How Britain’s Air Policy in 1941 Gambled with the Country’s Future

Greg Baughen

4 mins

14 Mar 2019

In 1940 the RAF’s gallant fighter pilots had hurled the Luftwaffe back and saved Britain from defeat. But could the country avoid defeat in 1941? And if it could, how was Britain going to win the war?

The plan

The plan was simple. Britain would never have an army big enough to take the offensive. Instead it was up to the RAF to go on to the offensive. The RAF would bomb Germany into defeat. There would no need for an army, no need to invade France.

This was what the Air Ministry had always wanted – the opportunity for the Air Force to win a war on its own.

It seemed a perfectly reasonable objective. The government’s experts were predicting Germany was already in crisis.  By early 1941 Germany would be experiencing shortages of oil, and other vital natural resources. Factories would be idle.

By the middle of 1941 Germany would already be finding it difficult to replace military equipment. Germany as a military force would be in terminal decline; Germany and the occupied countries would be gripped by food shortages.

Bomb them into submission

Amidst this chaos, Bomber Command would deliver the coup de grace, by smashing factories and cities. Unrest and rebellion would follow. The subjugated nations of Europe would rise up and the Nazi empire would collapse.

It would require a huge bomber fleet; as many as 6,000 expensive long-range heavy bombers might be needed.  Building them would be a momentous challenge. It would only be possible if the country committed all it could to the task.

A row of Halifax bombers under assembly at the Handley Page factory at Cricklewood, 1942.

It was a bold policy but it was also very risky.

It left Britain dangerously weak in key areas. If Germany had invaded Britain in the spring of 1941 the RAF would have been as ill-prepared to support the Army as it had been in the desperate days of the summer of 1940.

The Army pleaded with the Air Ministry to provide them with the sort of air force the German Army had supporting its operations. But the Air Ministry was adamant. Nothing must stand in the way of the bomber offensive.

Britain was lucky. The British Army in the UK did not have to take on the Wehrmacht. Germany invaded the Soviet Union instead.

Hoarding Spitfires

To build the bombers, fighter production had to be kept to a minimum. The precious Spitfires that were being built had to be kept in the United Kingdom. The RAF had already been forced to fight in Norway and France without Spitfires. Now it would have to fight in Greece and the Western Desert without Britain’s best fighter.

Even the Spitfire was struggling. A dangerous new version of Germany’s Messerschmitt had appeared – the Bf 109F, capable of 380 mph. Fortunately, Britain had the Spitfire III.

A Bf 109F-4 stationed near Reims, France. Credit: G.Garitan / Commons.

With the latest Merlin XX engine, this had flown in March 1940 and was capable of 400 mph. Unfortunately,  the Merlin XX engines were needed for the bombers. The Spitfire III never went into production.

Commonwealth leaders were not happy with Britain’s air policy.  Their troops were fighting in the Middle East and were suffering defeat after defeat at the hands of the Panzers and screaming Stukas.

Churchill was accused of hoarding aircraft in the UK and thereby denying their troops  the air cover they needed. There was even talk of withdrawing their forces if they were not provided with better air support.

The Commonwealth leaders had good reason to complain. With no Spitfires in action supporting Allied ground forces, losses were low and reserves were more than healthy. Indeed RAF storage units in the UK were overflowing with Spitfires.

Food for thought

When Churchill decided to help the Soviets by sending them fighters, the Air Ministry had a problem. The Hurricanes being used overseas were suffering heavy losses and were in short supply.

Spitfires were not being used and there was no shortage of them. It seemed that the best way of meeting Churchill’s promise was to send the Soviets Spitfires.

There was of course a problem. RAF fighter pilots overseas would not be too happy when they discovered Soviet pilot were getting the Spitfires before them; they might start expecting Spitfires. The Spitfires stayed in Britain.

The Americans were not happy either. They were not in the war yet, but they were gifting Britain vast amounts of military aid, and their Navy was already fighting alongside the Royal Navy in the Atlantic.

They felt they deserved some say in Britain’s war strategy and they made it clear to Churchill they did not think the bomber could win the war on its own.

For Churchill it was food for thought.

Vickers Wellingtons of 9 Squadron, on a mission in WW2, flying in formation.

The results come in…

Then in August 1941 there was the first thorough investigation into how successful RAF bombing had been. The results stunned the Air Ministry.

The study revealed that far from pushing Germany to the brink of defeat, only a very small percentage of bombs were hitting their targets. “Hitting their target” was defined as getting a bomb within an 80 square mile area around the target.

Most of the bombs “hitting” the target were in fact missing by miles.  For over a year Bomber Command had been pounding away at Germany and had achieved nothing.

So now what?

Greg Baughen is author of a highly acclaimed, if controversial, series of books on the history of the British and French air forces. His latest book “RAF on the Offensive” (Pen & Sword, October 2018 ) is the fourth in a series on the development of British air power.”