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Complacency in 1939-40

Never since hostilities began have we in Britain been so foolishly complacent as we were during the first winter of the war. We were terribly pleased with ourselves then. Everything was going well. We were having a nice, comfortable war. The change-over from the pace of peace had been a far easier one on the whole than we had feared it would be; the gears had hardly jarred at all. Now we could just jog along—still on first speed, though we did not know it then—and not worry. We had time on our side. All we had to do was to keep on keeping our morale up, and Germany was doomed. She could not hope to stand up indefinitely to our blockade. The economic pressure which we were subjecting her to and remorselessly intensifying was bound to crush her in time, as it did in 1918. It would not necessarily be a short war, but of its outcome there was no doubt whatever. No one then expected the French to crack. They and we would be in the fight up to the end. The Nazis would see before long that it was hopeless to go on, their leaders would scuttle themselves, a satisfactory peace would follow a satisfactory war, and all would be well again with the world.

At the close of 1939 a booklet entitled Assurance of Victory was issued under official auspices. It was a heartening publication. It set forth the overwhelming advantages which we possessed in comparison with Germany. The first was man-power. Citizens of the British Empire alone outnumbered the population of enemy territory by more than four to one. We had complete mastery of the sea, and it was being used to the full and from the very start. Our

[p. 53]

blockade was more effective than in the last war. 'This time we have begun where we left off in 1918.' We had the measure of the U-boats. We were sinking between two and four every week. Our shipping losses were less than one per cent of our tonnage afloat. We had greater reserves of labour than Germany. Her railways were strained almost to breaking point. 'We do not need to defeat the Nazis on land, but only to prevent them from defeating us. If we can succeed in doing that, we can rely on our strength in other directions to bring them to their knees.' 'The Nazis cannot hope to win the war on sea or on land.' What of the air? 'More than any other nation they depend on the striking power of their bombers. They may be able to inflict grave losses. For a time the Allied peoples must be ready to endure considerable damage and perhaps many casualties. But—this is the vital question—can the Nazis keep it up?' To that question the official booklet answered No. They could not build aircraft on a scale sufficient to keep a huge air force in the field. They would be short, too, of oil. Two-thirds of Germany's oil had to be imported in peace. She would need more in war, and she could not obtain it. She imported two-thirds, also, of the iron ore which she needed, and here again she would be in difficulties. She would be short of fats also. Her gold reserves were low. The morale of the workers was a doubtful factor. 'This war will expose the fatal weaknesses of the Nazi structure. . . . The immense staying-power of democracy is the final guarantee of Allied triumph.'

A Douche of Cold Water

Like thousands of other people in this country, I read that booklet and it made me feel good. I felt that the war was going well for us. It was the greater shock, therefore, when in the first days of January, 1940, I happened to have a talk with a famous air commander of the last war.

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He was not complacent; very far from it. He did not like the way the war was shaping. We were not winning the war by our present methods. On the contrary, we were losing it, losing it hand-over-fist. We were not hitting Germany, and war is hitting. We were allowing her to mount undisturbed a great battle for the west. By the end of March at the earliest, perhaps a little later, she would be ready. Then the blow would fall. The massed attack would smash its way through the Low Countries and the whole Allied line in the west would be rocked. How often when the storm broke in the following May did I think of those prophetic, unpalatable words to which I had listened, only half believing them, on a cold, foggy afternoon of early January.

London's Vulnerability

Certainly the war had been until then a far less terrible affair than we had expected it to be. We had been convinced that it would begin with a tremendous onslaught from the air upon our ports and cities and, above all, London. London, it had been driven home to us by innumerable warnings, was the most vulnerable capital in the world. Its unfortunate position had been pointed out repeatedly. A distinguished airman, writing in 1938, had compared it to a huge, ungainly 'wen'—Cobbett's word—which almost invited an enemy to hit it. In comparison with Berlin it was extraordinarily ill-sited. 'For every 700 miles there and back which the German bombers would have to fly to reach London our own would have to fly 1000 to reach Berlin, and, in consequence, in rougher computation, they could make ten round trips to our seven, presuming both air forces to be equal, and drop their bombs by tons in a like proportion.' 'The ratios which have been quoted mean, in plainer language, a 30 per cent advantage to our potential enemy, and this not

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in human brawn but in horse-power, in explosive effect, and in scientific calculation.' [1]

The Germans knew these facts as well as we did. 'No land in the world is so vulnerable from the air as the British Isles,' said Goering in a special New Year's article in the Völkischer Beobachter of 30 December, 1939. 'Once again, as the German Zeppelins did twenty-five years ago, German squadrons will unleash air-raid alarms over London. . . . All that is needed is the Führer's command for them to carry over their loads of destruction-bearing bombs instead of a load of cameras. . . . The German Air Force will strike at Britain with an onslaught such as has never been known in the history of the world as soon as Hitler orders counter-measures to the British blockade.' Here there was perhaps to be discerned some hint of impatience with the policy which restrained the Luftwaffe—Goering's pride and passion—from aiming at London and Britain the blows which we at least had expected would fall the moment hostilities opened.

Fears for Berlin and Paris

Yet Goering had the sense to perceive that the abstention from raiding and counter-raiding was not altogether to Germany's disadvantage. The Germans on their side had expected to be attacked at once. That is clear from what Dr. Goebbels said at Poznan on 19 January, 1940. He was referring to the British Government's declaration of war, and he said: 'One would have expected that, on the afternoon of that day their much-vaunted bombers would have appeared over Berlin.' Our bombers did fly over Germany, but only to drop leaflets. This practice the Germans professed to regard with equanimity. Goering himself said at the Rheinmetal-Borsig armament works on

1 Air Commodore L. E. O. Charlton, The New Factor in Warfare in The Air Defence of Britain, Penguin Special, 1938, pp. 83-4.


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9 September, 1939: 'If the British aeroplanes fly at tremendous heights at night and drop their ridiculous propaganda in German territory, I have nothing against it. But take care if the leaflets are replaced by one bomb. Then reprisals will follow as in Poland.'

Paris awaited raids on the outbreak of war no less apprehensively than Berlin. There was a mingled feeling of surprise and relief when no raids came. An American correspondent who was in Paris before and during September, 1939, says: 'It was taken for, granted by laymen that a mass bombardment of Paris and London by the German aviation would be the first act of war, if war came.' [1] 'Only two things struck us as slightly unnatural,' he says later. 'There was no bombing from the air, and this war, unlike all wars legitimately born, had not produced a song, no "Madelon", "Tipperary", or "Over There".' [2]

Capital Cities as Hostages to Fortune

It would have been strange if the danger to the capital cities had not been prominently in the minds of all who were responsible for the direction of affairs. Here were these great agglomerations of humanity, sprawling centres of highly organised activities, densely populated areas of pulsating civic life, and all at the mercy, as Mr. Bernard Shaw has said, of a single airman. He speaks of 'cities where millions of inhabitants are depending for light and heat, water and food, on centralised mechanical organs like great steel hearts and arteries that can be smashed in half an hour by a boy in a bomber.' [3] That was, no doubt an overstatement, but the menace was there. It was all the more disturbing because no one knew what a bomber

1 Edmond Taylor, The Strategy of Terror, Boston, 1940, p. 20.


2 Ibid., p. 167.


3 Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God, pp. 64-5.


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formation could in fact accomplish. There was a tendency to attribute to air power an almost miraculous capacity for destruction and many of the forecasts made of the wrath to come were rather wild shots in the dark.

There is little doubt now that we in this country took an exaggerated view of the danger that threatened us. Looking back now on what we did—and said—in 1939, one can see that we were in some respects over-apprehensive in regard to the air menace, and, which was hardly surprising at that time, very dubious about the public reaction to it if it should emerge as an actuality. We undoubtedly over-estimated the casualty-roll which bombing would cause. We made an immense provision for hospital beds, for instance—a provision which was found in the event to be happily far in excess of the needs of the victims. There was a general tendency in this country to fear the worst. In June, 1939, the Air Raid Defence League issued a pamphlet in which the casualties likely to be caused by a single day's raiding were estimated at 35,000—a figure which would increase, it was stated, to 100,000 in a few days. Fortunately, in four years of war we have hardly reached that total yet. In London alone, Professor J. B. S. Haldane [1] warned us, from his experience in Spain, that a knock-out blow from the air might result in the killing of 50,000 to 100,000 people. It is hardly surprising that the catastrophic losses which were contemplated should have inspired precautions which were in some respects over-elaborate, or perhaps one should say over-solicitous for the safeguarding of life and limb. We were encouraged in the early days to seek shelter at once when the sirens sounded. It was our duty, indeed, not to expose ourselves to the risk of becoming casualties and therefore a burden on the community. Now when the alert is heard we take up our posts nonchalantly as fire-watchers or extra wardens as

1 A.R.P., 1938, p. 63.


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other active-and exposed-participants in the great civilian levée-en-masse enrolled behind the organised fire brigades, rescue parties and demolition squads. And most of us have found that the possession of a tin helmet has raised our morale tremendously!

In the early days, however, we thought only of going to ground. So obsessed did we all seem to be with the idea of taking cover that some shrewd observers feared that our morale would be undermined in advance. In the House of Lords on 15 March, 1939, Lord Trenchard warned the country that we were thinking. far too much about defence and devoting too much energy, money and material to the provision of dug-outs and shelters. He deprecated the 'continuous clamouring for defence measures'. In a letter to The Times of 18 March, 1939, Sir Henry Page-Croft (now Lord Croft) wrote: 'Nothing could more surely play the game of the enemy than to create a panic psychology which encourages flight to shelter.'

The Gas Menace

We were particularly concerned with the danger from gas. We had warnings from many sources that our cities would be flooded with toxic vapours the moment hostilities began. It is evident, in the retrospect, that the Government of the time took this particular menace far more seriously than any other. The precautions taken to meet it were much more thorough and elaborate than those which were considered necessary for active defence. The provision of anti-aircraft guns and searchlights left, in comparison, much to be desired. There was a general obsession with the gas menace in the years 1937-39.

In the House of Lords, for instance, on 13 December, 1937, Lord Swinton, the Secretary of State for Air, in moving the second reading of the Air Raid Precautions Bill, devoted all the earlier part of his speech to the mea-

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sures that were being taken to protect people against gas attack. They were most comprehensive. Already, he stated, some 200,000 volunteers had been trained in anti-gas measures, all the policemen in the country had been given instruction in this subject, about 10,000 doctors and 10,000 nurses had passed through a special course on the treatment of gas cases, and twenty million gas masks had been produced in the Government factory taken over in July, 1936. (The number of gas masks increased to 50,000,000 by March, 1939.) 'I believe,' said Lord Swinton, with evident satisfaction, 'that we are the only country that has devised a system of mass-production of gas masks.'

In the subsequent debate there was one discordant note only in the general acceptance of the necessity for the measures proposed. It was struck by Lord Trenchard. He suggested that rather too much attention was being paid to the gas menace. The greatest danger, in his opinion, came from high explosive and incendiary bombs. Here, as in some other instances, Lord Trenchard showed himself to be a true prophet.

Why Germany did not use Gas

Whether Germany will use gas or not before this war ends can obviously not be known as yet. One thing, however, is certain, the confident expectation that she would begin the war with a series of gas attacks was falsified by the event. Then, if at all, was her opportunity. She was far stronger in the air than were we. Why did she not use gas against London? The probability is that she never had the least intention of using it: which is not to say that she may not eventually use it—but only as a desperate last resort. It is significant, that, as Mr. George Sava has pointed out: 'In the voluminous analyses of military problems published in Nazi Germany there was almost unanimous

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agreement on the uselessness of poison gas.' [1] Indeed, gas does not form a congruous element of the prescription for war which has its application in the Blitzkrieg.


Hitler's Psychological Victory


The German abstention both from strategic bombing and from the use of gas should not. really have surprised us if we had appreciated truly the pattern of the air warfare which the mere predominance of the military school of thought in Germany had already outlined. It should have been apparent that tactical and not strategic bombing was Hitler's arcanum vincendi, or at least one of his arcana. There was ample evidence that he did not want the latter kind of bombing to become the practice. He had done his best to have it banned by international agreement. It seemed during the first eight and a half months of the war that the object which he had failed to achieve by way of express agreement he was attaining by a kind of tacit consent. We in Britain had organised a Bomber Command. The whole raison d'être of that Command was to bomb Germany if she should be our enemy. We were not bombing her. We were most carefully abstaining from bombing her. What, then, was the use of Bomber Command? Its position was almost a ridiculous one. It seemed to be keeping clear of the war, keeping neutral, acting as if it had made a separate peace. Had it—horrible thought—been bitten by a bug from Eire? What was the explanation? It certainly looked as if the policy of Munich, of appeasement, were still being continued in this particular sphere of warlike activity, or inactivity. Hitler must have been a happy man, happier far than he is now, during that first winter. In effect he had won a great psychological victory, or he seemed to have won it; perhaps here, again, fate smiled on him only to betray. The Lancasters, Stirlings and Halifaxes were

1 G. Sava, School for War, 1942, p. 154.


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being built all the time. At least the lull in the air meant that the construction of our big bombers could go on without interruption.

Some Popular Reactions

It is certain at any rate that our failure to carry the war into Germany was the subject of a good deal of criticism in this country. Why were we dropping leaflets and not bombs? it was asked. The Germans would have been more impressed by high explosives than even the best propagandist literature. It was a policy of 'kid gloves and confetti', said an important monthly journal.' Sometimes the reaction was bewilderment tinged with sardonic amusement. 'Lord, man, you might have hurt someone!' a squadron leader was supposed to have admonished a flying officer who had not untied the packet of 'nickels' (leaflets) before jettisoning them. Another jest was that the Navy had taken to sending down leaflets instead of depth-charges in its hunt for submarines. Punch, as of right, joined in the chorus and printed a Christmas carol on the subject, ending:

'Bombs, my foot!' said good King Wence,

'Them be leaflets, Stephen.'


These comments were the froth on the surface of waters of doubt and perplexity which were deep and wide. There was serious criticism of our inaction. The Air Force, it was complained, was not being used for the purpose for which, so far as it was an offensive force, it had been created. Only when the German advance into the Low Countries and France began in May, 1940, was our striking force of the air allowed to fulfil its function; and then, in the opinion of some authorities, an opportunity had already been missed of the kind that does not recur—the opportunity to

1 National Review, January, 1940.

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strike at the German concentration which preceded the great attack in the west.

Two Notable Editorials

These missed opportunities were referred to in a notable editorial article in The Aeroplane of 29 March, 1940. It referred to 'the unwritten law' which forbade the bombing of civilians and thus, it was assumed, stood in the way of our opening an air offensive against Germany. 'Some amazing stories of the opportunities foregone by Great Britain in observance of this law will be told some day', it stated. 'Pilots, confronted with perfect targets, have had to keep the law, grind their teeth in chagrin, and hope for a change in the temper of the war. The breach of the law by the Nazis in the dusk at Scapa Flow seemed for the moment to mark the end of the period of humane restraints. The reprisal by the Royal Air Force at Sylt looked like acceptance of the challenge by the Allies. More mature reflections show that the exploit of the Royal Air Force was still part of the scoring game—a heartening and splendid piece of scoring, but still just an incident in the match which was to be continued according to the unwritten law. It was rather an insistence on the laws than a punishment for the breach of them. It was certainly not a declaration that, since the enemy had broken the laws, the fight was now free to all.' Public opinion both in Britain and France, Mr. Shepherd went on, was in favour of a more vigorous policy but had been restrained by the need to build up our reserves. That reason for caution would soon lose its force, and then 'in the final encounters we must assuredly take the initiative'.

We had not yet done so when Mr. Shepherd returned to the subject in his issue of 3 May, 1940. 'More than ever,' he wrote, 'is there need to carry the war to Germany, to strangle the offensive at the root. . . . If we are sincere in

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the desire to win this war quickly and effectively we must carry the war to Germany. The Germans have never felt the evils of such wars as they impose on others. . . . The solution must lie in a bold decision to deal with the menace at its source.' It needed some courage at that time to challenge our official policy. Fortunately, there were in this country a number of independent-minded people who were prepared to question the wisdom of letting Bomber Command rust in action.

A Pro and a Con

One of them was an anonymous correspondent who wrote to the Sunday Times of 14 January, 1940, to ask why we were not using air power to increase the effect of the blockade. Attack on military objectives in the interior of Germany, the writer pointed out, would open up an earlier prospect of an end to the war than the slow operation of sea power promised. We could not strike at the enemy by land but we could in the air. Why did we not strike in the air? It could only be because we could not sustain such attack, or feared that the enemy would attack more strongly, or believed that our moral position would be jeopardised if we attacked military objectives and injured—as we must—some civilians in the process. The writer examined each of these reasons in turn and came to the conclusion that they were not really strong arguments against the starting of an air offensive. His letter was the subject of some comment by 'Scrutator' [1] in the same issue of the newspaper. 'Scrutator' said: 'Such an extension of the offensive, whoever began it, would inevitably develop into competitive frightfulness. It might be forced on us in reprisal for the enemy's action, and we must be in a position to make reprisals if necessary. But the bombing of industrial towns with its unavoidable loss of life among the civil

1 Not the present (1943) 'Scrutator' but the late Mr. Herbert Sidebotham.



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population—that is what it would come to—would be inconsistent with the spirit, if not with the actual words, of the pledges given from both sides at the beginning of the war. [1] It is not only to neutrals that we should have to justify our being the first to break an undertaking which, so far as England and France are concerned, had been observed by the enemy, but to our own people, whose war risks we would be increasing, while at the same time we are determined to save the Army from the risks of unwise offensives.'

A little later, on 27 January, 1940, another newspaper, the Daily Mail, endorsed editorially the view put forward by its contemporary. It devoted a leading article to combating the suggestion of Mr. Amery and others that we should start the bombing of Germany. We were fighting, the article said, for a moral issue and we should do nothing unworthy of our cause. It confused the issue by speaking of a choice between the deliberate bombing of women and children and not bombing at all. Actually, the choice was between bombing military objectives in Germany and not bombing them: a totally different matter.

The Supposed 'Gentlemen's Agreement'

There was a suggestion in some of the statements made at the time that we had a sort of 'gentlemen's agreement' with Germany to refrain from bombing one another's territory. In the Daily Mail of 26 April, 1940, Mr. Duff Cooper wrote: 'There would appear to exist a kind of unwritten truce between the great belligerents according to the tacit terms of which they do not bomb one another but are all agreed upon the bombing of smaller countries.' He

1 The reference is to the declaration made by the British and French Governments on 2 September, 1939, that only 'strictly military objectives in the narrowest sense of the word ' would be bombarded. The German Government also stated that only military objectives would be attacked.


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pointed out that the Germans had made merciless attacks in Poland and Norway, and stated that in his recent lecturing tour in America he had frequently been asked why we had not helped Poland by bombing the bases of the German army and its lines of communications, instead of confining ourselves to distributing pamphlets. 'There exists at the present time,' he stated naturally enough, 'some bewilderment in the public mind with regard to the subject of air warfare.'

A suggestion that we had an understanding with Germany in this matter was made in a question which Colonel Josiah Wedgwood addressed to the Secretary of State for Air in the House of Commons on 5 June, 1940. He asked 'whether the understanding that we should not bomb military objectives in Germany until they bomb us still holds, in spite of the bombing of Allied civilians in Poland, Norway, Holland and Belgium, and how much longer this is to continue without retaliation in kind?' Sir Archibald Sinclair replied: 'I know of no understanding of the character referred to. Indeed, the right honourable and gallant gentleman will be aware that the Royal Air Force has carried out a number of successful attacks against military objectives in Germany.'

Lord Trenchard's Views

The advantages which Germany derived from our abstention (before 11 May, 1940) from the raiding of the Reich were emphasised by Lord Trenchard in two speeches in the House of Lords. On 19 March, 1940, he said, referring to the Germans: 'They have our ships to aim at, and all the neutrals and non-combatants at sea, and we have nothing at which we can hit back. . . . I have no wish to say anything that would be of use to the enemy, but I do beg of your Lordships to remember that the Air Force is an offensive and not a defensive weapon.' A little

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later, on 8 May, he said: 'We practically proclaim that Germany need not keep in her homeland home defences, guns, fighters, searchlights, civil guards, or take air raid precautions. Those forces are immense, and she is now free to move them to overpower her weaker neighbours and to expel us when we rush—if "rush" is the right word—to their assistance. If it is wrong for me to say that I should like to see military objectives in Germany hit by air, it is a thousand times more wrong for the Government to help the Germans by saying that we shall never do it. . . . No Englishman wants to kill civilians, but the Government are deluding themselves if they think that the civilian population of this country are going to shrink from facing, as their relations and comrades in the field have to face, whatever risk may be necessary to bring this war to a successful conclusion. . . . Make no mistake about it: when the time comes, Germany will hit us by air, open towns and military objectives alike, mercilessly and thoroughly. Why should we await her convenience before striking at military targets in Germany?'

Mr. Churchill's Explanation

The reason why we waited was explained by Mr. Churchill in a speech at Manchester on 27 January, 1940. He referred to the unexpected absence of German air raiders, an absence which he declared himself unable to ascribe to any definite cause. It might be due, he said, to their 'saving up for some orgy of frightfulness which will soon come upon us', or to fear of our fighting aircraft or of our powerful bombing force's reply. 'No one can say for certain. But one thing is sure, it is not from any false sense of delicacy that they have so far refrained from subjecting us to this new and odious form of attack. Nor is it out of love and kindliness. But for the present, here is a chapter of war which they have not chosen to open upon us be-

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cause they cannot tell what may be written in its final pages. The question then arises ought we instead of demonstrating the power of our Air Force by dropping leaflets all over Germany to have dropped bombs? There I am quite clear that our policy has been right. In this peaceful country, governed by public opinion, democracy and Parliament, we were not, as thoroughly prepared at the outbreak of war as was a dictator State whose whole thought was bent on the preparation for war. We know from what they did in Poland that there is no brutality or bestial massacre of civilians by air bombing which they would not readily commit if they thought it was for their advantage. We have striven hard to make the most of the time of preparation that has been gained, and there is no doubt that an enormous advance has been made both in the protection of the civil population and in the punishment which would be inflicted upon the raiders. Not only have our air defences and shelters been markedly improved, but our armies at home and abroad, which are now very large, are steadily maturing in training and in quality, and the whole preparation of our munition industries under the spur of war has rolled forward with gathering momentum.'

The Passing of the Lull in the Air

Three and a half months passed from the time when Mr. Churchill spoke until he and his colleagues in the War Cabinet thought it wise to vary the policy of waiting as explained by him. The change made in May was heralded by a statement issued by the Foreign Office on the 10th of that month. It began by referring to the assurance given to the President of the United States that the Air Force had received orders limiting bombing to strictly military objectives and went on to state that His Majesty's Government 'now publicly proclaim that they reserve to them-

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selves the right to take any action which they consider, appropriate in the event of bombing by the enemy of civil populations, whether in the United Kingdom, France or in countries assisted by the United Kingdom.' As the Germans had in fact already attacked 'civil populations . . . in countries assisted by the United Kingdom', the statement of the Foreign Office was equivalent to an announcement that our Government regarded itself as freed from the restriction which it had imposed on itself when the war began. That restriction really amounted in practice to a ban upon the bombing of military objectives in Germany. Thus came to an end the period of the 'phoney war' in the air.

Some Official Pronouncements

Action followed swiftly on the warning, and it, was action from our side. We began to bomb objectives on the German mainland before the Germans began to bomb objectives on the British mainland. That is a historical fact which has been publicly admitted. The way in which the bombing began was explained by Captain Harold Balfour, the Under-Secretary of State for Air, in reply to a question in the House of Commons on 28 January, 1942. He said:

'The first British raid on German territory was the attack on the seaplane base on the island of Sylt on the night of 18-19 March, 1940. The first German attack on British soil was carried out on the night of 16 March, 1940, when bombs were dropped on the Orkneys, causing civilian casualties. One of the first acts of the German offensive in the west was an attack on the town and harbour of Calais in the early morning of 10 May, causing numerous civilian casualties. This was followed by German attacks on aerodromes and communications in France on succeeding nights. The Royal Air Force began attacks on

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military lines of communication in western Germany on 11 May, 1940, and on the following nights and days.'

is fairly certain that the bombs which fell on the Orkneys, near Bridge of Waith, on 16 March were not dropped there deliberately; they were intended for the warships at Scapa Flow. Lord Halifax referred to this incident in the House of Lords on 19 March, 1940. It was, he said, the first occasion on which a civilian on land had been killed. 'Was that deliberate?' asked Lord Strabolgi. 'No,' replied Lord Halifax, 'I should think not.' When further questioned, he added that while the killing and wounding of civilians at Bridge of Waith was not, on the information available, deliberate, the responsibility for the consequences did rest on the authors of that raid on Scapa Flow. Our own attack on Sylt two nights later was admittedly a reprisal for the raid on the Orkneys.


The Air War Carried into Germany

In an article contributed by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Bomber Command, to the American periodical Flying ('Special Royal Air Force Issue') for September, 1942, he wrote: 'The first British bombs fell on the soil of the German mainland on the night of 11 May 1940, when a force of 18 Whitley bombers attacked railway communications behind the lines of the German advance across Flanders and the Low Countries. Light bombers of the Command, at that time Blenheims, also endeavoured to stem the onrush of the attack by desperate and costly sorties against immediately threatening enemy concentrations.' That even then our action was taken in the teeth of strong French objection is evident from what is stated in the official booklet, Bomber Command. The following extract from it is illuminating as indicating the defeatist spirit which even at that date was wrecking France's war-effort.

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'Matters continued thus [i.e. only reconnaissance flights into Germany were undertaken] until the German offensive against France began. In the meantime, however, the attack on Norway had caused the French High Command to raise once, again the question of the use to be made of our bombing force. On 14 April that Command was informed that, subject to a minimum diversion to Norway, Denmark and Northern Germany, it was intended, should the Germans attack, to use our full offensive strength in the area of the enemy's advance and in the districts east of the Rhine through which his lines of communication and supply would have to run. On the next day the Comité de Guerre ruled that, because casualties might be caused to the civilian population, bombing attacks on enemy concentrations in Germany were not to be made unless the Germans launched them upon the Allies. This decision at once limited the possible objectives to enemy columns on the march. It was pointed out to General Gamelin that such targets were quite unsuitable for our heavy bombers, since they had been designed for an entirely different purpose. General Gamelin remained unconvinced. The German attack opened in force on 10 May, 1940. The Allied Commander-in-Chief still refused to allow objectives in Germany or German troops on the move in their own country to be bombed. It was not until the afternoon of the 10th that the Advanced Air Striking Force bombed German columns advancing through Luxembourg and not until the next day that attacks were made on enemy troops and lines of communication by our medium and heavy bombing forces.' [1]

The Maginot Air-Mind

It was unfortunate that, as is made clear in the same booklet, the French General Staff had all along a concep-

1 Bomber Command, 1941, p. 45. The italics are not in the original.


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tion of air warfare broadly similar to that of the German General Staff and divergent from that of the British Air Staff. 'They viewed with the greatest misgiving any plan by which bombers were to be used for attacks on German industry and they did not hesitate to say so. In their considered opinion the main, indeed the only, use to which a bombing force should be put was to extend the range of artillery supporting armies in the field.' [1] Such a doctrine of air power, or rather of land-air power, was bound to have consequences as calamitous as those which followed from the acceptance of the doctrine of defence exemplified in the French Staff's reliance upon the Maginot Line. In the air as on land France was strategically decadent, at least in her high counsels. We did not know that before June, 1940. We learned it then, to our dismay and almost to our undoing.

Still, Gamelin notwithstanding, Bomber Command went to war on 11 May, 1940. It had only been fooling with war until then. That is the great date in its war diary: not because of anything spectacular achieved immediately, but because of what was to follow in the fullness of time. In that decision of May, 1940, there was implicit the doom of Germany, though we little guessed it then. For a time, however, our offensive, it must be acknowledged, was a rather small affair.

The Raid on Hanover

Our attacks in May July, 1940, do not seem to have disturbed the Germans very seriously; their radio and press were eloquent about the futility of such methods of warfare and the sufferings inflicted upon the civil population, but in general there was no very violent reaction to those earlier raids. On the night of 1 August, 1940, some-

1 Bomber Command, 1941, p. 44.


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thing happened which did really alarm the authorities. Our bombers visited a number of towns, including Hanover, on that night. They must have achieved some really important results. Next day, 2 August, the German newspapers found front-page space for air raid news for the first time since the British offensive began. They denounced the attack on Hanover as an outrage against humanity. 'Britain loses her honour,' the Bremen Zeitung proclaimed to the world. The raid was 'an appalling crime', according to the Deutsche Allgemaine Zeitung. The other papers echoed the chorus of dispraise. Goebbels had evidently waved his baton for it.

That was the first of a lengthening series of hysterical protests against our raids. W. L. Shirer in his Berlin Diary (1941) quotes a number of extracts from the German press on the theme of our disregard for the honourable laws of war. Only an unsoldierly nation like the British could expect lasting advantages from attacks on the civil population, said the Völkischer Beobachter on 12 May, 1941. Our methods were contrasted unfavourably with those of the German airmen, who invariably confined their attacks to military objectives. We were pursuing terroristic tactics, while they were striking solely at our war factories, etc. Self-complacency and very real apprehension mark the outbursts of the German press and radio.

A Might-Have-Been

In Chapter II I have given my reasons for thinking that the Germans did not want to start strategic bombing and that they would gladly have called it off when it did start; and what I have recorded in the present chapter is further evidence to support my argument. Suppose that it had not been started; suppose that the view of the French General Staff had prevailed in the counsels of the Anglo-French alliance, which, let us again suppose, had continued to

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exist until now; and suppose that, in consequence, the air arms of all the main belligerents had been reserved for tactical employment: what would have been our position now in that event? Certainly our cities would have escaped the grievous scars which they now bear, honourably and proudly. Thousands of innocent persons who are dead or maimed would be alive and vigorous today. We should have been saved much suffering and loss; but should we not have lost something, too?

I am not thinking here of loss of military advantage, of the difference it would have made to our and our Allies' prospects of victory if we had not weakened Germany by our hammer-blows in the air, of the worsening of our outlook if we had still held our bombers on the leash. I am thinking of something more intangible and imponderable but not less real and important: our national honour. Today we can hold our heads high. Could we have done so if we had continued the policy which we adopted in September, 1939, and maintained until May, 1940? It was a selfish policy after all, an ungenerous one, an unworthy one. We were prepared to see our weaker neighbours' cities devastated by air attack—of the tactical order—to bear their misfortunes with equanimity, to do nothing to help them in the only way in which we could help at all. (We had no great army then to oppose to the German hosts, and the mills of sea power grind very slowly.) We were prepared, in fact, to leave them to their fate provided we could save our own skin.

Our Great Decision

As it was, we chose the better, because the harder, way. We refused to purchase immunity—immunity for a time at least—for our cities while those of our friends went up in flames. We offered London as a sacrifice in the cause of freedom and civilisation. Retaliation was certain if we car-

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ried the war into Germany. There was no certainty, but there was a reasonable probability, that our capital and our industrial centres would not have been attacked if we had continued to refrain from attacking those of Germany. No doubt some readers will say that I am making too big an assumption here and that Germany would have raided London and our provincial towns in any event. Perhaps so; I can only put on record my own belief that she probably would not have done so, partly because it would not have suited her military book, partly because she was afraid of the long-term consequences. She would have called a truce if she could from the cross-raiding by British and German bombers when it did begin; she did call one, in effect, whenever she saw a ghost of a chance. It simply did not pay her, this kind of air warfare. Humanitarian considerations had nothing whatever to do with the matter.

Yet, because we were doubtful about the psychological effect of propagandist distortion of the truth that it was we who started the strategic offensive, we have shrunk from giving our great decision of May, 1940, the publicity which it deserved. That, surely, was a mistake. It was a splendid decision. It was as heroic, as self-sacrificing, as Russia's decision, to adopt her policy of 'scorched earth'. It gave Coventry and Birmingham, Sheffield and Southampton, the right to look Kief and Kharkov, Stalingrad and Sebastopol, in the face. Our Soviet allies would have been less critical of our inactivity in 1942 if they had understood what we had done. We should have shouted it from the house-tops instead of keeping silence about it.

It could have harmed us morally only if it were equivalent to an admission that we were the first to bomb towns. It was nothing of the sort. The German airmen were the first to do that in the present war. (They had done it long before, too—at Durango and Guernica in 1937, nay, at

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London in 1915-18.) It was they, not the British airmen, who created a precedent for 'war against the civilian population'. How little substance there is in the charge made on this head against our Air Force by the German propaganda I try to show in the chapters which follow.