Bomber Command – A ‘Blunt Instrument’ of War

Lieutenant-Colonel (ret’d) David L. Bashow is editor-in-chief of the Canadian Military Journal
and an adjunct professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada.
He has written extensively on a variety of defence, foreign policy and military history topics.
He is the author of “No Prouder Place ÐCanadians and the Bomber Command Experience.”
David was guest speaker at the museum’s Twentieth Anniversary Event in August, 2006.

by David L. Bashow

While it may be unfashionable in today’s world, I believe a society needs its heroes, and no element of a society more so than its armed forces. Ours is a rapidly changing global community. Even the term “hero” gets badly overworked, and there also appears to be a lot of confusion as to just what actually constitutes heroism. However, the virtues of courage and honour do not change.

Fortunately, our Canadian military history is replete with outstanding examples of both virtues to hold dear and to emulate. I also submit that a nation, and that includes our great nation, needs to be reminded from time to time that sometimes citizens just have to be prepared to fight, to take a stand for the values in which we believe and that we hold dear. During the 1930s and 1940s, Nazism was a hideous blight upon humanity, and it needed to be eliminated by whatever means necessary.

The window of opportunity for paying proper tribute to our Second World War veterans is rapidly closing. With that in mind, particularly in light of the recent explosion of negativism with respect to the Second World War strategic bomber offensive, I believe it is time to comment on the rationale for, and the results obtained by, the bombing campaign. This massive effort, for various reasons and from various sources, has been denigrated over time, and the participating aircrews have frequently been marginalized, occasionally even demonized. However, I submit that the results of the Allied bombing were much more significant, both directly and indirectly, in bringing the war to a successful conclusion for the Allies than has been previously broadly acknowledged.

I also believe it is essential to understand that one cannot revisit historical decisions and actions through the lens of 2006 sensitivities. Furthermore, I believe it is vitally important to judge what was undertaken only in the context of the times, and based upon information and planning considerations that were available at the time. Hindsight, after all, is always 20/20.

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

Readers should note that this issue was particularly germane, since in the early 1940s memories of the wholesale carnage exemplified by the Western Front of 1914-1917 were still painfully fresh, and although the final year of the war was much more fluid and dynamic, recreating another situation whereby massive land armies would become deadlocked in bloody stalemate was dreaded.

However, the Soviets were lobbying hard for some form of offensive relief, and even the Americans, who had agreed to a “Germany first” war priority, were particularly anxious to get the European war over with as quickly as possible, then concentrate Allied efforts against the Japanese in the Pacific. There was significant pressure to “fast-track” an invasion of northwest Europe, long before the British and Dominion forces felt they were ready for such an undertaking. Therefore, the bomber offensive was, in many ways, the ultimate manifestation of a “guerrilla war” strategy, attacking the enemy in a niche periphery, such as through its industrial production capacity, when massive, head-on confrontation was still not a viable option.

The bombing offensive also dealt telling blows to the enemy’s economic and industrial infrastructure, forcing an exceptionally resource-intensive decentralization of Germany’s war industries, and that impact was huge, as well as tying down massive amounts of manpower and material just to counter the threat. It goaded the Nazis into massive and largely inconsequential retaliation campaigns, such as the V-1 and V-2 programs, while other potentially war-winning initiatives, such as a timely concentration on the jet and rocket fighter programs, were marginalized. Decentralization led to massive inefficiencies, but also to tremendous additional strains upon an already overburdened and vulnerable transportation network, exacerbated by the concomitant requirement this policy direction placed upon the need for petroleum products, most especially after the Allies started to treat oil as a high-level priority target in 1944.

It also forced the Nazis to de-emphasize some really scary initiatives that held great developmental promise. These included their nuclear, biological and chemical warfare programs, as well as the timely completion of a new series of U-boats, especially the blue-water Type XXI, which still could have wreaked havoc upon the Allied shipping lanes had they been floated in numbers prior to the end of the war in Europe. Finally, it paved the way, through destruction of the enemy air defences, oil resources and transportation networks, for a successful invasion of Germany through northwest Europe in 1944.

Detractors of the bombing campaign continue to suggest that the bombing had very little effect until the very late stages of the war. However, they forget that the German economy and its war-production industrial output was, under Hitler’s orders, essentially on “trickle charge” until the nation went to a 24/7 “Total War” footing after its disastrous defeat at Stalingrad early in 1943. This time frame coincides with the onset of the combined Anglo-American bomber offensive. The mind boggles at what the Germans might have been able to accomplish had they not been forced to respond to the bombing threat and had they had unfettered use and control over their production facilities, and unrestricted access to their transportation networks and systems.

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

That the bombing caused massive civilian casualties is undeniable. I maintain that approximately 593,000 civilians perished in the greater German Reich alone as a result of the bombings, consisting of 410,000 German civilians, 23,000 non-military police and civilians attached to the German armed forces, 32,000 foreigners and prisoners of war, and 128,000 displaced persons.

However, while these numbers are large, they pale in comparison to the genocide perpetrated upon the peoples of Europe and Eurasia by the Germans and their proxies. By contrast, Great Britain alone lost roughly 65,000 civilians due to aerial bombardment during the war, approximately 43,000 of which occurred during the Blitz of 1940-1941. A major reason the British casualty total is not infinitely greater is that the Allied bomber offensive forced the Germans to concentrate on the majority production of defensive, fighter-type aircraft to honour the bombing threat, and they then became unable to generate a significant late-war long-range strategic bombing force of their own.

Another reason is that the industrial bombing attacks of 1943 through 1945 greatly diminished the anticipated effectiveness of the V-1 and V-2 rocket programs, and thus, the number of civilian casualties. However, let there be no doubt: There is ample evidence that Germany would have had no scruples about bombing Britain to dust, had the means been available to it.

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

Moral issues aside, even the German camp has long acknowledged that the area bombing policy, as it was conducted during the Second World War, was entirely legal. In fact, it has only been illegal since August 1948, when the Red Cross Convention on the Protection of Civilians in Wartime was signed in Stockholm. And in reality, full legal ratification and recognition of that initiative did not occur until decades later.

The deaths of civilians, many of whom were undeniably innocents, were an inevitable result of the bombing campaign, of which the partial and overt mandate was to de-house the enemy industrial worker population and to shatter their will to wage war. Indeed, from 1943 onwards, in Sir Arthur Harris’s own and very public words, “The primary objective of Bomber Command will be the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system aimed at undermining the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.” Readers must also realize that while the deliberate slaughter of the German work force was never mandated, collateral damage was certainly anticipated. The destruction of residential areas was intended to make it extremely difficult for that work force to remain on the job. The western propensity for either embedding industrial complexes in residential areas or for building residential areas around industrial facilities inevitably produced further casualties.

This reality was further exacerbated by the fact that Bomber Command, as it operated during the Second World War, was “a blunt instrument” with only very limited specialist precision bombing capabilities. Even at its technological peak, it lacked the overall and widespread surgically precise targeting capabilities of today’s weapons platforms. In short, collateral damage to civilians was considered a necessary adjunct to the bombing.

Detractors of the campaign also erroneously suggest that the Allied governments were duplicitous in their portrayal of the bombing campaign to their citizens. In fact, public opinion polls and even propaganda posters of the period reinforce that those citizens were made fully aware of the intentional bombing of Germany’s industrial cities, and they confirm that the bombing had widespread public support.

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