The Battle of Britain was a glamorous defensive battle fought by a "few" against seemingly overwhelming odds and it has -- rightly -- captured the hearts and imaginations of generations. Yet, it was a short, three-month interlude in a six-year-long war of bitter attrition. Churchill was correct when he said the fate of civilization hung in the balance during the Battle of Britain. Yet while the Battle of Britain prevented Nazi victory, it did not assure Allied victory. British success in the Battle of Britain was only the first necessary precondition for a continued Allied struggle against Nazi tyranny in Europe. From the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk in June 1940 until the Normandy invasions in June 1944, Britain's only means for striking at Germany's military and industrial capacity was through a bomber offensive.
Strategic bombing, as bombing offensives are more commonly called, is not popular with anyone anymore -- if it ever was. Strategic bombing isn't pretty. It isn't glamorous. It isn't heroic. Bombing offensives are cruel. They kill the innocent as well as the guilty. They destroy priceless and irreplaceable historical and cultural monuments. In a post-war world where the urgency of victory had dissipated, the ugly face of strategic bombing was not something anyone wanted to remember anymore, and so it was largely relegated to the realm of "necessary evils" best swept under the carpet.
That natural tendency not to dwell on the unpleasant was compounded by the results of the Strategic Bombing Survey. This survey, commissioned by the U.S. Secretary of War to assess the damage done by the Allied strategic bombing, was carried out by a panel of civilian experts that produced a report 208 volumes long with over 200 supporting documents. Released in October 1945, it pointed to startling failures that shattered wartime faith in the efficacy of bombing. For example, the Strategic Bombing Survey found that German aircraft production more than doubled from 15,596 aircraft of all types in 1942 (before the start of strategic bombing) to 39,807 aircraft in 1944. Likewise, tank production peaked in 1944, despite the bombing offensive, and -- particularly disappointing to the USAAF -- there was no evidence that the repeated and costly attacks on the German ball bearing industry had any impact on the war at all. The Strategic Bombing Survey, furthermore, assessed the results of the entire Allied air offensive, the U.S. as well as the British bombing, and was particularly dismissive of night bombing, the RAF's contribution, because of it's limited accuracy.
Such results were quickly seized upon by opponents of strategic bombing and are the most familiar facts known about the survey to this day. The influential economist John Kenneth Galbraith concluded that strategic bombing had been virtually worthless and called it a strategic blunder. He suggested that it had stimulated the German economy and stiffened German resolve to fight rather than the reverse. Such an assessment poured oil on the flames of moral outrage over the civilian and cultural casualties of bombing. Strategic bombing was increasingly viewed as mindless terror.
If one accepts this conclusion, then the losses sustained by the Allied Air Forces were unconscionable. The RAF alone lost roughly 55,000 men, or almost exactly 100 times the losses in the Battle of Britain. (Although to keep things in perspective, one should remember that the British lost 125,000 men at the Battle of the Somme alone.) While hardly anyone blames the pawns of this war, the aircrew, they were nevertheless increasingly portrayed as victims rather than heroes, as the dunces of the diabolical and heartless political and military leadership.
Yet the conclusions of the Strategic Bombing Survey were much broader and more complex than the simple facts noted above suggest. The Survey, undertaken so shortly after the war, had grave issues with verifying data and there is strong reason to believe, for example, that many Nazi "production figures" were fantastical book-keeping exercises fabricated to cover-up reality from the Nazi leadership. Furthermore, beside the noted failures, the survey recorded significant success. For example, the Allied bombing offensive was extremely effective in closing down Germany's synthetic oil and petroleum production, contributing materially to the collapse of the Wehrmacht's mobility. More dramatically -- if late in the war -- submarine production was completely disrupted. Altogether, the Survey concludes that strategic bombing contributed materially to Allied victory and shortened the land offensive.
Impossible to calculate, yet critical to any conclusions about the efficacy of Allied strategic bombing in WWII, is an answer to the following question: What would German industrial and military capacity have been without the Allied strategic bombing campaign? Would a successful invasion of the Continent and Germany have been possible without strategic bombing in the previous four years?
We know that the bulk of German fighters were deployed to the defensive of the Reich because of the bombing offensive. What if, instead, they had been on the fronts providing the air cover so urgently needed by the Wehrmacht? Or, put another way, what if the Allies had not had air superiority over the beaches of Normandy? What if the 2 million men manning anti-aircraft batteries in the Reich had been available to fight on the Eastern Front? What if the 8,8 flak guns had been deployed as tank killers instead of clustered around Germany's industrial cities to bring down bombers?
Moreover, in addition to it impact on economic and military capacity, strategic bombing was intended to both damage enemy and bolster domestic morale. The impact on German morale has been particularly controversial. Clearly, the Germans did not rise up in rebellion, but such an expectation is naive. However, there is evidence to suggest that the population of industrial centers was significantly less loyal to the regime than the rest of the German population. This was in part due to a tradition of Socialism in the urban centers, but also do to the effects of bombing. Leaving aside the political component, German (including contemporary Nazi) sources stress that the continuous disruptions to water, electricity, transportation, and sleep undermined worker morale and efficiency -- but in a way that is difficult to quantify.
On the other hand, after the loss of roughly 52,000 British lives in the German bombing offensive against Britain, the British public expected retribution. That may not sound very noble or altruistic, but it was a political reality that could not be ignored. As a result, the RAF's bombing offensive was popular throughout the war and aircrew stood in high regard with the British public.
Last but not least, for four long years the bombing offensive against Germany was Britain's sole means of taking the war to the enemy. By doing so, Britain demonstrated her determination to defeat Hitler. The bombing offensive was also critical in fending off strident Soviet demands for a premature "second front."
Ultimately, regardless of the utility of their actions in retrospect, the young men who volunteered to fly in this extremely hazardous and costly campaign deserve recognition and regard. Roughly 8,000 aircrew from Bomber Command lost their lives in training, before embarking on a single operational sortie. Although survival rates steadily increased in the course of the war, with losses per operation falling from 4.1% in 1942 to less than 1% in 1945, nevertheless, on average the chances of surviving a tour of 30 operations averaged just 29%. The men who took those risks again and again in an attempt -- however vain -- to weaken Nazi Germany should be remembered with respect.
Lack of Moral Fibre and my work-in-progress, Lancaster Skipper, are dedicated to depicting and honoring the contributions of RAF Bomber Command aircrew to the war. You can find out more about Lack of Moral Fibre at: https://crossseaspress.com/lack-of-moral-fibre.