Category Archives: Bomber Command

Bomber Harris, not a happy man (3)

As I mentioned in my two previous blog posts, Roy Irons’ book “The Relentless Offensive: War and Bomber Command” is one of the most informative I have ever read about the RAF’s bombing offensive over Germany, and the man from Southern Rhodesia in charge of it, Arthur Harris:

In the early years of the conflict, of course, the biggest problem faced by the RAF was that most fundamental of questions, namely whether the somewhat second rate aircraft of Bomber Command were actually hitting their targets in Germany:

An early attempt to find out the answer to that rather basic question was the Butt report, which examined night bombing by the RAF in as much detail as possible, and produced its rather disappointing conclusion in early August 1941.

The Butt Report discovered, for example, that most bombs dropped at night did not fall within five miles of their target. At the same time, though, the huge losses of aircraft and aircrew during daylight raids in 1939-1940 meant that the RAF could not possibly switch to that approach as a method of bombing the enemy with any claim to accuracy.

The only solution, therefore, was to continue with bombing at night, but, instead of worrying about civilian casualties, to pursue the Luftwaffe’s own tactic of bombing a whole area, rather than a specific target. Churchill and his war cabinet immediately ordered this change in policy from specific targets such as a factory or a railway junction, to the general bombing of an entire part of a city or town.

Area bombing, of course, could be extremely effective. It flattened the factories of the Third Reich and it destroyed the homes of the workers who worked there:

A new leader was appointed at Bomber Command to implement Churchill’s policy and to develop the tactics and technology to carry out the task more effectively. That man was Sir Arthur Harris, commonly known as “Bomber” Harris by the press and often within the RAF as “Butcher”. Harris was the most forthright of men and he did not suffer fools gladly:

Harris’ brief was to kill Germans. Anybody or anything which impaired the RAF’s ability to do this, he would subject to a severe tongue lashing. Even his ordinary opinions were extremely forthright, although there is little to fault in his thoughts about the conflict and what we had to do:

“War. The only thing that matters is that you win. You bloody well win !”

Such directness was why Harris ended up so hated by so many of his upper class superiors. He was, though, adored by the men under him, the “Old Lags” as he called them. Harris committed the cardinal sin of telling a large number of people, particularly those who outranked him, just how useless they were.

We have already looked at the problem of dropping bombs by night on, for example, the Gelsenkirchen tank factory and destroying it completely, but causing no damage whatsoever to the Gelsenkirchen Tea and Coffee shop next door.

That dilly of a pickle was solved, eventually, not just by the introduction of area bombing, but by improvements in the RAF’s technology and by training navigators until they knew what they were doing:

At the same time, another major problem was that enormous numbers of bombers were being shot down, either by flak or by nightfighters. This in turn, deprived Bomber Command not only of an expensive aircraft, but of a trained pilot, a trained navigator, a trained bomb aimer and any number of trained gunners and so on:

 

Many of these problems came from the fact that all British bombers were defending themselves with 0·303 guns, that is to say, guns of exactly the same calibre as an ordinary soldier’s rifle. In the 1920s, a lecturer at the RAF Staff College showed perhaps just how confused thinking was on this subject. Try as I might, I can make no sense of what he said:

“The aircraft gun is not likely to be required to penetrate armour and a couple of 0·5 inch bullets in a pilot will incapacitate him as much as the fragment of a one and a half pound shell. On the other hand a 0·303 bullet has but little effect on any aeroplane.”

Strange arguments, but whatever point is being made here, it is clear that the enemy pilot was being viewed as the target of the bomber’s defensive fire rather than his aircraft. All that was needed to hurt him was a rifle bullet, so the 0·303 gun was chosen. Here are the three turrets of a Lancaster:

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The official explanation for keeping the 0·303 guns was that eight 0·5 cannons, firing deadly explosive shells, were too heavy to be carried and would compromise the Lancaster’s bombload. Furthermore, the weight of the stored ammunition for the cannons would always affect the centre of gravity of the aircraft. That latter point is ridiculous, of course, because, in his design of any future bomber, the designer would automatically make due allowance for the weight of the ammunition, including any changes in that weight as the ammunition was used.

Not connected with this book by Roy Irons are the almost irresistible stories of aircrew using their initiative to protect themselves. Somewhere I have read of turrets being taken from the B-24 Liberator and used as rear turrets on Lancasters. Somewhere else I am reasonably sure that I have heard of unofficial swaps between the turrets from Lancasters and the turrets from Vickers Wellingtons.

Whatever the truth of this, The  RAF did order 600 Rose turrets in June 1944. They were equipped with the two of the standard American defensive weapons used in the turrets of the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator:

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The weapon in question was the American light-barrel Browning ·50-calibre AN/M2 heavy machine gun. Four hundred turrets were completed by the end of the war although only a mere one hundred and eighty  were fitted. Typical of Harris’ remarks was his statement that:

“this turret was the only improvement made to the defensive armament of the RAF’s heavy bombers after 1942, and those responsible for turret design and production have displayed an extraordinary disregard for Bomber Command’s requirements”.

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Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (6)

Last time, we were looking at Anthony Richardson’s best book of World War Two RAF, Bomber Command, poetry:

The next poem is “Spring 1942” and it is dedicated “To Vera : who always understood”. Richardson talks in the first two verses of how nature changes things when Spring arrives. “Pellucid” means “translucently clear, (of music or other sound) clear and pure in tone”. This is a daffodil, a word which is actually Latin and comes from “asphodilus”.

The natural world is teeming with babies for every creature. He calls their children “reincarnation of themselves”. So many animals and birds are out and about that even the owl, who normally sleeps during the day, has stopped his dreaming.

So too has Man changed his dreams and gone back to all the vile things that he was doing before the winter. These ideas are expressed by choice of words, all negative “pillage”, “death”, “fear” and “rotten”.

The last verse tells how we are now spending all our time doing nothing but killing, until the “tainted chalice” that is our lives is completely full of “…that red wine which only comes from killing”:

The last poem in this book is called “The Toast” and I am going to present just a few lines from it, with a little bit of explanation.

The first section of the poem for the most part talks of the Englishman’s heritage as a warrior. Much of it, I struggle to understand fully. But by the end, the poet invites his audience to raise their glasses in traditional fashion:

Then comes a reference to Lord Nelson’s famous signal before the Battle of Trafalgar:

“England expects that every man will do his duty”

Interestingly that famous sentence was not Nelson’s own original thought. The story is told by Lieutenant John Pasco, his signal officer:

“His Lordship came to me on the poop, and after ordering certain signals to be made, about a quarter to noon, he said, “Mr. Pasco, I wish to say to the fleet, ENGLAND CONFIDES THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY“ and he added “’You must be quick, for I have one more to make. “ I replied, “If your Lordship will permit me to substitute the “confides” for “expects” the signal will soon be completed, because the word “expects” is in the vocabulary, and “confides” must be spelt, “His Lordship replied, in haste, and with seeming satisfaction, “That will do, Pasco, make it directly.”

“Confides”, incidentally, means  “is confident that”.

Thus, at around 11:45 a.m. on October 21st 1805, the famous signal was sent.

Richardson wrote in his poem, 137 years later:

England this Day expects . . .

Let the World crumble, if one of us forgets !

Gentlemen !

A toast ! Upraise each hand !

England, that shall be ours, this English land !

England whose seas we held, whose shores we manned !

Skies of England ! Cliff and fell and coast!

Youth of England, Gentlemen, your Toast !

Gentlemen, upon your feet !

The time is meet

For England !

 

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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.

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Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (5)

Last time, we were looking at some poems from the book “These – Our Children”, by Anthony Richardson, published in 1943:

“At a party” and “Grounded” are a pair of poems that go together.

In “At a party”, an heroic airman is in attendance, complete with his braid and his medal ribbon. But it was just fate, just luck, that saved his life. It was certainly not his own courage. Somehow Death fumbled and failed to pull him through the door.

The airman, though, does not have the appearance of anybody who has been so close to death that his past life has flashed past his eyes. But his companion knows nevertheless, that fear eats at his heart, that he has not yet managed to kill “those groping, grey cold thoughts” that would “paralyse his stubborn will” to do any more flying. Was she the only one to notice? Was she the only one to know that his cup was full, that he’d had enough, and that his lips were not laughing but anguished ?

“Grounded” is the poem where the airman, completely unable to carry on, has had to be taken off flying. Despite this, he does not have to stand aside. He has been forgiven by “these captains”, other heroes who understand that it is “no disgrace that boldly one confessed he was afraid!”

Members of Bomber Command, my own father included, were absolutely terrified of being thought a coward. This meant that they would have “LMF” stamped on their record. LMF stood for “Lack of Moral Fibre”, and it meant that you would be extracted from your airbase as quickly as was humanly possible, lest other pe0ple catch your infection. You might be sent to a psychiatric establishment, such as used to be at Rauceby Warren in Lincolnshire, for example. Nowadays, it’s a long abandoned building:

You might be posted to somewhere like the freezing cold rain- and sleet- lashed grey boring Outer Hebrides, Orkneys or Shetlands. Somewhere where you could be rained on, somewhere where you could experience cold, boredom and perpetual darkness:

In contrast, in the poem, “these captains”, are completely willing to have the frightened airman among their company because they know their own torments, and that “thus, but for God’s grace, goes any man?”

In actual fact, of the officers who survived the Bomber War, apparently 3% had been removed from flying because of LMF. That must have been quite a number of men. Being classified LMF signed a death warrant to any officers’ subsequent career in the RAF. And the RAF for their part took away the flying badge of any man with LMF “to prevent his getting a lucrative job as a pilot in civil life”.

“Black Marketeer” is self-evident. I know from my own father that the cowards who ran away from the war, and those who invented spurious health reasons not to be where the bullets were flying, were hated beyond belief by those who did their fighting for them. Even more hated were those who traded in forbidden goods such as whisky, cigarettes, petrol and so on. Most men in the RAF would not have hesitated in the slightest to have shot them, given half a chance. At the very least, they would have wanted their prison spell to have been twenty years in hell:

“Kites”, incidentally, is the RAF slang for aircraft, and “flak” is anti-aircraft fire, or, as the Germans so beautifully put it, “Flugzeugabwehrkanone”.

“Ground Crew” is another self-evident poem. The ground crew were the men who looked after the bombers and made sure that they would fly properly. Many of their duties are listed in the poem. In the second verse, the last two lines mean the occasions when the member of ground crew has to adjust the engines that make the aircraft fly:

Ground crew were normally called “erks” which was supposedly the Cockney shortened form of “aircraftman”. “Wings” are the badge of the pilot, and traditionally have a silver threepenny bit sewn behind them. A “gong” is a medal.

The member of ground crew, the “erk”, was the “ordinary man” whose contribution to the war was absolutely indispensable:

And finally, his hearing is so finely tuned that he can hear the first of the bombers to come back from the previous night’s raid:

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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.

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Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (4)

We have been looking at the poetry of Anthony Richardson. His second book of poetry was “These – Our Children”, published in 1943. I think it’s his best work and I have found quite a few poems in it to show you:

The copy I bought, again for just a few pounds, had an inscription inside it. It reads, in a very shaky old man’s handwriting, rather like my own: “For Jean Eve from Charlie on the 30th anniversary of our Wedding. Jan. 20 1944”:

The first poem I selected is called “Aerodrome Landscape” and is exactly that…a portrayal of the empty flat landscape of a bomber base. Only a few words of vocabulary need explaining:

An armadillo I had never heard of, but Wikipedia says that it is

“an extemporised armoured fighting vehicle produced in Britain during the invasion crisis of 1940-1941. Based on a number of standard lorry (truck) chassis, it comprised a wooden fighting compartment protected by a layer of gravel and a driver’s cab protected by mild steel plates. Armadillos were used by the RAF Regiment to protect aerodromes and by the Home Guard.”

A primrose is a yellow flower that often appears in late winter.

As regards any technical terms, the perimeter-roadway is the concrete track that runs 360° around every airbase. Each bomber was left, when not in use, on its own “dispersal” point, often shaped like a frying pan, which was connected to the “peri-track” by a short concrete road. Bofors guns were used to defend airfields against German aircraft attacks. A Hudson is a two engined light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. Wrack is seaweed that is placed on the shore by the waves, so presumably, “sky-wrack” is clouds, driven across the sky by the wind.

The same book, “These – Our Children”, contains “Aftermath”, which could equally well have been titled “Epitaph”.

The full title of the poem is “AFTERMATH (For Mac and his crew)”. It makes reference to a dead aircrew who are buried in Kristiansand, at least one of them being Scottish, or at the very least, having the Scottish name of “Mac Something”.

In today’s day and age, it is easy to trace to whom these details refer. Kristiansand is on the Skagerrak and is the fifth largest city in Norway. It lies, more or less, at the country’s southernmost tip. The Kristiansand Civil Cemetery has only twelve war casualties, just one of them being possibly “Mac”. This was Charles Peter Hope Maclaren, aged only twenty and killed on April 21st 1941. He was the pilot of an aircraft of 107 Squadron and came from Peebles, which is in the Scottish Borders region in southern Scotland. On the base of his grave is inscribed “His brave companions Sergeants Hannah and King have no known grave”:

The three men were in a Blenheim IV, Z5795, of 107 Squadron, RAF, of Leuchars in Fifeshire, operating as part of 18 Group. They took off at 1800 to perform a reconnaissance of the Norwegian coast. The Blenheim was piloted by Pilot Officer Maclaren, but they were shot down by enemy fighters and crashed into the sea. The pilot’s body was later washed ashore at Flekkero near Kristiansand, but no trace of his two comrades was ever found and their sacrifice is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial. 107 Squadron was normally part of Bomber Command but was on detachment to Coastal Command in early 1941.

Sergeant Anthony James Hannah was the observer. He was a New Zealander of only twenty and he was on his twelfth operation. The third member of the crew was Douglas Stevenson Hutcheon King, whose service number was 751304 but I could find nothing further about him, I’m afraid.

In the poem, Richardson introduces huge amounts of poetic licence. He talks as if Maclaren came from Dundee rather than Peebles. The Usk is a river, but strangely, in Wales. Fifeshire is a county near Dundee:

The question posed at the end, of course, is that if the dead men can still call to him “across two hundred miles of sea”. then how is it that they cannot “clasp our hands” across the thin veil between life and death?
I have spent the last six years researching the war casualties of the Old Nottinghamians, and a good many more, and this particular Blenheim is quite the most God-forsaken, long forgotten, aircraft, I have ever come across. Only one grave and two men lost for ever. No exact details of their mission, no exact details of who shot them down or how it happened. Nothing at all on the CWGC website about the two men who were never found. No ages. No parental details. No town of origin mentioned. The only detail I found out is that Mac was buried by some good Germans, who gave him a magnificent funeral with full military honours:

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Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (3)

Anthony Richardson wrote three books of verse during his lifetime, all of them during World War Two. The first was called “Because of these: Verses of the Royal Air Force” (1942). Then there was “These – Our Children” (1943) and finally “Full Cycle: Verses of the Royal Air Force” (1946). Last time, we were looking at the first one:

Richardson joined the RAF at the beginning of the war and his career was related in the official records in the following fashion. It may give you an idea of the difficulties which may be encountered when you are trying to follow somebody’s military career:

Firstly he was a “T/2nd Lt. 05.09.1918 (reld 01.09.1921)”.

Then he was “P/O (prob) 18.06.1940 [80934]”.

Next he was “(WS) F/O (prob) 20.01.1941”

and then “(WS) F/O 18.06.1941”

He finished as a “(T) F/Lt. 01.09.1942”.

And like my father he was “demobilized 1946”

The numbers are either his RAF service number or the date he assumed his rank. Other abbreviations are “T” (Temporary), “P/O” (Pilot Officer) and then “F/O” is Flying Officer, “F/Lt.” is Flight Lieutenant and “WS” is War Service. “Prob” is “on probation”.

As far as I know, Richardson was an Intelligence Officer on a Bomber Base, which means that he would listen to the tales the bomber crews told when they returned and then write them all down, so that they could be passed on for others to correlate and thereby produce some kind of general overview:

I’ve found one or two more of the best poems from Richardson’s book “Because of these”, and I’ll be showing them to you in the rest of this blog post.

The first poem I selected is called “There is a Land”. It has an almost jokey tone to it. The poet envisages a land, he doesn’t know where, but everything is perfect. Weather forecasts are always accurate, everybody is a member of RAF aircrew, there are no sudden calls to take off, no hours spent on stand by and everything is beautiful. The third verse mentions the three types of light on a wartime RAF airbase, namely the boundary lights, the glim-lamps (glim is short for “glimmer”), and the Chance-lights, made by Chance’s, a factory in Birmingham just half a mile from where my wife lived as a child. In real life, these lights were all deliberately kept very dim so as not to help German night fighters, so in a perfect land, they all shine brightly:

When you go out in your Blenheim light bomber, everything is perfect:

Verse four speaks of “golden clouds” and a “free and boundless sky”. But, alas, in the fifth verse, they’ll all be flying near Horley Ness, where the weather is so bad that there are bound to be crashes. That will in turn create vacancies in the canteen (the “Mess”) so that the people who get back will be able to eat the extra sausages:

These next two poems are both epitaphs. Both of them rhyme, and do so without becoming ridiculous doggerel. Epitaph 1 makes the point of how a man’s body can be destroyed in an instant and leave just a burnt patch on the ground. But once winter is past, Mother Nature makes the flowers and the grass grow and they soon cover up all traces of charred earth. The poet, though, wonders how the plants can grow heedless of the remains of a hero among their roots. Every RAF man knew that he might finish up that way. Like Guy Gibson, just a single foot in a single sock. Or one of the Old Nottinghamians I have written about. He and his six companions became just five bones, some of them fingers, and not even enough for one per coffin:

The second epitaph paints an even more gaunt picture of the life of RAF aircrew. A sergeant pilot lies in his grave, having at last taken to wife the dark maiden Death. He had encountered her several times before, but on this occasion, he looks too deeply into her eyes and “she enfolded him in her embrace. Again a rhyming poem, although this time with a different pattern of rhyme:

I hope you enjoyed them. More next time.

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