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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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