Tag Archives: Harris

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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Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

“The Lancaster: Britain’s Flying Past”

Last night, I watched the superb BBC documentary “The Lancaster: Britain’s Flying Past”

The ranks of those who flew Lancasters with Bomber Command in the Second World War have, with the inevitable passage of time, thinned out somewhat, but the BBC has managed to put together the requisite crew of seven combat veterans. There were, therefore, a pilot, a flight engineer, a navigator, a bomb aimer, a wireless operator, a mid-upper gunner and a rear gunner…”tail-end Charlie”.
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Every single man in Bomber Command was a proud volunteer. During the course of the war, they were to suffer 55,573 casualties from a total of 125,000 aircrew (a 44.4% death rate). The average bomber usually lasted for fewer than ten sorties. Life expectancy for crew members could be as low as two weeks, the same as a soldier in the Battle of the Somme in the First World War. Of every hundred airmen who joined Bomber Command, forty five were to be killed outright, six would be badly wounded, eight were captured by the enemy, and only forty survived physically unscathed. From the men who were serving in Bomber Command on September 3rd 1939, only 10% made it through to the end of the war some six years later.
There was no knighthood for Bomber Command’s leader  though, and no campaign medal for his “old lags”. In 1945, Roosevelt and Churchill had been asked by Stalin to destroy Dresden for him, and the two Western leaders were only too eager to demonstrate their ability to slaughter the enemy, be it German, or perhaps, even, one day, Russian. But when Bomber Command, as the best area bombers in the world, carried out this ghastly task, as they had been ordered to do , they then found themselves ostracised by those very same politicians, who now wanted to be popular as humanitarians, and to win elections after the end of the war.
It was eventually public subscription that finally paid for Bomber Command’s well-deserved memorial, fifty years or so too late, perhaps…
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The “Lanc” was the greatest bomber ever made. It could fly at 300 m.p.h. and carry an enormous weight of bombs, with the more usual 4,000 pound “cookies” often bolted together to form either 8,000 or 12,000 pound “blockbuster”bombs. A Lancaster might carry hundreds of incendiaries, and some specially adapted aircraft could carry the 22,000 pound, ten ton “Grand Slam” bomb designed by Barnes Wallis.

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What an enormous bomb bay….
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The aircraft’s immense power came from four magicians, well, four Merlin engines to be more precise…
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The Lancaster is a very large bomber; museums often struggle to fit them in, as here at Duxford

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Best of all is the Lancaster in the RAF Museum at Hendon in north London (very easy to reach off the motorway)

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Don’t miss the vain boast of Hermann Göring, painted on the nose of the bomber(with his name misspelt!).

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The Reichsmarschall was also foolish enough to say that if any enemy plane did fly over the Reich, then , as the man in charge of the Luftwaffe, people could call him “Herr Müller”, a common Jewish name. Well, guess who had the last laugh?
Göring‘s medals too, are in the museum…
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A couple of years ago, I really enjoyed visiting East Kirkby in Lincolnshire to see their Lancaster.  The aircraft does not fly but is taxied around the airfield every day.
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What a beautiful machine, painted here as “Just Jane”, a fictional character in the wartime newspaper, the Daily Mirror.

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The force of the engines being warmed up is amazing…

Then it sets off around the very large field…

Before returning, eventually, back to its rightful place…

It’s just such a pity that there are so few Avro Lancasters left for us all to enjoy!

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Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, Film & TV, History