A new biography on Bomber Harris, written by the former head of the Royal Air Force Historical Section, Henry Probert, is re-opening debate on many aspects of the strategic bomber offensive in World War II. Interest is also heightened by the apparent success of the bombing option in the Persian Gulf War in 1990­-91 and the war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

A church service is held in Normandy, France, in August 1944 for members of an RCAF Typhoon fighter-bomber wing. Petrol tins and ammunition boxes were used instead of pews.

Probert’s portrait of Sir Arthur Harris is based on contemporary letters and documents rather than postwar recollection and it allows us to better understand the options available to Harris at the time he made his most important decisions. For example, from April to September 1944, RAF Bomber Command was committed to the support of Operation Overlord, the campaign to liberate France.

Initially, Harris complained bitterly about this diversion of his force from its proper strategic role–attacking German cites–and argued that his squadrons were not trained or equipped to carry out the kind of precision bombing required by the army. Nevertheless, Harris, as always, followed orders. He soon discovered that the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his deputy, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, were much easier to work with than the staff at RAF headquarters. Indeed, in a postwar memoir, Harris recalled that the only time “when all pulled together…was during that short period when Eisenhower was the admiral and Tedder the captain on the bridge.” Eisenhower expressed a similar view describing Harris as “one of the most effective and co-operative members of his team.”

The months in which Bomber Command was working for Eisenhower also witnessed a renewed attempt to experiment with daylight bombing, largely abandoned since 1940 as too costly and ineffective. Many of these operations were carried out in support of First Canadian Army partly because Lieutenant-General Harry Crerar, an old friend of Harris, strongly supported the use of “heavies” on the battlefield even when a number of bombers hit Canadian troops some distance away from their proper targets.

After the worst such incident in Operation Tractable–the advance to Falaise–Crerar reminded everyone that most of the bombs had fallen on the enemy and “contributed greatly to success.” Writing to Harris, he offered thanks and laid the groundwork for future co-operation.

For Operation Wellhit, the attack on Boulogne, France, Crerar and Harris arranged elaborate precautions. An RAF Group Captain with a UHF radio link to the master bomber worked with Brigadier John Rockingham to ensure the target indicators were placed on the correct aiming points before bombing began. No. 6 Group, Royal Canadian Air Force, which had been responsible for much of the short bombing in Tractable, supplied one third of the aircraft for this highly concentrated and accurate attack in which only one aircraft was lost and its crew rescued.

Even after Bomber Command ceased to answer to Eisenhower and reverted to its original role, Harris was always willing to listen to requests to support the ground forces and did so especially in support of the battle for Walcheren Island in the Netherlands.

The skills which Bomber Command pilots honed in the summer of 1944 were soon employed in the renewed attack on German industry. By October 1944 more than 1,300 operational aircraft were available each day and it was possible to carry out raids on a wide variety of targets. Priority was to be given to oil targets in the belief that Germany’s oil situation was desperate. The American daylight bombers were focused on this task and when Harris joined in, reluctantly, he too ordered daylight raids.

The first such raid was on Aug. 27, 1944 when Halifax bombers of 4 Group attacked the synthetic oil refining plant at Meerbeck, using the same navigation aid, Oboe, as in night attacks. After further attacks in September, operational researchers estimated they had achieved a five per cent reduction in total oil output but cautioned that unless attacks continued the oil plants would soon be rebuilt.

Canadian aircrew serving in RAF “mixed” squadrons participated in all of these raids and on Sept. 11, 1944, No. 6 Group supplied 105 Halifax bombers for a daylight raid against oil plants at Castrop-Rauxel in western Germany. Laurence Motiuk’s superb book Thunderbirds At War: Diary Of A Bomber Squadron notes that the operation “took place in clear weather with good visibility, against moderate to intense heavy flak.” There was also excellent fighter cover provided by no less than 20 squadrons of Spitfires, Tempests and Mustangs. No enemy aircraft attempted to attack and while there was considerable flak damage no bomber was shot down.

Oil production was not the only objective of daylight raids. Two of the most successful operations of September 1944 were carried out on the German cities of Emden and Munster. The attack on the port of Emden was conducted by squadrons from 6 Group and 8 Group, escorted first by Spitfires and then by the long-range Mustangs of the United States 8th Air Force. American co-operation meant the bombers had fighter escorts throughout the flight. The attack was carried out at low altitudes, less than 2,000 feet on the approach run, to achieve surprise. Both the dock area and the submarine building yard were hit and suffered major damage. Only one Lancaster was lost.

The authors of the RCAF official history agree that “the raid was a complete success” but argue that since the crews could see what they were attacking, they “couldn’t help thinking about the people down there” as “the centre of the town was the aiming point.” They suggest that “at night in the dark there was greater psychological as well as physical distance between aircrew and their targets.” Was this one of the reasons why Harris did not switch completely to daylight bombing, which was associated with American “precision” attacks rather than the “area” bombing of cities?

Understanding the policy adopted by Harris in the winter of 1944­45 requires careful consideration of the circumstances. First, let it be said that there is very little evidence to suggest that aircrew were upset by the sight of their bombs hitting targets in Germany, just the reverse. The second important generalization to make is that while the US 8th Air Force was supposed to deliver its bomb loads with pin-point accuracy, it rarely did so.

By the fall of 1944, Bomber Command’s Halifaxes and Lancasters were at least as accurate as the Flying Fortresses and Liberators. In the cloudy weather so common in the fall and winter months both air forces were required to use navigation aids and target marking by master bombers. Bomber Command had more experience at this than the USAAF.

Throughout the war, Harris relied on the civilian-scientists of Bomber Command’s Operational Research Section to provide systematic analysis of the available evidence. Each month the section produced a Report on Losses and Interceptions of Bomber Command Aircraft as well as studies on bombing accuracy and a host of other questions. In October 1944, a month in which 7,168 aircraft were dispatched in daylight and 10,394 by night, the overall loss rate was 0.8 per cent by day and 0.7 per cent by night. These low loss rates, in a force which had routinely suffered five times that number of casualties, were due to the “entire lack of fighter opposition by day” and by the success of radio countermeasures against night fighters.

The big difference between day and night operations was not accuracy or loss rates but the much higher proportion of aircraft damaged by anti-aircraft fire. Flak damage and crew casualties were several times higher in October daylight raids and this was a big improvement over September when 30 per cent of all such sorties returned with damage.

With this kind of evidence available, Harris and his staff reduced the proportion of daylight raids in November, ordering them to targets close to the edge of Germany so that flak was encountered only over the target. Of course, opportunities, such as the chance to sink the German battleship Tirpitz, called for daylight and on Nov. 12 all of Bomber Command celebrated the achievement of No. 5 Group’s Lancasters in sinking Bismarck’s sister ship.

However, a great deal of training was required if large scale daylight raids were to play even a minor role in operations. The Americans flew in tight box formations with their escorts roaming the skies on the outer fringes of a relatively compact formation. RAF and RCAF crews navigated to their targets independently. With daylight raids, some kind of formation flying had to be developed and practised.

Air Vice-Marshal C.M. (Black Mike) McEwan, who commanded 6 Group in 1944 was known as a stickler for discipline and training. After numerous false starts he settled on a loose system of “gaggles”, groups of 10 aircraft which were to remain reasonably close to each other. A series of gaggles made up a day bomber stream which the fighter-escorts could keep track of. Training in cross-country fighter-affiliation exercises became a regular part of the routine with all bomber squadrons.

As the daylight raids became better organized and penetrated deeper into Germany, the full extent of the decline of the enemy air force became evident. Some attempts were made to plot the course of the bombers from ground stations, but the Luftwaffe made just three brief appearances in the daytime skies in October and none in November. The last month of 1944 saw Bomber Command fly 3,776 day sorties and 11,567 at night. Loss rates remained below one per cent, but 14 per cent of all aircraft dispatched by day suffered flak damage.

December also witnessed the first serious attempt at interception of aircraft operating in daylight, but thanks to the presence of fighter-escorts only six bombers were lost to fighter attack. One of the most successful innovations of the month was the use of large groups of Mosquito bombers to carry out independent daylight attacks against oil targets.

The Operational Research Section’s monthly reports focus on aircraft losses and assume that good accuracy was achieved in most raids. A very different view is put forward in the RCAF official history which quotes Air Commodore J.E. Fauquier, a former master bomber, as highly critical of the decline in bombing accuracy in the late summer and early fall of 1944. The Operational Research section’s optimism was based on its detailed studies of bomb fall distribution and while Fauquier was quite right about a decline in accuracy there was no mystery about the causes. It was due to switching from carefully selected targets in France to much more difficult targets in Germany.

The key measure Bomber Command used to judge accuracy was relative density at the aiming point per 1,000 tons dropped. By this measure operations in the fall and winter of 1944-45 while less accurate than attacks on French rail yards, were five times more effectively concentrated than in 1943­44.

This improvement was due to the continuing development of electronic aids, including the increasing use of H2S, airborne radar, and the decline in enemy fighter opposition. Still, accuracy was a relative term. Neither Bomber Command nor the USAAF were ever able to achieve the kind of precision bombing that would have permitted them to avoid the destruction of cities and the death or injury of large numbers of civilians. Quite apart from problems with navigation, target identification, the visibility of markers, the limitations of bomb sights and human error, the reality was that when everything went right only five per cent of the bombs fell within 500 yards of the aiming point and only half struck within 2,000 yards of it.

When Harris and others argued for area bombing, with the aiming points in the centre of cities, they were basing their analysis on evidence which demonstrated that precision attacks were only possible under extraordinary circumstances. If the combined bomber offensive was to play a role in the defeat of Hitler it had to pose a credible threat to the survival of his empire. If this could have been accomplished by the destruction of industrial targets, with minimal collateral damage and a reasonable loss rate for the Allied air crews, that approach would have been adopted. The choice facing Harris and his political masters was how to mount a credible threat given the limitations of the available technology.

For most of the war, success for Bomber Command meant forcing the enemy to divert enormous resources in weapons and manpower away from Russia and other battlefields to counter the Second Front created over the skies of Germany. From the summer of 1944 to the end of the war in Europe, the strategic bombers also participated directly in the destruction of the Nazi war machine.

The contribution of the men and women of the RCAF to this long campaign should be recognized by all Canadians for what it was–part of a difficult, but necessary fight to win a war against what Winston Churchill called “a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.”

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine on March 1st 2002.