Did the RAF win the war?

Pa­trick Bishop ar­gues that, of the three ser­vices, the RAF made the most telling con­tri­bu­tion to vic­tory over the Nazis

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - By Pa­trick Bishop

Early in 1944 the chief in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer with the Royal Air Force per­ma­nent del­e­ga­tion in Washington DC re­ported back to his bosses in Lon­don on how the ser­vice was re­garded in the US. “We can­not hope to en­hance the pres­tige of the RAF,” he wrote. “Through­out the world it is a house­hold word, and in the United States its rep­u­ta­tion is so high that in some quar­ters it is al­most re­garded as some­thing apart from, and su­pe­rior to, Bri­tain.” When I came across these words in the files of the Na­tional Ar­chives it set me think­ing about a ques­tion that is sel­dom posed. Which of the three ser­vices contributed most to Al­lied vic­tory in the Sec­ond World War? Was it the army, the navy or the air force?

In the course of re­search­ing my lat­est book, Air Force Blue, the an­swer to me seemed clear. It was the RAF – hence the book’s sub­ti­tle: ‘Spear­head of Vic­tory.’ The pre-em­i­nence of the air force in the strug­gle, which was surely the high point of its hun­dred-year ex­is­tence, is a sub-theme of the nar­ra­tive. It was one that some re­view­ers con­tested. Max Hast­ings, for my money the out­stand­ing Bri­tish his­to­rian of the war, thought the palm should be awarded to the Royal Navy.

None­the­less, I stand by my judg­ment. With­out in any way den­i­grat­ing the achieve­ments and sac­ri­fices of the tra­di­tional ser­vices, I main­tain that it was the new men and women of the air force who played the most sig­nif­i­cant part in Bri­tain’s war. That view is based on many con­sid­er­a­tions such as ef­fi­ciency, out­look, lead­er­ship and con­cep­tual and op­er­a­tional flex­i­bil­ity. And in form­ing it, I took into ac­count the US view of the rel­a­tive mer­its of the Bri­tish ser­vices.

The ver­dict of the Amer­i­cans is im­por­tant. Af­ter join­ing Bri­tain in the fight, they rapidly be­came the se­nior part­ners in the al­liance. They came to us not as colo­nial cousins but as the new masters of the free world with their own strong no­tions of how things should be done. The feel­ing that cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tions meant that the US owed Bri­tain def­er­ence had long ago passed.

The Amer­i­cans be­lieved they had lit­tle to learn from a na­tion that was fast los­ing its world-power sta­tus and, in the space of a gen­er­a­tion, had twice been forced to turn to them for sal­va­tion. They mea­sured the worth of their al­lies with a beady and un­sen­ti­men­tal eye. At­ti­tudes among the Amer­i­can brass ranged from ad­mi­ra­tion to in­dul­gent con­de­scen­sion to out­right hos­til­ity. The chief of the US navy, Ernest King, was (in the words of Win­ston Churchill’s chief of staff, ‘Pug’ Is­may) “in­tol­er­ant and sus­pi­cious of all things Bri­tish, espe­cially the Royal Navy”.

Dwight Eisen­hower, the supreme Al­lied com­man­der in Europe, took a much warmer view of the Bri­tish Army. Yet he too could be crit­i­cal of the gen­er­als he had to work with, feel­ing un­der­stand­ably in­tense ex­as­per­a­tion with the in- sub­or­di­nate and ego­ma­ni­a­cal Bernard Mont­gomery.

The Amer­i­cans’ first im­pres­sions of the RAF were, though, highly favourable. In the early au­tumn of 1940, more than a year be­fore Pearl Har­bor, a US del­e­ga­tion toured Egypt. Colonel Har­vey S Bur­well of the US Army Air Forces was greatly im­pressed by the RAF air­crew and ground staff he en­coun­tered, prais­ing their “su­perb morale, ex­tra­or­di­nary pa­tience and won­der­ful courage”. He met Air Mar­shal Arthur Ted­der, head of Mid­dle East Com­mand, and his se­nior of­fi­cers, and was re­lieved to find that the Bri­tish “su­per­cil­ious su­pe­ri­or­ity so ob­jec­tion­able to Amer­i­cans is rarely ex­hib­ited”.

This im­pres­sion per­sisted. So much so that the Washington in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer was able to state in his 1944 re­port that “many peo­ple who dis­like the Bri­tish would not say a word against the RAF”.

The Amer­i­cans came to re­gard their air force coun­ter­parts as shar­ing the qual­i­ties they ad­mired in them­selves: they were en­er­getic, ef­fi­cient, can-do. When Eisen­hower was cho­sen to com­mand the in­va­sion of north-west Europe, he picked Ted­der of the RAF as his sec­ond in com­mand. The two had got to know each other in­ti­mately in the north Africa and Italy cam­paigns, and Ike re­garded him as a “warm per­sonal friend” and the man he most ad­mired and trusted in the Bri­tish high com­mand.

To what ex­tent was the Amer­i­can view jus­ti­fied? Any dis­pas­sion­ate as­sess­ment would have to con­clude that the army’s record in the first phase of the war was unim­pres­sive. Its chiefs could rea­son­ably ar­gue that this was at least partly the re­sult of be­ing starved of money and re­sources by politi­cians who pre­ferred to give bud­getary pri­or­ity to the air force. None­the­less, the first 10 months were a story of de­ba­cle and de­feat. The bun­gled in­ter­ven­tion in Nor­way was fol­lowed by the ig­nominy of Dunkirk. In north Africa, they floun­dered against the Ital­ians, miss­ing sev­eral golden op­por­tu­ni­ties to wrap the whole thing up be­fore Rom­mel and the Afrika Korps ar­rived.

The fa­mous vic­tory at El Alamein in 1942 was the re­sult of a marked nu­mer­i­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity in men, guns, tanks and air­craft. It was the first and last time that a Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth force would beat the Ger­mans on their own. There­after al­most all the army’s ef­forts in the west would be in con­junc­tion with, and sub­or­di­nate to, the Amer­i­cans.

The Bri­tish per­for­mance dur­ing the ground cam­paigns in Europe brought mixed re­sults. In the bat­tle for Nor­mandy in 1944, Mont­gomery took six weeks to cap­ture Caen, a key

The ad­vent of air power had trans­formed war­fare as dra­mat­i­cally as did the in­ven­tion of gun­pow­der. By 1939 no vic­tory on land or sea was pos­si­ble with­out ad­e­quate air re­sources

ob­jec­tive he had boasted would fall in days. The Bri­tish-led Mar­ket Gar­den op­er­a­tion in Septem­ber 1944 to speed up progress by seiz­ing bridges in the Nether­lands over the Rhine was a spec­tac­u­lar fail­ure.

It is true that Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth forces led the cam­paign to kick the Ja­panese out of In­dia and Burma. But then it was Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth forces who had failed to pre­vent them from in­vad­ing in the first place fol­low­ing the fall of Sin­ga­pore in early 1942 (which was de­scribed by Churchill as “the worst dis­as­ter” in Bri­tish mil­i­tary his­tory).

For cen­turies, Bri­tain had prided it­self on the power of the Royal Navy. But the war at sea did not de­velop along the lines that the Ad­mi­ralty had planned for. Af­ter the sink­ing of the Bis­marck in May 1941 there would be no ma­jor fleet show­down with the Kriegs­ma­rine, while the huge and ex­pen­sive bat­tle­ships that the ad­mi­rals set such store by ab­sorbed com­men­su­rate re­sources and man­power.

The navy’s con­tri­bu­tion to the war ef­fort was un­doubt­edly enor­mous. With­out it, Bri­tain would have lost the Bat­tle of the At­lantic and been starved into sur­ren­der. Bri­tish sea power was es­sen­tial to sus­tain­ing the cam­paigns in the Mediter­ranean theatre and the far east, keep­ing the Arc­tic con­voys sail­ing and launch­ing the D-Day land­ings. But much of the ef­fort was a strug­gle for sur­vival rather than an ad­vance to­wards vic­tory. Fight­ing this strug­gle took all the navy’s time, and Bri­tish war­ships did not con­trib­ute any­thing to the US navy’s cam­paign in the Pa­cific un­til Jan­uary 1945.

The ad­vent of air power had trans­formed war­fare as dra­mat­i­cally as did the in­ven­tion of gun­pow­der. By 1939 no vic­tory on land or sea was pos­si­ble with­out ad­e­quate air re­sources. The strength of the Luft­waffe had been an es­sen­tial el­e­ment in the suc­cess of the Ger­man Bl­itzkrieg, just as the weak­ness of the Ar­mée de l’Air had has­tened French de­feat. Af­ter the fall of France, Bri­tain needed a pow­er­ful air force if it was to stay in the war. It has of­ten been said – quite rightly – that the navy, rather than the RAF, was Bri­tain’s ul­ti­mate line of de­fence against an at­tempted Ger­man in­va­sion. How­ever, with Churchill’s po­si­tion still in­se­cure, a dev­as­tat­ing pre­lim­i­nary air of­fen­sive might have brought a po­lit­i­cal col­lapse and a Vichy-style ac­com­mo­da­tion with the Nazis that would have ren­dered in­va­sion un­nec­es­sary.

By win­ning the Bat­tle of Bri­tain, the new ser­vice had a vic­tory to match the navy and army’s im­mor­tal tri­umphs at Trafal­gar and Water­loo. Suc­cess was due to two fac­tors. One was the stead­fast­ness and skill of the air­men in Fighter Com­mand. The other was the fore­sight

Over­whelm­ing air power was fun­da­men­tal to the suc­cess of the D-Day land­ings. As the ground troops found their feet, they had lit­tle to fear from air at­tack

and or­gan­i­sa­tional abil­i­ties of RAF com­man­ders, who had en­sured that they not only had the right fight­ers, but also a radar-directed com­mand and con­trol sys­tem able to make max­i­mum use of re­sources to counter the threat.

The ex­ploits of the air force in the sum­mer of 1940 con­firmed its place in the hearts of the Bri­tish pub­lic as the ser­vice they most ad­mired. The ex­cite­ment of avi­a­tion meant that those who wore air force blue were al­ready gilded with an aura of glam­our and moder­nity. “The RAF are the dar­lings of the na­tion,” wrote John Thorn­ley, a 29-year-old sales­man from Pre­ston, in his di­ary in July that year. “What mag­nif­i­cent chaps the RAF chaps must be,” he de­clared a month later when the Bat­tle of Bri­tain was reach­ing its cli­max.

The RAF’s war had in fact got off to just as bad a start as the other two ser­vices, with many ex­am­ples of poor equip­ment and faulty tac­tics lead­ing to point­less sac­ri­fices. Yet af­ter the Bat­tle of Bri­tain, its rep­u­ta­tion was unas­sail­able. Bri­tons proved re­mark­ably will­ing to over­look Fighter Com­mand’s in­abil­ity to pro­tect them from the win­ter Blitz of 1940/41, pre­fer­ring to blame politi­cians for the lack of coun­ter­mea­sures.

The pub­lic rel­ished in­stead the feel­ing that the air force was pay­ing Ger­many back. En­er­getic pub­lic­ity an­nounced that the squadrons were go­ing forth nightly to wreak de­struc­tion on the Ger­man war ma­chine. The ef­fec­tive­ness of these raids was wildly ex­ag­ger­ated, and it was not un­til well into 1942 that pro­pa­ganda be­gan to even ap­proach re­al­ity. But an im­pres­sion had been cre­ated that here was one area where we had the edge over the Nazis, lift­ing the gloom gen­er­ated by the set­backs on land and sea.

The over­all nar­ra­tive was one of more or less con­tin­u­ously im­prov­ing per­for­mance. The RAF’s lead­ers were quick to adapt, to learn from mis­takes and to grasp the pos­si­bil­i­ties of new tech­nolo­gies that spring up un­der the stim­u­lus of war. These were the foun­da­tions that en­abled the air force to play a crit­i­cal role in the war ef­fort – not just in en­sur­ing Bri­tain’s sur­vival but in car­ry­ing it to vic­tory.

The RAF was blessed by some far-sighted com­man­ders. In north Africa, Ted­der had a hard job get­ting his army coun­ter­parts to un­der­stand that suc­cess­ful war­fare de­pended on the max­i­mum in­te­gra­tion of land and air power, and seethed at their lack of vi­sion and ur­gency. “The army di­rec­tion here makes me shud­der,” he wrote in his di­ary in April 1941 as Rom­mel was press­ing for­ward in Cyre­naica. “We have got all our re­or­gan­i­sa­tion to meet a new sit­u­a­tion prac­ti­cally com­plete and work­ing but they are still dither­ing as to whether Gen­eral So-and-so is not too ju­nior to take com­mand be­cause Ge­orge So-and-so is in the off­ing. ‘Or­ri­ble!”

Ted­der kept such thoughts to him­self. In his deal­ings with his op­po­site num­bers he was a model of pa­tience, forg­ing a part­ner­ship that would come to be cited as a par­a­digm of in­ter-ser­vice co-op­er­a­tion. By the time the RAF fin­ished in north Africa, to­gether with the Amer­i­cans it had cre­ated a method­ol­ogy of com­bined air-ground war­fare that would carry the Al­lies on­wards through the land­ings in Si­cily and Italy.

Over­whelm­ing air power was fun­da­men­tal to the suc­cess of D-Day. In the months be­fore the land­ings, Bri­tish and Amer­i­can bomber squadrons pre­pared the ground, smash­ing up road and rail com­mu­ni­ca­tions in a largely suc­cess­ful at­tempt to ham­per swift re­in­force­ment by the en­emy when the blow fell. More than 3,200 photo re­con­nais­sance mis­sions were flown so that ev­ery foot of the ter­rain was mapped.

As the ground troops found their feet, they had lit­tle to fear from air at­tack – a far cry from four years pre­vi­ously at Dunkirk. This time there was only praise and ad­mi­ra­tion for the RAF. As they pressed for­ward, it was al­ways with the Ty­phoons and Spit­fires of the 2nd Tac­ti­cal Air Force roar­ing over­head, hack­ing at the re­treat­ing Ger­mans and eas­ing the path to Ber­lin.

In the east, vic­tory in Burma would have been im­pos­si­ble with­out the lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port of the air force, re­sup­ply­ing units fight­ing in im­pen­e­tra­ble jun­gle. And de­spite the navy’s ti­tanic role in main­tain­ing the transat­lantic lifeline, the U-boats might have pre­vailed had it not been for the ef­forts of Coastal Com­mand.

In all these ar­eas the air force played an es­sen­tial role. It was do­ing so, though, in con­junc­tion with the other ser­vices. Suc­cess was a com­bined ef­fort. But at the core of the RAF’s war was an en­ter­prise in which it acted alone. The strate­gic bomb­ing of Ger­many was more than just a cam­paign. It was the ex­e­cu­tion of a the­ory of air war­fare that ruled the think­ing of the RAF lead­ers in the run up to

Sat­u­ra­tion bomb­ing may not have bro­ken the Ger­mans’ spirit. But it helped pow­er­fully to bring about their post­war con­ver­sion to a peace­ful democ­racy

the war and which they had suc­cess­fully em­bed­ded in the con­scious­ness of suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments. This held that heavy bomber fleets could crip­ple Ger­many’s war in­dus­try, fa­tally un­der­min­ing its abil­ity to fight, de­mor­al­is­ing its pop­u­la­tion and, if not win­ning the war sin­gle-hand­edly, sig­nif­i­cantly re­duc­ing the task of the sol­diers on the ground.

It was this propo­si­tion that had led the up­starts of the air force, even be­fore the war be­gan, to present them­selves as the most im­por­tant of the ser­vices. Para­dox­i­cally it is here that their achieve­ments are less clear cut. Cer­tainly, strate­gic bomb­ing was one area in which Bri­tain showed the Amer­i­cans the way, more than pulling its weight in terms of op­er­a­tions mounted and losses sus­tained. The first US raids started in July 1942. In the 30 months that fol­lowed, Amer­i­can bombers never matched the ton­nages show­ered down by the RAF. They didn’t pull ahead un­til Jan­uary 1945.

The ques­tion is, how ef­fec­tive were the 873,348 tonnes of ord­nance that Bomber Com­mand dropped? The con­tro­versy as to whether the re­sults were worth the ef­fort be­gan be­fore the war was over and has con­tin­ued ever since. It is un­likely to ever be re­solved.

It is true that the Ger­man war econ­omy proved far more re­silient to bomb­ing than the air mar­shals had pro­claimed and that Ger­man civil­ian morale was no less ro­bust than that of Bri­tish vic­tims of the Blitz. On the other hand, the RAF in­flicted enor­mous dam­age and forced the Ger­mans to di­vert huge re­sources from the Soviet Union to the home front.

The un­com­fort­able con­clu­sion I have reached is that the big­gest achieve­ment of the strate­gic air cam­paign was that it contributed to a pro­found change in the mind­set of the Ger­man peo­ple, one that per­sists to this day. The de­struc­tion of vir­tu­ally ev­ery town of any size and the ap­palling civil­ian death toll that re­sulted taught the Ger­mans a ter­ri­ble les­son about the price of fol­low­ing Hitler.

Sat­u­ra­tion bomb­ing may not have bro­ken the Ger­mans’ spirit. But it helped pow­er­fully to bring about their post­war con­ver­sion to a peace­ful democ­racy. In that re­spect, the RAF’s achieve­ment tran­scends its great con­tri­bu­tion to mil­i­tary vic­tory. It laid the foun­da­tion for the en­dur­ing peace we en­joy today. Pa­trick Bishop is one of Bri­tain’s lead­ing mil­i­tary his­to­ri­ans. His lat­est book, Air Force Blue: The RAF in World War Two, has just been pub­lished in pa­per­back by Wil­liam Collins

A poster shows an RAF raid on Lübeck. For much of the war, the only way that Bri­tain could land an ef­fec­tive blow on Ger­many was through bomb­ing

A news­pa­per ven­dor watches a dog­fight over Lon­don, while keep­ing a tally of RAF and Luft­waffe losses, c1940

A Bri­tish de­stroyer drops a depth charge. The Royal Navy would play a crit­i­cal role in Bri­tain’s wartime sur­vival – par­tic­u­larly in see­ing off the U-boat men­ace dur­ing the Bat­tle of the At­lantic. But was the RAF the key to se­cur­ing ul­ti­mate vic­tory?

The en­er­getic, can-do at­ti­tude that Air Mar­shal Ted­der (left) fos­tered in the RAF achieved the rare feat of win­ning the Amer­i­cans’ ad­mi­ra­tion

Hawker Hur­ri­cane fight­ers of no 73 Squadron pic­tured over France in April 1940. “Which of the three ser­vices contributed most to Al­lied vic­tory in the Sec­ond World War? The an­swer to me seems clear,” writes Pa­trick Bishop. “It was the RAF”

Com­ple­ments the BBC’s RAF cen­te­nary sea­son

‘Rub­ble women’ pass the de­bris from a bombed Ber­lin build­ing along a line to a nearby dump, July 1945. Did the de­struc­tion of Ger­many’s cities make its peo­ple more amenable to the idea of democ­racy?

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