Bomber Harris, not a happy man (7)

Mainly because Harris was in charge only of Bomber Command and not of any of the various other civil service departments that he dealt with, there were continued and repeated failures to produce a variety of the equipment which was needed to fight the war effectively. In his book, “The Relentless Offensive” by Roy Irons, he discusses the most important examples of the many failures by the Ministry of Supply:

As we have seen, they included the aluminised bomb, the 0·50 machine gun, the cluster bomb and the high proportion of ordinary bombs which failed to explode on contact with the target. Such failures were so frequent, that Harris said that a huge number of the civil service departments should all have the motto “Non possumus”  (“We can’t do that.”).

The most basic problem was that the proportion of warriors “at the sharp end” continued to decline throughout the war, as an increasingly large number of fairly useless and largely impotent civil service departments exerted their enormous influence on events. As the author says:

“The tail, in Bomber Command’s war, was wagging the dog, and often forgetting the dog altogether in its own day to day programme.”

Just look at the contrast between the American “Can-do” and the English “Non possumus”. In the USA, the prototype for the P-51 fighter was produced one day early,  after only 119 days. Imagine that. Somebody sharpens his pencil to start working on the design of a new aircraft, and 17 weeks later, it’s off down the runway on its maiden flight:

For the 0·50 machine gun, the British Civil Service Armament Department gave an estimate of 15 years before it could be brought into use. And the cluster bombs of fifty or a hundred 4lb incendiaries, in actual fact, never did appear. If they had, Bomber Command might have been able to fulfil the macabre prophecy of Albert Speer, “The Nice Nazi”, after the firestorm had destroyed Hamburg in July 1945:

“Six more like that and all war production will come to a total halt.”

Hamburg was devastated by the inadvertent creation of a fire storm, the first ever produced by the RAF:

There were to be only two more. They were, if my memory serves me well, Dresden and Darmstadt. Who knows to what extent the war might have been shortened had Harris had access to cluster bombs of incendiaries? How many fewer casualties would the RAF  have had? And how many fewer Germans overall would have died? And where would Stalin’s hordes have got to? Minsk?

Perhaps even more deplorable was the frequency with which British bombs failed to detonate. Around 20% of bombs were “flat strikes”, which means that they quite simply didn’t go off. For most of them, it was because, as they fell, their fins were supposed to make them spin, and this spinning would arm the bombs so that they would explode on contact with the ground. Except that very often, far too often, no spin meant no bang ! Presumably these are the hundreds of “unexploded bombs” which are still found on a regular basis all over Germany on a regular basis:

Every time the Germans try to construct an urban motorway or lay the foundations for a skyscraper of some kind, they seem to unearth a few more. And the tragedy is, of course, that these WW2 duds are still continuing to kill or maim the completely innocent and enormously brave young Germans who are tasked with defusing them.


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

25 responses to “Bomber Harris, not a happy man (7)

  1. Problems with supply are not new then

    • Alas, no. They are at least eighty years old, although I have an idea that problems were even worse during WW1 when a large percentage of the shells supplied to the British army in particular failed to go off.
      Wikipedia says “an estimated 300 million explosives fired by German and British forces did not explode. Most of these have not been recovered and in 2012 alone 160 tonnes of them were unearthed around Ypres”.
      It’s a real tragedy that these explosives are still killing and maiming innocent people more than a century after they were fired.

  2. I never realized the situation was quite that poor. But now I do understand why they keep unearthing WWII bombs these days.

    • It certainly is. Andrew Reynolds (above) expresses my sentiments perfectly. It should be remembered, though, that the war effort of other countries was affected even more seriously than Bomber Command’s. Apparently, British Intelligence had the chance to assassinate Hitler but decided to leave him in place because of the huge mistakes he was making on an almost daily basis.

  3. The production of the P-51 shows what can be done albeit outside of a bombing campaign, but the “Non possumus” of the government bodies nearly cost much more. Harris Complained about the total Inaccuracy and indeed dangers to other aircraft, of small incendiaries, but was ignored by the government. He was forced to cut official corners, and ordered directly, a new turret with a .5 caliber gun from Rose brothers who produced it in less than a year. Without Civil servants interfering things could be, and indeed were done.

    • Yes, they were. Very often it was because of direct orders from Churchill himself. According to what I have read, for example, he was responsible for the fact that the Sherman Firefly tank was ready for D-Day. This was the ordinary American tank, but equipped with the powerful 3-inch calibre British 17-pounder anti-tank gun as its main weapon. Officials had threatened the men who developed it with the sack if they continued their work, but they got word to the Prime Minister, and everything changed.

      • It really does beggar belief doesn’t it, how one country’s governing body can be so tied up in red tape. How we ever manage to complete the task, from a political point of view, is sometimes baffling.

  4. I just finished reading the book. It’s amazing how badly they did things but still managed to win the war.

    • Yes, that thought did cross my mind more than once. I think that the answer is probably the greatest ever Englishman, Churchill, whose hobby was cutting through red tape and upsetting civil servants.

  5. Oh wow, John. The screw ups that are still hurting/killing people today. Sort of reminds me of what is occurring in today’s present war. The tragedies of any war do not stop when the war does. We all know that. I never even thought that there are still unexploded bombs around. That’s downright scary!

    • Yes, sadly, there are plenty of bombs around and they still kill people more than 70 years after they were dropped. Personally, I think that, if at all possible, they should be detonated rather than attempts made to defuse them.

  6. atcDave

    Speaking as a career employee of the US government, I’d say we’re even more the same now…

    And specifically on the Mustang, I know Dutch Kindelberger (CEO of NAA at the time) later said “in order to pull a rabbit out of one’s hat, you have to first put a rabbit in the hat”. Specifically, much of the critical work and concept of the Mustang was already underway at North American. The British order provided the push to make it happen quick.
    So naturally, the US Government required NAA to buy research work studies from Curtiss because they were tangentially related to what North American was working on (mainly the belly mounted radiator). Government meddling is a constant.

    • Thanks very much for that. I don’t know how the American system works but over here the Civil Service is a constant. Governments change but the civil servants keep their jobs and go on and on. For that reason, namely that they have pretty much a job for life, they have little inclination to be particularly active and, according to Harris, could always find a reason not to do things.
      This situation, which still exists today, was captured beautifully in a BBC comedy series called “Yes, Minister” and then “Yes, Prime Minister” which shows how the wily Head of the Civil Service always gets the better of the Prime Minister. Here’s a three minute extract:

      • atcDave

        That is very funny, and I fear just as true here. Of course, if you say that out loud you’re a “deep state conspiracy theorist!”

  7. Jan

    Alan Brooke and Dudley Pound were not so enamoured of Churchill’s war-waging qualities. Admiral Pound was vehement in his opposition to Churchill’s pet “Operation Catherine”; a particularly stupid plan that would have seen a fair chunk of the Royal Navy on a one-way trip to the bottom of the Baltic.

    When Lord Alanbrooke’s war diaries came out in the 1950s he did not pull his punches when it came to his opinion of the Minister of Defence and First Lord of the Treasury. Mercifully Churchill was gaga by this time.

    • I’ll be the first to confess that I don’t know too much about the Royal Navy in WW2, but according to Wikipedia, all of the people you mention have grave faults themselves, as indeed, we all do.
      For example, according to Wikipedia, the head of planning for Operation Catherine was Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork so it’s difficult to believe it can have been “a particularly stupid plan”. And what’s stupid about trying to stop the flow of Swedish iron ore to Germany?
      Dudley Pound suffered great criticism for the failed Norwegian Campaign in 1940, for his dismissal of Admiral Dudley North in 1940, for Japan’s sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse in late 1941. His order in July 1942 to disperse Convoy PQ 17 and withdraw its covering forces, led to its destruction by submarines and aircraft.
      As far as Brooke is concerned, among the few individuals of whom he seems to have kept consistently positive opinions, from a military standpoint, were General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, Field Marshal Sir John Dill, and Joseph Stalin. I don’t know anything about Field Marshal Dill but the other two are not on my Christmas card list.
      Apparently, Churchill would have retired through ill health in May 1953 but his successor, Eden, was seriously ill. On the evening of June 23rd 1953, Churchill suffered a serious stroke and became partially paralysed down one side. Had Eden been well, Churchill’s premiership would most likely have been over….(but he carried on until Eden could succeed.)
      Wikipedia receives a lot of criticism but surely it’s unlikely that it’s wildly wrong in all of these separate events?

  8. Chris Waller

    Harris’s experience with the Civil Service confirms the maxim (I don’t know who originally coined it) that ‘the prime function of any bureaucracy is to perpetuate its own existence’. It appalls me that in time of war a bureaucracy can be so inert and so torpid. This is far from the official account of the conduct of the war. The complacency and arrogance of the Civil Service is staggering.

    • Sadly, it also seems to be true! Bomber Harris could not understand how they could behave as they did.
      Perhaps the Civil Service thought they could cosy up to the Germans and then help them to run their latest conquest. I think that they would have been wildly wrong in that supposition. The Germans needed very little help with their policy of “Do what we say or we kill you!”

  9. Pierre Lagacé

    Reblogged this on RCAF 425 Alouettes and commented:
    Part 7

  10. Pierre Lagacé

    I had missed that one!

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