5th March 1943. The Horror of War.
In The Iliad : Hector’s wife begs him not to carry on: but war creates its own gravity and momentum.
After the German invasion of Russia in June 1941 a Second Front was impracticable with neither men nor resources such as landing craft available. The bomber offensive was our sole means of hitting back and so opened up a Second Front well before the Allied 1944 land invasion.
Tonight in 1943 saw ‘Bomber’ Harris’s assault on the Ruhr when 442 aircraft attacked Essen using the new Oboe beam marking system.
The wireless beam was laid by the eight Mosquitoes of the Pathfinder Force and by the end of the Battle of the Ruhr, Bomber Command had flown 18,506 sorties and lost 872 planes plus a further 16% damaged having poured 58,000 tons of bombs more than the Luftwaffe had dropped on Britain in 1940-1.
The March 1943 assault was the prelude to offensives over Hamburg and Berlin and the year was to see the bloodiest year of the British air attacks. It was to comprise 43 major attacks to 12th July.
At the beginning of the year Harris had written: ‘At long last we are ready and equipped’. The previous winter months of sporadic skirmishing against Berlin and the impenetrable U-boats pens at Lorient and St. Nazaire were over.
On the evening of 24th July Bomber Command took part in the most effective attack of the war by the raid on Hamburg when 791 planes would be taking part in ‘Operation ‘Gomorrah’, creating in the process city-wide fireballs which sucked all the oxygen from lungs.
It was felt that this time it would be easy, for they were to be equipped with ‘Window’, metal foil strips, despite Lord Cherwell’s pessimism that it could be used against our radar in return.
Churchill over-ruled fellow Cabinet member Herbert Morrison and Fighter Command’s objections: ‘Let us open the window!’ he declared. The next day north Germany awoke to find a bewildering array of metal-foil strips over the countryside.
It was on the 22nd February 1942 that Arthur Travers Harris had taken over Bomber Command, whilst his predecessor, Sir Richard Peirse, leader of the Command at its lowest ebb, became a convenient scapegoat.(1)
Then Chief of Air Staff, Charles Portal having taken over in 1940 and of whom some said hadn’t the iron resolution in fact proved to be Trenchard’s true disciple as the idea took root of wholesale destruction of German cities.
Portal with Churchill’s backing could have continued with area bombing for Churchill wrote: ’We have seen what inconvenience the attack on the British civilian population has caused us, and there is no reason why the enemy should be freed from all such embarrassments’.
However for a year October 1940 to March 1941, oil targets remained the first priority, though attacks on invasion barges continued into the winter and only when precision attacks failed would the policy be abandoned.
Even in 1944 there was some high-level concern regarding the infernal hell rained on the citizens of Dresden and Hamburg. Also one can only imagine the thoughts of the RAF crews, many only teenagers, rising into the night sky, flying missions deep into enemy territory being shot at, dropping bombs: death when it came was sudden and violent. (2)
Daniel Swift writer of Bomber Country describes his Granddad who was a Lancaster pilot who died in 1943, being washed up in the sea in Holland, but if he had in the unlikely possibility survived, would have regarded that his mission was to bomb to the end. It was the story of 55,000 of Bomber Command who died.
(1) It was on 4th October 1940 after Sir Cyril Newall had retired as Chief of Air Staff that Portal took over.
(2) Writer Vera Brittain wrote after the war that it was the fighter pilots who were celebrated with silence about the bombing raids.