Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sir Arthur Harris, strategic bombing of Germany

We have read about the USSR’s “Great Patriotic War” and of the massive number of men the USSR was able to field on the Eastern Front. Stalin felt hard-pressed and urged Churchill and Roosevelt to establish a Western Front, but that was easy for them to do. To begin with, in 1939 Great Britain had no land army to speak of. It had the second greatest navy in the world and a competent air force but it had a minuscule army ill-equipped to fight a major army in Europe. As to the U.S. in 1939, it also had no army to speak of. It did have the greatest navy in the world and a Marine Corps capable of fighting the Japanese on the islands they held, but it also was not equipped to launch an invasion into Europe or fight a major war against the Wehrmacht. And one mustn’t forget that the Pacific Theater was largely an American-British affair; so the British/American attentions in Europe were to some extent divided; although the Pacific baton was almost entirely held by the Americans as time went on. All of which is to say that a Western Front against the German’s was not something the Americans and British could rush into. They simply didn’t have the armies for it until well into the war.

Which brings us to the beliefs of Sir Arthur Harris, head of the RAF Bomber Command. On page 29 of No Simple Victory, World War II In Europe, 1939-1945, Norman Davies writes, “Sir Arthur Harris, seemed to believe that his scheme would render plans for a ‘Second Front’ redundant. He set out to reduce all of Germany’s cities to ashes, one by one, till none was left to function. . . The first ‘Thousand Bomber Raid’ took place on 30/31 May 1942. Cologne, Germany’s most ancient city, was trashed in the space of two hours. In August 1942 the USAAF brought over its B-17 Flying Fortresses, and began a daily programme of escorted daylight raids to supplement the RAF’s night-time activities. At the Casablanca Conference of January 1943 the Allied leaders ordered that priority be given to ‘precision bombing’ of submarine yards, aircraft factories, railway lines and oil refineries. But this was largely ignored. On 27/8 July 1943 Hamburg, Germany’s premier port, was destroyed by a firestorm in which 43,000 people perished and a million were made homeless. Berlin was repeatedly attacked, so that it resembled a moonscape of rubble long before the Red Army arrived. On 3 February 1945 a USAAF raid on Berlin killed 25,000 people at one go. Less than two weeks later, a combined British and American raid on Dresden caused a second firestorm, as at Hamburg, in which perhaps 60,000 people died for no known military purpose. The simple fact is that the Strategic Bombing Offensive did not bring the German economy to a halt, and it did not break the morale of the German public. What it did to was to demonstrate that in the last year of the war the Western air forces enjoyed virtually total supremacy in the skies of Western Europe.”


Britain as we have seen was not equipped for a land war in Europe, and that was by design. Other writers described how appalled Britain (and not just Britain) was by World War One.. The flower of British Youth was killed in European trenches and for no good reason that most in Britain could see; so Britain turned somewhat pacifistic. They in effect said “no more war” and meant it. So when, despite the best efforts of their leaders, peace was not to be obtained in their time, they were hard put to get their military act. They did have an excellent navy, the second largest in the world, and a decent air force, at least for home use. And not to be despised were the diplomatic efforts of Winston Churchill who in effect rallied America, with the world’s largest navy, to Britain’s aid. America cranked up its weapons-making industries and began shipping materials to Britain and to the USSR in a frantic hurry.

So we can perhaps see that the idea of Sir Arthur Harris was a rather good one. It was all well and good for Stalin to demand a second front from the allies, but for a long time the allies just weren’t up to it. The USSR didn’t have to engage in a complicated amphibious enterprise to get their forces in major contact with the Germans (Davies doesn’t consider the North African and Italian campaigns as major so I won’t either). So, thought Sir Arthur Harris, with the Americans shipping us so many airplanes, why not use them to bomb Germany. Maybe we can’t send an army there just yet, but we can bomb them. In fact I (I imagine he thought) see no reason why we can’t turn all their cities to rubble and escape the need to send another army over there.

Britain and America were later criticized for the strategic bombing of German cities. Davies can’t avoid a hint of criticism when he tells us that the bombing of Dresden “had no military purpose.” Furthermore, he tells us “the Strategic Bombing Offensive did not bring the German economy to a halt.”

I disagree with the arm-chair generals who after the fact declare that we should not have bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki because we should have known the Japanese were about to surrender. And we should not have engaged in the strategic bombing of Germany, particularly not the bombing of cities with “no known military purpose” because we should have known this bombing would not “bring the German economy to a halt.” But such criticism is anachronistic and in the case of the Japanese, wrong. We now have archival information which indicates that the Japanese military leadership wanted to fight on and cause the hundreds of thousands of American casualties that Truman hoped to avoid by dropping his bombs. Hirohito, his writings at the time indicate, was as much if not more worried about Russia entering the war if the Japanese didn’t surrender to the Americans in the near future. The atomic bombs did not terrorize Hirohito. They gave him the excuse he needed to counter the Military and surrender to the Americans.

And in regard to the Strategic Bombing of Germany, how can its effects be properly judged? Davies said that it did not bring the German economy to a halt, but surely it had some effect. Earlier Davies tells us the total casualties on both sides at the Battle of El Alamein II, October-November 1942 was 4,650. Another battle, the Battle of the Bulge, in December of 1944 resulted in the total casualties on both sides of 38,000, but, he just told us 43,000 were killed at Hamburg, 25,000 at Berlin, and 60,000 at Dresden in individual strategic bombing raids. That’s 128,000 Germans killed in three bombing raids which is just 4,000 shy of the 132,000 killed in Operation Overlord, 6 June – 21 July 1944. Of course the battles were conducted between armies so, presumably, only soldiers are reflected in the battle casualty numbers and we don’t know who was killed in the strategic bombing raids, but we can, from our own arm-chair judge that Sir Arthur Harris had high-hopes for his plan. He certainly didn’t, nor did anyone else, know that it wouldn’t work. The German’s had similar hopes for their bombing of London and of their effects of their V2 bombings late in the war; so it was commonly believed, probably by all sides, that Strategic bombing would be effective and that it would benefit the side doing the bombing.

So rather than mount our general’s arm-chair on a moral high-horse, we should utilize what we now know to influence the way we fight future wars. And we have. We (both the French and Americans) did consider using atomic bombs in defense of the French at Dien Bien Phu, General MacArthur wanted the ability to use atomic weapons against the Chinese during the Korean War, and the proverbial “brink” was maintained by the threat of atomic weapons usage, but we somehow managed to refrain.

And in regard to bombing, we still have great confidence in it, not in a strategic sense; perhaps, but surely in a tactical sense. We are perhaps even today dropping bombs with pin-point accuracy on Pakistani sites presumed to be housing Al Quaeda members. We aren’t going to stop bombing, but we have stopped bombing places like Dresden. We want to be able to say that we bombed actual enemies or actual weapons. And if innocents are killed we want to be able say that at least we targeted enemies and weapons. And it seems the case that we are spending lots of money on technology designed to improve the accuracy of our targeting systems.

So we have learned and have taken the proper actions from our knowledge. But should we have known not to bomb Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Hamburg and Dresden in World War II? I don’t see how. Given what was known at the time about the enemy, we could not have proved or even argued convincingly that these bombings wouldn’t accomplish their intended purpose.

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