Tuesday 13 February 2024

Bomber Command, World War II (1939-45); and the lies and corruptions of Geopolitics

Regular readers will know that I have fairly recently become very interested in the aircraft of World Wars I and II - which is the re-ignition of a similar "craze" when I was aged about 11-13. 

I have never known or understood much about WWI except that both sides had dubious motivations; but I did think that I broadly understood WWII - especially since I remember and had read a fair bit of historical material from before the massive distortions of the 1960s began to bite. 

But this re-visitation has been one major eye-opener after another; at the end of which my main conclusion is that my previous understanding of WWII was very defective and that I am not-at-all-sure my present understanding is correct either!

What is clear is that HUGE facts about the war - which were often once widely known (some, in a sense, that I did know but misinterpreted), really ought to have been either obvious, or were easy to ascertain - have made an equally-huge different to... well, if not my understanding, then to my confidence in my understanding. 

Naturally, given my starting point, most of these revisions have been at the expense of a previous stance of confidently regarding the British (and allied) side as clearly "superior" in some general sense. This has not reversed, but neither is it secure. 

There have been many surprises - but I will just outline one here. A particular aspect has been the strategic bombing of Germany - by Bomber Command. In a sense I was familiar with the criticisms of the strategy of bombing German cities - both the idea that it was not very effective, and that it was morally... dubious. 

What I had not realized until recently was that strategic bombing was By Far the major British war effort and expenditure - dominating all RAF policy, consuming most of RAF expenditure, and using more resources than the entire British Army and Royal Navy put together! 

Think about that for a moment... 

The major and (literally) overwhelming British strategy to win WWII was - for most of the war - quite simple: that Britain could destroy the German capacity to wage war solely by means of heavy bombing - after which the Army could essentially just stroll-in, and take-over.  

This was the extraordinary conviction of the RAF, and of Churchill. I say "conviction" but it had more of the attributes of a delusion - in the sense that the doctrine was not true, there was no actual evidence to support it (and never had been anywhere or at any time); And Yet belief in the doctrine held with absolute conviction and was immune to the evidence of experience. 

Britain crippled her war effort overall, almost lost the war at least three times* and bankrupted herself for decades afterwards, in pursuit of a delusion! 

This doctrine of The Bomber as a war-winner dated back to pre-war times, and its strength came from the fact that it was the major military justification for maintaining then expanding the RAF into by-far the most resourced UK military service. 

The delusory nature of the Bomber strategy was perfectly obvious at the time to empirically-minded people who studied the accumulating and consistent evidence of gross inefficiency and lack of effectiveness of bombing at its task destroying the German "war machine" such that Germany would collapse. 

In the early years of the war, there inaccuracy of bombing (and the inadequacy of the aircraft and bombs) meant that precision bombing of military targets was impossible - and night bombing meant that even hitting particular cities was not reliably achieved. 

After moral objections to the mass slaughter of (overwhelmingly) civilian non-combatants - a major breach of the rules of war - led to arguments that (what we would now call) genocide of the Germans was a valid goal of bombing. This was increasingly achieved as the war progressed and equipment and improved technologies and techniques (such as using radar-guided pathfinders to mark targets, and creating firestorms by phased types of bombs).

However, the fact is that - by the time the ability to annihilate cities was perfected (especially by the USAAF in Japan - where the building were flimsy and wooden) - it was too late significantly to affect the course of the war in Europe.  

The above discovery (or perhaps fuller realization) about Britain and strategic bombing in WWII - which seem to have the status of objective fact attested by multiple credible authorities - by-itself makes a big difference to my attitude to that war; and there have been several other equally major discoveries of a broadly similar nature. 

My take-home message from this is not that I now know the truth whereas previously I was in error; but that I have concluded that the truth about such matters is not something I can be sure of. 

Geopolitics - including war - at the scale of modernity; is by its nature almost-always a domain of dishonesty, and of insufficient and misleading information; whose morality is therefore nearly-always a choice of lesser evils.

This, despite that war is also a domain in which great courage, hope, endurance, comradeship, patriotism, and other human "goods" are probably commoner and more highly achieved.  

But - looking around at a world in which WWIII has apparently begun, I hope to keep these lessons in mind - and (despite the encouragements and temptations) to refrain from making Geopolitics a central feature of my system of values and hopes.  

*First was the Battle of Britain - where the RAF resisted almost until too late the provision of enough fighters to defend Britain - believing that fighters were almost unnecessary, and that the airforce ought to be about attack not defense. And two times more (1940-41, again in 43) when Britain almost ran out of essential supplies due to the U-Boat campaign; while the RAF deliberately starved the highly-effective Coastal Command of adequate resources (CC was a kept-small branch of the RAF that provided aircraft to protect shipping - especially the Atlantic sea lanes) - again on the excuse that nothing could be spared from the task of bombing Germany. The telling point was this happened twice - apparently nothing was learned from the first near disaster. The strong conviction/ prejudice of RAF high command, and crucially of Churchill; was that Coastal Command was an unnecessary and defensive diversion of scarce resources, that ought to go into the vital and war-winning activity of bombing Germany.) 


Hamish McCallum said...

I couldn't agree more, both with your comments and the lessons you draw from them.

My dear father was a career RAF officer (having started in the South African Air Force in 1940). He was a fighter-reconnaissance specialist, which meant working closely with the army (and navy, occasionally). In my later childhood, he often spoke about the bomber types' fervid belief that "the bomber will always get through," despite the ample evidence that this was untrue and that their work could never be decisive on its own. As you say, this madness was baked into the RAF from its founding.

The great technological results of the grotesque overspending on the British aircraft industry (there were some) were recognised by the USA, which made it a (small but real) priority in the two decades after the war to drive it out of business - successfully. They are NOT our friends, yet our masters run yapping at their heels.

Bruce Charlton said...

C-Cliff has left a comment:

Dr Charlton, thank you for your blog, which I have been enjoying and learning from since 2020.

With this post you appear to be teetering on the brink of a very large rabbit hole. Welcome to a crowded location!

For anyone who would like the scales removed from their eyes I recommend the writings of Ron Unz on the subject of WWII - unz.com website [...]

Thank you, Dr. Charlton, for your blog, part of my essential daily reading.

C-Cliff, Romantic Christian in Cardiff

Ron Tomlinson said...

Interesting. I wonder if that's why Britain continued to make so many new and interesting aircraft in the 1950s and 1960s, out of sheer momentum. e.g. the English Electric Lightning, the Vulcan, the Harrier jump jet.

Bruce Charlton said...

@C-Cliff - I often find Ron Unz worth reading, including those on WWII; which certainly confirm what I've said about exposing the flaws in understanding WWII. Vox Day has also published and linked some good stuff on this theme. Other's I have discovered for myself.

But my point here is not to present an alternative secular perspective on WWII, but simply to illustrate a more general point about geopolitics, and the unfortunate way that it has tended (and still does) to dominate the moral compass of too many people.

@Hamish - Thanks for that comment.

I am, of course, not disputing the immense courage and skill of the Bomber Command aircrew; who suffered the worst sustained casualties of any major branch of the services; nor of the brilliance of engineers such as Barnes Wallace.

Aside: Something clear from my WWI studies is that reconnaissance was the primary and core role of aeroplanes in war - and the fighter/ scout was essentially developed in order to protect the reconnaissance machines.

The second important role was close support of the army - which was probably responsible for turning back the Germans big push of 1918.

Close support was perfected by the Germans in the Blitzkrieg, wit the use of Stuka dive bombers as precision air artillery. Then the Western Front was won for the Allies by similar close support from Typhoon and Thunderbolt fighter-bombers often with air to ground rockets (lacking such air support, due to bad weather; the Allies were at first badly beaten in the Battle of the Bulge).

I'm not sure, but I think the blockade of Germany - by the Royal Navy - probably achieved more to destroy the German war economy, than did Bomber Command - although of course Bombing did make a difference, albeit at terrible cost (and inefficiency) of men and resources.

IMO the USAAF daylight bombing in late 1943, early 44 made possible D-Day. But Not from the effects of bombing; but because the Luftwaffe were essentially destroyed by the (mostly) Thunderbolt escort fighters in the process of shooting down the Flying Fortresses and Liberators.

In retrospect the Luftwaffe should have relied on their very effective Flak for defense against bombers. If the Luftwaffe (and its best pilots) had not fallen into this "trap", and their strength had been preserved, then D-Day could not have happened in summer 1944, since it required Total air superiority.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ron - Although the Me 262 was by far the most advanced aircraft in service (in any numbers, albeit it probably should not have been) during WWII; yet the progress in British aircraft for the 10-15 years after the war was indeed truly astonishing. The Vulcan and Lightning were flying (as prototypes) only a decade after the wartime Lancasters and Spitfires.

Wes S. said...

The strategic bombing mindset was dominant in Germany and America also, where bomber spending was 10-20 to 1, or more. I read a comparison of effectiveness where one single sortie by Stukas (one piloted by Rudel) which sunk a Soviet battleship effectively justified the expense of that plane's entire production run!

The early bomber-enthusiast, air-power-supremacist writings now give me the impression of Ahrimanic machinations, thinking They could end all future warfare (read: control humanity more easily) with the mere threat of catastrophic aerial bombardment. And then advancing that idea to include specifically targeting the civilian populations. It reeks of "perfecting humanity by scientific means" and the end of warfare due merely to secular logic. And then after all, the many decades of peace since WWII were essentially allowed by the demoralization and increasing de-spiritualization of peoples.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wes. Dive bombing is a good example!

The RAF refused to develop a specialist dive bomber, and sabotaged the Navy's Blackburn Skua by denying it a decent engine.

Yet even so Skuas sunk the Konigsberg cruiser while horizontal bombers were ineffectual. And the RN and merchant marine lost a Lot of shipping to Stukas in the Med.

This deficit was another direct consequence of the strategic bombing delusion.

Lucas said...

Interesting, I didn't realize the RAF had the same delusions as the USAAF and USAF. In the US, this fixed delusion is recognized and partly blamed on our (former) industrial capacity, but that explanation doesn't work for the RAF. I think there must be something Sorathic about it, that desire to point to a spot and obliterate it.

dearieme said...

"I have never known or understood much about WWI".

"Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (1991)" is a book by Robert K. Massie: read it.

It's thrust is much like Professor Fischer's: it was Kaiser Bill wot was to blame.

Michael Dyer said...

AirPower took a LONG time to mature. We couldn’t even close the Ho Chi Minh trail in the 60s, after two decades of aggressive development from the war. During the Second World War the SOE still did a booming business in sabotage because it was often more effective to disable the right factory machine than it was to bomb the factory. Strikes me as more ethical as well. Modern airpower is a different story.

It also fits in with something I’ve learned from being a WW2 buff for a long time; Christianity had borderline left the building by the 40s. Not entirely you still had things like Ike sending out a national message to pray for victory during D Day, and Patton ordering a chaplain to come up with a “weather prayer”. But by and large ethics were thrown out the window on the dubious idea that they couldn’t stand up to the “tough” enemies who didn’t abide by ethics. Paradoxically the wickedness of our enemies contributed to their downfall heavily. Even before the holocaust the Nazis acted like absolute gangsters and I mean that literally, the SS funded itself with plain criminal extortion (when they complained about finding Heydrich said “if you need money get it yourself” and they did). Their heavy handedness produced a steady stream of men eager to avenge themselves by assisting the allies.

Rory said...

Your sentiments echo exactly my own. I was reading "Masters of the Air" recently, in anticipation of the new HBO show (having seen the trailer, I think I'll skip it now...).

I was expecting some tales of gallantry, which I got. But one thing I found interesting (esp. given I knew little about this part of the war), is how the overarching narrative is setup in such a way that you expect it to have a justifying conclusion. A story like this normally goes, "Everyone doubted them, and they made failures, but in the end, damn it, they pulled it off and showed everyone wrong!"

And really it's more like... they kept failing to achieve their overall strategic objectives... lots of lives were lost, both the men in the air, and of course the innocent civilians below... and it never really moved the needle in the end. The End. No great Hollywood climax.

It's startling how much this happened in the war. Strategies undertaken in the belief that this thing would end it, and it never does. Same thing in WW1. They thought the Great War would be over by Christmas because each side thought they had some great advantage in troops, or artillery, or industrial might or whatever, such that they'd steamroll over the enemy... or else the enemy would steam roll over them, but at least they'd lose quickly... because the industrial war-making might of the West then was such that... how could a war go on more than a few months?

In the end, the only time that kind of thinking has been proven right was in Japan with the Nuke, a weapon so powerful it made the Japanese believe they really could be wiped out in a few days from continued bombardment. And then it just wound us up at the point of MAD, which even that, now, revisionists are saying wouldn't really end anything -- some areas would be nuclear wasteland, but there'd be enough livable land, and predictions of Nuclear Winter were probably overblown, such that a nuclear war might be survivable, and would lead to just years more of dragged out fighting, just with a reduced industrial and agricultural capacity on both sides.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Rory - "In the end, the only time that kind of thinking has been proven right was in Japan with the Nuke, a weapon so powerful it made the Japanese believe they really could be wiped out in a few days from continued bombardment. "

Actually - no. At least, my understanding is that the Japanese surrendered because the USSR invaded Manchuria - almost simultaneously with Nagasaki - and according to the documentary evidence of the Japanese internal discussions, it was the invasion that triggered surrender (the Japanese would prefer to be conquered by the USA), not the second A-bomb.

https://www.uctv.tv/search-details.aspx?showID=16939 from 20 minutes.

After all, the worst bombing destruction ever, was about half of Tokyo (the most populous city in the world) destroyed by a single massive conventional firebombing - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWkPmGh4XAk&t=467s .

To put the A-bomb in perspective - it was equivalent in effect to about 330 conventional bombers - and over 900 such bombers were available. So the A-bomb effect was already achievable, and had already been achieved, when they were deployed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PRyt2vJraic&t=51s - which may explain why the Japanese hardly noticed and barely reacted to Hiroshima.

Alexey said...

Interesting discussion

Alexey said...

Bruce do you believe that Churchill was a warlord who afterall wanted war to happen? I had read somewhere that he wanted to break Prussian militarism once and for all, but I think that was a rational thing to do

Bruce Charlton said...

@Alexey "do you believe that Churchill was a warlord "

Not just that - for sure; but I really don't know as a single and simple answer. I think he was probably very changeable, through life and situations.

The difficulty with giving any simple answer is that on the one hand Churchill was a genius of sorts - including with words, and gave direction and courage to the nation at a very dangerous time. He certainly messed-up badly and wanted wrong things, as well.

On the other hand Churchill was basically a Norman (hereditary upper class) thus not by nature or aspiration an Englishman (nor of any other British nation); and (consequently) pro-Empire (a "globalist") rather than patriotically English.

(This has long been, and still is, the doom of England - to be ruled mainly - not always - by those who - bot spiritually and practically - regard the nation as subordinate to some larger and external goal and entity. The Real nation of England ("Albion", "Logres") only peeps-through partially and from time to time.)

So I disapprove of Churchill in general and overall, but regard him as touched with genius and capable of specific greatness.

a_probst said...

You hit the nail on the head with your second paragraph. I think people were paying too much heed to the pronouncements of H.G. Wells on air power.

"Wings Over the World" indeed.

Matias F. said...

I have a vivid recollection that in some writing in the aftermath of WWII, the German legal scholar Carl Schmitt critiziced the 'liberal internationalist' notion of world-wide air armies bombing the enemies of humanity. And indeed, according to the United Nations charter article 45, 'Members shall hold immediately available national air-force contingents for combined international enforcement action'.
There might have been an aspiration to transform the traditional british sea power to air power and enable a new kind of gunboat diplomacy, which is more extensive as it encompasses the whole world in stead of just ports and shipping lanes. But as you noted, strategic bombing has never met these expectations.

Inquisitor Benedictus said...

I often have a numinous experience whenever I see a lone plane flying through the open sky, similarly romantic to seeing a lone star at dusk. There's something about seeing "Man" floating through the sky like that which seems to activate some primordial memory in me of the gods/angels.

I say this because I think the bomber delusion is a kind and of demonic inversion of this numinous beauty of the modern airplane — the bomber as a primordial symbol of the fire-breathing dragon, the wrathful god. I can hardly imagine the terror of undergoing a bombing raid, but it must trigger some kind of primordial memory of divine or demonic hostility in its victims.

And I think this, in a certain way, is the "point" of the strategy — not to win in the war in a proper and tactical sense, but to impose "shock & awe" (as the US military recently began calling it) on your enemy, to make them submit to you as a superior and angered god. The mass psychological trauma of these actions must be devastating. It's a diabolical baptism by fire our age has had to endure. In Steinerian terms, the bomber strategy is Ahrimanic black magic par excellence — traumatise people with the image of these mechanical dragons to make them submit to a mechanised, bureaucratic society.

Bruce Charlton said...

@IB - Maybe something in that.

Bombers are - in effect - airborne artillery, and the apparent consensus among infantry who have seen it all, is that sustained artillery bombardment is the worst thing of all.

Stephen alexander said...

I often think about the mothers of young children, holding on to their frightened children, in a shelter- people who had no control over their leaders, people who were wholly innocent- being burned alive, or suffocated as firestorms took the oxygen away from their lungs, in Japan and Germany, killed by we Brits and Americans- the "good guys."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Stephen - If you haven't already read it, you might appreciate Bomber by Len Deighton - very powerfully (indeed harrowingly) giving both sides of an RAF air raid.

Aside from the human suffering aspect; the RAF bombing as practiced (and the RAF *began* mass civilian bombing - the Germans refrained, until they retaliated to repeated RAF raids*) broke what were accepted rules of war; that war should (at least strategically) be restricted to uniformed combatants, as far as possible.

My impression is that this is hardly (if at all) understood by modern Westerners - given how eager we are to transgress this rule, encourage our client states to transgress it, and then boast about it.

The flip side is that if any un-uniformed (apparent) civilian my be carrying arms and participating in the war - if the enemy cannot tell the difference between combatants and non-combatants - then this "inevitably" leads to massive slaughter of civilians.

If for example - we start giving grannies machine-guns, and encourage them to shoot at soldiers - as happened a couple of years ago with overwhelming coverage and support from Western media; then the corollary is that soldiers will have to treat every granny as a combatant - with predictable consequences.

*Indeed, the Luftwaffe had no 4-engined "heavy bombers" and didn't build them; and were not set up as a strategic bombing force. Due to bad planning, the RAF had only one genuine heavy bomber (7,000 lb bomb load) at the start of hostilities - this being the twin engined Whitley. It took a few years before the more famous 4-engined Stirlings (early 1941), then Halifaxes and Lancasters, became available.

[The four-engined US Flying Fortresses and Liberators were only marginally "heavy" bombers, since their bomb capacity was limited by their multi-gun armament, many crew, and protective armour. The two-man, twin-engined, unarmed, "wooden-wonder" Mosquito could carry more bombs - *much* faster - than a Flying Fortress, and with fewer casualties. Ironically (?) the Mosquito was, for a while, the actual achievement of the "schnellbomber" concept (which could outrun single-engine fighters), that the Germans had been so keen on producing from the middle 1930s, but never quite managed in WWII.]

Bruce Charlton said...

SpiesAreUs has left a comment:

"Happy ninety fifth birthday to Len Deighton ... "