Tag Archives: the 0·50 machine gun

Bomber Harris, not a happy man (7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History