Bomber Harris, not a happy man (1)

I hope that I don’t produce book reviews too frequently, and I certainly always limit myself to books that I have read and that I know I have enjoyed. In such a category is the 288 page book, “The Relentless Offensive”, War and Bomber Command 1939-1945″. The book is priced at £21 for a new hardback but there are plenty of reduced price copies as low as £4 or £5 including delivery. Here’s the cover:

Amazon, the seller of the cheaper used examples, says that the book is ” a fresh analysis of Bomber Command, its tactics and technology.” This is correct but there is more to the book than that, with, for example, in-depth discussions of high-explosive bombs and explanations as to why apparently identical bombs differed so much in effectiveness. The defensive armament used by Bomber Command aircraft is examined and explanations offered to explain its ineffectiveness:

Perhaps most important of all, why was Bomber Command’s navigation so frequently so very, very poor? Failures in this area would eventually lead to the conclusions of the Butt Report, which stated on August 8th 1941, after two years of war,  that:

“only about one-third of aircraft claiming to reach their target actually reached it.”

Here is the Butt Report, looking a little dog-eared today :

Of that successful third who flew through the night, and reached the target, when it came to dropping bombs, ”only one in three of them got within five miles”. In other words, a mere one ninth, 11%, of the aircraft claiming to have flown over the target, did, in actual fact, get anywhere near to dropping their bombs accurately on said target. On occasion the wrong town or city was bombed. At least one Old Nottinghamian did this. They returned triumphantly from their raid only to find out that they had not bombed Genoa but a seaport some thirty five miles away called Savona. Sometimes, the German town received virtually no bombs at all and the inhabitants did not realise that they were the target of an RAF raid.

In similar fashion, the RAF appeared on occasion to be targeting what the Germans on the ground thought was a bizarre target, such as a cheese factory or an ice cream works. Still, at least the RAF did not bomb Switzerland quite as frequently as the Americans did (“Gee, the target was lit up like a Christmas tree”) or as the Germans bombed the Irish Republic (Dublin on several occasions. and also Blackrock Island off the coast of County Mayo, damaging the several lantern panes and the roof of the lighthouse.) Here’s the lighthouse, a difficult building to find and to identify, especially in broad daylight:

Clearly, the problems of reaching a target at night and bombing that target when you couldn’t necessarily see it, had not been solved during the first two years of the war:

To make things even worse, Butt did not include at any point in his examination “those aircraft that did not bomb because of equipment failure, enemy action, weather or which failed to find the target”.

When, in 2003, modern researcher Hank Nelson carried out Butt’s calculations, taking into account this final category of the aircraft who did not drop their bombs for a variety of reasons, he discovered that only about 5%, one twentieth, of RAF bombers setting out from their bases in England bombed within five miles of the target. Other modern research, presumably nowadays making some use of German sources, has since then revealed that “49% of Bomber Command bombs dropped between May 1940 and May 1941 fell in open country”.

The places being bombed heavily, therefore, must have included all of the countryside behind this strategically important railway viaduct:

Such inaccuracy is one of the main areas examined by Roy Irons in his marvellously interesting book. Some of the reasons that 95% of Bomber Command aircraft might as well have stayed safe at home we will look at next time.


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

28 responses to “Bomber Harris, not a happy man (1)

  1. Interesting stuff John.
    I read once that the reason Hull was so severely bombed was that it was easy to pick out on the mouth of the Humber even with a black out. Another supposed reason was that many German pilots didn’t fancy running the gauntlet of anti aircraft defences further inland so dropped their bombs as soon as they could, turned around and went back home.

    • Thank you for your kind words.
      You are absolutely right that Hull was easy to find and so was Liverpool, Glasgow, Belfast I(the heaviest bombed city except for London) and Portsmouth. Don’t forget though, that from 1940 onwards the Germans had the beam system to help with their bombing whereby two electronic signals were made to cross over the target and bombing became a doddle.
      ( The bombing of Coventry was pretty much the first use of the system (November 14th 1940.
      As for dropping bombs on Hull and then flying back to Germany, that is not as unlikely as it might initially sound. If it was foggy, raining, or any other kind of bad weather, Hull must surely have been a better bet than Leeds or Sheffield which, without the beams, would have been a nightmare to find in the dark.

  2. Thank you, Derrick. As we will see in the future, Bomber Harris was a complete fanatic who wanted Germany to be bombed from end to end. When other people weren’t up to standard, he would go berserk, wanting them sacked, or, on one occasion, put up against the wall and shot. Overall, not a very forgiving man.

  3. As you know, I am not “up on” the ETO data as I should be, so I have to admit that I never knew we bombed Switzerland at all.

    • These thing happen in war, although I shouldn’t think that the Swiss were too pleased ! The RAF are supposed to have bombed the waters of Cork Harbour in the Irish Republic on one occasion to teach the Irish not to refuel U-boats there.
      The most hilarious events came when pilots got lost and landed in the wrong country. On one famous occasion, a Luftwaffe pilot landed the new top secret Focke Wulf fighter on an RAF base. The story is told here :

      Herr Faber wasn’t the only one to do this kind of thing, but I must confess, I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when his kids asked him in 1960 “What did you do in the war, Daddy?”.

  4. When you look at the numbers as you do here it shows what a terrible waste of life for so little return.

    • I would imagine that everybody was extremely shocked by the Butt report. Nobody had suspected that Bomber Command’s standards of achievement were so low, and this despite the incredible bravery of so many men from so many different countries.
      The Butt report was a definite turning point though, because Churchill realised that the only possible thing to do was to bomb the German workers’ houses as well as their factories……”area bombing” in other words, rather than just one particular factory.
      Bomber Harris was the man who would put all this into practice, making use of the Pathfinders who would mark the target for the rest of the bomber force. Eventually, using these methods, and electronic wizardry, Bomber Command would become so effective that they could destroy a small town in less than half an hour.

  5. Pierre Lagacé

    I have learned something new John.

    • I’m pleased to hear it, Pierre. I have never understood how people can say they have nothing to do or that they need something “to pass the time”. Once all the household chores are done, I have so many interesting things to do, and I would be very surprised if you were not exactly the same.

  6. Jan

    I recall reading somewhere that the RAF should have deployed Mosquitoes to prosecute the bombing offensive against the Reich. Although they carried a much smaller bombload than the four-engine “heavies” (but still greater than the USAAF’s B17) their relative invulnerability to flak and night fighters, coupled with their greater accuracy, would have resulted in more effective bombing with fewer aircrew losses.

    • You are absolutely right. A Mosquito carried 4,000 lbs of bombs, two crew and had a loss rate of 0.5%. It was clearly better than the B-17, the B-24 (bomb load only 8,000 lb) and all of the RAF heavies except the Lancaster (14,000 lb).
      I think that it is this author in this book who explains, though, that giving up heavy bombers for the Mosquito was impossible. It took six months to tool up for a new aircraft and its parts to be produced and it was an expensive process. They had only just done this for the Stirling and the Halifax.
      This produced a kind of momentum whereby it was very difficult to stop production of, for example, these two bombers. Instead, keep producing the minimum number and then find easier, less demanding things for them to do, such as carrying parachutists, freight, minelaying and electronic countermeasures. It was similar with the Halifax, with a number of different tasks.
      One further thing is that perhaps the Mosquito would have been very difficult to produce in very large numbers with a variety of woods required
      ( but I would have to say that I am not sure qabout this latter point.

  7. Another interesting book to read is “Instruments of Darkness” by Alfred Price. It’s a detailed look (without being overly technical) at the electronic war between Britain and Germany, and is a fascinating read on how the opposing nations fought to develop and counter act each other’s systems. The British were, on the whole, way ahead of the Germans who never really took electronic warfare too seriously underestimating the true potential of it. The electronic war obviously paid dividends for the allies (although it was never ‘perfect’) bombing campaign, the start of which was pretty much a disaster. Thanks for the great review John, one to look it for.

  8. Thanks for the heads up about Dr Price’s book. I will keep my eyes open for it. Years ago there was a series on TV about the scientist RV Jones and his involvement in the so-called “Battle of the Beams” which produced his book called “Most Secret War” but strangely, the TV programmes did not become a DVD box set as far as I can see.
    I have always been impressed by how the RAF used to take German speakers, usually Jewish, to give the Luftwaffe night fighters the wrong orders. That must have been excellent fun!

  9. Chris Waller

    Those statistics are absolutely shocking. I would have thought that by 1939 it would have been possible to navigate an aircraft to a sufficient degree of accuracy to reach a specific city or town. That said I suppose all towns look pretty much the same from a height of 4 miles. I also saw that programme about R V Jones and how he managed to ‘bend’ the German radio beams. That probably saved a good many lives.

    • There will be quite a few posts yet discussing Roy Irons’ book and some of the new material contained in it. All will be revealed about why the RAF couldn’t find towns and cities very easily. Lufthansa managed it very well with their airliners who flew at night as completely normal practice.
      On a different point, I can’t see why the RV Jones programme is not a DVD boxset. A programme from the same era, James Burke’s “Connections” has been available for quite a while now.

  10. This one is going on my reading list. Interesting stuff. I’ve always wondered about their navigation at night over those distances with just map, compass, etc.

    • As well as map and compass, they also made regular use of the sextant and whatever that thing is that works with stars. An astrolabe ?? Not sure.
      The clue is that so many RAF bombers still had a special Perspex dome called the radome, which could be used for all of these rather bizarre activities.
      There will be more parts to this story and if you like watching useless lazy people get a good verbal kicking for their incompetence from the new Bomber Command supremo, Bomber Harris, then I think you will enjoy them!

      • Star navigation is hard enough from the deck of a slow moving ship – doing that from a much faster airplane by people who’ve just learned how to do it sounds a bit problematic to me. I’m looking forward to reading more.

  11. Jan

    I sometimes think that Britain’s most important military asset of the past hundred years has been the lucky horseshoe we keep deep in the bowels of the Ministry of Defence.

    The Angel of Mons; The Miracle of Dunkirk; even the Argentinian bombs that should have sunk a significant part of the Falklands task force, if only they had been dropped from a slightly greater altitude.

    I could go back earlier to other “Damn close-run things” [sic].

  12. Pierre Lagacé

    Reblogged this on RCAF 425 Alouettes and commented:
    Le premier article de John Knifton sur Bomber Harris

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