Bomber Command

by Arthur T Harris
Air Marshal Sir Arthur T Harris, KCB, OBE, AFC, Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command, was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, in 1892. Prior to the outbreak of World War I he had been a tobacco planter in Rhodesia, and, in October, 1914. joined the 1st Rhodesia Regiment and transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in November, 1915. He was in command of the first night-flying experimental detachment for the defense of London against Zeppelins. He commanded the RAF in Palestine and Transjordan. He was appointed to his present post in February, 1942.

Methodically smashing German industry to bits, the Bomber Command leads the RAF offensive.

The best way to understand the organization of Bomber Command is to follow the course of a typical operation from the moment when it is decided upon. Tonight, let us say, 250 bombers are to attack the port installations and the Heinkel aircraft factory at Rostock. In addition, there will probably be an attack by less experienced crews on an objective nearer home, and a number of aircraft will be laying mines in enemy waters. We, however, will trace only the progress of the attack on Rostock. We will watch the orders go from Command to Groups and from Groups to Stations, and see reports of the attack return along the same channels. The general policy of bombing, which includes the Baltic ports as objectives, is decided at the Air Ministry. At Command the decision is made to attack Rostock itself, in preference to some similar objective, on this particular night after considering various strategical and tactical factors and also the weather forecast.

The figure of 250 bombers to be dispatched is decided after considering the type and importance of the target, the degree of urgency of the attack, the effect required and the number of aircraft and crews available. The period of moon and probable state of the weather, not only over the target but en route and also over the home bases at the time of takeoff and landing, must also be taken into account.

It may be decided to get the attack over within an hour in order to have a heavy concentration of bombers over the target at any one moment, so that the defenses may be saturated, the guns and searchlights being unable to converge on a single bomber at one time. Or it may be decided to attack a target with bombers coming in at intervals throughout the night. If the weather is uncertain, or other difficulties are expected, an alternative target may be chosen. The crews attack the alternatives only if they cannot make the primary target. The type of load the bombers are to carry is considered, from incendiaries to the heaviest high explosive bombs. The type of bomber most suitable for each stage of the attack is also decided.

Our attack on Rostock is a night attack, and the plan is worked out early on the preceding morning. When the plan is made, orders go without delay to the Bomber Groups. Each Group commander decides what squadrons are to operate and works out the exact bomb loads, the time to reach the target, and other tactical data, in more detail than is done at Command. The more detailed orders are then sent on to the Stations concerned.

At the Station all the particulars about the target are looked up in secret reference files. Here is found a detailed account of the nature of the target. Large scale maps and photographs show the Heinkel works, the railway stations, the docks, the town and other details, such as the most prominent landmarks. With the maps is a concise explanation of the importance of the target.

The operations and intelligence officers set out all the available data in the most suitable form, and place it at the disposal of the officer who is to conduct the "briefing" — that is, the instruction of the bomber crews on their night's work. The briefing is done either by the Station commander or the commanding officer of one of the Squadrons operating. The latter is a wing commander, and is probably going on the raid himself.

The crews detailed for the night's operation assemble for briefing at, say 3:30 PM. At that time a hundred or so young men are seated in a big room. Covering the wall in front of them is an immense map of northwest Europe on which is stretched a tape showing the route to the target. On the other walls are other maps showing details of enemy defenses and photographs of the target.

The briefing officer begins with a few words about the importance of the target. He tells the crews the latest estimate of the proportion of German aircraft production for which the Heinkel works is responsible. He explains that the neighboring town of Rostock itself contains many objectives of military importance, such as docks, U-boat building yards, and subsidiary Heinkel factories. The curtains of the room are drawn and the plan of the target is shown on the wall by the epidiascope.

This squadron, perhaps, has been ordered to make special low-level attacks on the Heinkel works, while other Squadrons are bombing elsewhere. The officer who is briefing warns the pilots not to be distracted by smoke and flames, which they will certainly see arising from other objectives or from decoy fires, but to use these merely as landmarks by which to pinpoint their position so that they may be sure of finding the big assembly sheds of the aircraft factory. He then explains the route out and back.

His whole talk has not taken more than 10 minutes. He is followed by the station meteorological officer, who forecasts the weather likely to be encountered during the flight. Navigation, signals and armament officers give their advice and instructions. All queries, however detailed, are answered. As a postscript, the station commander offers his advice and encouragement, and perhaps reminds the crews that they are also carrying leaflets and must ensure that their early morning "news delivery" reaches the proper areas en route.

What of the crews, their thoughts, their feelings? Some sit studiously, note-taking. Some show ill-concealed impatience for action rather than words. Most are imperturbable, sitting back, drawing periodically at a pipe or cigarette. All have spent the previous hours inspecting and testing the equipment of their aircraft, culminating in a final test flight to check everything to the last detail.

The briefing over, the silence of the room is broken by a hubbub of voices as the crews discuss the job in hand among themselves. Then they leave to set about their particular tasks. No one who has attended the briefing must leave the station; they are in possession of information which would be invaluable should any hint of it reach the enemy during the next few hours. But the crews still have a lot to do before the time of takeoff. Each must plan exactly what is to be done in every circumstance. Navigators work out courses, the effects of the forecast winds at different heights and the stars most likely to aid them, or discuss with the pilot probable fuel consumption at different air speeds, and all the other complicated problems of their craft. Wireless operators check their lists, ground station frequencies and their call signs. All require, and get, a hearty meal.

The time comes to get going. There is a move to the crew rooms to put on flying clothing. The dressing up, the checking of parachutes and "Mae Wests" — these the life-saving inflatable waistcoats which the crews wear in case their aircraft has to come down in the sea — takes some time. Tenders call to take the crews out to their aircraft a good 45 minutes before the actual time of takeoff. It may be a mile across the aerodrome to the aircraft. When they reach it there are still a good many things to do.

The captain of the flying crew speaks to the men of his maintenance crew who are gathered round the aircraft. He questions them to see that any minor adjustments which he has asked for since the last flight have been duly made. The gunners climb into their turrets and check over the complicated mechanism of their guns. The navigator gets out his charts and clamps them down on the chart table, like a draftsman settling down to a quiet day's work in his office.

When all this final checking and settling down of the crew is over there may be no more than 15 minutes to go to the time of takeoff. It is time to start up.

The starting of a four-engined bomber is an impressive business. The aircraft looms black and ominous in the night. In the glimmer of dimly shaded lights, orders are passed and repeated in a queer cryptic jargon — "port outer ready" … "starboard inner ready" … "contact." The engines grumble into life. The grumble becomes a growl, the growl a roar. From out of the darkness the roar is echoed and re-echoed as other aircraft come to life at distant dispersal points.

The ground crews stand clear as the pilot tests his engines. He waves to them to pull away the chocks from the wheels. He holds the aircraft on its brakes with the engines idling; a soft hiss as the brakes release, and 30 tons of bombs and bomber roll smoothly forward into the darkness.

The pilot turns her head into wind. Facing him is a mile and more of concrete runway. All he can see of it is a line of closely shaded lights along its edge, a dimly lit street disappearing into murky perspective. Exactly on time the signal lights at this end of the flare path change to green. The pilot opens out all four engines. The aircraft begins to roll down the runway. The weight shift from tail to wheels, from wheels to wings as the pilot gently eases back his control column. Before the runway ends they are airborne, before the boundary lights they are gone.

Queuing up behind are eight or 10 other bombers. The instant the first has left the second takes its place. Ten may be off in as many minutes. Each circles once before setting course for the objective — five or six hundred miles away, in the heart of Europe.

For those who remain on the Station there may be five hours or more of waiting. In the small hours of the morning the Station commander and other senior officers assemble in the control tower. For them the most anxious moment of the operation is at hand. The first thing that they hear may be the drone of returning engines — or it may be a voice easily recognizable as that of one of the pilots, speaking on the wireless telephone to the control room.

There is a crackle from the loud speaker as it clears its throat; a voice tells them that "'P' for Peter" or "'T' for Tommy," or whoever is talking, is approaching the aerodrome at, say, 5,000 feet. Communication established, instructions for landing and permission to land are telephoned to him. Usually WAAF telephone operators carry out this responsible task. Women's voices, being usually clear, are particularly suitable for wireless telephony.

This first aircraft looms out of the night. All the pilot sees is the shaded narrow gleam of the flare path. The watchers in the control tower see him land and taxi off to his dispersal point. Two or three more of the squadron are by then probably in radio contact. They are instructed to circle the aerodrome at various heights. One by one they are brought in to land. The Station commander checks them off his list as they come in. Will there be one or two missing, or will they all come back? That is the silent query occupying every mind. On the four highly successful Rostock raids our losses were, in fact, extremely small. Many squadrons had no casualties at all. On other nights they are not so lucky.

Next door to the briefing room in the headquarters block is the interrogation room. There the returning crews assemble. The first thing they do is to take a cup of hot tea or cocoa from the orderlies. Then they begin to tell the intelligence officers about the raid. Almost before they have spoken you know whether it has been a success; the crews show it at once in their faces, in their whole demeanor. They have seen the lurid sight of flaming factories. They know they struck home.

They have to give a detailed report. The captain fills in a questionnaire, in which he says exactly what he saw where his bombs fell, what the defenses were like, the intensity of anti-aircraft fire, whether he was caught in searchlights. When he has finished, he and his crew go and sit down round a desk over which an intelligence officer is presiding. Here they go through the form together amplifying and clarifying. They talk over every incident of the trip. The intelligence officer records everything they saw and did.

This interrogation provides the material for the initial reports on the night's attack. Everything of consequence is summarized and teleprinted to Group Headquarters and Bomber Command. The reports of the crews give a very good idea of the degree of success of the attack. Often they contain the only evidence that can be gained about the enemy's defenses, the tactics of German night fighters and the like. But at Group Headquarters and Bomber Command the evidence of the crews is only taken as a preliminary report on the damage done to the target.

More and more, as the offensive against Germany has developed, the importance of photographic evidence has increased. As many night photographs as possible are taken during the attack. These provide positive evidence that the aircraft has been over an area which includes the target. Night photographs also show the size of fires and sometimes the bursting of bombs, but they cannot show the precise extent of the damage. For this it is necessary to wait until a reconnaissance aircraft has flown over the target in daytime and photographed it. Then, and only then, is Bomber Command satisfied that the work has been completed.

So much for one of countless operations. Organization, aircraft and men are prepared for operations whenever conditions are suitable, for as long as the war may last. Night and day as conditions allow, from Norway to Italy, from the Atlantic to the borders of Poland, Bomber Command aircraft range on their missions. Farther, faster with ever-increasing loads, in ever-increasing numbers. It is for the enemy to cry "Enough."

The first British bombs fell on the soil of the German mainland on the night of May 11, 1940, when a force of 18 Whitley bombers attacked railroad communications behind the lines of the German advance across Flanders and the Low Countries. Light bombers of the Command, at that time Blenheims, also endeavored to stem the onrush of the attack by desperate and costly sorties against immediately threatening enemy concentrations.

After the fall of France, Bomber Command had a defensive role to play. This country, from which alone air attacks against Germany could be launched, was itself faced with the threat of invasion.

This defensive phase was at its height in the late summer and autumn of 1940. The German High Command had collected some 3,000 barges in the "invasion ports" in the Channel and the Low Countries. They intended to use these craft to bring an invading army, flushed with victory, to British soil. Our bombers did immense destruction in all the ports from which the Germans had planned to sail. Hundreds of the invasion barges were wrecked, and large quantities of equipment and stores at the docks were destroyed. Today only a very small part of Bomber Command's effort is directed against these harbors — just enough to keep them sweet.

Long range bombing attacks were also made against a number of industrial targets in Italy. Thus, Mussolini, who had envisaged easy money from an easy war, and whose role of jackal had set him to licking his chops under the Nazi table, received nothing more palatable than a meal of high explosive and incendiary bombs. The material damage was light; it may have been repaired long ago; but Italian morale has never since recovered.

There has always been the closest cooperation between the Navy and Bomber Command. Target after target of naval importance has been heavily attacked. The great dockyards at Kiel, Hamburg, Bremen, Wilhelmshaven and Brest have been frequently, heavily and successfully raided. Our light bombers, now reinforced by American Bostons, have constantly attacked enemy shipping. U-boat bases along the whole coast of western Europe from the Baltic to Lorient and Bordeaux have regularly received the attention of Bomber Command. Bomber Command has done most of the mine-laying along the same long coastline. History will show enemy shipping losses in our air-laid minefields as a major contribution to the outcome of the war.

Throughout this time the bomber force has been gradually increased, not only by the addition of more aircraft and aerodromes, but also by the replacement of existing types by the four-engined heavy bomber, capable of carrying three times the load of the medium and 10 times the load of the light bomber. The rate of expansion has been determined not only by the rate of production and the supply of raw materials from across the Atlantic, but also by Britain's manifold commitments in the other world-wide theatres of war. There have had to be many diversions. Nevertheless, there is now at our disposal a powerful offensively-equipped and offensively-minded force with a well-earned reputation for causing damage to the Nazis' war machine and dismay to the German High Command.

Bad weather may hold up the offensive. But nevertheless Bomber Command all the time pins down at least 1,500,000 Germans in active or passive defense against bombing and sea mining, including 700,000 fully trained troops handling searchlights and antiaircraft guns. A typical spell of bad weather occurred this last winter, but with the spring the offensive was resumed.

On the night of March 3, the great Renault works near Paris were attacked. It was impossible to allow the Germans to use unchallenged the great industrial plants of France for the production of tanks, aero engines, lorries and other military equipment. That night, in the short space of two hours, a force of bombers destroyed the largest of these French plants. This one raid robbed the Germans of all the armoured fighting vehicles and transport of five motorized divisions for a long period.

Our offensive was then switched to the Ruhr — the most highly industrialized region of Germany. In April, 12 of our heaviest four-engined bombers — Lancasters — made a daylight attack on the great MAN Works at Augsburg in central Germany where submarine engines are produced. Although our bombers suffered heavy losses they destroyed, the main assembly sheds of the works, proving that, although as yet at a high cost, it is possible for us to pick out key industrial points in Germany and destroy them by means of daylight raids. At the end of the month Rostock and Lubeck, two Baltic ports of importance, were devastated in the most successful night attacks which had taken place up to that time. The greater part of May was marked by the reappearance of weather unsuitable for bombing, but on the last night of the month fine weather returned.

We seized the opportunity by mounting the greatest air raid of the war. Considerably more than 1,000 bombers were sent over the great Rhineland city of Cologne to deliver their loads of incendiaries and high explosives within the space of 90 minutes. Two nights later over 1,000 aircraft were dispatched to the key industrial area of the Ruhr.

These were more than air raids; they were world events. As it has become impossible to hide the damage which was inflicted — in the Cologne raid in particular, the whole world has come to realize the vulnerability of Germany to air attack. We have obtained conclusive photographic evidence from our reconnaissance machines which tells us the extent of the damage. You will have seen accounts of it in the newspapers. It is particularly gratifying to us to see that the largest areas of devastation include the most important industrial plants in the whole city of Cologne. It might be thought that the world wide repercussions of these great raids were out of proportion to the amount of actual material damage done; for although that damage is very serious, yet it is perfectly true that it is not enough in itself decisively to impair the war-making ability of Germany. But with an instinct which, as so often is correct, the people have grasped not merely what has been done, but what can be done.

It must not be thought that we can immediately mount raids on this scale every night or even every week. On the other hand, we have already given proof that the occasional undertaking of a raid of this sort does not impair our capacity to continue our steady but ever increasing and ever more deadly raiding of Germany on a smaller but still very heavy scale. The raids on the ports of Bremen and Emden were, for example, particularly successful. Very heavy damage to the shipbuilding and submarine-building yards at Emden was effected.

Germany lies open to our attack. Already, by means of the efforts of the RAF alone, raids of 1,000 bombers can be undertaken. As everyone knows, we are about to welcome bombardment squadrons of the United States Army Air Forces.

Henceforward the attack will be intensified. Germany faces an air attack which will make the bombing of Britain in the winter of 1940-41 insignificant. The weight of attack, the damage and the destruction will ascend in a devastating crescendo. We can never have too many heavy bombers. British production of them is becoming very large. The United States Army Air Forces will soon base an ever-increasing number of its heavy bombardment squadrons on British airfields. You cannot send too many. Every ton of bombs which US heavy bombers drop upon Germany will shorten the war and will save the lives of thousands of American and British soldiers in the final conquest of Germany. We will bomb Germany so persistently and so severely that her powers to make war will be crippled. We will bomb her for all the world — especially Italy and Japan — to see and to ponder. The way is clear. The proofs — Lubeck — Rostock — Heinkels — Renaults — Cologne — Essen — Bremen — Emden, and a dozen others — are there. Germany's air power is declining. That of Italy had declined earlier for her heart is not in this war. The United Nations have only begun their climb to production. No Power, no combination of Powers, can hope to stand against that rising tide.

This article was originally published in the September, 1942, "special Royal Air Force issue" of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 3, pp 46-50, 55-60.
The original article includes a thumbnail portrait of the author, 23 photos and a map bombing targets,
Photos from the RAF.

Photo captions:

"TEAM" captions:
This Short Stirling bomber, with its four Bristol Hercules engines giving it 6,400 hp, its wing span of 99', length of 87' 3", height of 22' 9", gross wing area of 1,460 sq ft, and a weigh, loaded, of 70,000 pounds, has a maximum speed of nearly 300 mph at 14,000 feet. It can carry a bomb load of eight tons. It is manned by a crew of seven, carries two guns amidships in upper turret, four guns in tail turret. To operate this colossus, a total of 56 personnel is necessary.
  1. The air crew: captain, 2nd pilot, flight engineer, observer (navigator), wireless operator. air gunner-bomb aimer and two air gunners.
  2. Meteorological officer.
  3. WAAF parachute packer.
  4. Flying control officer.
  5. Flight maintenance, numbering 12.
  6. Ground servicing, numbering 18.
  7. Bombing-up team, numbering 11.
  8. Bomber tractor crew.
  9. The starter battery is operated by No 5 group.
  10. Oil bowser driver.
  11. Petrol bowser driver (a corporal) with one AC2.

Air Marshal Sir Arthur T Harris,
KCB, OBE, AFC, is the man widely known as "Bomber Harris" for his advocacy of Douhet's principles and his belief that strategic bombing could bring Germany to surrender. He was also sometimes known as "Butcher Harris," though whether this was because of his use of area bombing to inflict civilian casualties or his sending crews time after time into the Ruhr with its vast flak defenses is not clear.

The lands that were Palestine and Transjordan before WWI are substantially the same as the territories that are Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan today.

The epidiascope is another name for what is generally called an "opaque projector" in the US. It was used to project an image of an object, usually printed paper, onto a screen or a wall so it could be seen by a larger group than could comfortably crowd around it.