Category Archives: History

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:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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”.

5 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

What’s the School Play this year? (3)

In the late 1930s came four plays which more or less enshrined the High School’s “Golden Age of Female Impersonation”. The first of the four was put on in 1936. It was that well-known Shakespeare rib-tickler, “Twelfth Night”. Here is the full cast:

And here is a smaller selection, although, strangely, I can’t find every single one of them in the previous photograph:

They all look pretty good, more or less, at least until you manage to see them in close up. This young man will die in the outskirts of Dunkirk 1n 1940. He has only four years left of his young life. He has such a strange expression on his face. If I didn’t know better, I would say he was well aware of his imminent demise. Or perhaps it’s the famous “thousand yard stare”. Here’s the actor:

And here’s the “thousand yard stare”:

This pious “young lady” (below) will be one of the two hundred or more parachute troops who were drowned when their gliders crashed into the sea during Operation Husky, the disastrous attempt to invade Sicily with airborne forces. Does that knowledge that he has only seven short years to live show on his face, too?

In 1937 the School Play was “The Fourth Wall”, a detective story in three acts by A.A. Milne. It was a marvellous opportunity  to get your hands stuck into a pair of plus fours made from the R101 (left leg) and the Hindenburg (right leg).

And just look at that wonderful dress on the right. It’s so frothy, so summery, so YOU !  Warm evenings in August or even September. Perhaps good for dancing. Perhaps even a Charleston or ten.

And this time, they actually want you to wear it. Your Dad won’t go crazy and offer to lend you his jodhpurs. And for the first time ever, your sister will want to borrow one of your dresses.  

And just ;look at the seductive whites of that pretty young man’s eyes. And those cheekbones. Somebody out there really knows how to give make-up some “oooomph!” :

 

9 Comments

Filed under Film & TV, History, Humour, Literature, Nottingham, Personal, The High School, Writing

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 !

 

9 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, Literature, Politics, Writing

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:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

22 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

What’s the School Play this year? (2)

Last time we had a brief look at The Dramatic Society’s production of Aristophanes’ “The Frogs” in 1924. Just look at those beards. And is one boy in the centre of the back row wearing a white burqa?:

Seven years later, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, February 23rd, 24th and 25th 1931, the School Play had been “She stoops to conquer”. Here is the cast who contain, perhaps, a few more convincing women than is usually the case. This is because, I suspect, the Dramatic Society were being forced to use many more young boys, not least because the School’s Sixth Form was much, much smaller  during the 1930s than it was to become, say, in the 1960s:

Any proceeds from the play, after the deduction of expenses, were used to help finance the Dame Agnes Lads’ Club in Norton Street in Radford.

Another popular School Play around this time was “The Rope”. Looking at the photograph below, it seems to have starred Borat and his balding brother. On a more serious note, the young “lady” on the left, within five or six years, will be killed trying to slow down the German advance towards Dunkirk:

This young man, Alfred Warren, was, in  actual fact, a most accomplished female impersonator. His first ever role was as Anna Waleska in “Andrew Applejohn’s Adventure”. Witness his review in the School Magazine:

“The School stage has rarely been graced by a more charmingly seductive figure than Anna Waleska. His performance was astonishingly good, especially when one remembers that it was his first appearance. He contrived to give to his impersonation just the right shade of exotic fascination, and if his accent was neither Russian nor Portuguese, it had at least a foreign quality and was sufficiently intriguing. This young man betrayed a knowledge of feminine wiles amazing in one so young, the manipulation of his eyebrows alone being worthy of a Dietrich. One can hardly blame Ambrose for becoming as wax in the hands of such a siren.”

Two years later, in GB Shaw’s “Captain Brassbound’s Conversion”, the School Magazine said:

“The presentation this term was an act more daring than any of its predecessors. There was only one person fitted for the: “prodigious task of portraying so gracious a personage as Lady Cicely. His voice, now at breaking point, just suited her position as mistress of Brassbound’s crew: his seductive manner fitted the beguiler of a dozen men. His part did not allow him this year the opportunity to display those feminine wiles of which, as Anna Waleska, he had shown himself so complete a master, but his expression, now wheedling, now indifferent, was no less successful in enticing the unfortunate victim into her trap. He perhaps tended to overdo that half crouching feline posture which he so often employed against Brassbound. Nevertheless, clad in exquisite garments, which must have cost the society a small fortune, he contrived to overcome the artificialities and discrepancies of Lady Ciceley’s rôle, and for that achievement alone he deserves high praise.”

The young man would not carry forward his talents into the worlds of either stage or screen. He will be killed “somewhere along a canal” near the village of Oostduinkerke, trying to slow down the German advance towards Dunkirk. Not every soldier with the British Expeditionary Force had a free trip back to Blighty:

 

 

11 Comments

Filed under Film & TV, History, Humour, Literature, Nottingham, The High School, Writing

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:

10 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, Literature, Politics, Writing

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.

27 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History