year of WW I (1918) was much more fluid and dynamic, people dreaded the prospect of seeing another situation involving massive land armies deadlocked in a bloody stalemate. However, the Soviets were lobbying hard for some form of offensive relief, and even the Americans, who had agreed to a ‘Germany first’ war priority, were particularly anxious to get the European war over with as quickly as possible, and then concentrate Allied efforts against the Japanese in the Pacific.

There was significant pressure to ‘fast track’ an invasion of Northwest Europe, long before the British and Dominion forces felt they were ready for such an undertaking. Therefore, the bomber offensive was, in many ways, the ultimate manifestation of a ‘guerrilla war’ strategy, attacking the enemy through its peripheries, such as through its industrial production capacity, when massive, head-on confrontation was still not a viable option.

The bombing offensive also dealt telling blows to the enemy’s economic and industrial infrastructure, forcing an exceptionally resource-intensive decentralization of its war industries, and that impact was huge, as was tying down massive amounts of manpower and material just to honour the threat. At least 900,000 men, plus a substantial number of women and youths, were required to run the anti-aircraft defences alone by 1944. By then, the defence of the Reich demanded 81 per cent of Germany’s fighter aircraft resources, nearly 60,000 pieces of versatile field artillery that could have otherwise greatly aided their land forces, one-fifth of all ammunition produced, and a full third of the output from the vital precision optics sector of manufacturing.

The offensive goaded the Nazis into massive and largely inconsequential retaliation campaigns, such as the V-1 and the V-2 rocket programs, while other potentially war-winning initiatives, such as a timely concentration on the jet and rocket fighter programs, were marginalized. Decentralization led to massive inefficiencies, but also to tremendous additional strains upon an already overburdened and vulnerable transportation network, worsened by the resulting requirement this policy direction placed upon the need for petroleum products, particularly after the Allies started to treat oil as a high priority target in 1944.

It also forced the Nazis to de-emphasize some really troubling initiatives that held great developmental promise. These included their nuclear, biological and chemical warfare programs, as well as the timely completion of a new series of U-boats, especially the blue-water Type XXI, which still could have wreaked havoc upon Allied shipping lanes, had they been floated in significant numbers prior to the end of the war in Europe.

Finally, the bomber offensive paved the way, through destruction of the enemy air defences, oil resources, and transportation networks, for a successful invasion of Germany through Northwest Europe in 1944.

The bombing destroyed virtually all of Germany’s coke, ferroalloy and synthetic rubber industries, 95 per cent of its fuel, hard coal and rubber capacity, 90 per cent of its steel capacity, 75 per cent of its truck producing capacity, and 70 per cent of its tire production. It also generated huge aircraft and armoured vehicle production losses.

While Sir Arthur Harris, who was Bomber Command’s Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief for the majority of the campaign, did initially resist a concentration of forces against the oil targets, to the exclusion of what he sincerely believed were more viable and beneficial bombing objectives, he eventually supported the campaign vigorously. In some cases, the Bomber Command contribution to the oil campaign actually eclipsed the American efforts in that direction. For example, during the first four months of 1945, Bomber Command dropped 181,000 tonnes of bombs on the Reich, one-fifth of the aggregate for the entire war. And a full 47,510 tonnes (26.2 per cent) were devoted to oil targets. The resultant shortages not only curtailed combat operations, but also drastically reduced the amount of fuel available for training.

Detractors of the campaign continue to suggest that the bombing had very little effect until the very late stages of the war, offering that production of fighter aircraft and tanks actually increased in 1944 and 1945. However, these people forget that the German economy and its war production industrial output was, under Hitler’s orders, proceeding at a relatively sedentary pace until the nation went to a 24/7 ‘Total War’ footing after their disastrous defeat at Stalingrad early in 1943.

This time frame is coincidental with the onset of the Combined Anglo-American Bomber Offensive. The mind boggles at what the Germans might have been able to accomplish, had they not been forced to honour the bombing threat, and had they had unfettered use and control over their production facilities, and unrestricted access to their transportation networks and systems. The increases in production were borne largely upon the backs of millions of slave labourers, dragooned from the occupied territories, and quality control suffered dramatically in the war’s late stages, due to passive resistance and deliberate slowdowns wherever possible from this unwilling workforce, and also due to an acute shortage of strategic materials brought about by the bombing. At any rate, the point is moot, for without the fuel to power them aloft or into battle–thanks to the emphasis placed upon bombing petroleum resources from 1944 on–those extra tanks and fighters were useless.

The campaign was also very successful in mining the western Baltic, forcing the German navy to then operate virtually exclusively out of the eastern Baltic, and requiring them to garrison 40 divisions to secure and protect the surrounding land mass in western Latvia, the Gulf of Danzig, and East Prussia during the latter months of the Soviet advance. In the end, this tied down a full third of the forces available to fight the approaching Red Army, and these forces contributed virtually nothing to the final defence of the German homeland.

That the bombing caused massive civilian casualties is undeniable. I maintain that approximately 593,000 civilians perished in the Greater German Reich alone as a result of the bombings, consisting of 410,000 German civilians, 23,000 non-military police and civilians attached to the German armed forces, 32,000 foreigners and prisoners of war, and 128,000 displaced persons. However, while these numbers are large, they pale in comparison to the genocide perpetrated upon the peoples of Europe and Eurasia by the Germans and their proxies. As to a recurring argument that 75 million Germans never wanted Hitler’s war, I can respond by saying that that is of little consolation to the ghosts of the millions systematically exterminated in the Nazi death camps.

German public morale was certainly high for the first three years of the war, when German forces were having their way with most of Europe and Eurasia. By contrast to the Allied bombing, Great Britain alone lost roughly 65,000 civilians due to aerial bombardment during the war, approximately 43,000 of which occurred during the Blitz of 1940-41.

A major reason the British casualty total was not greater is that the Allied bomber offensive forced the Germans to concentrate on the majority production of defensive, fighter-type aircraft to counter the bombing threat, and they then became unable to generate a significant late-war long-range strategic bombing force of their own. Another reason is that the industrial bombing attacks of 1943 through 1945 greatly diminished the anticipated effectiveness of the V-1 and V-2 rocket programs, and thus, the number of civilian casualties.

However, let there be no doubt. There is ample evidence to believe that Germany would have had no scruples about bombing Britain to dust, had the means been available to them. The emphasis upon fighter production for the defence of the homeland also minimized the air support available to German troops at the fighting fronts. Thus, without the Allied bombing, German forces would have had much greater protection, and Allied forces would have been subjected to much more German bombardment.

With respect to a frequently recurring criticism that an inordinate percentage of war resources were expended by Bomber Command, leading authority Richard Overy maintains that percentage was actually quite modest. “Measured against the total for the entire war effort (production and fighting), bombing absorbed seven per cent, rising to 12 per cent in 1944-45. Since at least a portion of bomber production went to other theatres of war (and other commands), the aggregate figures for the direct bombing of Germany were certainly smaller than this. Seven per cent of Britain’s war effort can hardly be regarded as an unreasonable allocation of resources.”

Unquestionably heavy losses were endured by the Anglo-American aircrews that prosecuted the campaign, 81,000 of whom perished aboard 18,000 aircraft lost from all causes. The Bomber Command share was 55,573 airmen aboard 12,330 aircraft, of which 8,655 went down over Germany, Italy and Occupied Europe. The fatal casualty cost to Canada was nearly 10,500 aircrew members of the Royal Canadian Air Force in Canadian squadrons and RAF squadrons, as well as a substantial number of Canadians actually serving as members of the Royal Air Force, whom everyone tends to overlook.

In May 1943, operational bomber tours were codified at 30 operations for a first tour with the main force, followed by a rest from combat of approximately six months, then a second operational tour of no more than 20 additional operations. Tour lengths were designed to provide a sheet anchor for morale, and some hope for survival under very arduous circumstances. In fact, they were very clinically designed to offer a “50/50 chance of survival,” predicated upon a loss rate of 2.4 per cent per raid, but only for the first tour of operations. As it materialized, Bomber Command’s overall wartime loss rate averaged 2.58 per cent per raid, which almost guaranteed that “50/50 chance” of survival for 30 operations.

The Canadian bomber aircrew experience is considerably more upbeat, due in no small measure to the fact that the bulk of Canadian Bomber Command participation occurred post-Normandy, when the bombing was at its most intense but losses were at their lowest. Still, nearly 33 per cent of the Canadians who flew operationally within Bomber Command became casualties, and over one in four became fatal casualties.

Moral issues aside, even the German camp has long acknowledged that the area bombing policy, as it was conducted during WW II, was entirely legal. In fact, it has only been formally legislated against since August 1948, when the Red Cross Convention on the Protection of Civilians in Wartime was drafted in Stockholm and signed in Geneva early in 1949. And in reality, full legal ratification and recognition of that initiative did not occur until decades later, when the first protocol to the fourth Geneva Convention of 1977 expressly forbade deliberate military attacks upon civilians.

Civilian casualties, many of whom were undeniably innocent, were an inevitable result of the bombing campaign, of which the partial and publicly declared mandate was to de-house the enemy industrial worker population and to shatter their will to wage war. Indeed, from 1943 onwards, in Sir Arthur Harris’s own and very public words, as agreed upon by the British and American governments: “The primary objective of Bomber Command will be the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial, and economic system aimed at undermining the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”

One must also realize that while the deliberate slaughter of the German workforce was never mandated, collateral damage was certainly anticipated and it was understood there would be civilian casualties.

The destruction of residential areas was intended to make it extremely difficult for that workforce to remain on the job. The western propensity for building residential areas around industrial facilities inevitably produced further casualties.

This reality was further exacerbated by the fact that Bomber Command, as it operated during WW II, was ‘a blunt instrument’ with only very limited specialist precision bombing capabilities. Even at its technological peak, Bomber Command lacked the overall and widespread surgically precise targeting capabilities of today’s weapons platforms. In short, collateral damage to civilians was considered a necessary adjunct to the bombing. The totalitarian regimes had provided many examples of civilian area bombing prior to the commencement of the Combined Bomber Offensive in 1943: Guernica, Nanking, Warsaw, Rotterdam, London and Coventry all spring readily to mind.

Detractors of the campaign also erroneously suggest that the Allied governments were duplicitous in their portrayal of the bombing campaign to their citizens. In fact, public opinion polls and even propaganda posters of the period reinforce that those citizens were made fully aware of the intentional bombing of Germany’s industrial cities, and they confirm that the bombing had widespread public support. Indeed, there were some naysayers, particularly early in the bombing campaign, and they included Cosmo Lang, the early-war Archbishop of Canterbury, but even he eventually came out in favour of the bomber offensive. Their numbers were always very much in a minority.

Other persistent myths have dogged the strategic bombing debate. Among them:

1. The bombing of Dresden on Feb. 13-14, 1945, was a barbaric and pointless act of destruction against a beautiful, cultured city far removed from the war effort.

In fact, Dresden was an armed camp, a vital communications and transportation hub, and an industrial centre of significant proportions, possessing at least 127 factories engaged in war production, including the massive Zeiss-Ikon complex, which alone employed over 14,000 workers at the time of the February raids. And it had been a long time since the Zeiss complex had manufactured anything as innocent as a holiday snapshot camera. Further, Dresden was bombed at the behest of the Soviets, who were conducting an offensive approximately 100 kilometres to the east, and wanted something to curtail the transportation of enemy supplies and reinforcements to the front.

2. American bombing policy was predicated upon a precision bombing capability conducted in daylight, compared to the indiscriminate area bombing practices of Bomber Command, conducted initially at night, then later in the war, during both day and night.

In fact, American precision bombing was neither precise nor selective. Further, new specialist skills and equipment resulted in a much greater precision attack capability by Bomber Command during the last 18 months of the war, the period of the greatest bombing effort. Before hostilities ceased, Bomber Command actually demonstrated better accuracy at night through cloud than the Americans were accomplishing in the clear during daylight hours.

3. German morale did not suffer due to the bombing.

Not true. In the words of German historian Götz Bergander: “In reality, the air raids on cities and industry shook the foundations of the war morale of the German people. They permanently shattered their nerves, undermined their health and shook their belief in victory, thus altering their consciousness. They spread fear, dismay and hopelessness. This was an important and intentional result of the strategic air war, of this warfare revolution.” They also generated a lack of resistance in the German urban areas near the close of hostilities that undoubtedly hastened the German surrender, and–based on experiences–it saved many casualties on both sides by frequently avoiding the necessity for bitter house-to-house fighting.

Overall, the strategic bomber offensive took the fight to the enemy. It created a second front that bled off resources from the Soviet campaign in the east, and it diverted massive amounts of material and manpower from Germany’s primary combat endeavours. It dealt telling blows to Germany’s industrial infrastructure, and it paved the way, through destruction of Germany’s air defences, transportation network, and petroleum resources, for that eventual massive land invasion through Northwest Europe in 1944, now generated at a time when the Allies deemed they were ready for such a formidable undertaking.

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