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Sunday Book Review: The Leadership, Direction, and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive

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Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945, by Peter Gray, examines the role played by the senior leadership of the Royal Air Force during the interwar period and World War II. Gray, a retired RAF officer, focuses on strategic bombing and the activity of Bomber Command, which is appropriate given the importance of strategic bombing to the Trenchardist case for RAF independence. The book will appeal to those with a strong grounding in the subject, although it might be a bit tougher for a general readership.

Gray’s review of the literature on leadership in the civilian and military sector is quite good. Indeed, the opening chapters feel very much like a dissertation; readers without much interest in leadership theory can probably skip the opening without missing too much.  In fact, I was both surprised and disappointed that the extended theoretical discussions of leadership in the opening chapter didn’t lead to a more theoretical treatment of RAF history.  Granted that Gray’s interest here isn’t in theoretical generalization, but rather in applying the lessons of leadership theory to the early RAF, it still would have been helpful to return more consistently to the theoretical frameworks that open the book.  By the end, I felt that I knew more about the RAF and more about leadership theory, but not really much more about leadership theory as applied to the early RAF.

Leadership, Direction, and Legitimacy (couldn’t he have come up with a pithy, one-word title?) is also an excellent resource on RAF historiography; Gray is obviously well-steeped in both the archival resources and in the secondary literature on the interwar and war periods. His account is far more concerned with organizational culture and strategic leadership than with technical aspects of the service; indeed, it probably would have helped to work through in more detail some of implications of RAF leadership decisions for procurement, training, and tactical employment.  Gray could also have gone into somewhat more detail regarding RAF professional military education (PME), although he does delve into some of these details in reference to the ethical concerns described below.

Gray gives a good account of how the RAF approached questions surrounding the ethics of strategic bombing. The issue was more complex than is often presented, as the capacity to destroy cities Hamburg or Dresden style did not exist until the RAF could field heavy bombers in sufficient numbers and quality. Beneath a surface commitment to strategic bombing, the RAF didn’t think all that seriously about the ethical implications of area bombing during the interwar period, largely because it lacked the technical capacity to undertake such bombing.  Gray also frames RAF thought against the broader canvas of interwar thinking on the bombing of civilians, noting that most proposals for limiting area bombing failed to make substantial headway. Gray doesn’t make much of the connection between “savage warfare” and the bombing of civilians in colonial areas, and civilian bombing in Europe, and apparently neither did the RAF.

Gray is less successful, I think, at developing the link between the thinking with the RAF and the Trenchardist project of retaining organizational autonomy and independence.  The RAF was organizationally prepared, as Gray notes, to bomb civilians in retaliation, or if the generally laws of war collapsed.  Moreover, it appears that the senior leadership expected that this would take place in context of a general war. And of course it’s true that the German attacks on Warsaw, Rotterdam, and London furnished the RAF with all the excuse it would need for a general campaign.  The RAF anticipated that norms against strategic bombing would be breached, and prepared itself for that eventuality. I have to wonder, however, the extent to which the RAF believed that the gloves would come off because it needed to believe that the gloves would come off in order to maintain the Trenchardist justification for organizational independence. I suspect that an independent service dedicated to chemical warfare would also have assumed that norms against CW use would collapse in the face of actual war, especially if service survival depended on using such munitions.

Gray does cogently argue that Arthur Harris was not well-suited to helm Bomber Command, and that Harris displayed several problematic tendencies that would not necessarily have been shared by other senior officers.  The contours of the area bombing campaign were in place before Harris took command, and Harris always followed orders when instructed to divert Bomber Command resources to other tasks.  However, Harris never developed any appreciation for other facets of airpower, and effectively acted as Bomber Command’s attorney during intra-service debates. There’s some merit to this, but a senior commander should be expected to take a broader view of what’s necessary for the service and for the war effort as a whole. John Slessor, for example, displayed far greater flexibility in his appreciation of the various contributions of airpower. Gray helpfully details the various conflicts between Harris and other senior commanders, as well as Churchill’s growing frustration with the RAF’s approach to intelligence and prediction. And in some sense, of course, Harris was correct to reject “panacea” targets, although a greater focus on oil surely would have aided Allied efforts late in the war. As Gray explains, RAF senior leadership had reasons for believing that Bomber Command would succeed where the Luftwaffe failed, even if those reasons strike the modern ear as steeped in motivated bias. Gray gives us some sense of how Harris was positioned within the RAF hierarchy, and of how Harris retained his position despite growing military and civilian frustration with his performance, but he doesn’t really explain Harris, in the sense of describing how someone with Harris’ views and traits could rise to an effectively unassailable position.

But… I knew that Harris’ leadership was problematic, and that relations between Harris and the other senior commanders were troubled, and that Harris was dismissive of the use of strategic airpower in anything other than area bombing. And this is part of the problem, because, as implied above, there was very little connection between the discussions of theoretical work on leadership and the historiography of the RAF. I don’t always need careful hypothesis testing, but there was little effort to set forth even “soft” evaluation of the various arguments on leadership. In terms of policy recommendations, it was hard to to sort out whether Gray had any particularly meaningful lessons to share.  It’s surely an interesting book for specialists, but I think it’s also a missed opportunity for a coherent, productive argument about senior leadership in functional and dysfunctional organizational contexts.

For a somewhat more positive take, see Ross Mahoney’s review.

 

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  • I don’t think there really was any concern about ethics by the Allied Powers. The war wasn’t fought as an humanitarian intervention. It was fought to defeat an enemy defined in totalistic national terms. Hence the existence of fire bombing and other atrocities such as the mass expulsion of civilian populations by the various major and minor Allied Powers. Historically, the moral justification for things like the annihilation of Dresden has that Auschwitz was far worse. But, that is a really primitive form of morality.

    • Murc

      It’s worth noting that, as near as I can tell, there wasn’t a double standard applied to the air war, I don’t think.

      That is, I don’t recall anyone in the Luftwaffe who wasn’t also a high-ranking Nazi being put on trial for war crimes on the basis of what was done to Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, etc. while the British and American pilots and officers responsible for Dresden, Hamburg, etc. got medals and were lauded as heroes.

      I could be wrong about this, tho.

      • Alexander Löhr was executed by the Yugoslavs as a war criminal for having Luftflotte 4 burn Belgrade.

        • agorabum

          Well, that was after a massive air attack against Belgrade before there was even a declaration of war. It a question of politeness. If they had declared war and given fair warning, there is a chance he may not have been executed. It was a bit excessive for a country that just wanted to remain neutral.

  • I don’t think the question is: did Germany deserve to be bombed?

    Arguably if anyone ever deserved to be bombed it was Nazi Germany.

    The question should be: was the strategic bombing campaign militarily worth the staggering expenditure in lives and resources?

    The German economy had so much slack capacity that we were never able to put a dent in their production of war materials. Germany never suffered from a shortage of weapons – only of people to use them.

    • I fail to see how German children deserved to be incinerated because some of their fathers had membership in the NSDAP. It is not like bombing distinguishes between the innocent and the guilty and if they are guilty by virtue of being racially German then we are back to primitive morality. Nobody here would ever argue in favour of collective punishment against a politically correct people.

      • Oh I think their fathers had a few more black marks on their record than just being members of the NSDAP.

        There was that whole attempted genocide thing, plus 20-30 million dead Russians plus trying to enslave all of Europe.

        It certainly would have been nice to be able to just target the fathers with pinpoint accuracy but that technology doesn’t exist in 2013 and certainly didn’t in 1943.

        • So would carpet bombing the USSR or at least Moscow and St. Petersburg to punish the CPSU and NKVD for their mass murders and enslavement of millions of people also have been morally justified? How many additional innocent people did you want to kill? Would killing 20 million German civilians as in the Morgenthau plan been more to your liking? Do you think we should also carpet bomb Syria to punish Assad as well?

          • William Berry

            Damn’, Otto, I find myself agreeing with you again!

            Bomber Harris, Curtis LeMay, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Harry S Truman were as much war criminals as Jodl or Tojo.

      • wjts

        Nobody here would ever argue in favour of collective punishment against a politically correct people.

        Yes, Otto. The Teuton is the Jew of liberal fascism.

      • AF

        To be sure, collective punishment cannot be justified on retributive grounds.

        As to the broader ethical question of the use of force against civilians… I always find myself looking not merely at the futility of the firebombing of Dresden, but also at the efficacy (and horror) of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

        The most persuasive defenders do not rely on notions of retributive justice, but consequentialism. As a certain movie character once put it, “deserving’s got nothing to do with it.”

        And I think that’s Kong’s point.

    • teraz kurwa my

      The Germans had plenty of shortages and I tend to find the revisionist argument that the bombing campaign both limited the degree to which they were able to ramp up production and forced them to shift a huge amount of resources into air defense pretty persuasive. The practical question is whether it was worth the diversion of allied resources and whether a more targeted campaign would have been better. And of course there are the moral questions.

      • John F

        Yes, the claim that the Germans produced 10X in war materiel in 1941 and 10X in 1944 means that strategic bombing was wholly ineffectual was never very persuasive to me. 1944 could not be compared to 1942, you could only compare the real 1944 to a hypothetical 1944 without strategic bombing.

        I suspect that had the USAAF and RAF devoted their resources instead to close airsupport in close coordination with the ground forces being supported- such would have been the better course, especially since such close air support could easily be modified and extended to interdiction type activities, but I don’t think we actually know.

        As it was the strategic air campaign had all sorts of effects, many 88s stayed in Germany, factories were moved, rebuilt, as raw materials were disrupted new ones had to be located and utilized, Germany either produced less war materiel due to the bombing campaign than they would have expended more in the way of resources and manpower to produce the same amount, resources and manpower that could have done other things.

        • Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

          Adam Tooze had a persuasive argument that the Battle of the Ruhr had the effect of flatlining the rate of increase in production, causing the Reich to fall way behind its (admittedly ambitious but achievable) targets.

    • guthrie

      The standard riposte goes something like “The area bombing campaign forced Germany to keep half a million men and a few thousand ’88’s dispersed in Germany when they would have been very useful in Russia.”

      Which is a point; the Germans didn’t apparently get the hang of using women for such work the way we did, but even now I don’t know enough of the balances of forces at the time to be sure, although I think it is clear enough that on the stated aims, the area bombing campaign wasn’t really any good.

  • corvus

    Since this is a post about RAF bombing in WW2, I’ve always wondered about this, (from a webpage about the Mosquito bomber):

    …Bomber command dropped a total of 1.2 million tons of bombs in World War 2. Given the above 1% hit precision statistic, it actually means dropping just 12,000 tons of bombs on real strategic targets. Since accuracy was later improved thanks to Mosquito Pathfinders, let’s assume for a moment that the amount of bombs which hit strategic targets was 50% higher. A quick calculation shows that a force of only 1000 Mosquito bombers of the 7781 Mosquitoes produced, could drop this amount on the same targets with high precision in just ten bombing missions each, at a fraction of the cost in blood, material resources, and time…

    Is this actually true, or is there some reason the Mosquito would not have performed as well as this is claiming.? The Mosquito has always had a great reputation,but it suggests shocking incompetence it was not used more, if it was really so capable.

    • It’s been suggested before.

      I’m not sure that they could have built more of them if they’d wanted to. The Mosquito was constructed of plywood and I don’t know if there was enough wood in the UK to build them in the quantities required.

      • ajay

        I have heard this suggestion before as well (see my comment below on the production point, which I don’t think would have been an obstacle). It’s a good argument, but it assumes that the Germans would have sat still – if it became a priority for the German air defences to kill small, fast, high-flying bombers, then the Mosquito would have faced much more serious opposition.
        And, as Freeman Dyson found, there might have been resistance to admitting that the air gunners were essentially doing more harm than good.

        • Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

          The problem with that argument is that the Germans *did* go flat out to try and stop the Mosquito. Gebhard Aders describes the extensive efforts to counter the Mosquito threat, not only through better aircraft types (high-flying He219s and the Ta152) but other experiments (single-engined counter-bumerang flights over the Ruhr).

          I’m still not convinced a massive offensive of Mossies would have worked, though. The issue is not just the tonnage dropped but the synergies derived from carpet bombing.

          Furthermore, Mosquito accuracy in marking was a product of a number of things, in particular:

          (a) OBOE, over those targets covered by OBOE. OBOE use en masse was simply not practical for many technical reasons.

          (b) Low-level marking, as pioneered by 5 Group. Basically, they dropped markers from dangerously low altitudes, a technique that would have been perilous to replicate across the whole force.

          So the notion that you could improve accuracy by using Mossies looks like bunkum.

  • Davis X. Machina

    I’m sure Farley and co follow Brett Holman’s Airminded blog, which has touched on this topic…

  • wjts

    I suspect that an independent service dedicated to chemical warfare would also have assumed that norms against CW use would collapse in the face of actual war, especially if service survival depended on using such munitions.

    The Americans, at least, believed that these norms might collapse and prepared accordingly, even without an independent chemical service. The SS John Harvey was carrying a cargo of mustard gas for possible retaliatory use in the Italian campaign when it was hit by a German air raid. I also seem to recall some folks calling for the use of gas in the Pacific.

  • shah8

    Dissertation works really do tend to be like that. That tends to make them more fun than useful.

  • ajay

    The RAF anticipated that norms against strategic bombing would be breached, and prepared itself for that eventuality. I have to wonder, however, the extent to which the RAF believed that the gloves would come off because it needed to believe that the gloves would come off in order to maintain the Trenchardist justification for organizational independence.

    It wasn’t a complete guess to assume that any future war with Germany would involve the Germans bombing civilian targets in Britain. They’d done so in the First World War, after all. What would have been a leap is for someone in the 20s or 30s to assume that the Germans wouldn’t bomb civilians. And why would someone assume that? Because the Germans seemed so much nicer?

    The Mosquito was constructed of plywood and I don’t know if there was enough wood in the UK to build them in the quantities required.

    The Mosquito was constructed out of Canadian birch and spruce and Ecuadorian balsa; domestic timber production wasn’t an issue. They could have been built overseas; as it was, a lot were built in Canada and Australia and ferried or shipped over.

    the Germans didn’t apparently get the hang of using women for such work the way we did

    AFAIK, Rosie the Riveter et al notwithstanding, the Germans had more of their women in work than the UK or (I think) the US throughout the war. They just mostly weren’t doing war work; they were working on the amazingly inefficient small family farms that made up most of German agriculture (see David Edgerton, Britain’s War Machine). So it wasn’t (or it wasn’t just) that the Germans didn’t want to use women on war work. They didn’t have the women to spare.

    • They could have been built overseas; as it was, a lot were built in Canada and Australia and ferried or shipped over.

      The Mossie structure was in many ways the first composite aircraft, soaked in thermosetting plastic and cooked by a beam of radio energy after being steamed soft and bent to shape with a press. It worked pretty well for De Havilland’s unique mixture of aircraft tradesmen, serious research chemists, and the cabinetmakers that brought postwar, great compression Britain gorgeous mid-century modern furniture, but once you started to get further away from Hatfield, the more chancy it got. Even DH’s quality control sometimes slipped, badly, and the Canadian plant was just regularly losing planes during the delivery flight for reasons they never worked out.

      I mean, the Germans tried to copy it…but the German chemical industry couldn’t get the glue right. They came up with their own, rather elegant solution, but as soon as it was ready, the Oboe Mosquitos showed up and reduced the factory to rubble, and the one they used instead was so poor as to make the knockoff airframes even less trustworthy than the He162. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tego_film)

      I suppose the Tego film story is evidence that “all Mossies all the time” might have worked.

      • mpowell

        Is there a reason a fast precision bomber had to be made out of wood at the time?

        • Nobody managed one that wasn’t! As I say, the Mosquito wasn’t a throwback to funny wooden England but a throwforward to the F-15.

          • ajay

            The Canberra, which was in many ways (high, fast, small precision bomber) the Mosquito’s heir, was also made partly out of plywood… and was flying in service until 2006.

  • AF

    Thanks for the reference and for the balanced review.

    I’ve read in various places that the British military generally did not adapt as well as the American military to the use of combined arms in the conventional warfare of WW2. Assuming the focus among key leadership in the RAF was excessively upon strategic bombing, might this not be a symptom of a broader British military culture, and not necessarily related to the particularities of Harris or the existence of the RAF as a separate branch?

    My question is entirely speculative and off the cuff.

    • ajay

      I’ve read in various places that the British military generally did not adapt as well as the American military to the use of combined arms in the conventional warfare of WW2.

      I can see how you might think that after D-Day (predominantly British troops, British ground commander, British naval commander, British ships, British air commander) was such a catastrophe.

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