Chapter 7: Bomber Command and the Assault on Germany
Throughout 1942 the Germans retained within the Reich and the Western occupied territories only a quarter of their operational Air Force. A fifth was stationed in the Mediterranean Islands, North Africa and the Balkans. Nearly a half remained deeply committed to the struggle in the East.
This disposition, the logical outcome of Hitler’s failure to finish off the Russians inside his estimate of eight weeks, had two important results. In the first place England continued to escape serious attack from the air. Seaside ‘tip and run’, nuisance activity, occasional operations in force against Birmingham or other industrial targets, gestures of exasperation like the ‘Baedeker’ raids against our lightly defended Cathedral cities—these were as much as the Luftwaffe could manage in the circumstances.
The second and perhaps more important consequence of the German deployment was that our own striking forces could wage with increasing violence the campaign against the enemy’s homeland. In this they were now to have the help of a new aid. The device known as GEE, for which the primary credit must be given to Mr. R. J. Dippy of the Telecommunications Research Establishment, had been under development since 1940. It was a system by which the navigator could calculate the position of his aircraft by observing the time taken to receive pulse signals from three different ground stations.1 By mid-1941 the three stations had been erected on the East Coast, a few
hand-made sets had been tried out operationally, and the general results were so promising that the Air Staff, perhaps mindful of the Army’s premature employment of tanks in 1916, decided to make no further use of the system until a substantial number of’ Gee-boxes’ was available. By February 1942 this moment had at last arrived. Some 200 bombers had been fitted; and in preparation for an assault of unprecedented accuracy the policy of conserving our bombers, applied since November 1941, was now withdrawn.
The decision to begin a new spell of intensive operations against Germany was conveyed to Bomber Command on 14th February, 1942. The Command was instructed to strike with full force for the next six months—the estimated length of time before GEE was discovered and jammed by the enemy. In order to destroy Germany’s capacity and will to make war, create the conditions for an Allied second front, and relieve pressure on the Russians, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief was to focus his operations on ‘the morale of the enemy civil population, and in particular of the industrial workers’. The selection of targets, however, was also to be dictated by the limited range of GEE, which was some 350-400 miles, and by the known capabilities of the bomber force. Our bombers, in other words, were to attack the cities of West and North-West Germany. ‘Area bombing’, already approved when conditions were unsuitable for precise attack, was thus now formally recognised as the standard basis of our policy. It was to remain the official gospel for over two years.
This directive was six days old when Air Marshal A. T. Harris succeeded Sir Richard Peirse at High Wycombe. It is interesting to note that the new Commander-in-Chief, although he was to become the staunchest advocate of the ‘area bombing’ policy, had no part in its inception. A South African by birth and a pilot of distinction in the 1914-18 war, he had commanded No. 5 Group (Bomber Command) in 1939-40, and had later acted as Deputy Chief of Air Staff at the Air Ministry. From mid-1941, however, he had been in charge of the Royal Air Force Delegation at Washington, far removed from the policy-makers in Whitehall. Misconceiving the province of a Commander in the field, popular opinion has nevertheless regarded Harris as personally responsible for the devastation of Germany. In point of fact, the new Commander of course obeyed orders from the Air Staff, whose policy in turn required, and received, the sanction of the War Cabinet. It must be admitted, however, that Harris’s outspoken preference for bombing German towns, and his fearless and trenchant criticism of other policies, made it difficult for the Air Staff—or the War Cabinet—to alter his instructions later.
Nevertheless, by the time of his appointment to command the bomber force, Harris had in fact come to some very firm conclusions. With the means available, attempts to win the war by bombing what he termed ‘panacea’ targets were doomed to failure. Oil plants, aircraft works, ball-bearing factories, molybdenum mines, submarine yards, and the like—even if our bombers could find and hit them, their destruction would probably have nothing like the effect prophesied by our economic experts. And as, for the most part, such targets could not be found and hit by night, and as our bombers could certainly not survive over Germany by day, it followed that our offensive must be directed against something much larger. The only really large objectives of indisputable value, it was alike clear to Harris and the Air Staff, were Germany’s great industrial towns. The destruction of these would unquestionably impede the German war effort, and might at the same time undermine the morale of the whole population. And if, in the course of the attempt, Germany were left with not merely a passing but a permanent reminder of the folly of starting wars, so much the better. In this frame of mind, and with a calculated determination to resist all unnecessary diversions to other ends, Harris embraced his new task. Till then the Germans had escaped lightly. It would not be so in the future.
The force at Harris’s disposal in February 1942, excluding five squadrons of light bombers unsuited for work over Germany, amounted to forty-four squadrons, of which thirty-eight were actually operational. Only fourteen of the forty-four were equipped with the new heavy bomber types—the Stirling, Manchester and Halifax—which had been slowly coming forward during 1941. All the rest were the old heavy bombers of 1940, now reclassified as ‘medium’—the Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens. Harris himself has recorded in his war memoirs2—a first class account of the bombing offensive enlivened by the author’s characteristic sniping against his two favourite Aunt Sallies, the Admiralty and the Air Ministry—that on the day he took over, Bomber Command had 378 aircraft serviceable with crews; that about fifty of these were light bombers in No. 2 Group, mainly used as ‘bait’ in our fighter sweeps over France; and that only sixty-nine were heavy bombers. It was thus with a total force of some 600 aircraft and a normally available force of 300 that the new Commander-in-Chief began his long campaign against the cities of Germany.
Nearly a year later, at the end of January 1943, this force had increased by only seven squadrons, or about 200 aircraft. The drain to the Middle East, the diversions to Coastal Command, the
growing shortage of manpower, the entry of the United States into the war (with the Americans’ natural resolve to create huge armed forces of their own rather than rest content with supplying ours)—all these things combined to shatter our hopes of building up a great bomber force in 1942. In fact, our plan to achieve a first-line strength of 4,000 heavy and medium bombers by mid-1943 was successively scaled down until all efforts were being concentrated on making fifty heavy and medium squadrons, or some 800 aircraft, operational by the end of 1942. And even this very modest total was not achieved until the spring of 1943.
But if the Command expanded slowly in terms of aircraft, it developed much more rapidly in terms of bomb-lift. At the beginning of 1942 our bombers were predominantly ‘mediums’; a year later the ‘heavies’ made up over two-thirds of the force. During these vital twelve months the Whitleys and the Hampdens were at last honourably retired from Bomber Command, though they continued to operate long afterwards for Coastal. Among the light bombers the Blenheims gave way to newer types—to Bostons, Venturas and, above all, Mosquitos. Of the aircraft with which Bomber Command started the war, only the sturdy and well-loved ‘Wimpies’—the Wellingtons—still droned their way over Germany at the end of 1942.3
This vital change, which increased our bomb-carrying capacity during the year by nearly seventy per cent, was carried out despite great difficulty with the new ‘heavies’. The earliest of these, the four-engined Stirling, took too many men to produce and too many men to maintain. Its ‘ceiling’ of some 16,000 feet also exposed it to undue risks from anti-aircraft fire. The second type, the four-engined Halifax, at first seemed no better. The tail wheel gave constant trouble, the general performance was unsatisfactory, and many modifications were needed before the aircraft became—as it certainly did—reasonably good. Still worse was the third of the heavy bombers conceived in the great formative period of 1935 and 1936—the twin-engined Manchester. This had many good qualities, but was badly under-powered. Fortunately Avro’s were able to re-design the airframe for four engines; and so, through chance and the happy genius of Roy Chadwick, there soon emerged the Lancaster—the outstanding bomber of the war. Meanwhile the failure of the Manchester
slowed down the whole scheme of re-equipment.4
The expansion of Bomber Command in 1942 was slow enough. Even so, what was achieved would not have been possible without a drastic revision of the training schedule. It has been recorded earlier in this history that the ‘export’ of trained crews from Bomber Command to the Middle East, coupled with reductions in the length of training courses in the interests of higher output, had seriously impaired the efficiency of the bomber squadrons. In the spring of 1942 these problems were boldly confronted. The Air Member for Training, Air Marshal A. G. R. Garrod, proposed and carried what came to be known as the ‘New Deal’. The basic feature of this was the decision, reluctantly accepted by Harris, that henceforth our bombers should carry only one pilot instead of two. This greatly reduced the number of pilots to be trained, and so made possible longer training courses. At the same time a number of compensatory measures were introduced, mainly on the suggestion of Harris. All bombers were to be equipped with automatic pilots; a flight-engineer was to be carried in the heavy bombers; one member of the crew other than the pilot would be given enough training to bring the aircraft back in emergency; and, since the observer (now renamed the navigator) would be too busy with GEE, an additional member of the crew would be needed to aim the bombs and act as front gunner. The training commitment for the two new aircrew categories, the flight-engineer and the bomb-aimer, was not so difficult to meet as that for two pilots, and the net gain was substantial. Moreover Harris himself proposed a further economy. It had by now been found that there was little occasion for two wireless-operator/air-gunners in each bomber. One of these posts was therefore filled by a ‘straight’ air-gunner, so saving many weeks of training in the wireless schools.
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During the first six months of his regime—the vital period in which we expected to enjoy uninterrupted use of GEE—Harris had at his disposal an average of only 250 serviceable medium bombers and fifty serviceable heavy bombers. With these he was expected, if not to shatter, at least to produce some noticeable impression on German morale. The attacking force might be small, but with GEE every blow should strike home. The official view of the Air Staff was that in the opening phase Bomber Command would be able to blot out at least four of the cities of Western Germany.
While Harris was waiting for the right weather to begin this main assault, he essayed a subsidiary operation elsewhere. For many months the War Cabinet, reluctant to kill friendly civilians, had refused to permit attacks by night against industrial objectives in the occupied territories. Gradually opinion changed; and on 2nd February, 1942, impressed by the need to destroy German war capacity beyond as well as within the Reich, and hoping to deter French civilians from working for the enemy, our political leaders sanctioned night attacks on this type of target. This gave Bomber Command the opportunity to try out under favourable conditions at short range some of the tactical methods of attack, such as a liberal use of incendiaries, which were to be applied over Germany in conjunction with GEE. On the night of 3rd/4th March, Harris accordingly despatched 235 bombers in good weather and perfect visibility against the great Renault factory at Billancourt, near Paris.
The attackers were divided into three waves: a vanguard of all ‘heavies’ for which fully trained crews were available, a main force of medium bombers, and a rear contingent of such Manchesters, Halifaxes and Wellingtons as were equipped for 4,000 lb. bombs. All aircraft were to carry as many flares as their bomb-loads allowed. The first wave was to light up the target, then bomb, then drop its remaining flares to windward. The second wave was to repeat this procedure, so that the target would be well illuminated the whole time. Two separate groups of buildings were to be attacked, the aircraft of No. 3 Group aiming at the works on an island in the Seine, the remainder at the main plant on the river bank.
The attack went almost exactly according to plan. All but twelve of the 235 bombers reached the target, at which they aimed 461 tons of bombs. The rate of concentration over the objective—a factor of prime importance in ‘saturating’ the defences, both active and passive, and so increasing damage and reducing our own casualties—worked out at 121 to the hour. This was the highest yet achieved.
Night photographs taken during the operation, reconnaissance the following day, reports from secret intelligence sources and post-war evidence all confirm that the raid was a great success. Disregarding most of the contemporary reports, which were exaggerated, we may accept two documents as sufficiently near the truth. The first of these is M. Louis Renault’s report to the Germans. This was obtained for us through a Polish source within three months of the raid. Its estimate of damage was probably on the conservative side, as M. Renault would presumably be reluctant to have the Germans close the works and remove what remained of the machines to the Reich. The main damage, according to the French industrialist, was to
buildings; but materials, tools and completed products also suffered. Apart from one or two shops that might be at work again in fifteen days, three months or more would be needed before production could be resumed. On the morning after the attack the works seemed completely destroyed: roofs were smashed, walls crumbled, framework overthrown. On the other hand only the machines situated at the points of impact were completely useless; the others could be used again after repair. Of the three thousand workmen on duty only five had been killed.5
The second document is the post-war report of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey Unit. According to this, 11.8 per cent of the total area of the plant was seriously affected. Of 14,746 machine tools in the factory, 721 were destroyed and 2,387 damaged; but many others, left roofless or moved into the open to permit clearance, deteriorated rapidly during the bad weather of the next few weeks. Among other achievements, several buildings containing designs, blue-prints and records were consumed by fire; and destruction, partial or complete, overtook 722 vehicles awaiting delivery. The effect on the morale of the workers was also very marked—during the following year the number on the evening shift shrank by nearly a half. Yet despite all this the previous level of production was regained, and indeed exceeded, within four months of the attack.
It was, as Harris points out in his book, somewhat ironical that he, the apostle of area-attack on Germany, should have scored his first great success against a precision target in France. Be that as it may, the raid, with two other successful efforts—against the Matford works at Poissy—within the next few days, acted as a much needed tonic to the bomber force. It was in the warm afterglow of these operations that Harris now struck the opening blow of the main campaign.
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The directive of 14th February gave Bomber Command four primary and three secondary targets within GEE range. Those in the first category—Essen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf and Cologne—were all in the vital Ruhr-Rhineland. Those in the second category—-Bremen, Wilhelmshaven and Emden—were on the north-west coast, so giving Harris another chance when bad weather seemed likely over the Ruhr. When experience allowed or conditions were particularly favourable, the Commander-in-Chief might also attack a number of cities in alternative areas beyond GEE range, including Hamburg, Kiel, Lübeck and Rostock in the North, Berlin in the centre, and Frankfurt, Schweinfurt and Stuttgart in the South. Each
of these was an important centre of industry. The general aiming point, however, was not to be a particular factory, but the most heavily built-up district.6 Among all these areas that of the Ruhr was considered by the Ministry of Economic Warfare by far the most important, for it contained so many heavy industries and was so densely built-up that, according to the Ministry’s official estimate, a bomb dropped there at random had’ an even chance of hitting some work of man’. And of all the towns of the Ruhr, the chief was Essen, with the great Krupps works sprawling heavily across it. It was against Essen, then, that Harris aimed the first blow of the new offensive.
The technique of attack had been worked out with great care. An advance force would drop flares for fifteen minutes, relying entirely on GEE and ignoring visual impressions in order not to be misled by decoys. Two minutes after the first flares went down, other aircraft of the advance force would start bombing with incendiaries, taking as their aiming point the big square in the centre of the old town. After fifteen minutes the main force would begin to arrive, and would pile down its bombs on the fires already burning. The tactics, in other words, were to be a form of pathfinder/fire-raiser technique; but whatever the Luftwaffe had shown us of these methods in the autumn of 1940 was to be far surpassed. For even if the town was completely obscured by cloud, GEE, it was thought, would ensure that at least one bomb in two found its mark.
On the night of 8th/9th March conditions promised well, and 211 bombers, of which eighty-two were equipped with GEE, took off for the great attack. The first wave arrived punctually and duly dropped their flares on GEE fixes. The weather held good, apart from the inevitable industrial haze. Unfortunately, many of the incendiaries were dropped after the flares had burnt out. Scattered fires therefore sprang up, and these seriously misled the main force. The result was that though 168 aircraft claimed to have bombed the target area, the brunt of the attack fell on the Southern outskirts. Many bombs also struck the neighbouring towns of Hamborn, Duisburg and Oberhausen. In the Essen area the local authorities noted the fall of 3,000 incendiaries and 127 high explosive bombs, and reported appreciable damage to engineering works, railways and houses. Krupps was virtually untouched.
Despite the favourable reports of crews, Harris at once realized that the raid was no more than a partial success; for none of the forty-three successful photographs taken during the operation showed any recognizable feature of the target area. On the following night he struck again, but once more much of the attack went astray. In this case a Stirling, hit by flak, jettisoned its incendiaries over Hamborn. Fires at once sprang up, and these were bombed by the following crews, who were unable to see their objective through the smoke and haze. Hamborn in fact received the main weight of bombs, and the great Thyssen steel works attracted what was meant for Krupps. Two other efforts against Essen before the end of the month were little more successful. On the first occasion the flare-dropping was too scattered, and a good part of the main force was led astray by an unsuspected decoy near Rheinberg. On the second, many of the crews were dazzled by the brilliance of their own flares.
Disappointing as they were, these raids on Essen were not without effect. Dr. Göbbels, for instance, found his plans somewhat disturbed. He had arranged an impressive funeral in Paris for the victims of the Renault raid; but he was now unable to make much of this in Germany, ‘since there have also been heavy raids on the Ruhr which we cannot splash in the German press. The German people would consider it an insult and find it hard to understand if German newspapers shed tears for the Parisians but gave only a few lines to our own losses’. More important than the inconvenience of Dr. Göbbels or the actual damage inflicted was the fact that the raids afforded Bomber Command lessons of the highest value. Clearly we had expected too much of GEE. What had seemed a device accurate enough for blind-bombing—or at least for blind-releasing of flares—was turning out to be simply an excellent aid to navigation. It could take our bombers within four or five miles of their objective and it could bring them home—both quite invaluable developments—but it had not obviated the need to identify the target with the human eye. And to do this was proving extremely difficult with the existing flare. Something was required which would not dazzle the bomb aimer, particularly when the brightness of the moon or the reflection from the industrial haze added to the general glare. Such a device was to be produced within a year, in the form of the hooded flare. Some guide to the main force more reliable than fires—which could be lit by the enemy—was also needed. It was to be supplied, within ten months, in the form of the target-indicator bomb.
By remorseless analysis of their failures Harris and his staff at Bomber Command—among whom special mention must be made of the extremely capable and popular Senior Air Staff Officer, Air
Vice-Marshal R. H. M. S. Saundby, and the Operational Research Section under Dr. B. G. Dickins—thus paved the way to eventual triumph. But failure, and the lessons to be derived from it, were by no means all that they could display from the first month’s work. For if the opening attacks on Essen were a disappointment, operations outside the difficult Ruhr area showed much more promise. On 12th/13th March, 1942, for instance, fifty-three out of a force of sixty-eight Wellingtons attacked Kiel. The navigators derived great help from’ Gee’, which they used up to the limit of its range. Among other successes bombs fell on the great ship-building yards of the Deutsche Werke and about 280 houses were badly damaged.7 The most significant feature, however, was that though the raid was carried out in the moonless period the results equalled those previously achieved by comparable forces in bright moonlight. Still more encouraging was the attack on Cologne the following night. Photographs taken during the raid showed large fires raging in the Deutz marshalling yards and the built-up areas of the city, while the crews’ reports of heavy damage were fully confirmed by agents and by daylight reconnaissance. The local police recorded 237 fires and damage to 1,691 houses.
All this was soon to be overshadowed by the great raid of 28th/29th March. Lübeck, one of the old Hansa ports on the Baltic, was an alternative target well beyond GEE range. It was selected for attack for three main reasons. In the first place, there were so many old wooden houses in the town that it was highly vulnerable to fire; and Harris, who was under pressure from the Air Staff to employ an all-incendiary form of attack was accordingly less unwilling to do so against Lübeck than against the brick cities of the Ruhr. Secondly, we had not thus far raided Lübeck in force, and its anti-aircraft defences were comparatively light. Thirdly, the Baltic ice was beginning to break up, and the Germans would soon be using the port once more for supplying their armies in North Russia and Scandinavia and importing iron ore from Sweden. In addition, the town contained industries of some importance, a depot for military stores, and a training centre for submarine crews.
The general plan of attack was similar to that employed against
Essen, except that nearly half the bomb-load consisted of incendiaries.8 The moon was bright and visibility excellent, and in the absence of strong defences the raiders were able to press their attacks home from low level. Of the 234 crews despatched, 191 claimed to have bombed the target; night photographs and subsequent daylight reconnaissance fully confirmed their assertion that they had left the town completely ablaze. In all some 300 tons of bombs including 144 tons of incendiaries fell on the built-up area, more than 200 acres of which were utterly devastated. The central power station was destroyed, many valuable warehouses and factories obliterated, the main railway workshops badly damaged. Buildings of historic interest also perished in the general holocaust. German records show that 1,918 buildings were completely destroyed and 5,928 damaged, with the result that 15,707 people lost their homes. No goods could be sent through the town or the port for the next three weeks.
The impression made by the Lübeck raid can be seen from Göbbels’ diary. ‘This Sunday has been thoroughly spoiled by an exceptionally heavy air raid by the RAF on Lübeck’, he recorded on 27th March. ‘I was informed of the seriousness of the situation by a long-distance call from Kaufmann. He believes that no German city has ever before been attacked so severely from the air. Conditions in parts of Lübeck are chaotic. ... Immediately afterwards the Führer called me from G.H.Q. and was very much put out about the negligence of the Ministry of the Interior, which did not even succeed in calling departmental heads together on Sunday evening to discuss the necessary relief measures. ... I telephoned several times to Kaufmann, who gave me a vivid description of the destruction. Eighty per cent of the old part of the city must be considered lost. ...’ A week later Göbbels was still harping on the same theme. ‘The damage is really enormous’, runs the entry for 4th April, ‘I have been shown a newsreel of the destruction. It is horrible. One can well imagine how such an awful bombardment affects the population. Thank God it is a North German population. ... Nevertheless we can’t get away from the fact that the English air raids have increased in scope and importance; if they can be continued for weeks on these lines, they might conceivably have a demoralizing effect on the population. ...’
The German population, with its natural powers of endurance stimulated by fear of the Gestapo, was tougher than either Göbbels or the Air Staff imagined. The expected demoralization did not occur. Nor was it yet possible to send our bombers to ‘Lübeck’ a German town every night, or even every week. And the five per cent
loss incurred in raiding the Baltic port, though light in relation to the results achieved, was higher than we could consistently sustain if Bomber Command was to develop, as we intended, into a truly formidable engine of war.
The success at Lübeck was not equalled in Western Germany. During the first three weeks of April Harris struck at Dortmund, Essen, Cologne and Hamburg, but to little effect. This was mainly because of bad weather over the targets, combined, in the case of the two Ruhr towns, with the invariable industrial haze—obstacles which GEE was not accurate enough to overcome. In the moon period at the end of the month, however, our raiding forces, normally about 100 aircraft strong, obtained much better results. On the night of 27th/28th April an attack on Cologne destroyed Government buildings, motor factories, important railway offices and much residential and commercial property. The following night a raid on Kiel heavily damaged the Germania ship-yards. But once again the most successful operations of the month were far beyond the range of GEE, against another lightly defended port on the Baltic.
The decision to attack Rostock on the night of 23rd/24th April was dictated mainly by the weather. The sky was clear, with a bright moon, and in such conditions our crews stood a good chance of reaching and identifying a distant and unfamiliar target. The general attractions of the place from the bombing point of view included the busy port area, the submarine building yards, and a large plant on the outskirts where Heinkel aircraft were assembled. In accordance with a growing practice of aiming at one precise objective as well as the main built-up area, this plant was given as a special target to selected crews of No. 5 Group. The rest of the 161 bombers were to concentrate on the town as a whole.
The raid was a great success. As the weather remained favourable, repeat performances were accordingly staged the next three nights. All told, 468 of the 521 crews despatched during the four attacks claimed to have reached the target and to have dropped between them 305 tons of incendiaries and 442 tons of high explosive. The effects were certainly impressive. The Heinkel factory was severely hit; if agents’ reports may be trusted the destruction included forty-five complete or nearly complete aircraft. ‘Reliable sources’ also reported that the town was without gas, water or electricity for eighteen days, and that the killed and severely wounded numbered some 6,000. Our own photographs made it clear that over seventy per cent of the old town had been entirely devastated, apart from destruction elsewhere. The cost on our side was twelve bombers.
If Göbbels had been alarmed and angered by Lübeck, he was made
positively livid by Rostock.’ It has been, it must be admitted, pretty disastrous’, he noted after the second night.’ The anti-aircraft didn’t function properly, so that damage to public buildings was more extensive than in all other English air raids since Lübeck. ... The Führer is in extremely bad humour about the poor anti-aircraft defence ... the Luftwaffe wasn’t adequately prepared, and this alone made the damage to the Heinkel works possible’. The third raid brought further comments. ‘Last night the heaviest air attack yet launched had the seaport of Rostock once again as its objective. Tremendous damage is reported ... all long-distance communication has been interrupted ... seventy per cent of all houses in the centre of Rostock are said to have been destroyed. I now consider it absolutely essential that we continue with our rigorous reprisal raids9 ... Like the English, we must attack centres of culture, especially those which have only little anti-aircraft. ... At noon I had lunch with the Führer. He is very angry about the latest English attack on Rostock. But he also gave me a few figures about our attack on Bath. ... The Führer declared that he would repeat these raids night after night until the English were sick and tired of terror attacks. He shares my opinion absolutely that cultural centres, health resorts and civilian centres must be attacked now. ... There is no other way of bringing the English to their senses. They belong to a class of human beings with whom you can talk only after you have first knocked out their teeth’. On 28th April, after the fourth attack, the Propaganda Minister’s comments were more severely factual. ‘The air raid last night on Rostock was even more devastating than those before. Community life there is practically at an end. ... The situation in the city is in some sections catastrophic’. Two days later Göbbels received the final report from the local Gauleiter. ‘Seven tenths of the city have been wiped out. More than 100,000 people had to be evacuated. ... There was, in fact, panic ...’.
There was one other outstanding operation in April 1942. With the four-fold object of maintaining pressure against the German fighter force in France, forcing the enemy to disperse his defences, helping in the Battle of the Atlantic and trying out the capacities of the new Lancasters, Harris on 17th April ‘laid on’ a daylight raid into Southern Germany. The objective was the M.A.N. Diesel Engine Works at Augsburg, the raiding force twelve Lancasters of Nos. 44 and 97 Squadrons led by a South African, Squadron Leader J. D. Nettleton. The plan was for the attacking aircraft to penetrate deep into France and feint for Munich before finally turning for Augsburg. To defeat the enemy radar they would fly at 500 feet until
south of Paris; and other aircraft could help by making diversionary raids against targets in Rouen, Cherbourg, and the Pas de Calais. The attack itself would be delivered at low level with 1,000 lb. bombs fused for eleven seconds’ delay.
The Lancasters set off in mid-afternoon, so that most of the return flight could be made in the dark. Unfortunately the diversions were not wholly successful: they served to alert rather than distract the defences in France. Five minutes after Nettleton and his comrades crossed the French coast they were intercepted by twenty-five to thirty German fighters. The first two sections bore the brunt of the attack. Four of these six bombers were shot down in a long running fight which lasted a full hour. But Nettleton and one other survived, and with the second two sections, who had suffered no losses, managed at length to shake clear of the enemy. Apart from flak over an airfield, they then met no further opposition until, flying at ‘tree-top’ height, they neared their objective. Sweeping in so low that the local anti-aircraft gunners knocked down several chimney pots in attempting to shoot them down, they achieved virtually complete surprise. All eight aircraft managed to drop their bombs, seventeen of which hit the target. As the Lancasters roared away, the inhabitants of Augsburg—who according to a German report regarded the attack as ‘precision bombing of the highest quality’—saw one of the raiders on fire, heading down towards open ground. The crew were making desperate signs to onlookers to move clear. Two more of the attackers also succumbed to flak in the target area. No further losses were sustained on the way home, and the five surviving machines, Nettleton’s still among them, eventually regained base in the early hours of the following morning. Every one bore the scars of conflict. The cost was thus severe; but the Lancasters had certainly left their mark on the factory. Though five of the seventeen bombs had failed to explode, the rest wrought havoc in two machine-tool shops, a forging shop and the main assembly shop. Nevertheless, only three per cent of the machine-tools in the whole plant were put out of action.
The repercussions from this gallant venture were not confined to Germany. The extreme daring and skill of the attack were at once recognized on all sides in England, and were signalized by the award of the Victoria Cross to Squadron Leader Nettleton. Several of the other survivors received the DSO, DFC or DFM, and congratulatory signals—from the Prime Minister, the Commander-in-Chief and the Chief of Naval Staff among many others—poured in on the two Squadrons. On the other hand there was no small volume of criticism against the choice of objective. This came particularly from the
Ministry of Economic Warfare. The Minister, Lord Selborne, addressed a strong protest to Mr. Churchill against the decision to attack a Diesel engine factory when this type of plant was not amongst the six classes of precise objective most strongly recommended by the Ministry. The factory at Augsburg, Lord Selborne maintained, was not specially vulnerable; and even if the whole plant had been wiped out Germany would still have had ample Diesel engine capacity. Harris would have done better, the Minister suggested, to attack certain other targets; and if he had to operate near Augsburg there was always the great ball-bearing factory at Schweinfurt. To this Harris—who had kept his intentions as secret from the Air Ministry as from the Ministry of Economic Warfare—was able to offer a spirited defence. He explained the general motives behind the attack, all of which accorded fully with his directive. He demonstrated that the M.A.N, factory was on his official list, and that it was classed as an objective whose destruction would greatly aid the struggle against the U-boats. He also stressed the importance of tactical considerations, such as the need to choose a compact, easily recognizable target with good land-marks leading to it. Schweinfurt would certainly not have filled the bill in this respect. The Commander-in-Chief’s letter apparently convinced the Prime Minister, who in passing it to Lord Selborne referred to it as an ‘excellent reply’, and characteristically suggested that the affronted Minister should ask Harris to lunch. On the broadest aspect of the operation, however, Harris was as dissatisfied as his critics. Seven out of twelve Lancasters was not a price that he could pay very often for damaging a particular factory. Penetration of the German homeland in daylight was still as difficult as ever: the Lancasters had got away with it little better than the Wellingtons in 1940 or the Blenheims in 1941. The experiment was well worth making, but it had failed; and not until the Mosquitos became available later in the year did Harris attempt further daylight operations against German targets. Even then such attacks were mainly confined to single aircraft working under cover of cloud.
The Augsburg raid caused a storm in a teacup. Of much greater significance was another question under debate at about the same time—the merits of incendiary attack. The Air Staff had for some months regarded fire as the best weapon for attacking cities, and the outstanding success of the operations against Lübeck and Rostock had naturally confirmed them in their view. Harris, on the other hand, had come to Bomber Command with a profound faith in the virtues of high explosive, particularly when it was delivered in big bombs designed for the greatest possible blast effect. At the beginning
of the war we had had no such weapons in our armoury; but now the 4,000 lb. and the new 8,000 lb. high capacity bombs offered Harris the chance to put his theories into practice.10 His expressed conviction—as he put it in a letter to the Air Ministry a few weeks after his appointment—was’ that we had to kill a lot of Boches before we win this war’; and for this purpose fire alone seemed to him inadequate. When the Air Staff invoked the charred ruins of Lübeck, Harris countered that the Baltic city’s old wooden houses made it ‘more like a firelighter than a human habitation’. His contention that high explosive had a detrimental effect on morale could also hardly be questioned. The Bomber Chief could not, however, ignore photographic comparisons of the two types of damage in Cologne. In the end a compromise was reached: the Air Staff, who had begun to visualize bomb loads consisting entirely of incendiaries, agreed to a normal load of two-thirds incendiaries and one-third high explosive. Such a division could not always be achieved in practice, owing to technical difficulties in loading; but the Air Staff’s wisdom in insisting on a high proportion of incendiaries soon became plain. Within less than a year an investigation showed that whereas 8,000 lb. H.C. bombs had destroyed or damaged on the average 1¾ acres of built-up property for every ton dropped, and 4,000 lb. H.C. bombs a little less, each ton of incendiaries had laid waste no less than 3¼ acres.
The opening weeks of May were marked by much bad weather over Western Germany, and for some nights Harris was forced to concentrate on other areas. As it happened he had now been instructed to give more attention to the German aircraft industry, and particularly to those plants manufacturing fighters. This was in the interests of the Russians and our own projected return to the Continent. In conformity with these directions Harris now attacked Stuttgart and Warnemünde. Both of these contained important aircraft plants, while in Stuttgart there was also the Bosch magneto factory. The attacks were moderately successful and resulted in damage to all the main objectives. In the middle of May the weather then became so bad that, sea-mining apart, operations by the night bomber force virtually ceased. This, however, only helped the Command to prepare for the great venture now scheduled for the end of the month—the first raid by a thousand bombers.
* * *
The idea of a blow many times more massive than any yet
attempted in the history of air warfare was Harris’s own. Even the code name—Operation MILLENNIUM—was, in its grim irony, entirely characteristic of the Commander-in-Chief. The whole conception, too, was one of singular daring completely worthy of its author. Up to this time the largest force despatched by Bomber Command against a single target had been 228 aircraft; and the average number of medium and heavy bombers available was no more than 350. To direct 1,000 bombers on a single night against a single town would thus be not only novel, but on the face of it, impossible. It could be done only by husbanding all efforts for some nights beforehand and by bringing into action the bombers from the Operational Training Units. Some of these could be flown by instructors, but others would have to carry a crew of pupils. In any case training would be seriously impeded; and if things went badly wrong both the entire front line and the training organization behind it might suffer a set-back from which recovery would be difficult, if not impossible. On the other hand, lessons of the highest value might be learnt; and in particular the tactics of ‘saturating’ the defences by heavy concentration over a single target within a short time could be tried out to the full. Moreover, the results of the attack might be so impressive that they would allay all opposition—of which there was plenty—to the creation of a large bomber force.
Harris had no difficulty in convincing the Air Staff and the Prime Minister of the merits of his plan, and it was with a light heart that, after receiving the approval of the latter late one night at Chequers, he drove back home in the early hours of the morning. His headlights, as usual, blazed away unmasked; and he has recorded that, inspired as ever by the Churchillian courage and verve, he found himself humming Malbrouck s’en-va-t-en-guerre. There followed a period of intensive preparation. By mobilising all suitable aircraft from Operational Training Units and the Conversion Flights where crews already proficient on twin-engined aircraft learnt to handle the ‘heavies’, and by manning these aircraft with instructors or pupil crews near the end of their training, Harris hoped to bring his operational strength up to 700 aircraft. The balance he at first thought would have to come from other Commands; and in response to his appeal, Coastal, Flying Training and Army Co-operation Commands all offered substantial contributions. Joubert at Coastal Command alone offered some 250 aircraft. But the response from Harris’s own operational and training groups was so overwhelming that he was able to raise the required total of 1,000 aircraft from entirely within his own resources. In the event, only four aircraft from another Command—Flying Training Command—took part in the actual
attack, though Fighter Command and Army Co-operation Command helped by raiding German airfields.
In view of the size of the force and the inexperience of many of the crews, the objective had to be one which was reasonably close at hand and easily identifiable, and the raid had to be carried out in bright moonlight. The two obvious possibilities were Hamburg and Cologne, with the final choice between them depending on the weather. The attack was tentatively fixed for the night of 27th/28th May, two nights before full moon, and all aircraft were to be at their allotted airfields by 26th May. The administrative problems raised by this were formidable. If the choice fell on Cologne, as in fact happened, the assault was planned to last for ninety minutes. The first fifteen minutes would be devoted to attack by all aircraft of Nos. 1 and 3 Groups equipped with GEE; and the last fifteen minutes would be given over to the’ heavies’ of Nos. 4 and 5 Groups—and to photography and visual observation by eight selected crews. In between, distributed evenly, would come the great bulk of the force. All aircraft were to carry the maximum load of incendiaries, including the new 4 lb. explosive bomb. Nos. 1 and 3 Groups, and aircraft operating with them, were given an aiming point in the centre of the town; Nos. 4 and 92 (O.T.U.) Groups were to aim at a point about one mile to the north of this; and Nos. 5 and 91 (O.T.U.) Groups at a corresponding point about one mile to the south. As the moon would be full, flares and markers were not considered necessary. Aircraft unable to identify Cologne were to set course for Essen, and as a last resort to bomb any built-up area in the Ruhr. A carefully-planned route was laid down, and the crews were left in no doubt of the importance of keeping strictly to the prescribed time table.
On the night of 27th/28th May, the provisional date for the attack, thundery conditions and much cloud over the Continent caused the operation to be postponed. The next night the weather was much the same, and it was possible to carry out only a minor mission over France and a little minelaying. On 30th May, good weather was promised at home bases, but over Germany thundery clouds still persisted. Only the Rhineland offered any hope of a successful attack. The force could not stand by indefinitely. Seizing the chance of landing the vast armada back again in clear weather, and accepting the risk that the target would be covered with cloud and the whole operation prove a fiasco, at midday Harris decided to strike that night against Cologne.
The afternoon turned to evening. On fifty-two airfields the bombers stood waiting. Dusk fell, and their engines awoke to life. One by one the great machines roared down the runways, rose strongly aloft, and
set course for the target. Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens—veterans whose days or rather nights of bombing activity were now nearing their end—made up the bulk of the force, numbering in all 708. With them were 338 of the new Stirlings, Halifaxes, Manchesters and Lancasters. Of the total force of 1,046 aircraft, no less than 367 came from the training groups; and of these 259—hitherto regarded as a great force in itself—came from No. 91 Group. While the bomber stream wound its way across the North Sea, fifty aircraft of No. 2 Group and of Fighter and Army Co-operation Commands took off for their part in the attack. ‘Intruding’ over airfields in France, Belgium, Holland and Western Germany, they maintained their diversion until after the last bomb had fallen on Cologne.
Over the North Sea the bomber stream was now forging through thick clouds and many aircraft were troubled by the weight of ice on their wings. But when Holland was reached the cloud began to break up, and by the time the raiding aircraft sighted Cologne, plainly visible through the flak and the glare of the searchlights, the skies were clear except for small wisps of cirrus. At 0047 hours—seven minutes ahead of schedule—the first bombs went down, and at 0225 hours—exactly on time—the last. Apart from some overlapping of the waves everything went according to plan. GEE took the first wave near enough for the crews to identify the target visually in the bright moon. The second and third waves had no difficulty in recognizing the town in the light of the fires started by the first arrivals. The defences were duly ‘saturated’. Fighters, flak and searchlights were all active, but much less so as the attack progressed; indeed after the first three-quarters of an hour they became, according to the crews, ‘weak and confused’. In all, 898 crews claimed to have reached and attacked the target, dropping between them 1,455 tons of bombs, of which nearly two-thirds were incendiaries. High standards of accuracy were achieved—the Air Officer Commanding No. 3 Group (Air Vice-Marshal J. E. A. Baldwin), who personally accompanied his crews in one of the first wave Stirlings, reported fires within half a mile of the aiming point even before his aircraft arrived on the scene. As the last of the bombers turned for home, huge conflagrations were blazing throughout the entire target area. More than 150 miles away they were still plainly visible to our crews.
Early the next morning four Mosquitos of No. 2 Group, in the first bombing operation undertaken by this type of aircraft, penetrated to the stricken city. Their instructions were to deliver a harassing attack and photograph the effects of the previous night’s raid. They found fires blazing on all sides and smoke so dense that photography was impossible. Later reconnaissance succeeded in
bringing back clear evidence of the chaos beneath. Over 600 acres of the built-up area were completely destroyed—nearly as much as all previous devastation in all the towns of Germany added together. Some 250 factories appeared to be destroyed or seriously damaged, among them metal works, rubber works, blast furnaces, chemical works, an oil storage plant and railway workshops, besides various plants manufacturing submarine engines, accumulators, undercarriages, rolling stock and machine tools. Bombs had also fallen on the Police Headquarters and the Central Telephone Exchange. To this impressive if somewhat statistical picture flesh-and-blood interest was added by reports from intelligence sources. Some of the more sober of these recorded a complete breakdown in the emergency feeding and first aid measures, a drastic reduction in rail, telegraphic and telephonic communication between Cologne and the outside world, and a wave of indignation against the Nazi leaders.
Ample confirmation of all this—except the wave of indignation—is contained in the final report of the raid submitted by Gauleiter Grohe to Chief of Police Himmler. This records that 486 persons were killed, 5,027 injured and 59,100 rendered homeless. 18,432 houses, flats, workshops, public buildings and the like were completely destroyed, 9,516 heavily damaged and 31,070 damaged less severely. There was serious interference with the power supply—fifty per cent of the main cables were hit—the gas and water supply, the tramway system and the harbour installations; and the railway repair shops employing 2,500 workers were completely obliterated. Thirty-six Post Offices, including three telephone exchanges, were also destroyed or damaged. The businesses entirely destroyed numbered 484, while 328 industrial plants—about half the total number in the city—suffered in varying degrees. The loss in the larger factories, it was thought, would amount to between three and nine months’ production. ‘The immense number of incendiary bombs dropped’ had caused some 12,000 fires, of which 2,500 had been major outbreaks. As for measures of restoration, 3,500 soldiers, 2,000 prisoners of war and 10,000 labourers had been drafted in to clear the streets and carry out urgent repairs. As a result almost all routes, except in the city centre, were able to function under temporary repair within ten days of the attack. To help in this process of recovery the schoolchildren were at once sent on holiday, for all school buildings still in existence were needed as emergency centres. Finally, the report gave a grim pointer to the excellence of German morale. ‘Measures necessary for the keeping of security were taken by the Justice-Administration. The punishable offences committed have been dealt with at once, and have been judged within
twenty-four hours. So far, only one person had to pay the death penalty: the execution was carried out on the very day of passing judgment ...’.
The cost of Operation MILLENNIUM was light considering the untried hazards of the venture. Forty aircraft of the 1,046 and two of the fifty engaged on intruder work failed to return. In addition 116 aircraft suffered damage, twelve so badly that they were ‘written off’. Most of the missing aircraft succumbed to flak, but at least two were destroyed in collision. Strangely enough the aircraft from the operational groups suffered a somewhat higher rate of loss than the aircraft from the training groups; and among the latter the number of pupils lost (49) was little greater than that of the instructors (40). The rate of loss as a whole was 3.8 per cent—a shade higher than the normal 3.5 per cent against Cologne in the preceding few months, but appreciably lower than the corresponding over-all rate of 4.6 per cent against Western Germany in conditions of cloudless moonlight.
The experiment had thus justified itself to the full. Great damage had been wrought, the loss had been well within bounds, the tactics of ‘saturation’ had proved a brilliant success. The task ahead was now clear, if formidable—to build up a force which could achieve equal results, not on an odd night or two at the expense of the training organization, but systematically; not against easily identifiable targets in North Germany or the Rhineland alone, but in any quarter of the Reich; and not merely in clear moonlight, but in pitch dark and thick cloud.
The entry of 31st May in Göbbels’ diary has unfortunately not been preserved. It would doubtless have made interesting reading.
* * *
If MILLENNIUM were a success, Harris intended to take advantage of the full moon and the large force already assembled to deliver a second blow the next night. The weather, however, proved unsuitable. The following night the forecast still left much to be desired. But the force could not be kept standing by much longer, and Harris decided to strike where there was least likelihood of low cloud. At nightfall on 1st June, 956 aircraft including 347 from the Operational Training Units accordingly took off against Essen. By the time they got there a layer of thin cloud had shrouded the city. The attack was therefore very scattered compared with that against Cologne. Heavy damage was done in neighbouring towns, notably Oberhausen and Mülheim, but Essen itself escaped lightly and Krupps was once again almost untouched. But though the raiding force failed to achieve an effective concentration it was more than the German defences could cope
with. Only thirty-one aircraft (3.2 per cent) failed to return from the most strongly defended district in all Germany.
Raids on this scale, however desirable as an experiment, naturally aroused expectations—on both sides of the North Sea—which could not yet be fulfilled. The British public, eagerly adopting the ‘1,000 bomber’ level as a normal standard, suffered acute disappointment when smaller forces continued to go forth; for the means by which 1,000 bombers had been collected together were naturally not proclaimed from the housetops. In fact only one more raid of this magnitude was attempted in 1942, when 1,006 bombers (including 272 from Operational Training Units and 102 from Coastal Command) took off to attack Bremen on the night of 25th/26th June. Once again, as at Essen, a layer of cloud intervened between the force and its objective. Most aircraft in the first wave bombed blind on GEE, and the glow of the fires thus caused, reflected in the cloud, provided the main means of identification for the rest of the force. Serious damage was done at the Focke-Wulf works, and about twenty-seven acres of the business and residential area were completely destroyed. Forty-nine aircraft, however, or five per cent of the force despatched, failed to return—more than in either of the other big attacks. Among these were twenty-two aircraft of No. 91 (O.T.U.) Group, all but one manned by pupil crews.
Despite this warning Harris decided to continue using the Operational Training Units against the nearer or more easily recognized targets. By this means he hoped to mount two or three raids each month of the order of 700 to 1,000 sorties, reserving this effort for the few really fine nights. On the remaining nights activity would be limited to small-scale raids and minelaying. As it happened, however, it was on only one night during the next three months that he managed to put into the air a force exceeding 500 aircraft. His scheme was defeated by the weather, the rising casualties, and the obvious harm which was being done to the training organization.
Apart from the three great raids already mentioned, only four operations over Germany involving the use of Operational Training Units were in fact mounted. These were against Düsseldorf on the nights of 31st July/1st August and 10th/11th September, and against Essen on the nights of 13th/14th and 16th/17th September. Against Düsseldorf, a readily identifiable target at the junction of Ruhr and Rhine, outstandingly successful results were achieved. On the first occasion the raiding force, 630 bombers strong, included 211 aircraft from the Training Units; on the second, 174 aircraft from the Training Units helped to make up a total force of 476. On both
nights the Training Units suffered a higher rate of loss than the Squadrons. The two raids on Essen, both carried out by a force of some 400 aircraft—of which about one-third came from the O.T.U.’s—were again frustrated by bad weather and haze.
Raids of this size were exceptional efforts. In general Harris was compelled by the uncertain weather to employ over the Reich only the normal operational squadrons. With these he achieved a high rate of effort, despatching forces of the order of 200 aircraft ten times in June. The usual lack of success, coupled with high losses (6.6 per cent) met all attempts to bomb Essen, but good results were obtained at low cost against the more easily located towns of Emden and Bremen. In the last raid against Bremen during the month, 184 aircraft relying only on their GEE fixes released their bombs within twenty-three minutes. This was the highest rate of concentration yet achieved.
In July there were again ten major attacks, carried out by average forces of some 300 aircraft. They resulted in heavy damage at Wilhelmshaven, where the Deutsche Werke again suffered, at Hamburg, where the shipyards of Blohm and Voss and the Deutsche Werft were affected, and at Saarbrücken, where many bombs fell on iron and engineering works. Good results were also obtained against Duisburg and its adjoining towns. Two daylight raids by Lancasters against shipyards at Lübeck and Danzig—the most distant objectives ever attacked in day by our heavy bombers—met with no great success, but avoided heavy casualties.
Though Harris was not using the O.T.U. crews as often as he had hoped, he was thus getting somewhere. Ten raids a month by forces of 200 to 300 aircraft was no small contribution towards victory, particularly as most of the bombs were now falling where they were intended—attacks against Essen always excepted. But the Commander-in-Chief remained keenly dissatisfied with existing methods of illuminating and marking, and uncomfortably aware how much still depended on clear weather over the target. He was also worried by the mounting losses. Many of the attacks had been carried out economically; but others, notably against Essen on 8th/9th June and Hamburg on 27th/28th July, had cost over ten per cent of the force despatched. For the Germans had not ignored the deadly threat implicit in the first 1,000 bomber raid. Everywhere their defences—flak, fighters, radar stations, searchlights—were being improved and multiplied. Such developments were unquestionably both a tribute to Bomber Command and an advantage to hard-pressed Russia. But if they proceeded unchecked they could well bring the whole bombing
offensive to a standstill, or at least ensure that it grew no more powerful.
So, as the summer of 1942 wore on, Harris continued to address himself to the same essential problems. First, how to get a force of a size equal to the task of destroying at least fifty of Germany’s major towns. Secondly, having got it, how to put so many bombers in so short a time over the desired objective that the defenders were helpless. Thirdly, how to do this on moonless nights, when the enemy’s night fighters were badly handicapped. By September, despite the failure of exaggerated hopes attached to GEE, Harris was nearer to these ideals than at the reopening of the campaign in March. But there was still a long way to go before the bomber force attained either the size that the Air Staff had visualized and the War Cabinet approved, or the accuracy without which size was merely wasteful.