3. War again, and the new doctrine of air bombardment

Chamberlain was clear about his views on the use of air power: it was illegal, he thought, to bomb civilians, and targets must be chosen with care to avoid secondary damage to highly populated neighborhoods. Fine sentiments, but ones that would quickly prove untenable, according to Bomber Command. Air control in the colonies had allowed—had embraced—the targeting of civilians, albeit men, women, and children of color whose lives were hardly treasured by British government or military officials. The Germans had already demonstrated, once again, their contempt for the distinction between military and civilian targets. Late in the afternoon of 27 April 1937 German air squadrons of the Condor Legion bombed and strafed Guernica, a Spanish town of 7,000 that was 20 miles from Bilbao and at least 10 miles from the front line of battle between Republican and Fascist forces. Some 1,000 people died in the attack, and Guernica was all but destroyed. Despite widespread condemnation of the assault, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, found Guernica a useful exercise. When, following the ground attack on Poland in 1939, Warsaw refused to surrender, the Germans unleashed their bombers. The city was not altogether defenseless, and indeed its refusal to capitulate allowed the Germans to claim it as a legitimate target. They blasted the suburbs and finally the city center, using in a series of raids hundreds of tons of bombs and incendiaries to create what the Luftwaffe war diaries called ‘a sea of flame’ that engulfed and obscured the city. The air attacks began on 8 September; Warsaw surrendered on the 17th.33

Chamberlain’s distaste for bombing cities may have been eroded after Warsaw, but any residual opposition he may have had was made irrelevant after he was ousted from the prime ministry on 10 May 1940. Winston Churchill, the champion of air control, now took over. Within two months he proclaimed the need for ‘an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack’ on Germany, and on 25 August 1940 he authorized a bombing raid over Berlin. Sir Charles Portal, who was Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command until October 1940, when he was promoted to Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), was willing to oblige Churchill. As C-in-C he was directed to attack industrial targets—factories and refineries, especially— by night. To this he objected: such targets, he said, were ‘too small to be found with any certainty on moonlit nights by average crews’. He urged instead hitting industrial towns in their totality, with the understanding that civilian morale in these towns was the real target. Once named CAS, Portal pressed his case on his successor, Sir Richard Pierse: the C-in-C, declared Portal, should pick twenty to thirty German cities and subject them to massive bombing attacks every few nights. By the end of October 1940, according to the official historians of the air war against Germany, ‘the fiction that the bombers were attacking military objectives was officially abandoned. This was the technique which was to become known as area bombing.’ Undertaken after dark (with factories reserved for targeting only if there was a bright moon), the strategy was designed to strike fear into the hearts of German civilians. The Germans, meantime, had seen fit to bomb London during daylight hours starting that September, and in November launched a destructive nighttime terror attack on Coventry.34

While Churchill, Portal, and Pierse reshaped British air-war strategy, Arthur Harris waited for orders. When war broke out he was given command of the No. 5 Group at Grantham, a cluster of clumsy and uncomfortable Hampden bombers. He moved, in late 1940, to the Air Ministry, then the following June was posted to Washington as head of an RAF delegation charged quietly to discuss joint strategy and the possibility of more American planes for the British. In February 1942, with the Americans in the war at last but with the Allies reeling from setbacks in Europe, North Africa, the Soviet Union, and Asia, Harris replaced Pierse as Air Command C-in-C. He inherited a new Air Directive that listed a number of German industrial cities, including most of the Ruhr, as legitimate targets for British bombers, which were about to be equipped with a new navigational technology that would make attacks on cities, as well as precision attacks on buildings, more fruitful. Harris’s job, according to the 14 February directive, was ‘to focus attacks on the morale of the enemy civil population, and, in particular, of the industrial workers’. Explaining his mandate, Harris would also cite an earlier Air Staff paper, which declared that the aim of bombing towns was ‘to produce (i) destruction, and (ii) the fear of death’; the production of death itself was, curiously, left off the list. Enabled by these directives, inclined by his instincts, and increasingly equipped with planes numerous and powerful and well flown enough to produce both destruction and fear of death, Harris opened his bomber offensive.35

His planes dropped two types of bombs. Most common were high explosive or ‘general-purpose’ bombs, which were powerful and volatile chemical cocktails encased in metal. Early in the war, the RAF used mainly 250- and 500-pound high explosives, equipped with fins for guidance and fuses that would detonate the explosive on contact with the ground. Later in the war, and particularly after the destruction of Hamburg in July and August 1943, the RAF increasingly used a second type of bomb, the incendiary, to burn German cities and towns. Incendiaries were thermite or magnesium-based weapons that burned at temperatures exceeding 12000 f. In their use the British were urged on by the Americans, whose universities and chemical and oil companies had developed sophisticated versions of the weapons. A Harvard University chemist, working for Standard Oil, devised napalm, a jelly-like substance that was propelled out of the rear of a bomb called the M-69 and burned remorselessly anyone or anything with which it came into contact. If the Trenchard-Harris doctrine of air war was to destroy civilian morale and thereby end the war quickly, a good thing for all remaining alive concerned, it followed that the most terrifying weapons were finally the most humane.36

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