The Early Years of Bombing – How Did it Develop?

Paul Beaver

Twentieth Century World War Two
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This article is an edited transcript of Strategic Bombing in World War Two with Paul Beaver on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 28 February 2020.

Aviation historian Paul Beaver answers key questions about the strategic bombing campaigns of World War Two. How successful was the Blitz from a German perspective? What was the significance of Big Week? Was Dresden a war crime? And many more...Watch Now

There’s no doubt that at the end of the First World War and into the ’20s and ’30s, there was a feeling that the Great War, as it was then called, was the war to finish all wars.

Although bombing had become part of the capabilities of the military in 1918, everyone hoped it wouldn’t be.

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, late 1920s. Baldwin declared that ‘the bomber will always get through’ in the speech ‘A Fear for the Future’, November 1932, whilst advocating partial disarmament, in line with the theory of Italian General Guilo Douhet. (Credit: Public Domain)

In fact, there were people in Britain who thought the simplest thing to do is just to ban the bomber, international legislation, make sure that we ban the bomber.

There was a feeling that the new Royal Air Force was still pushing this whole idea of the trench art doctrine. The way we’re going to go to war with France or Germany is by bombing their airfields, destroying their air force and their industry.

The bomber will always get through. There’s no point in having fighters. The bomber will always get through.

So, bam in the middle of the 1930s, I think the whole of the doctrine of the bomber had started to be challenged.

Bristol Blenheim bombers of No. 62 Squadron RAF lined up at RAF Tengah, Singapore, circa February 1941 (Credit: Public Domain)

The Royal Air Force held on to the trench art doctrine, doggedly there will always be bombers.

The problem to a certain extent that Britain has at this time is that the bombers are just as fast as the fighters. So, there’s a real concern that there’s no point in investing in fighter aircraft.

Lessons from Guernica

What you get with Guernica in 1937 is the Luftwaffe demonstrating its tactical airpower capability of being able to use bombers against an undefended target and actually achieving a huge amount of morale affecting success.

Ruins of Guernica, 1937 (Credit: Bundesarchiv/CC)

I suppose in a way they learned lessons from that, which indicated that blitz bombing, bombing against civilian targets, would be good.

It did make everybody sit up.

It led to, in Britain, for example, the investment in fighter aircraft as well as bomber destroyers.

The weaker side?

In the first three years of the Second World War, Britain’s bomber force was really not up to the technology that the Germans had.

It relied on daylight operations. It relied on being able to defend itself with a few machine guns in each aircraft, there were no long-range fighter escorts at that time. Nobody had even considered that to be important.

So, the real issue that the British had was actually dropping bombs on targets and hitting them. For the first two or three years of the war, they didn’t succeed in that.

Ground crew unloading 250-lb GP bombs in front of a Fairey Battle, 1939–1940 (Credit: Public Domain)

When you look at the Battle of France, you see that the whole doctrine of the daylight light bomber is just thrown out of the window.

The losses of the Fairey Battles and the Bristol Blenheims, both light bomber aircraft, were just so horrendous; whole squadrons wiped out; that it obviously wasn’t going to go any further. This really was not the way to go.

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What I find significant is that in this time of the Battle of France, the Royal Air Force would not use its bombers in support of the army.

They still wanted to bomb the means of production in Germany as a way of stopping the Germans in France rather than deploying their air power at night, against German troop concentrations or resupply.

So, there’s a complete mismatch in the use of bombers in the first two or three years of the war.

The Turning Point

I think what’s fascinating about 1940, it’s a turning point in so many ways.

In 1940, the French Air Force was the largest air force in the world. It had more bombers, more fighters than anybody else. More than the Americans, the Japanese, the British, the Germans, they just didn’t know how to use them.

The Germans on the other hand had developed a medium bomber force in support of the army. The Luftwaffe was subordinate to the army. It was flying artillery.

Generaloberst Erhard Milch addressing a Ju 87, or Stuka (dive bomber), squadron on a Norwegian airfield, 23 April 1940 (Credit: Bundesarchiv/CC)

The Stuka dive bombers were fast-moving with the tanks as the tanks went forward. They were the artillery that went and supported them.

Some really clever thinking at the tactical and operational levels by the Germans, but not so much in the strategic level.

Germany had found that its tactical air power worked really well against Poland. It worked really well against the Netherlands, the bombing of Rotterdam. It worked well against Belgium and against France forces in the field.

rotterdam
Rotterdam’s burning city centre shortly after the German bombing, on 14 May 1940 (Credit: Bundesarchiv/CC)

The French Army, for example, were devastated by the attacks of Stuka dive bombers and they fled the battlefield. So, the Germans were very buoyed up with this, they had experience in the Spanish Civil War as well against urban targets.

One of the problems the Germans had as they moved from the Battle of France to the Battle of Britain in July 1940, was they didn’t really have a plan. They hadn’t really worked out what they were going to do.

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They needed to clear the Royal Air Force from the air and probably the Royal Navy from the channel. Airpower was the way to do that. They needed supremacy.

That meant bombing the airfields and the means of defence. They hadn’t really thought through the bombing of industrial means, the means of production, building new airplanes, new fighter aircraft to replace those that had been shot down.

The Germans didn’t quite understand the role and the use of the strategic bomber.

The bomb load used for industrial demolition (Bomber Command executive codeword ‘Abnormal’), loaded in the bomb-bay of an Avro Lancaster of No. 9 Squadron RAF at Bardney, Lincolnshire, before a night raid on Stettin, Germany. ‘Abnormal’ consisted of 14 1,000-lb MC high-explosive bombs. (Credit: Public Domain)

Britain on the other hand, was looking at these things more strategically and had put specifications in place, requirements in place for a new bomber force, four-engine bombers to take a large quantity of bombs, 4,000, 6,000, 8,000 pounds of bombs to a distant target.

And by 1936, of course, that was Germany.

 

Paul Beaver