Tag Archives: Bomber Command

Bomber Harris, not a happy man (8)

In his book, “The Relentless Offensive”, Roy Irons does not forget to discuss at great length, the huge losses of both aircraft and aircrew suffered by Bomber Command:

Even on night raids, bombers were shot down in great numbers, both by flak and by nightfighters such as the Junkers Ju88:

In part, this was because aircraft such as the Whitley, the Hampden, the Blenheim, the Manchester, the Stirling and the Halifax were to a greater or a lesser extent, just not up to the job. The Lancaster, in contrast, was an outstanding aircraft, although even the “Lanc”, despite being the bomber of choice of the vast majority of Bomber Command aircrew, was itself still shot down in large numbers.

Casualties, in actual fact, were enormous.

In the First Phase of the bomber war, the Battle of the Ruhr (March 1st to July 1943), Bomber Command lost 1,038 aircraft, some 4.3% of their total strength.

In the Second Phase, the Battle of Hamburg (July 24th-August 3rd 1943) 139 aircraft were lost.

Unlike the First Phase, however, the Second Phase was a total victory for the RAF. Some forty thousand Germans were killed and a million fled the city. As Albert Speer realised:

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

The Third Phase was the Battle of Berlin (August  1943–March 31st 1944). Bomber Command lost 1,778 aircraft as Harris’ promise “to wreck Berlin from end to end” went terribly, terribly, wrong.

During these three phases, 396 days had passed, and 2,955 bombers had been lost. There were seven men in each one of them and on average no more than two ever escaped alive.

The problems were, as we have already said, that the bombers, on very single one of those 396 days, had had defend themselves with rifle calibre bullets. Secondly, escort fighters at night were almost completely unknown. The ranges of every single RAF fighter except one were largely inadequate , and in any case the Mosquito night fighter was way too fast to fly alongside four engined bombers:

To these two factors can be added the ten thousand plus anti aircraft guns  protecting the Reich. The majority of those guns were the deadly “8.8 cm Flak”, known universally to the hundreds of thousands of people involved in operating them as the “Acht-acht” (“eight-eight”).

Overall, though, Harris was right. Bombing worked. It destroyed both factories and living accommodation and at the same time, it kept hundreds of thousands of people tied up, busy defending Germany. Were it not for Bomber Command, those hundreds of thousands of people, and their ten thousand plus anti aircraft guns, would have been on the Eastern Front, knocking over T-34 tanks, and putting a brake on those huge Soviet advances into the Reich.

And that’s without counting the actual damage the bombers did. Albert Speer, for example, stated that through the activities of the RAF a minimum of 35% of tank production had been lost and 31% of aircraft production and 42% of lorry production.

Over the course of the conflict, though, it must be admitted that the war-winning aircraft of Bomber Command had actually been found to be “pitifully vulnerable”.

During the very rough total of 2000 days of war, Bomber Command had lost the equivalent of four heavy bombers on every single one of them:

The people who decided the tactics, with the notable exception of Harris, had initially attached far too much attention to the old doctrine that “the bomber will always get through”, a war-cry which dated back as far as the distant days of the Spanish Civil War when the Legión Cóndor had invented area bombing by its carefully planned attack on Guernica:

Perhaps Bomber Command losses might have been cut if they had taken a leaf out of Fighter Command’s book. The top fighter pilots always turned themselves into fabulous marksmen by one means or another. Constant shooting practice, they found, was a good method to try. This method was “completely ignored in the training of bomber gunners” and the top brass actually suggested that the standards of gunners’ eyesight should be lowered, because of the shortage of gunners.
The net result was that Bomber Command did not shoot down too many enemy fighters. As the author, Roy Irons, states, the air war in the West won by the 0.5 calibre guns of the P-51s and the B-17s. In 1944, the Luftwaffe lost 914 night fighters, mainly to Bomber Command. In the same period of time, 6,039 dayfighters were shot down by P-51 Mustangs.
Here’s the Luftwaffe’s cutting edge night fighter, the Heinkel He219, with a fantastic array of radar  aerials.

And finally, if you enjoy discovering more irreverent truths about Bomber Command’s war, you might enjoy “Britain 1939-1945: The economic cost of strategic bombing” by John T Fahey. It is available on line here although it may take a long time to load.

There is a very interesting discussion about the book here.

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The place where I grew up, Woodville, in World War 2

I grew up in a small village called Woodville, just to the south of Derby, in more or less the centre of England. Cue “The Orange Arrow” :

The village used to be called Wooden Box because of the large wooden box occupied by the man who operated the toll gate on the toll road between Ashby de la Zouch and Burton-upon-Trent.  The name Woodville first appeared in 1845. Nowadays, there is a roundabout where his box used to be, although the location itself is still called “Tollgate”. Here’s an old postcard of the “Tollgate” :

My Dad, Fred, told me that the majority of the people in Woodville were pretty much unaware of the existence of World War Two. It had comparatively little impact in this mostly country area, where rationing was offset by the inhabitants’ ability to grow food for themselves, and even to raise their own pigs and chickens. Food, therefore, was relatively freely available, if not abundant, and the war seemed to be very distant. Woodville seemed to be an unchanging pastoral paradise:

The twenty year old Fred despised the comfortable lives of the older people in Woodville. They would live out their humdrum lives without any risk whatsoever, while he was laying his life on the line pretty much every single day in Bomber Command:

The contempt he had for the inhabitants of the village, though, was perhaps a measure of his own fear at being asked to fly over burning Bremen or Cologne, or some other heavily defended Bomber Command target :

Young men, of course, went away from Woodville and from time to time their parents were duly informed that they would never return:

It was only too easy, though, for others to view that profoundly sad process as similar to that of the young men who might have moved away from the village for reasons of employment, or even in order to emigrate to another country.

Occasionally, enemy aircraft would fly over Woodville, identifiable by their particular and peculiar engine noise. On one dark night, on November 14th 1940, many local people, Fred included, walked up to the Greyhound Inn near Boundary :

Everybody stood on the opposite side of the road from the public house and looked south. The view from that spot stretches thirty or forty miles or more into the southern Midlands

As they stood and looked, they were able to see the bright glow in the sky as Coventry burned, a city whose centre was almost completely destroyed by the Germans. There was, though, very little direct effect of German bombing on the local area around Woodville.

On one occasion, a Heinkel III night bomber, panicking about where he was, possibly pursued by a night fighter and perhaps worried that he might not make it back to the Fatherland, jettisoned all his bombs over the nearby village of Church Gresley. Look for “der fliegende orangefarbene Pfeil” :

The bombs all landed near Hastings Road, not far from the school where Fred would teach immediately after the war. They demolished an entire row of houses which backed onto Gresley Common, and all the inhabitants, almost thirty unfortunate people, were accidentally killed.

Years later, in the 1990s, Fred was able to explain these events to a man digging in the garden of his new townhouse, built recently on the site of the Second World War disaster. The man could not understand why the soil was so full of broken bricks, bath tiles and so many smithereens of old fashioned blue and white patterned crockery:

The only other direct connection with World War 2 was the unfortunate soldier and ex-prisoner-of-war who finally returned to Woodville in late 1945 or early 1946, having spent years as the unwilling guest of Emperor Hirohito, and the Japanese Imperial Army.

The poor man was unbelievably gaunt, and he had lost so much weight that his clothes flapped on his body like sails on a mast:

He did not receive as much sympathy as he might have done from the citizens of Woodville, though, when they found out that he had actually eaten snakes in his efforts not to starve to death. “Really ! Snakes ! ! ” Here’s snake soup, a delicacy in China but not as highly prized as bat and pangolin, apparently:

Fred, of course, had a view of such events very different from that of the average native of Woodville. Almost sixty years later, when I cleared out his house after his death, there was not a single Japanese electrical device to be found. Everything came from the factories of Philips in Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

 

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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.

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Bomber Harris, not a happy man (5)

According to Roy Irons in his splendid book, “The Relentless Offensive: War and Bomber Command”, Arthur Harris hated the Short Stirling, but he reserved his finest vitriol for the Handley Page Halifax. Here’s a Mark I:

The Mark I had Merlins and a front turret but the Mark 2 had the Merlins and a different nose:

The Mark III has the familiar nose, but has a different tail and Bristol Hercules radial engines:

Harris was not alone though in his hostility towards the Halifax. It was well known fact that the Halifax could not lift its bombload up to 20,000 feet and that its range was too short to take any 0f the longer, more evasive routes as the Lancasters did. Per hundred tons of bombs dropped, the Lancaster lost only one third of the personnel who were killed in Halifaxes. Overall, three Halifaxes were lost to every two Lancasters and those two Lancasters dropped almost twice the weight of bombs dropped by the three Halifaxes.

Harris knew all of these basic facts about the Halifax but he also knew a great deal of other information which nobody else was given. Most of it came from the captured pilots of Junkers Ju88 nightfighters.  They reported that they “could normally approach our aircraft well within gun range and even up to fifty yards without apparently being seen at all”.

Here’s a Ju88 night fighter:

To prove the point, Harris borrowed a Bristol Beaufighter and its crew from 25 Squadron at RAF Wittering and had a Halifax bomber put to the test. The two crewmembers in the Beaufighter found that the Halifax bomber they were chasing had “inadequate exhaust dampers” which meant that the flames from the bomber’s engines were visible to the Beaufighter one and a half miles away. In contrast, the rear gunner of the Halifax could only see the Beaufighter if it was within 1100 yards, just over six tenths of a mile. And that was looking back in level flight. Harris found that the Halifax rear turret possessed “blindness in all directions, and especially downwards”. He stated that the turret was “80% angle iron and 20% scratched perspex”.

Only in 1944 did a turret which has the kind of visibility that is required become available. It was actually designed by Bomber Command themselves. This was the Rose turret, mentioned previously, which was designed, at the specific demands of Bomber Harris, by Air Vice Marshal Edward Rice.  Rice was one of the senior Bomber Command station commanders, and had travelled with Harris to visit Rose Brothers at the start of the project. He subsequently led No. 1 Group RAF. Here’s a Rose turret being fitted. Bigger, longer guns and no metal in the line of vision:

Harris called the Halifax “a deplorable aircraft” on more than one occasion. He thought that the aircraft and its dreadful Bristol Hercules engines were particularly well suited to each other and that these awful engines should be reserved exclusively for the Halifax, because “it’s useless anyway”. Harris despaired that:

“nothing whatever is being done to make this deplorable product worthy for war”.

Harris was no fool, though, and realised that:

“the two strongest motives of Englishmen in the aircraft industry are patriotic devotion and commercial gain. They will never think of new designs when more orders for the old ones are to be had. To obtain or maintain an order book, aircraft companies will promise anything”.

Occasionally, Harris put it more bluntly:

“Nothing will be done until Handley Page and his gang are kicked out, lock, stock and barrel.”

This could not be done though, and instead Handley Page continued to make Halifaxes and to sell them to the RAF, whose use of “this deplorable aircraft” was limited to attacking short range targets. The reason for this was that if the Halifax was abandoned, six months’ bomber production would have been lost, because all of the extra tools and facilities for producing Lancasters would have needed to be put into place.

Harris was convinced that the Bomber Command offensive was vital to winning the war. He had no patience whatsoever with any of the board members at either Handley Page or Shorts:

“Unless we can get the heavy bomber programme put right, we are sunk. We cannot do this by polite negotiation with these crooks and incompetents. In Russia it would long ago have been arranged with a gun, and to that extent, I am a fervid Communist.”

Just to make it 100% clear, the “crooks and incompetents” were Handley Page and his gang and Oswald Short and a good many others in his firm. And Harris wanted them all put against a wall and shot:

 

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Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (8)

Anthony Richardson’s third and final book of poetry was called “Full Cycle: Verses of the Royal Air Force” and was published in 1946:

Personally, I don’t like it anywhere near as much as his previous two books. He seems to have turned away from what I will call the “Forceful simplicity” of his first two books into something far more poetic and far more difficult to understand, almost as if he wants to show people that he has invented a special poet’s language all of his own. This is a very common fault among poets and it must lose them lots of ordinary readers. I have only picked one poem from this short book.

It is called “Request September 1939” and the poem lists the requests to Death, or God, made by a member of the armed forces, about to go to war and likely to die in the struggle ahead:

When the Judgment Day trumpet sounds, he would not want to be sent automatically to the battlements of Heaven to fight the armies of Satan, but would prefer to linger closer to Earth where everybody has always been so nice to him.

I do not know, incidentally what “earthy bred” is, and neither does Google. I suspect that “bred” is one of those words which, over the centuries, has suffered a reversal of a Consonant-Vowel combination inside it. “Brunley and brid” swapped their Vowel-Consonant combination round to become, “Burnley and bird” respectively. “Bred” would then produce “berth”, which is nowadays a specialised name for a place where you sleep. “Earthy bred” then becomes your grave.

Here are the six things he would like to hear:

But most of all, he used to be a fisherman:

Anthony Richardson seems to have given up poetry at this point. He moved to writing novels of various kinds, mostly about crime.

He must have made quite a bit of money from two very successful non-fiction books.

They were “Nick of Notting Hill: The bearded policeman. The story of Police Constable J. Nixon of the Metropolitan Police”:

Probably the most successful was “Wingless Victory” with Sir Basil Embry (1950), the story of Sir Basil’s escape from Nazi occupied France after his Lancaster was shot down. Even now, it’s a good read:

I have a hankering to return to the subject of poetry in RAF Bomber Command during World War Two. John Pudney is an obvious candidate, along with Henry Treece and the relatively little known George Eades.

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Bomber Harris, not a happy man (4)

One point the author, Roy Irons, makes very strongly in his excellent book “The Relentless Offensive”, is that at the beginning of the war, Bomber Command had some really dreadful aircraft in service. The Armstrong Whitworth Whitley had, according to pilots, “little inherent stability”. It was “heavy and unpleasant on the controls” and “fatiguing to fly”. It was “difficult to navigate” and the most subtle of all, “as a flying machine, the Whitley has a very good undercarriage”. The Whitley also flew habitually at around 30° below the horizontal which caused an enormous amount of drag and very poor fuel consumption because of it:

The Hampden was a shocker, and a very narrow shocker at that, with a fuselage only three or four feet wide. Members of the crew could not pass each other, the body of the plane was so tight:

When the heavier bombers came in, two of them, in Harris’ view, were pretty useless. These were the Short Stirling and the Handley Page Halifax. Here is the Short Stirling:

The Short Stirling had “some vicious flying characteristics during take-offs and landings”. On take-off it exhibited a dreadful tendency to ground loop, which usually involved a collapse of the incredibly complex landing gear and the subsequent detonation of the bombload which would take the fuel tanks with it. On landing the Stirling had an unfortunate tendency to drop the last few feet, rather like the abrupt delivery of a hundred thousand bricks off the back of a lorry. This too would cause a collapse of the landing gear and a fire. Notice in this crash landing, how the front of the aircraft is completely burnt out. That, of course, is where the crew would have been:

It should perhaps be said that the argument could be put forward that the Stirling might possibly have been a much better aircraft if the original design had been followed. It was meant to be essentially a land-based Sunderland with a number of other modifications. This might well have produced a decent aircraft, but the Air Ministry also demanded a number of “extras”. It had to be easy to convert the bomber into a troop transport and there was a maximum figure not to be exceeded for the wingspan. With those “add-ons” the Stirling stood no chance.

Harris, though, was in no doubt whatsoever. He laid the blame fairly and squarely at the feet of the  the people in charge at Shorts:

“We shall get nothing worth having out of Shorts until Oswald Short and a good many others in the firm are thrown out on their ears. Sir Oswald Short is just an incompetent drunk. There should be a wholesale sacking of the incompetents who have turned out approximately 50% rogue aircraft from Short & Harland Belfast.”

Don’t hold back, Arthur, tell it to them straight!!

Here’s Sir Oswald:

As it was, Short’s didn’t do a great deal in six whole years of war. In satellite factories at Aldergrove and Maghaberry near Belfast they produced just under 250 Stirlings with a further 600 produced at Austin Motors at Longbridge in Birmingham. Blackburn Aircraft in Scotland produced 240 Sunderlands and a number of Handley Page Herefords which was a variant of the Handley Page Hampden. Both aircraft were shockers.

Can you spot the difference? No, it’s NOT that one of them is in the sky.

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Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (7)

Last time, we were looking at some poems from the book “These – Our Children”, by Anthony Richardson, published in 1943. I’d like to continue with that process.

The poem “Three went singing” is quite reminiscent of a previous poem called “There was an air gunner”:

In this poem, the three men, presumably fliers, are singing on their way back home down a country lane. Perhaps because they have been together in the pub, they are singing “Danny Boy” and other favourites.

“Dumpsy”, incidentally is a noun used in south west England to refer to twilight, and for Somerset folk it refers to “the quality of the light at dusk”. Sooo…. “the twilight is dusky”.

Other singers are better in various ways but slowly the three walk on and their voices grow first faint and then fainter still. The dusk grows dark and then darker until it swallows them up:

Clearly an almost mystical parallel with the fate of men lost on RAF operations. They are happy together as they laugh and joke, waiting to get into the aircraft and take off:

But then, Night claims them for her own and the men, whether three of them or seven, disappear and are lost for ever. Not even the tiniest stone retains an echo of their song . Night, aka Death, has them all in its grasp.

My last Richardson poem is called “To any Mother” and is simple to understand, even though it is “Poetry” and therefore may be perceived by many people as being way too difficult for them to enjoy. and indeed, nothing for them to be bothered with.

Here’s the beginning:

Then the poet asks if the mother taught her son what the parsons say, namely that it is just as easy for the spirit, the mind, to understand life at twenty as it is at eighty three:

So, it was not a dead end when he met “His Friend”, namely Death, because he also met his  comrades, his brothers from the crew, because they too, are now, all of them, dead.

And that discovery is no reason for misery.

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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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