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Chapter 13: Toward the Offensive

‘You will direct the main effort of the bomber force, until further instructions, towards dislocating the German transportation system, and to destroying the moral of the civil population as a whole, and of the industrial workers in particular.’ In these words Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse, Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, was instructed on 9th July 1941 to open a new phase of the air offensive against Germany.

Up to this point Bomber Command had laboured under a host of difficulties. The full extent to which our crews were failing to find, or hit, their correct targets was indeed only just becoming clear; but other obstacles to effective attack on the Reich, such as the slow growth of the bomber force and the demands of the Battle of the Atlantic, had for some time been all too painfully apparent. How the diversion of our bombers to maritime objectives continued after July 1941, and from December 1941 to February 1942 occupied the main effort of the Command, has already been described. It remains to trace the progress of the offensive proper—that assault on industrial targets in Germany, and to a lesser extent in Italy and the occupied territories, which in due course was to rob the enemy of the power to resist the Allied armies, and to reduce so many of his cities to rubble and ruin.

The choice of German transportation as the main objective of our bomber force, and German morale as the secondary, was plainly a confession of failure. We had not succeeded in bombing Germany by day; and we had now found out that attacks by night against small, scattered or well defended targets like oil plants and aircraft factories were inflicting little, if any, vital damage. So much the Air Staff already realized. Considering the question as scientifically as they could from the evidence then available to them, they had come to the conclusion that the crews should at least be able to identify, during the moonlight period, nine great railway centres of Western Germany;

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and they were also persuaded, though with less reason, that the available weight of attack, accurately applied to these objectives, would isolate the industrial Ruhr-Rhineland from the rest of the Reich and the occupied territories. If this could be achieved the benefit would be felt alike by the Russians, now reeling before the first impact of the German invasion, and by our own army in Africa. Clear moonlight conditions, however, obtain for only one week in four. The bombers must have some target other than railway centres during the remaining three. Only an objective large enough to be found and hit with certainty in the dark would suffice. The conclusion was inescapable that for three weeks out of four we could obtain satisfactory results only, as the directive put it, ‘by heavy, concentrated and continuous area attacks of large working-class and industrial areas in carefully selected towns’. Indeed, as the bomber force expanded, and a more impressive weight of bombs could be hurled down on the towns beneath, the Air Staff intended to slacken the attacks on railways and concentrate on an all-out assault against German morale—not, of course, by the deliberate slaughter of civilian populations, but by the destruction of homes, factories, and all the amenities of life in the great industrial cities. They hoped to combine this, however, with daylight raids on precision targets by the new heavy bombers.

To execute this policy, together with subsidiary tasks such as mine-laying and attacks on German shipping, Air Marshal Peirse in July 1941 disposed a total of forty-nine squadrons, or nearly 1,000 aircraft. On paper this appeared a formidable force. Eight of the squadrons, however, were Blenheims, now classified as light bombers and suitable only for ‘fringe’ attacks; and though there were eight squadrons of the new ‘heavies’, four were not yet operational. Only thirty-seven of the forty-nine squadrons were thus available for the assault against German transportation and morale. Even these thirty-seven squadrons, however, could not play their full part; for less than two-thirds of their crews were fully trained and fit for operations. The drain of experienced crews to the Middle East, coupled with a shortening of the courses in the Operational Training Units in the interests of higher output, had filled the ranks of Bomber Command with ‘freshmen’. Indeed, most of the squadrons had to spend one night in three in training. To this grave handicap was to be added a prolonged spell of atrocious weather in the winter of 1941/1942. The result was that for many months the operational effort of the Command remained dishearteningly low. Of the 800 medium and heavy aircraft on strength in the second half of 1941, only some 400 were normally available for operations. As for the nightly total of sorties over German, this averaged little more than 60.

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These limitations were to become apparent before the new offensive was many weeks old. Meanwhile it was considered desirable to explain our intentions to the Americans. To this end a special review was prepared by the British Chiefs of Staff. ‘Our policy at present,’ it announced, ‘is to concentrate upon targets which affect both the German transportation system and civilian morale, thus exploiting weaknesses already created by the blockade. Since the targets selected lie within highly industrial and thickly populated areas the effect upon German morale is considerable. As our forces increase, intend to pass to a planned attack on civilian morale with the intensity and continuity which are essential if a final breakdown is to be produced. There is increasing evidence of the effect which even our present limited scale off attack is causing to German life. We have very reason to be confident that if we can expand our forces in accordance with our present programme, and if possible beyond it, that effect will be shattering. We believe that if these methods are applied on a vast scale, the whole structure upon which the German forces are based, the economic system, the machinery for production and destruction, the morale of the nation will be destroyed, and that whatever their present strength the armed forces of Germany would suffer such a radical decline in fighting value and mobility that a direct attack would once more become possible. When that time will come no one can with accuracy predict. It will depend largely on how well we are able with American assistance to keep to our programme of air force expansion and to obtain the necessary shipping. It may be that the methods described above will be themselves be enough to make Germany sue for peace and that the role of the British Army on the continent will be limited to that of an army of occupation. We must, however, be prepared to accelerate victory by landing forces on the Continent to destroy any elements that still resist, and strike into Germany itself ...’

With this doctrine the Americans were not impressed. Alarmed at the idea of directing a bombing offensive against civilian morale, they urged that we should attack some more specific series of objectives. They also found our conclusions difficult to reconcile with our own ‘valorous experience’ of German bombardment. These objections, though regarded by the Air Staff as based on misunderstanding, found an echo in a caveat put forward at about the same time by the British Prime Minister. Enthusiast as he was for the air offensive, and particularly for the mass bombardment of German towns, Mr. Churchill deprecated some of the larger claims made on its behalf. ‘We all hope that the air offensive against German will realize the expectations of the Air Staff,’ he wrote on 7th October.’ Everything is

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being done to create the bombing force desired on the largest possible scale, and there is no intention of changing this policy. I deprecate, however, placing unbounded confidence in this means of attack ... It is the most potent method of impairing the enemy’s morale we can use at the present time ... It may well be that German morale will crack, and that our bombing will play a very important part in bringing the result about. But all things are always on the move simultaneously, and it is quite possible that the Nazi war-making power in 1943 will be so widely spread throughout Europe as to be to a large extent independent of the actual buildings in the homeland. A different picture would be presented if the enemy’s air force were so far reduced as to enable heavy accurate daylight bombing of factories to take place. This, however, cannot be done outside the radius of fighter protection, according to what I am at present told. One has to do the best one can, but he is an unwise man who thinks there is any certain method of winning this war, or indeed any other war between equals and strength. The only plan is to persevere.’

Throughout the latter half of 1941 Peirse duly persevered. During periods of bright moon he attacked, as his directive ordained, the railway centres; in darkness or during moon when the weather was unfavourable for specific attack on railways, he operated against the ‘carefully selected towns’, many of which did in fact contain important railway objectives. Against the railway targets results were not impressive; the attacking force was repeatedly foiled by the prevalent haze, and the Ruhr-Rhineland continued to remain in excellent communication with the rest of Germany. The ‘area’ attacks were more successful. Bielefeld was badly damaged, Münster was treated to an effective four-night ‘blitz’—on a return flight from which Sergeant J. A. Ward of No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron with extraordinary gallantry climbed out on to his starboard wing to extinguish a fire, thereby winning the Victoria Cross—and Aachen and Kassel suffered considerable destruction of both residential and railway property. These last two towns were lightly defended, and had lent much of their civil defence service to other places considered more liable to attack. The result was that our incendiary bombs, though no great load of these was carried, caused fires which quickly spread beyond control.

The general atmosphere of these attacks, when our crews with supreme courage and skill were still navigating their own way to—or near—the target, is admirably captured in a number of first-hand accounts. Of these no one who has read them will forget the remarkable books written by those two outstanding pilots, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire and Wing Commander Guy Gibson. But there are many less known volumes which also faithfully depict the ardours

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and the perils, the ‘good shows’ and the ‘blacks’, of the bomber boy’s crowded, and customarily brief, existence. Among these is a privately published collection of letters by Flight Sergeant Derek (‘Dick’) Lord. This young pilot, like many others, carried out a dozen or more operations before his twentieth birthday; and he was not twenty-two when, with thirty or so raids to his credit, and a ‘rest’ in an instructional job as his reward, he was killed in a flying accident. His account of a raid against Bremerhaven, on the night of 26/27th October 1941, records not only the kind of incident which befell many a crew, but also the appalling difficulty of identifying a target by night in thick weather. The aircraft, a Whitley of No. 77 Squadron, had managed to reach the target area:

My navigator said: ‘Dick if we are going to prang this place properly, it is about time we started looking for a gap in those blood fog banks.’ I said, ‘Right!’ and stooged the plane to where the clouds appeared to be less thick.

We found a hole in the black mass of tiny water particles. The Hun found it took, with about thirty of his searchlights.

The light from them seemed to penetrate the very floor of the Whitley. I made no attempt to evade them ... the navigator wanted a landfall. How he took it, glaring into those millions of candle-power, I cannot attempt to explain, but he did so. He gave me fresh directions and we began our first run.

An orange-coloured searchlight followed our course, shining through the clouds as if such things never existed.

Then the flak came, and the tracers and the bomb flashes. Some of the other boys were already on the job. We were flying at 16,000 feet—the remainder of the boys were lower. The shells were exploding at varying heights, mostly, I thought, at about 10,000 feet. I was wrong. We had just finished a tight turn when it happened.

There was a terrific explosion somewhere at the back of my head ... everything went black and then red, punctured with little green and yellow dots. I heard my radio man say ‘My God!’ Then everything was silent.

In the silence I could feel myself thinking ‘This is it! This is the end of your run ... you have not done so badly ... what’s this? The seventh raid? You’ve been lucky—some chaps don’t last seven trips ...

Something spoke in my ear ... I say something because it sounded like a very weak loudspeaker ... ‘For Christ’s sake, Dock, pull yourself together ... we’re not done yet!’

A light flashed by my eyes ... it must have been a searchlight. It brought me to my senses with a jerk. I was sprawled over the steering column and the second pilot was pulling at me. I struggled into a sitting position. We were diving madly at the ground, spinning as we did so. The altimeter read 2,500 feet and was fast slipping back to 2,000. Too late to bale out ... if only I could have died with the explosion! My head was thumping and my right arm felt as heavy as lead. It was still resting on the joystick.

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Two thousand feet. The cloud had gone, but the searchlights played on us. Shells burst around us still. In a flash I saw all these things and in the same flash realized that unless we did something very drastic quickly we were going to pile in. The second pilot and myself pulled on the stick. After what seemed an age there was a response from the controls. we stopped spinning an flattened out. The navigator down in the front turret shouted something, but I couldn’t make out what it was. The aircraft bucketed, and I thought we had been hit again. Somehow we kept control of the old Whitley and climbed slowly into the shelter of the clouds.

Someone said ‘Are you O.K. Dick?’ I replied that I was, and was anyone hurt? The second pilot said ‘No.’ We’d better stooge back and get rid of our eggs,’ I suggested.

The navigator laughed ... ‘We dropped them from approximately 1,200 feet you ass!’

‘Oh!’ I said, and asked for directions home. Over the North Sea we discussed the dive. ‘We were only over Bremerhaven seven minutes’, said the wireless-operator, ‘but what a seven minutes!’

‘What did we hit with the bombs?’ I asked.

‘God knows,’ said the navigator. ‘We were diving straight on to a portion of the docks just before you pulled out!’

The Canadian rear gunner called over the intercom from his turret, ‘The docks ain’t where they used to be, Dick! We’ve gotta small portion in the fuselage right behind me. What the hall d’ya want to dive-bomb the place for? Jeeze we couldha’ made just as good a show from 15,000!’

If thick weather over the target often ruined our operations in 1941, thick weather over base often spelled death to the returning crew. Throughout 1941 very large number of aircraft survived the attentions of the enemy over Germany only to crash on landing in England. Such accidents were always most numerous when cloud sat low over our eastern airfields. On 14th July 1941, for instance, No. 7 Squadron at Oakington sent off six aircraft to :Hanover. Results were good, but the weather closed down during the return trip. Only one of the six bombers managed to land back at Oakington. Of the others, one ran out of petrol near the coast, another crashed in the centre of Northampton ‘much to the disgust of the Chief Constable’, and two more sustained damage in landing away from home. Several of the men who baled out were injured and one was killed. No. 7 Squadron, however, were perhaps particularly unfortunate in their experiences of baling out. On one occasion—on the night of 23rd April 1942—an airman who had safely descended was charged twopence by a farmer for a ‘phone call to base.

The general effect of our raids at this time may perhaps by gauged by considering the case of Cologne, for which unusually full German records exist. The Rhineland city was within fairly easy reach, and it was not difficult to identify; our raids against it were accordingly

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much more successful than those against the towns of the Ruhr. Between 1st June 1941 and 28th February 1942, Cologne was attacked as a primary target on thirty-three occasions, including two spells in which it was raided on five successive nights. The aircraft claiming to have reached and bombed the town reported dropping in all about 6,600 high-explosive bombs and 147,000 incendiaries. But the skies above the city were never actually free from cloud or haze, and that Germans registered the actual fall of only 1,100 high-explosive bombs and 12,000 incendiaries. During the whole nine months bombs damaged 67 industrial plants, 41 transport targets, 10 military installations and 947 residential properties. Twenty-three factories suffered loss of production of varying degrees, but no major works was entirely out of action for more than a month. The number of fires caused was 465, of which 53 were major outbreaks. One hundred and thirty-eight persons were killed, 277 injured, and about 13,000 temporarily lost their homes. All this was not, perhaps, an unprofitable return for 2,000 sorties and the expenditure of 55 aircraft and their crews. But in almost every respect, and particularly in the number of fires and damage to industrial facilities, these figures were to be exceeded in a single night of 1942—the night of May when the doom of the Third Reich first sounded in the thunder of a thousand bombers.

Though it was intended for much more, the attack on transportation and morale during the latter part of 1941 proved in fact to be merely a harassing operation. It had, however, sufficient effectiveness under the best conditions of weather to impress the enemy that it must be strenuously opposed. This, rather than any material damage inflicted, was its main achievement. Large number of men and women detailed to civil defence, incessant formation of new flak batteries, rapid expansion and development of night fighter squadrons, conversion of the searchlight belt behind the Dutch and Belgian coast to G.C.I. radar control—all these were enforced upon the enemy by the activity of our bombers. In turn, of course, this improvement of the enemy’s defences caused greater losses in the attacking force. Night raids over German in 1940 had cost only 1·6 per cent of sorties. By August 1941 the rate of loss had risen to 3·5 percent and in November it reached 4·8 percent. Casualties of this order, added to all the wastage incurred through crashes on return, would have defeated our plans for expanding Bomber Command. By November, therefore, the offensive was virtually in abeyance. The brake was hard, and but for the renewed calls to abeyance. The brake was on hard, and but for the renewed calls to attack the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau our bombers would have conserved their strength in the ensuing weeks for a redoubled effort in the spring of 1942. For by March 1942 a large part of the bomber

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force was to be equipped with the new aid known as ‘Gee’; and this, it was thought, would revolutionize our standards of navigation and bomb-aiming in thick weather.

It was well that there existed this promise of better things to come. For the truth about our night bombing in 1941, though it was little known, was depressing in the extreme. In September 1941 a full assessment was made from photographs taken in a hundred recent raids. It showed that only one in every three aircraft claiming to have attacked had arrived within five miles of its target. Over the Ruhr alone the number of aircraft arriving within five miles of their target was one in ten. Indeed, no greater contrast can be imagined than that between on the one hand the enthusiastic reports of the bomber crews or the travellers’ tales from German (via Sweden or Switzerland), and on the other the bleak pictures of scarcely damaged town now being brought back by the photographic Spitfires. The intelligence concerning the campaign was certainly conflicting. But the Air Staff were realists. They accepted in full the distasteful ‘evidence in camera’ of the photographic reconnaissance machines. And, under the cloak of a complacent publicity which kept everyone happy, they proceeded to build up a force that could do what the optimists imagined was already being done.


While our night bombers strove to make some impression on the German homeland, our fighters and day bombers struck at the enemy in northern France.

When the Luftwaffe’s main daylight assault against this country ended in the autumn of 1940, many squadrons of Fighter Command became free to operate across the Channel. Air Chief Marshal Sholto Douglas’s first action on succeeding Sir Hugh Dowding at Stanmore at the end of 1940 was accordingly to initiate, with the approval of the Air Staff, a policy of ‘leaning forward into France’. In this the new Commander-in-Chief was enthusiastically supported by his principal lieutenant, Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Park’s successor at No. 11 Group. And as the Germans showed no sign of resuming intensive operations by day against any British targets other than shipping, the offensive was able to continue without serious distractions.

From December 1940, then, our fighters systematically carried the war into the enemy camp. Either in small numbers by themselves in the operations known as ‘Rhubarbs’, or in considerable strength accompanied by a few bombers in the operations known as ‘Circuses’, Douglas’s forces gave their opponents no rest. Their

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objectives were manifold. To destroy enemy machines in the air or on the ground, to shoot up or bomb airfield buildings, ports and communications—all these were within their province. The chief motive underlying the offensive, however, was not so much to cause direct damage as to force the enemy to maintain strong air defences in the West. If, as already mentioned, we could make the Germans strengthen their fighters, anti-aircraft guns and radar posts in France and Belgium at the expense of their forces in south-east Europe, we might perhaps save Greece and Yugoslavia from disappearing into the German maw. At the same time powerful moral advantages would accrue as our pilots grew accustomed to exercising the initiative, and as the enemy became thoroughly imbued with the idea of our superiority in the air.

Up to June 1941 the fighter offensive was waged on no great scale. Nor was there much reaction from the enemy. Between 20th December 1940 and 13th June 1941, 104 ‘Rhubarbs’ resulted in only eighteen engagements with German fighters. In the course of these, we claimed seven enemy aircraft for the loss of eight of our pilots. During the same period we flew eleven ‘Circuses’, the largest involving thirty bombers and nearly three hundred fighters. From these twenty-five of our pilots were lost, as against sixteen enemy aircraft climbed. Both ‘Rhubarbs’ and ‘Circuses’ achieved, of coruse, a certain amount of damage on the ground, the ‘Circuses’ naturally being more profitable in this respect. Including other cross-Channel activity of a similar character, such as the completely ineffective mass sweeps at high level by fighters without bombers, the general exchanges in terms of aircraft were about even. Fifty of our pilots were lost, and fifty-eight enemy aircraft were shot down—fourteen more than we claimed at the time. Whatever its other merits, up till June 1941 the offensive was thus being conducted with economy.

Hitler’s attack on the U.S.S.R., as we have already seen, gave still more point to this offensive policy. If it was important to keep German aircraft in the West so that they could not be used against the Greeks, it was still more important to prevent them from being used against the Russians. We accordingly increased the scale of our cross-Channel operations. At once the enemy responded to the threat, challenging our formations wherever they appeared. Between mid-June and the end of July, Fighter Command flew some 8,000 offensive sorties, covering 374 bombers. They resulted, according to our claim, in the destruction of 322 enemy aircraft for the loss of 123 of our own. This seemed a remarkable achievement. The German day fighter force in Northern France was only some 200 aircraft strong, and losses of the order claimed would have meant either its complete

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extinction, or its renewal from top to bottom. Unfortunately, however, the more intense fighting had brought the usual overlapping claims. We now know that the Germans lost during these six weeks only 81 fighters, or roughly a quarter of our estimate. All the same, the strength of the two Fighter Geschwader in the West (JG.2 and JG.26) fell from 200 in June to 140 in August, and serviceability within these totals from 75 per cent to 60 per cent. Equally, the Germans found it necessary to recall many experienced pilots from the East.

An incident typical of the intensive fighting of this period was well depicted by Flight Lieutenant S. Meares, a fighter pilot of No. 611 Squadron, in a letter to his parents written on 29th June 1941. The letter first describes how No. 611 Squadron and others had been ‘beating up the Heinies’, had met ‘quite a bit of opposition’, and had enjoyed some ‘grand fighters’. It then relates the details of one of the writer’s own engagements.

I had just seen the bombers drop their bombs when I saw a dog-fight going on behind me. I turned to join battle and attacked an Me. 109, who promptly vertically towards the ground from 20,000 feet. I dived after him and fired a second’s burst at him. Then I saw another 109 diving after me, firing as hard as he could. I took violent evasive action and in a few seconds was at ground level, doing almost 500 miles per hour.

Being well out of the battle and about 50 miles inside France all by myself, I felt a little lonely and headed for home, but on the way back I passed right over the middle of St. Omer aerodrome, which had two Me.109s patrolling it. I thought to myself that this was no place to start looking for trouble, and continued on my way. But the Huns did not feel like that, and thought that it would please Herr Hitler if they shot me down ... They stalked me, but as I was flying below the level of the trees I was able to watch them in the mirror the whole time.

I waited until the first one was in firing range and then pulled the stick back and turned as tightly as I could. ‘To me ‘orror and amazement’ I found the Hun was turning inside my turn, which meant he could fire and hit me, and I started to perspire a bit. I could not climb away because he could out-climb me, and I could not dive as I was already flat on the ‘deck’ and it struck me that I was fighting for my life, which is the strangest of sensations. I knew with terrific clearness that unless I did something within the next split second I would be one of those who did not get home. I was flying about five feet above the ground, and pulled the stick back until it would not go any further. I blacked out for what seemed to be minutes and when I came to again I was flying about 20 feet behind the Hun, and he was obviously wondering where I had got to.

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Realizing how worried he must be, wondering where I had got to, I gave him a little squirt to let him know I was behind him. He then started to do the most amazing display of aerobatics I have ever seen, but I found it quite easy to follow him and every time he made a mistake, I squirted him. He bolted straight back to the aerodrome, and I chased him down his hangars, in between them, over the flying field and back again. He was trying to get his ground defences to shoot me down, then in desperation he turned on his back at about 50 feet and I have him a long burst and in he went, but it took all the rounds I had got, and I had empty guns.

Realizing I was in a very unhealthy spot, I headed for home, but the second Hun had arrived on the scene. So I had to turn and fight him without any guns. This lasted for about ten minutes and every time I turned for home he came at me again, and I was still about 50 miles from the French coast. This lasted until I was almost exhausted and in a last frantic effort I got on his tail and when he turned to shake me off, I went the other way, and dived over the top of a hill I had spotted, and turned as quickly as possible and flew under the level of the trees of a wood about a foot off the ground, and he never saw me again. I flew at ground level to Le Touquet and home via Dungeness. I never knew how well I loved England until I saw her shores again. I had learned more about tactics and flying in 20 minutes than in all my flying years ...

Although our Intelligence was deceived about the number of German aircraft shot down, it was correctly informed about the enemy’s movements. The Luftwaffe’s withdrawals from the eastern front remained confined to pilots, and to the exchange of one unit. This fact, coupled with the rising casualties suffered by our bombers, soon decided the Air Staff to reduce the scale of cross-Channel operations. The decision was taken in August—just when the offensive was in fact beginning to make some inroad into the German fighter force. Beneath the lesser weight of attack the two Geschwader soon recovered; and they had no difficulty in keeping up to full strength after November, when our offensive operations were still further curtailed in preparation for the spring of 1942.

Throughout these months, while we were exerting our main cross-Channel effort by day, we were also waging a subsidiary offensive by night. This small but very profitable venture went under the code name ‘Intruder’. As early as June 1940 Blenheim night fighters of No. 604 Squadron had patrolled over German-occupied airfields in France in the hope of shooting down returning bombers and generally disrupting the enemy’s air operations against this country. From the autumn of 1940 such intrusions had become a regular practice, coastal aircraft and bombers of No. 2 Group taking part as well as fighters. In December 1940, the task became a regular commitment of Fighter Command, and throughout 1941 No. 23 Squadron, equipped first with Blenheims and then with Havocs, bore

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the main burden of the work. Carrying small bombs as well as guns, and apprised byour wireless interception service of airfields worth visiting, these aircraft were a constant thorn in the enemy flesh; for together with other aircraft of Fighter Command they were responsible during 1941 for nearly 600 ‘Intruder’ sorties. In the course of these, 290 bombing attacks were delived on airfields, and at least six, and possibly as many as nineteen, German bombers were shot down. Moreover the enemy was often forced to divert his returning pilots to other and less familiar airfields, with the result that many crashed on landing. All this, together with the moral advantage of sapping the enemy’s sense of security, we achieved for the loss of ten of our own aircraft.

In proportion to the effort involved, these results were far more impressive than those of the daylight fighter offensive. In the course of the latter we claimed during 1941 the destruction of some 800 enemy fighters, while on our own side we lost 462 fighter pilots. At the time, this rate of roughly two to one in our favour appeared to compensate for the heavy casualties to our pilots—casualties which, in gross, exceeded those incurred during the Battle of Britain. We now know, however, that only 183 German aircraft were in fact shot down. It was the Germans, then, who were scoring at the rate of two to one. We were thus no more successful in shooting down large numbers of enemy fighters than in diverting them from the east. Equally, the ‘unrest, possibly developing into revolt’ which the Air Staff had hoped to infuse into the French industrial objectives, such as power plants; an excuse had been given to French workmen to ‘go slow’; and our own forces had gained invaluable experience of offensive operations. It was for such results as these, together with the needs to guard against a mass disengagement of German bombers from the east, that a force of seventy-five day-fighter squadrons was retained in this country throughout the latter part of 1941. Whether this was a wise allocation of resources when there were only thirty-four fighter squadrons to sustain our cause in the whole of the Middle and Far East is, perhaps, an open question.


During an offensive operation on 9th August 1941, Wing Commander Douglas Bader, that remarkable character whose spirit had triumphed so completely over his terrible physical injuries, collided with an Me.109 near Béthune. As he climbed out of his Spitfire, one of his artificial limbs caught in the back of the cockpit. The unfortunate pilot was left dangling from the fuselage while

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his machine careered rapidly to earth. He had fallen several thousand feet, and was very little distance from the ground when the leather belt which attached the limb to his body gave way, the airman was released, and he was able to complete a successful, if eventful, descent by parachute. Surviving the landing, which broke two of his ribs and for a few moments robbed him of consciousness, Bader revived to find three members of the Luftwaffe bending over him. They were removing his parachute harness and his wrist-watch.

As soon as he was taken to hospital, Bader asked his captors to search for his other artificial leg. He suggested that it would still be in, or near, the remains of the aircraft. In case it was not, he also asked if the Germans would signal to England requesting delivery by air of his spare right leg. This, in company with his spare left leg, was in his locker at Tangmere. To his surprise the Germans acceded to both wishes. Within a day or two they retrieved and mended the missing leg; and they also broadcast a message that a Blenheim would be allowed, under certain conditions, to drop the desired object over the airfield at St. Omer. To this message they received no reply, and they were then able to point out to Bader, with much glee, that his comrades had let him down. The Wing Commander, however, had a shrewd idea of how the Royal Air Force would react to such a request. It would deliver him his right leg, but by its own methods, and without obligation to the Germans. He accordingly bided his time and said nothing.

Having recovered his damaged leg, the injured airman at once turned his thoughts to escape. Obviously his only chance was to break out of the hospital before he was transferred to a prison camp. But the hospital was run by the Germans with only a small French kitchen staff; and patients were customarily sent to Germany as soon as they were strong enough to rise from their beds. If anything was to be done it must be done quickly. Seizing a moment when the German orderlies were not watching, Bader soon put his fate in the hands of one of the French maids. The girl agreed to get in touch with English agents on her next day off at the weekend; and the following day she brought the injured pilot a letter from a French peasant couple who promised to shelter him outside St. Omer until he could be passed along the line. When arrangements were perfected their son would wait for him outside the hospital gates every evening after midnight, until the chance came for escape.

The next afternoon—Thursday—Bader was suddenly informed that he was to leave for Germany the following morning. The girl had not yet been able to visit the ‘agents’ but it was obviously now or never. When she came up with supper Bader told her that he intended

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to get out that night, and asked that her helper should be waiting outside at 1.45 a.m.

There was not little time to perfect details. The corridors outside the small ward were under constant observation, and Bader had already decided that he would have to climb through the window. The room was on the second floor; and for a man with no legs the difficulties were not inconsiderable. Letting his two comrades of the ward (both badly injured airmen) into his secret, Bader waited until the hospital staff had completed their last round of the evening. He then collected all the sheets in the room, including those of the fellow-patients. This was no easy task; for the two men were lying completely helpless, and Bader, clattering round on his damage artificial limbs, made an appalling noise. Eventually the job was done; the sheets were knotted together; one end was tied round the leg of the last bedstead; and the bed was pushed up against the wall. Throwing the coil of sheets underneath, Bader returned to his own bed to await the appointed hour.

A few minutes before 1.45 a.m. he rose, strapped on his legs and dressed. He then moved over to the window and threw out the sheets. It was pitch dark outside, and he was quite unable to see if they reached the ground. Trusting to luck, he heaved himself out of the window, bade farewell to his comrades, and lowered himself down his improvised rope. In a few seconds he touched earth, where he found to his amusement several yards of sheet. He then made his way to the appointed spot outside. Across the road he could see the glow of a cigarette. He approached. A man moved forward out of the darkness. A word of recognition, and Bader and his companion were making their way through town.

The walk was long, and Bader, besides the handicap of his damaged artificial limb, was still dressed in his British uniform. The two men nevertheless proceeded unchallenged, and within an hour or so were safely at the peasants’ house. There the elderly couple insisted that Bader stayed until their son-in-law, an Englishman by birth, could come and talk things over.

The following morning the peasant’s wife set off for town. She returned with what, to Bader, seemed the very worst kind of news. A cordon had been thrown round the hospital and every house within it was being searched. The peasant and his wife, however, were only amused. Their house was well beyond the enemy ring and they repeatedly assured Bader that that Germans would never look for him so far from the hospital.

The morning turned to afternoon, and all seemed well. Suddenly a German staff car drew up outside the house. The escape-plan had

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been betrayed by another girl worker in the hospital. Guided by the old peasant, Bader at once bolted through the back door and into a garden shed, where he hid beneath some baskets and hay. He heard voices, first inside the house, then nearer at hand. A German soldier opened the door of the shed, rummaged about with the baskets, and went away. Bader breathed a sigh of relief. Then the door opened again, and another German entered. His inspection was more thorough than that of his predecessor. He systematically jabbed his bayonet through the hay until Bader, suddenly realizing what it was when it came within a few inches of his face, could bear it no longer. ‘I went yellow, or something,’ he explained later; but doubtless his decision was also not unconnected with thought for his hosts. Giving himself up, he denied that he had ever set eyes on the peasant or his wife, and carefully explained that he had entered the garden from the site-gate. His story did not convince the enemy, who in due course hauled off the peasant and his family, together with the helpful girl from the hospital, to forced labour in Germany.

Bader was now placed under close guard, and any further attempt to escape was out of the question. He was taken to German headquarters in St. Omer. There a surprise awaited him. While he was with his shelterers a number of British aircraft in the course of a normal operation had swept across St. Omer airfield. As the last of them had streaked away, a long yellow box had been seen floating down on a parachute. Surviving the attention of the German gunners on its descent, it had reached the ground, where it was found to be addressed to the Commandant of the airfield for transmission to Wing Commander Douglas Bader, D.S.O., D.F.C. The box was now before him. It contained, of course, his spare right leg from Tangmere.

This incident has been described in some detail because it displays the spirit not only of a British pilot but of the French people. It was the fund of helpfulness and courage among the ordinary men and women of France—stimulated, of course, by Allied successes and the behaviour of the Germans—which eventually translated the shame of Vichy into the glories of the Resistance. What part the Royal Air Force played in the birth and infancy of this great movement must now be briefly related.

In July 1940, almost as soon as the last of the British Expeditionary Force had scrambled back from the ports of Western France, a new organization was set up in London. Its orders were ‘to coordinate all action by of subversion and sabotage against the enemy overseas’;

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and it went by the conveniently colourless name of the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.). Work of this kind was no novelty; indeed, it was old as war itself. A new factor, however, had now entered. With so much of the coast line of Europe under close German supervision, the tradition landings of agents or supplies from small boats presented grave difficulties. Accordingly—it was a precedent first set in 1914–1918, though the trips were shorter then—the gentlemen of the ‘cloak-and-dagger brigade’ took the travelling by air. To meet their needs a special flight of Royal Air Force Lysanders (No. 419) was set aside in August 1940. It was used alike by S.O.E. and by other secret organizations engaged in clandestine work in Europe.

At that time it was as much as we could do to arm weaponless units of the British Army, let alone groups of ‘irregulars’ on the Continent. Equally, France, Belgium and Holland were all too near the first shock of defeat to be capable of any great effort on their own behalf. It was also impossible for us to spare many aircraft to stand by, night after night, waiting for the right conditions for a ‘special operation’. For a long time the scale of subversive activity accordingly remained small. Despite these facts, however, despite the great severity of the weather, the winter of 1940–1941 saw a number of organizers, wireless-operators and coup de main teams parachuted into western Europe. Besid inspiring or carrying out sabotage, these pioneers helped to prepare the ground for military operations by the Commandos.

During 1941 there was no great increase in the number of aircraft employed on this delivery work. In August 1941 No. 419 Flight became No. 138 (Special Duty) Squadron), but it was not until February 1942 that a second Special Duty Squadron—No. 161—was formed. The nucleus of the new unit was the King’s Flight, under Wing Commander E. H. Fielden. By March 1942 the two Squadrons—whose combined strength at this time amounted to a dozen Whitleys, half a dozen Lysanders, two or three Halifaxes and Wellingtons, and a Hudson—were both installed at Tempsford, near Bedford. From this airfield they bore the whole burden of special operations until the autumn of 1943. Only then, as the great day of liberation for the Continent drew nearer, did other squadrons join them in their vital and onerous task.

Broadly speaking, Nos. 138 and 161 Squadrons carried out two types of operation. One—by far the more frequent—was dropping organizers, agents or supplies by parachute. The other was the ‘pick up’, in which the aircraft landed to collect some prominent public man, or an agent, or special plans and articles. For the first

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type of operation the Whitley, and later the Halifax, was the standard aircraft; for the second the nimble Lysander. As time went on No. 161 Squadron became solely responsible for the landings. During 1942 both Squadrons also operated with the bomber force when not required for ‘special duties’.

The general procedure in both dropping and landing operations was much the same. Usually the initiative came from an agent in the field or a resistance group, who asked by wireless for a delivery or landing at a certain point. If this point satisfied the requirements of the Royal Air Force, and the operation was approved, the flight was arranged for the earliest possible period of full moonlight. The stores were packed, or agents briefed, and then all depended on the weather. When a favourable forecast was received, a code phrase was broadcast during the day by the B.B.C., usually in the personal messages following the foreign news bulletins. The casual listener might perhaps ponder the significance of some such phrase as ‘ les lion sont terribles’, but only the initiated knew that this meant attendance at the selected spot that night. Often bad weather prevented the flight after the signal had been given, and the ‘reception committee’ was then condemned to a long, dangerous and fruitless wait.

Even if the aircraft took off at its appointed time, however, the sortie might prove quite unsuccessful. The weather might close in over the dropping or landing area; the ‘reception committee; might be unable to keep its appointment; enemy flak or fighters might bring the mission to an abrupt conclusion. Great skill was also required, even under the best conditions, to reach the given pinpoint, and to identify the signal from the ground—usually an arrangement of hand torches and the flash of a letter in Morse. The containers or packages, too, had to be dropped from such a height that they would not be damaged, and so accurately that they could be gathered up without delay.^{} As time went on various devices helped the pilot to find his destination. There was, for instance, the radar combination ‘Rebecca-Eureka’; ‘Rebecca’ (carried in the aircraft) transmitted pulses which were received and retransmitted by the ground-beacon ‘Eureka’ (carried in a suitcase!), so enabling the aircraft to ‘home’ towards the spot where the beacon was erected. Soon, too, there the ‘S phone’, a radio telephone for ‘talking’ the aircraft down to the

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right place. Lack of linguistic skill on the part of the crew, or lack of ‘flying control’ experience on the part of the reception committee mad this of limited use for its primary purpose. When a competent linguist was carried in the place, however, the ‘S phone’ proved invaluable for exchanging information between ground and air.

Much thought was naturally given to the development of suitable containers for the stores. When the articles were too big for these they were dropped in special coverings of sorbo rubber or hairlok (horse hair impregnated with latex). The loads consisted for the most part of arms, ammunition, food, clothing, wireless equipment, and, in the later days when whole armies were being built up, oil and petrol. A fine variety of other items, however, was delivered on request. At various times during the war our aircraft dropped special socks for the artificial leg of a woman officer in France, sleeping pills, itching powder, and a layette for twins! It is also officially recorded, though perhaps with more doubtful authenticity, that on the first occasion when dried egg was dropped in the Balkans, a message was received back: ‘Thanks for the new explosive. Please send instructions for use.’

Most of the difficulties which attended supply-dropping, and many others besides, were present in the case of ‘pick up’ operations. To make room for passengers the Lysanders were stripped of guns, armour and wireless equipment (except the radio telephone); and the pilot, flying without a navigator, found his way in the moonlight by his maps alone. How fine a margin lay between success and failure may be seen from the first S.O.E. ‘pick up’ that was attempted. On the night of 4/5th September 1941, a Lysander of No. 138 Squadron, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Nesbitt-Dufort, took off for a point in occupied France. The task was to land one organizer and return with another. The officer to be picked up had engaged rooms for himself and his French assistant in a hotel some ten miles from the agreed landing spot. During the day he heard the warning message over the B.B.C., and prepared to depart that night. The hours went by, darkness at least fell, and the two men were just about to leave the hotel when in came the police. There followed a lengthy examination of papers, from which both emerged triumphant. Free, but very late, they began cycling furiously towards the landing ground. As they approached they heard the Lysander already circling in the darkness, seeking for the lights below. Fearing that the pilot would abandon the attempt before they could reach the appointed spot, they somewhat rashly chose the nearest field which seemed suitable for landing, climbed over the hedge, and laid out their torches. The Lysander put down safely, the passenger leapt out, and after a brief handshake the

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returning office climbed in. A quick turn-round, a moment’s revving up of the single engine, and the pilot was off again—though not without fouling the telegraph lines. Despite the attachment of several feet of wire to his aircraft, a thick ground mist over base, and the failure of his R/T, he got down safely in England. Meanwhile in France the newly-arrived officer was quietly moving away from the field when he heard a shot. Imaging the enemy to be already on his track, he set off at great speed, hotly pursued by the owner of the voice—the Frenchman who had helped to lay out the flare path.

With greater experience minor mishaps of this kind were usually avoided. Although the dreaded Gestapo remained a constant hazard in North-West Europe, there was only one occasion on which an S.O.E. aircraft was actually ambushed. The pitch of efficiency reached may be judged from the fact that in 112 ‘pick up’ operations, spread over four years, only two Lysanders were lost. Even then one of the pilots was brought out successfully through the ‘usual channel’.

Special Operations Executive continued to work on a fairly small scale until the final phases of the war. Only 22 successful sorties were carried out over France in 1941, and only 93 in 1942, as against 615 in 1943 and 2,995 in 1944. By then, as recorded in Volume III (Chapter VIII), massed flights undertaken in daylight were supplying large insurgent areas. Nevertheless there were many great feats of sabotage in the early period, and nearly all depended on air delivery. And soon were to come operations of the very first importance, as when our parachutists blew up the Gorgopotamus Bridge over the Salonika–Athens railway in September 1942 and cut a vital link in Rommel’s supply route on the eve of El Alamein, or when a party landed from the air to destroy the Norsk hydro heavy-water plant and end Germany’s one hope of the atom-bomb.

Above all, however, the ‘special operations’ of these early years enabled us to gain experience, to build up resistance circuits, and to obtain information of priceless value from the occupied countries. The work begun in north-west Europe in 1940 was extended in 1941 to Poland and Czechoslovakia, and in 1942 to Greece and Yugoslavia. From the Middle East No. 148 Squadron, operating over the Balkans, was to emulate the feats of Nos. 138 and 161 Squadrons nearer home. In all this the task of the Royal Air Force was not the most dangerous of all, that of carrying out the action on the ground—though even in this sphere a gallant few like Wing Commander Yeo Thomas were to leave records of imperishable fame. It was in the humbler capacity of ‘Carter Paterson’ that the Royal Air Force was mainly engage. But the role was exacting enough; and only the skill

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and spirit with which it was played enabled Hitler’s monstrous edifice to be sapped and mined from within.


In yet another type of offensive operation at this time the Royal Air Force also bore a share. In the summer of 1940 the ‘Commandos’ had been born, the Directorate of Combined Operations had been formed, and the principle had been accepted of launching small raids against the coasts of Hitler’s Europe. At the same time, with the opening of the Central Landing School at Ringway, the first steps were taken to create a force of paratroops. In this way military raiding parties, like the organizers and saboteurs of the Special Operations Executive or the agents of the Secret Service, could proceed to their assignments by modern methods.^{}

During 1940 only two raids were carried out. Both were minor affairs, and both were seaborne. In 1941 the pace quickened, and two ‘combined ops’ were mounted within a month. The first of these, the somewhat extravagantly named ‘Operation Colossus’, was also our first ‘airborne’ venture. It took place on 10th February, the object being to destroy a large aqueduct at Trogino, in the Italian province of Campagna. This action, it was thought, would cut off the water supplies of Taranto, Brindisi and Bari at a time when these ports were the main supply bases for the Italian forces attacking Greece. The Air Force side of the operation was under the direction of Wing Commander Sir Nigel Norman, the Commandant of the Central Landing Establishment; and the plan was to use six Whitleys, operating from Malta, to drop the parachutists and stores near the objective while two more Whitleys created a diversion elsewhere. In the event, five of the aircraft dropped their men—among them a Royal Air Force flight sergeant interpreter with the encouraging name of Lucky—at or near the right place and time, and by great determination in the face of many unforeseen difficulties the raiders accomplished their mission before they fell into the hands of the enemy. The operation created considerable alarm in southern Italy, but had no noticeable effect on the Italian troops’ water supply.

Three weeks later our raiding forces struck at the opposite extremity of Europe, carrying out an entirely successful seaborne

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descent on the Lofotens. Other ventures in 1941 include the operations of ‘Layforce’ in the Middle East and the raid in December on Vaagsö, already described, while in the opening quarter of 1942 came the great exploit at St. Nazaire. To all these the Royal Air Force contributed by reconnaissance, direct support, fighter cover, or diversionary operations. So far as the Service itself was concerned, however, the most important combined operation before the great assault at Dieppe, to be described in a later volume, was the airborne raid on the German radar station at Bruneval.

Behind the Bruneval raid there was a long story. As our bomber and fighter offensive over the Continent had progressed, so its success had come to depend more and more on our knowledge of the German radar system. At the outbreak of war we had not known that the Germans possessed radar at all, but during 1940 and 1941 we had steadily built up an accurate picture of their air defences. Partly through photographic reconnaissance, partly through more secret sources of intelligence, we had located nearly all their early warning radar installations, those Freyas, as the Germans termed them, which corresponded to our own long-range stations on the coast. During 1941 we had also found out, however, that the Germans possessed another type of apparatus used for detection and tracking at short range, an apparatus performing the functions of our own Gun-Laying and Ground Controlled Interception Sets. This was known as a Würzburg; already capable in 1940 of controlling flak and searchlights, it had since been adapted to control night fighters. Obviously, we must take its full measure very quickly if our aircraft were not to suffer greatly increased losses.^{}

As soon as the existence of the set came to our notice, we accordingly re-examined our photographs of enemy-held territory with the utmost care. Of these there were many thousands; and as the Würzburg was known to be extremely small, the task bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the proverbial hunt for needles in haystacks. It was suspected, however, that a Würzburg might be found near an ordinary Freya. Attention was therefore concentrated on the vicinity of these; and eventually a member of the Scientific Intelligence Staff in the Air Ministry discovered a small and unexplained dot in a photograph of Freya at Bruneval, near Le Havre. Several other photographs of the same site were examined before it became certain that this was not a speck of dust. After that the next step was obviously to secure a low-level photograph of the

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suspected point. Dr. R. V. Jones has described how this was done. ‘Before we had time to put in an official request, our suspicions came to the notice of a photographic pilot—Squadron Leader Tony Hill, who promptly took off unofficially to have a look at it. He came back with the exciting news that it looked like what we expected, a large electric bowl-fire; but he was disappointed that his camera had failed to work. He was about to take-off again the next day, again unofficially, when he was stopped because three aircraft from a rival squadron were officially scheduled to be taking photographs in the same area at the same time. He thereupon taxied his aircraft over to the others and told them if he found any of them within twenty miles of the target he would shoot them down. He went out and got his photographs unmolested. They were among the classics of the war, and led directly to the Bruneval raid.’

The existence of the Würzburg being thus confirmed, our radio experts began to plan counter-measures. To assist the progress of these it was decided to examine the apparatus at close quarters. Details of local geography and defences having been obtained from members of the French Resistance, a combined operation was prepared, under the code name ‘Biting’, to seize certain vital parts of the equipment. The plan was for the Whitleys of No. 51 Squadron, led by Wing Commander P. C. Pickard—already well known as the pilot in the documentary film ‘Target for To-Night’ and later to achieve undying fame as the leader of the raid on Amiens prison—to drop a company of paratroops in the area, and for these to be withdrawn afterwards by sea. Diversionary bombing was to take place before and during the operation, and fighter cover was to be given to the naval forces on their way home. Among those to be dropped by parachute was Flight Sergeant C. W. H. Cox, a Royal Air Force radar mechanic, who had volunteered to help in the task of dismantling. The fact that he had never before left the shores of his native country or travelled in an aeroplane apparently only whetted his appetite for the venture.

After a period of intensive training and preparation, during which the troops and aircrews learnt every feature of the ground by means of models prepared from air photographs, the operation was carried out on the night of 27/28th February 1942. All but two of the twelve Whitleys put down their loads at the right time and place. The parachutists made their drop without opposition, and quickly gathered up demolition material, arms and signalling equipment from the containers. While one contingent moved against the defences on the cliff and the beach below, the main assault part split into three. One section stormed an isolated house near the radar post, a second took up covering positions, and the third, including Flight Sergeant Cox,

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made for the apparatus itself. Here a sharp struggle ensued. It resulted in the death or capture of all the six Germans present. By that time enemy troops in a farm some 450 yards distant had two machine guns trained on the Würzburg; but despite accurate fire from these the raiders took photographs of the complete equipment. Then Cox and his helpers, working in the dark with the utmost coolness and skill, began to extract the desired parts. Two machine-gun bullets struck the apparatus under the Flight Sergeant’s hand, but the work still went on. When they had what they wanted the raiders blew up the rest, then retired towards the beach. A further sharp struggle and the troops were able to call in the unfailing Navy, already waiting off shore.

At the small cost of fifteen casualties—and the Germans suffered many more—we were thus able to improve our acquaintance with a vital element in the German air defences. The result was that we could apply our counter-measures, such as jamming, or low flying, or ‘saturation’ by large numbers of aircraft, with all the greater effect. Another victory had been recorded in the ‘radio war’, that ceaseless battle of wits which was to determine the future of our bombing offensive, and with it the course of the whole titanic conflict.


While the Royal Air Force was thus pressing the enemy hard in Europe, a new opponent, strong, resolute and treacherous, had appeared ‘from out the fiery portal of the East’. On 7th December 1941 the Japanese blow fell with stunning effect, and for a while all that we had so painfully achieved since 1940 seemed in hazard. Yet, through the dark days ahead, when defeat in Cyrenaica pressed hard upon disaster in Malaya and Burma, the British Commonwealth could take comfort from the fact that in 1940 it had faced far greater perils, and still survived. That it had been able to do so, that it had contrived to defy the heavy odds against it and to battle on alone until time and the folly of the enemy brought the help of two great Allies, was due to several factors, of which not the least was the work of the Royal Air Force. And that the Royal Air Force had been able to save Britain in 1940, and then to carry war with progressive force into the German homeland, was due in turn to many things, of which two stand foremost. One was the sound judgement and receptiveness to new ideas of those, from Trenchard onwards, who, in the brief span of twenty years and despite strictly limited resources and a climate of public opinion for long unfavourable, had made the Royal Air Force what it was in 1939. The other, transcending even this, was the sustained excellence of technique and morale among its crews.

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For war in the air, even more than on the land or the sea, the power of the weapon depends in the end upon the individual quality of the fighting man; and in this the Royal Air Force of 1939–1941 may have been equalled, but has certainly never been surpassed. Manifestly, it was still true to say of the Royal Air Force in the Second World War, as the official historian wrote of it in the First that ‘when the builders have been praised for their faith and for their skill, the last word of wonder and reverence must be kept for the splendid grain of the staff that was given them to use in the architecture of their success.’

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