Bomber Harris, not a happy man (2)

The inaccuracy of Bomber Command’s raids during the first two or three years of the conflict is one of the main areas examined by author, Roy Irons, in his book, “The Relentless Offensive: War and Bomber Command”.

Reading about the navigational failures of the early war years, it does not come as much of a surprise to the modern reader when Irons reveals that:

“in the first 21 years of the RAF (1918-1939) very little emphasis was put on accurate navigation or bombing accuracy….. In January 1933, of 1,346 junior officers in the RAF, only 38 had taken and passed the ordinary specialist course in navigation”.

He continues: “In 1934, the officer in charge of the Air Defence of Great Britain admitted that:

“the ability of the RAF to fly at night and in all weathers compared unfavourably with Lufthansa who operated a service between Cologne and Croydon”.

Here is Lufthansa’s four engined, streamlined monoplane airliner, the Junkers G38:

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And here is the RAF’s Handley Page Heyford, which looks, quite simply, bizarre. Mr Handley Page will have a prominent place in Roy Irons’ book later on:

In January 1937, a paper was written by a Group Captain Maclean. It was called “The Problem of Bombing at High Speeds” and he concluded that:

“even under conditions of maximum visibility on the clearest days, bombing anything but an area target would be an impossibility, while in conditions of poor visibility and at night, this problem becomes completely impossible.”

The problem was that Bomber Command “needed to see the ground” all the way to the target. If the bombers were going to bomb Dortmund successfully, they needed to watch the countryside unfolding beneath them all the way there if they were to find the city, and that even in daytime.

In 1939, Sir Henry Tizard, the chairman of the Aeronautical Research Committee, recommended the use of a sextant to all Bomber Command aircraft within 10-15 miles of the target, rather like Captain Hornblower against the French. This is not Captain Hornblower, by the way. No, this is Captain Ahab, who always preferred longer skirts as he had a false leg:

Sir Henry Tizard also felt that “nobody could guarantee accurate bombing unless they could see the ground”. Indeed, the results of Bomber Command’s bombing in the war’s early years were horrendous.  Slowly but surely, though, it came to be thought that trying to destroy specific targets was a complete waste of time, and highly trained lives. Accuracy was supposed to be “within 300 yards” of that specific target but a more accurate figure would have been a thousand  yards…more than half a mile.

These Vickers Wellingtons were constructed to high standards, but dropping bombs accurately on the target was not their strong point:

Can any more go wrong ? Well, what do you think ? Part Three very soon.


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

23 responses to “Bomber Harris, not a happy man (2)

  1. I suppose accuracy is a little better today

  2. Too bad they didn’t have drones, eh? But no matter how accurate we become there are always mistakes – the human factor can’t be avoided.

    • Yes, I suppose that as long as humans are involved, there will always be errors, which are not helped by the apparently common practice nowadays of locating military bases and ammunition dumps as close as possible to their own schools, hospitals and kindergartens.
      The bomber crews in WW2 were certainly aware of the risk of injuring innocent people, especially children but put it to the back of their minds and tried to ignore it. Unlike the British, incidentally, the Germans made no attempt whatsoever to send their children away into the countryside for extra safety.

  3. Fascinating. Captain Ahab is a lady?

  4. I got a copy if this book last week and have started reading it. Interesting stuff.

    • Yes it is ! There will be a few more posts about Bomber Harris in the future, simply because I was amazed that he was so forthright about, or quite often to, his superiors. That would have been an amazing character trait in that era when England was quite a “Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir” kind of society.

  5. Blanket bombing was the answer. What a despicable monster.

    • A slightly harsh summary when Harris didn’t invent the policy and it was devised by Churchill, approved by the cabinet and was appointed by Charles Portal, the Head of the RAF.
      Two quotes from Wikipedia:
      (on Portal) “In August 1941 he received a report on the relative inefficiency of RAF daytime raids and proposals for area bombing by night: to implement the proposals he determined that a new leader was required and replaced the chief of bomber command, Air Chief Marshal Richard Peirse, with Arthur Harris. He was advanced to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in the 1942 Birthday Honours. ”
      (and on area bombing)
      “In 1942, the British Cabinet agreed to the “area bombing” of German cities. Harris was given the task of implementing Churchill’s policy and supported the development of tactics and technology to perform the task more effectively. Harris assisted British Chief of the Air Staff Marshal of the Royal Air Force Charles Portal in carrying out the United Kingdom’s most devastating attacks against the German infrastructure and population, including the Bombing of Dresden.”

      • Someone has to take the blame. It is too soon do dismantle the reputation of heroes but one day even Churchill will be reassessed by historians.
        I have often thought that the Allies could simply have left the Soviet Union to do the job and then there would have been less blood on western allies hands.
        Was the bombing of Dresden really necessary, could Harris have advised against it?

      • There are quite a few questions there, so I’ll answer each one briefly.
        Harris did speak against the bombing of Dresden as far as I know because he said that it was a waste of time and lives but an agreement had already been made with Stalin at one of those conferences they used to have, that the RAF and the USAAF (they always seem to get left out of most accounts) would bomb a number of cities in eastern Germany and western Poland, including Dresden. The cities were all selected by Stalin and the British and Americans agreed for a number of reasons. Roosevelt, I think it was, wanted to show off to Stalin how powerful he was, the “Destroyer of Cities”. The Americans and the British perhaps, to a lesser extent, were scared that the Red Army would not stop at Germany at the end of the war but would continue to the Channel coast. This bombing would show Uncle Joe that he was, literally, playing with fire and that his forces, with no heavy bombers or decent fighter planes of their own, would be severely dealt with by 2,000 plus four engined bombers.
        Let’s not forget revenge. The British public had gone through the Blitz and they wanted the Germans to suffer to the same extent. They wanted them bombed, bombed and bombed again. Furthermore, the Germans had proved themselves the barbarians of Europe over the last seventy years. They had provoked France into war in 1870 and then battered them. They had started WW1 and they had started WW2. There was absolutely no sympathy for them whatsoever. I have (very dim) memories of a vote about the House of Commons voting on “the conduct of the war” which would have been in perhaps 1943 or 1944. The vote was won 599-1 as far as I remember.

      • Thanks John, that is good information.

      • The region of Alsace Lorraine has a lot to answer for!

  6. History it seems only repeats itself, John, in war and in politics and in life itself. So many errors, errors that take human life. Must I say more? Another fascinating post, John. Thank you!

    • You are absolutely right, Amy. It’s such a pity that, say, half of every country’s defence budget couldn’t be taken off them and given to help the people who really need it. That doesn’t stand much chance of coming to pass, but never mind. It was a nice daydream!

  7. In the years leading up to wwII the RAF was ill prepared, under powered and quite frankly backward in comparison to the Luftwaffe. The British pre-war policy was one of defence rather than attack and by the time war broke out bomber crews were indeed very poorly trained for what was to come. Some recent research I came across quoted just over 30% of bombs landing within 3 miles of the aiming point rising to just under 40% with the initial introduction of the Pathfinders. It would take many months before accuracy improved even then, it was dubious at best. On a more serious note, is Captain Ahab about to lose his other leg? Poor chap!

    • I don’t think so. He appears to be smiling as he looks through that contraption he has, and I suspect that they are just coming into port and he’s spotted a new make-up shop that wasn’t there when they went out to sea eighteen months ago.
      Thinking of the dilly of a pickle that the UK was in in, say, 1936, I would put it down to two or three things. Most important is handing the top jobs to people on their number of years’ service, irrespective of their talents or intelligence. Equally ridiculous is giving out the top jobs to people who are perhaps connected to your family, or a member of the family of one of your friends. The fact that somebody is a “damned good sort” is no reason to promote him either.
      I do have sympathy though, with the people who were reluctant to start arming the nation to the teeth because the most terrible war ever was only 18 years ago. The nation could also have been short of money because I read somewhere that in the late 1930s vast sums of money were still being used, not just in paying the bill for the First World War, the guns the equipment and so on, but in paying for all the men who were terribly wounded and couldn’t work. And their families needed help was well.
      I’m reasonably certain that the article said that 40% of the government’s money went on that but I can’t quote you chapter and verse on it, I’m afraid.

      • I can well believe it John. Vast sums of money must have gone on the war alone, giving a strong argument to those opposed. The ‘old boy’ network was certainly in full swing then! Promoting all in sundry because of who they were or who they knew!

  8. An interesting post zjohn. Hope you’re well.

  9. Fine, Lloyd, thank you. I’ve just written you a reply with the address of a useful article about Covid-19. BBC news was holding up Australia as a model of how to deal with the pandemic the other day, so at least you are in good hands!!

  10. Pierre Lagacé

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

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