Friday 20 July 2012

Strike Hard, Strike Sure; The Bomber Command Memorial

Strike Hard, Strike Sure (all images author's photos)
On the 28th June last, Her Majesty The Queen unveiled the new Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, near Hyde Park Corner. The memorial attracted much attention from some quarters, ranging from the location in one of London’s Royal Parks, to the design and size of the memorial and even after seventy years, as to whether Bomber Command should be commemorated at all, given the controversial nature in some people’s eyes of the tactics used by the Command in the area bombing of German cities, even though these were the same tactics as used by the Luftwaffe only on a much larger scale and which the Nazis would surely have replicated had they been in possession of the necessary equipment. 

RAF Bomber Command seemed to attract controversy almost throughout the War; at the beginning the Command was equipped with mainly obsolescent twin engine designs which were totally unsuited for the tasks given to them of bombing German industrial and military targets. One early attack on German warships at Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbuttel was particularly disastrous with almost a quarter of the twenty nine aircraft despatched being shot down and with the bombs nearly all missing their targets. Ironically, the only bombs to do serious damage fell on the Danish city of Esbjerg, some 110 miles off course, where the two innocent people killed paid testament to the lack of training and preparedness of the crews.

The training of the men was to improve and the quality of the aircrew assigned to Bomber Command was never in doubt. The road to getting better and more suitable bomber aircraft was a long and tough one however. To begin with, like the Luftwaffe, the British bombers were mainly twin-engine and obsolescent designs but unlike the Luftwaffe who were operating from captured airfields in their newly occupied territories in France and the Low Countries, Bomber Command had to travel over almost exclusively hostile territory in order to reach their targets. The Hampdens, Blenheims and Whitleys were completely unsuited to the task and the Wellington, whilst being an ingeniously designed aeroplane from the genius of Barnes Wallis, could not on its own deliver a worthwhile bomb load over these distances. To begin with though, these aircraft were all that there were and the men had to make do with what they had. 

The centrepiece of the memorial
In the early days of the ‘Phoney War’ and after the early fiascos described above, the Command had nothing more lethal to drop than leaflets but following the Blitz on British cities and the change of politcal leadership in Britain, a re-appraisal of the Command’s role took place. It was quickly realised that the original plan for daylight precision bombing was not viable given the equipment available and the level of the defences. It was quickly decided to switch to area bombing by night, where the bombers would be safer from the German defences. This was the same lesson that had been learned the hard way by the Luftwaffe. As the war went on, Bomber Command was to continue to learn and to develop and would quickly leave its German counterpart trailing far behind.

One of the first developments were the night navigation aids called ‘Gee’ and ‘Oboe’, which were both radio beam aids which greatly improved accuracy. The obsolete aircraft types were steadily phased out with new four-engine ‘heavies’ coming into service, first the Stirling which was frankly not a success, followed by the Halifax and the supremely successful Lancaster, which was to become synonymous with Bomber Command. The manpower was greatly expanded, with large numbers of Commonwealth aircrew coming into play, along with many other Allied airmen – Poles, Free French, Czech and many others.

Aircrew looking skywards
The greatest change in the Command’s fortunes came with the appointment of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris as C in C of Bomber Command in early 1942. His appointment coincided with the Area Bombing Directive of 14th February 1942, which ordered Bomber Command to target German industrial cities and the morale of the civilian population. The Command began to go on the offensive; the first German city to feel Harris’s wrath was Lubeck, which was firebombed by a modestly sized bomber force in March 1942. This was followed by Operation Millennium, when the city of Cologne was overwhelmed by a massive one thousand bomber force, in which attack Harris gambled the entire force of Bomber Command on the night of 30th/31st May 1942. The effect was shattering; the German civilian population was never allowed to feel secure and city after city began to tremble under the weight of Harris’s bomber force.

One of the many personal messages
There were many setbacks of course; for one, the Battle of Berlin as Harris dubbed it, did not result in the end of the war as he predicted but in a horrific sort of stalemate in which huge swathes of the city were destroyed at a cost of the lives of thousands of British and Commonwealth airmen. Hamburg, Dresden and Kassel amongst other cities were laid waste. Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Charles Portal, who as Chief of the Air Staff had been a leading advocate of area bombing, wrote post-war how he had visited Potsdam, a near suburb of Berlin and described how “Bert Harris removed the town of Potsdam in half an hour one night in April 1945.” So complete was the destruction that even Portal, a hardened airman well used to the horrors of bombing, was taken aback.

This victory of total bombing was not without cost; 55,573 British, Commonwealth and Allied members of Bomber Command died in carrying out their missions, as well as some 600,000 German victims of Allied bombing and 60,000 British victims of German air attacks. The controversy never left Bomber Command either; even at the time, there were those who questioned the morality of stooping to the same level as one’s enemy. After the destruction of Dresden, even Churchill began to distance himself from the policy of “bombing for terror’s sake alone” as he described it, although he was not responsible for the refusal of the incoming Labour government in 1945 to award a campaign medal for the “Old Lags” of Bomber Command as Harris had christened his ever-loyal aircrew. When he returned to power in 1951, Churchill made good his promise to honour Harris, who would accept nothing more than a Baronetcy and who would insist on wearing the Defence Medal, the same decoration as his men.

Lest we forget
Whatever the rights and wrongs and undoubted horrors of the Allied area bombing campaign, it was surely an outrage to continue to ignore the sacrifices made by the men of Bomber Command. Seventy years on, it looks as if no campaign medal will ever be forthcoming but at least the men now have a fitting memorial. Designed by Liam O’Connor, the striking memorial is built from Portland Stone and features as the centre piece a 2.7 metre high bronze statue, designed by Philip Jackson of seven bomber aircrew who have just returned from a mission and who are looking skyward, perhaps for their returning colleagues. The roof of the memorial is built from aluminium salvaged from a crashed Canadian Halifax bomber, discovered in Belgium (with the bodies of three aircrew still strapped in their seats) in 1997. The roof has been formed to evoke the Geodesic design of the famous Wellington bomber, a mainstay of the Command in the early years.

The memorial cost £5.6 million, which was raised by public donations as well as from substantial gifts from Lord Ashcroft, the businessman John Caudwell and from the late Robin Gibb, whose own father had served in Bomber Command. The result is a worthy memorial to the men of Bomber Command, as well as to the victims of all bombing during the Second World War.

When the memorial was officially unveiled by The Queen, some 6,000 surviving veterans and their families were present and no doubt many memories were rekindled during the course of the ceremony.

A glimpse of the roof formed from aluminium from a crashed Halifax bomber
When I visited the memorial a few days ago, I was extremely impressed by the design and execution of the monument, especially of the statue of the aircrew. I was also very moved by the many personal messages which had been placed at the feet of the aircrew and which made poignant reading, as well as reminding one that real people were involved here and that many memories still remain.

This is a fitting memorial, not only to the 55,573 brave men of Bomber Command but to all of the victims of bombing during the Second World War.

Lest we forget.

Published Sources:

Bomber Boys - Patrick Bishop, Harper Press - 2007
Bomber Command 1939-45 - Richard Overy, Harper Collins 1997
VCs of the Second World War - John Frayn Turner, Pen & Sword Military 2004

Saturday 7 July 2012

July during the Second World War

As we 'enjoy' our current wet summer, perhaps now is a good time to look back in history to see what was happening during the corresponding weeks during the Second World War. The month of July has always been one when the British civilian population at least, even in wartime, looked forward to some warmer weather and perhaps even a few precious days off. For those in the fighting services, wartime whether in July or December presented the same fears, trials and tribulations.

July 1940
Field Marshal Alanbrooke (courtesy IWM)
The first July of the War saw Britain at bay; her army, defeated in France had withdrawn across the Channel, culminating in the evacuation from Dunkirk which completed in early June and with further withdrawals from the Channel and Atlantic ports up until the middle of that month when France capitulated on the 18th June. The British Army, licking it's wounds was beginning the process of rebuilding and re-equipping following defeat in France. At this time, a then little known Lieutenant General by the name of Alan Brooke was the recently appointed Commander in Chief of Southern Command, the area likely to bear the brunt of the expected German invasion. Brooke was somewhat daunted by what he found; his diary entry for 2nd July, following a visit to the 50th Division in the West Country read "The more I see the nakedness of our defences, the more appalled I am! Untrained men, no arms, no transport and no equipment........The ghastly part of it is that I feel certain that we only have a few more weeks before the Boche attacks!"

Brooke, supported by his subordinate commanders including a certain Major General Bernard Montgomery was a superb trainer of men and as the weeks and months passed, he was to prove instrumental in rebuilding the Army and can indeed be justly described as one of the founders of the recovery of the British Army which was to return to Europe in triumph a little under four years later.

At sea, the Royal Navy continued with it's routine tasks around the globe. North Atlantic convoys to be marshalled and escorted across the 'pond', the Mediterranean to police and an as yet peaceful Far East to patrol. Often employed on unglamorous duties, the Royal Navy was solid and dependable.

In the air, this week saw the opening of what we now describe as The Battle of Britain, a conflict that was to last until the end of October 1940 and which saw the beginning of the Blitz against London and other British towns and cities but which was to ultimately represent the first meaningful of the Third Reich in battle and which was to ultimately avert any threat of invasion to this country due to the inability of the Luftwaffe to wrest command of the skies from the RAF. Without such air supremacy, any invasion fleet would have been blown out of the water by the Royal Navy. 

July 10th 1940 saw the opening skirmishes in the Battle; Channel convoys were attacked and seventy German bombers attacked Swansea and Falmouth, killing thirty people and causing damage to shipping, railways and a power station. A train was also strafed near Newhaven in Sussex, killing the driver and severely injuring the Guard. The losses on each side reflected what was to become the pattern of the Battle; thirteen German bombers were lost for the loss of six British fighters. We shall return to this epic battle in the weeks ahead.

July 1941
One year later saw Britain in a much stronger position, although still standing alone. Brooke was still GOC Southern Command. Although the threat of invasion had largely passed, Brooke was still determined to get the Army trained to the peak of it's abilities. He was also beginning to have his first encounters with Winston Churchill, something which was to become all too familiar for him in the coming years following his promotion to Chief of the Imperial General Staff or CIGS - the professional head of the British Army. In North Africa, the Army had enjoyed it's only true successes against the Axis but had already fallen back following the dilution of it's forces into the Greek and Crete campaigns and had fallen back to Sollum leaving Tobruk beseiged and beginning the British association with those place names from the North African desert which were to become so familiar with both public and military alike over the next couple of years - Sollum, Tobruk, Sidi Barani, Bardia and of course, El Alamein amongst others. 

HMS Hood
The Royal Navy had fought another major action in May of 1941 when the German battleship Bismarck had made it's brief foray into the North Atlantic, sinking the pride of the Navy, HMS Hood but herself being overwhelmed by the Home Fleet a few days later. In the North Atlantic, the convoy battles continued unabated, although July 1941 saw the British enjoying the fruits of the 'Ultra' decrypts of the German 'Enigma' code traffic and at this time were able to successfully re-route convoys around Donitz's Wolf Packs and keep merchant ship losses to a minimum.

The RAF, with the Battle of Britain safely won and with the commanders of that battle, Dowding and Park scandalously dismissed, were embarking on the disastrous policy of 'leaning towards the enemy' with huge fighter sweeps over occupied France, resulting in heavy losses and proving that the new commanders Sholto-Douglas and Leigh-Mallory had learned nothing from the experiences of the Luftwaffe only a year previously. Fighters flying over enemy territory which were lost meant almost certainly losing the highly trained aircrew as well as the aircraft. Aircraft could easily be replaced but replacing the men was a different matter. RAF Bomber Command was not yet really able to truly go onto the offensive; in July 1941, it's main operations were still mining German ports and attacking German shipping, usually with unimpressive results. It's day was still to come.

July 1942
Britain was no longer fighting alone and the Second World War had become a truly global conflict. Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941 had brought the USA into the war. The subsequent loss of Singapore and Hong Kong as well as Britain's other possessions in the Far East had brought Great Britain into conflict with a new and even more unpleasant enemy than Nazi Germany. Somewhat bizarrely, Hitler declared war on the United States, thus ensuring ultimate Allied victory in the longer term. As with the beginning of the German war, this conflict also began disastrously for the Allies. When Singapore fell on 15th February 1942, the British and Commonwealth Armies lost 130,000 men as prisoners to the Japanese - the biggest disaster in British military history. The Americans had also suffered similar humiliating reverses in the Philippines, losing some 75,000 prisoners to Japanese captivity and with all the privations and brutality that went with it. 

The ruins of Cologne in 1945 (US Dept of Defense)
Russia had also been attacked by the Germans. Operation Barbarossa had commenced on 22nd June 1941 with the intention of invading Russia and taking them out of the war. Had this succeeded, the brief respite enjoyed by the British would have quickly ended, with the entire might and fury of the Nazis once again turned towards the west. It was therefore vital to keep the Soviet Union in the war and this meant keeping the Russians supplied. The Russian Convoys became a millstone around the necks of the Royal Navy as well as the merchant navies of the Free World. Convoy PQ17 was to become an infamous bloodbath, when the British Admiralty under the nit-picking direction of Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, ordered the convoy to scatter on 4th July 1942 due to faulty intelligence that German heavy units were at sea. This information was nonsense and the scattering of this convoy merely served up the vast majority of the convoy into the arms of the Luftwaffe and waiting U-Boats. Of the thirty six merchant ships that sailed from Reykjavik, Iceland on 27th June 1942, twenty three were sunk by U-Boat and air attack. Two more returned to Iceland, which meant that a mere eleven made it through to Russia. It was difficult enough to operate convoys through this part of the World when the daylight was permanent as it was at this time of the year but Pound's interference and faulty dispositions made this a shameful event in Allied naval history. As a result of this fiasco, the Russian convoys were to be suspended until the onset of darkness and it was not until September 1942 that the next Artic convoy was to set out. Future convoys were to be much more heavily escorted and the advent of the Escort Aircraft Carrier was also to help tip the scales in favour of the Allies.

By July 1942, RAF Bomber Command had a new chief. Sir Arthur Travers Harris, known to his aircrew as 'Butch' (short for Butcher) and to the public as 'Bomber' had assumed command in February 1942. He immediately changed the mindset of the Command by going onto the offensive and targetting German cities with the express aim of undermining the morale of the German civilian population. Lubeck had been the first German city to feel the Harris touch, when on 28th March 1942, the historic city centre perished in a firestorm. By 30th/31st May 1942, Harris had upped the stakes by unleashing the first 1,000 bomber raid on the city of Cologne. Germany was indeed beginning to reap the whirlwind and much worse was to follow for the German public in the months and years to come.

July 1943
By now, the Allies were firmly on the front foot in Europe at least. By the summer of 1943, the Axis forces had been cleared from North Africa and were looking forward to the invasion of Sicily. To try and throw the Germans off their guard, an ingenious if somewhat macabre scheme was hatched, which was called Operation Mincemeat, or perhaps better known as immortalised in the film 'The Man Who Never Was' in which the corpse of a fictitious 'Major Martin' was floated ashore in Spain from a British submarine. The body was loaded with fake documents which all pointed towards an Allied invasion of Sardinia, rather than the obvious choice of Sicily. It was a huge gamble but knowing that the Spanish regime was basically friendly towards the Nazis, it was a gamble worth taking. The Germans swallowed 'Mincemeat' and diverted vital Army units to face a non-existent invasion of Sardinia and whilst the invasion of Sicily was no picnic, many Allied lives were saved and the Allies had their foothold on mainland Europe.

The RAF's bombing offensive continued. The famous Dambusters raid had occurred in May 1943 but for the rest of Bomber Command, German cities remained the main target. In July 1943, 115,021 tons of bombs were dropped by the RAF alone on German cities. The USAAF added to the weight of bombs by daylight.

On the Eastern Front, the Battle of Kursk started on 5th July 1943 and was to ebb and flow until 23rd August by which stage both sides had fought themselves to a standstill. Kursk was to see the largest tank battle in history, with each side employing in the region of 3,000 tanks.

July 1944
The Normandy landings had taken place on 6th June 1944. Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious invasion in history. By July 1944, the Allied armies were still building up their strength and were in danger in becoming bogged down in the bocage country around Caen. Whilst ultimate Allied victory was probably never in doubt, the fear of the warfare becoming a static affair was always at the back of Allied minds. The ground commander, General Montgomery was coming under pressure for his perceived over-cautious approach. This pressure was not only forthcoming from some of his American colleagues but also from those on the British side who should have known better, some of whom like the airmen Tedder and Coningham were driven by an intense personal dislike of Montgomery. The British General was never an easy person to understand or to get along with and was by this stage of his career a hugely conceited character, although undoubtedly 'a winner'. It is to the immense credit of the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower that he allowed Monty to continue in command, although his relationship with the British General was never an easy one. 

On the Home Front, the first V-1 Flying Bomb had fallen on the Capital on 13th June 1944. By July, despite improved countermeasures, they were still falling regularly on London. On 18th June, the Guards Chapel had fallen victim with the loss of 121 lives in the worst single incident involving these weapons. On 30th June another of these weapons had fallen in the Aldwych between Adastral House, home of the Air Ministry and Bush House with the loss of some 46 lives. It was clear that whilst the conventional Blitz was long over, London was being subjected to a new terror of 'robots' as these bombs became known. The capture of the Pas de Calais launch sites put paid to this threat in September 1944 but it had been extremely unpleasant while it lasted, with some 6,000 becoming victims to these weapons. Worse was to follow later in the year when the first of the V-2 rockets was to fall on London and this particular weapon was to blight London almost until the end of the war in Europe. On the Eastern Front, the Russian advance continued relentlessly, with the German Army Groups Centre and South being destroyed in the Lvov and Belorussian offensives.

At sea, the focus of the war in Europe remained the convoys across the Atlantic and to Russia and the U-Boats, although on the back foot, were far from defeated. The fleet facing the Japanese started to build and on 17th July, the submarine HMS Telemachus destroyed the Japanese submarine I-166 in the Malacca Straits. The submarine war in this theatre was the prelude to much wider ranging operations both in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

July 1945
The European War was over; Germany had unconditionally surrendered in May 1945 and the Allies were now faced with administering a ruined country and with the first murmurings of distrust within the great alliance with the Russians which was to culminate in the distrust and the eventual start of the Cold War.

On July 5th 1945, the first General Election was held in Great Britain for almost ten years. Winston Churchill, who had led the country to victory in the wartime coalition government was widely expected to be returned to power. The counting of the votes was an unusually protracted affair since the hundreds of thousands of servicemen's votes had to be returned to the UK for counting. However, when the count was complete and the result was announced on 26th July, Churchill had been voted out and the Labour Party under Clement Attlee had been voted into power in a landslide victory. The British people wanted change and no return to the social injustices of the 1930's and they saw Attlee rather than Churchill as the man most likely to introduce these changes and to bring Britain into the modern age.

Churchill had been attending the Potsdam Conference, the final meeting of the so called "Big Three" and had returned home for the result, no doubt expecting to return to the conference shortly afterwards. It was not to be and Mr Attlee was to take his place as Prime Minister alongside Harry Truman, himself newly installed as American President following the passing of Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet leader Josef Stalin. This Conference was to shape postwar Europe and the administration of Germany for the next 45 years.

In the Far East, the war against the Japanese continued and was expected to continue for possibly another two years, culminating in a conventional land invasion of mainland Japan, which had it occurred, would have cost the lives of many hundreds of thousands of Allied servicemen. The Atomic Bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to dramatically shorten the war by avoiding the need for an invasion. The 240,000 civilian casualties as a direct result of the bombs as well as the many thousands of subsequent deaths from radiation burns and other related illnesses are the subject of another debate.

Rangoon had fallen to the British Fourteenth Army in May and the remainder of Burma was liberated by the end of July. The final campaign in the Tenasserim Province cost the Japanese ten thousand troops at minimal cost for the British. The next stage of the campaign was to have been an amphibious assault to re-take Malaya but once again, the Atomic Bombs forestalled this, although the operation, codenamed 'Zipper' was still undertaken post-war as the quickest method of occupying Malaya.

At sea, the East Indies and British Pacific Fleets were in the thick of the action and although the latter fleet tended to be overshadowed by the vast American effort in this theatre, it was nevertheless the largest fleet ever put together by the Royal Navy and acquitted itself was great distinction. On 17th July, the British Pacific Fleet, aka Task Force 37 was operating as part of the US Third Fleet, attacking airfields and shipping north of Tokyo and would be at the forefront of the action right up until the Japanese surrender on August 15th and beyond.

So, as we can see the month of July throughout the Second World War was often the backdrop for momentous events in history. Obviously a blog such as this can merely scratch the surface in describing the events mentioned above. To study them in more detail, the following source reading is recommended.

Printed Sources:

The Black Bull: From Normandy to The Baltic with 11th Armoured Division - Patrick Delaforce, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1993
Bomber Command 1939-45 - Richard Overy, Harper Collins, 1997
Decision in Normandy - Carlo D'Este, Penguin,  2001
The Forgotten Fleet - John Winton, Douglas-Boyd, 1989
Hitler's U-Boat War - Clay Blair, Cassell, 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri-Service Press, 1990
War Diaries 1939-45 Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke - Alex Danchev & Daniel Todman (ed.), Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001
The War at Sea - John Winton (ed.) - Hutchinson, 1967