Thursday, June 25, 2015

1940: British Strategic Choices Part I

The British Royal Family remained in Buckingham Palace and Windsor all through the Blitz. The Cabinet advised the King and Queen to leave to leave London. She refused and also would not send the princesses to safety in Canada. She famously said, "The children won't go without me. I won't leave the King. And the King will never leave." There are countless images like this of the Royal family and Prime-minister Churchill visiting bomb damage or wounded soldiers. Notably, this is something Hitler never did. Here in the middle of the Blitz the Royal couple or headed for a Hostel for Servicemen (November 2, 1940). Notice the boy. Despite the evacuations, there were still many children remaining in London throughout the Blitz.

The air battles over Dunkirk had provided a foretaste of what too had suffered heavy losses there as well as in the preceding and subsequent battles over the continent. Now there was considerable preliminary skirmishing as the German government faced the implications of at least some continuation of hostilities, reorganized and reorientated the Luftwaffe toward operations primarily against England rather than France, and began to test the British defenses. The Commander-in-Chief of the German air force, Hermann Goring, was confident that his planes could crush the Royal Air Force in about five weeks; most of the German air force high command shared these optimistic expectations. The formations, ground support system, and the aircraft industry of Britain would all be attacked.

In the event, British defenses were sorely tried but successful. In preliminary skirmishes during June, July, and the first weeks of August, both sides suffered heavy losses. When the Germans stepped up the pace in mid-August, losses on both sides increased; but the British were more successful in replacing their losses, in part because British fighter production was by this time higher than Germany's. It was, in any case, becoming evident that the British were indeed holding on and that the attacks were not even close to their aim. The concentration of Luftwaffe attacks on the airport and radar control facilities inflicted great damage and strained the resources of Fighter Command, but in the battle of attrition that was developing, the British were at the very least holding their own.

At the end of August, the Germans changed their air strategy. It had originally been their intention to wait with a massive terror bombing of London until the invasion was to be launched. What slight evidence we have suggests that Hitler originally thought of a "Rotterdam"-type operation which would cause the people of London to flee the city and block the roads just as German troops were about to land. When a large number of German airplanes bombed London on August 24, the British replied with attacks on Berlin. Though on a small scale, the British air raid, and the ones which followed when the weather allowed, led Hitler to order mass bombing of London to begin forthwith. Always sensitive to attitudes on the home front—given his belief in the stab-in-the-back as reality, not legend—he announced that London would be destroyed. Early in September, the Luftwaffe shifted from attacking the sector stations of the Royal Air Force to a massive series of attacks on London.

The attacks on the British capital and other cities, though causing great damage and numerous casualties, exposed the Luftwaffe to great losses while allowing the RAF to rebuild its support system. When, in response to the heavy losses in daylight raids the Germans shifted to night bombing, their losses dropped, but so did their effectiveness. The British fighter defenses had held in daytime and though they were at that time essentially ineffective at night, this made no difference to the prospect of invasion which would have had to come in daylight. Only if the British public broke could such air raids accomplish their main objective. The panic Berlin expected did not occur. In the face of a resolute British public—buoyed up by then by the obvious inability of the Germans to launch an invasion—the Blitz, as it was called, failed. Rallied by a united government, the people suffered but held firm. A few in the government, but certainly not the public, knew that British air power was being assisted by the first important decripts of German air force machine code messages, decodes which also helped them understand and begin to counter the new German beacon system designed to help the bombers find target cities.

The British government had begun to work out its offensive projects for winning the war long before it became obvious in the fall of 1940 that their defense against the German onslaught would be successful. As previously described, it would combine a massive bombing of a blockaded German-occupied Europe with efforts to stir up revolts against Nazi rule until the whole system came crashing down. There was here an analysis based on a British version of the German stab-in-the-back legend; Germany had been throttled, not defeated in World War I, and the resistance forces might now play the part originally to have been played by the French army: to hold and wear down the Germans until bombing, blockade and revolts brought them down without the massive armies the British did not have. Whether or not such a strategy would in fact have been effective will never be known, but the decisions made in London to implement it had their impact on the course and nature of the War.

Recognition of the fact that Britain by herself could never field the size of army needed to defeat the German army was behind the development of the British strategy and the allocation of resources to its implementation. The Special Operations Executive, the SOE, was organized in the summer of 1940 in order, as Churchill put it, "to set Europe ablaze." In the following years, it sent agents into occupied Europe, attempted to arrange arms deliveries to resistance forces, and in every other way tried to make life difficult for the German occupiers. Local revolts were expected to increase over time; and eventually the disruption created by bombing, revolts, and the impact of blockade would make it possible for small British units to assist the conquered people of Europe in regaining their independence. British faith in the possibilities of European resistance organizations seems preposterously exaggerated in retrospect, but few then realized how solid a hold the Germans would acquire.

1940: British Strategic Choices Part II

The rugged Whitley was the principal British bomber during the early days of World War II. It was the first British aircraft to drop bombs on German soil since 1918 and saw extensive use up through the end of the war. When World War II commenced in September 1939, Whitleys comprised the mainstay of RAF Bomber Command’s frontline strength. It was marginally obsolete and overshadowed by the more modern Wellingtons and Hampdens, but in service it accomplished a number of aviation firsts. After spending the first year dropping leaflets over Germany, in August 1940 Whitleys became the first British aircraft to drop bombs on Berlin since World War I.

Even the Germans themselves might be expected to share in the process of revolt. The British government had by the summer of 1940 given up on those internal opponents of Hitler who had so often expressed their opposition before the war and in the winter of 1939-40. All they had done, it seemed, was whisper conspiracy and then carry out Hitler's policies of invading neutrals with enthusiasm and efficiency. Churchill, it must be remembered, had been in the government which received the messages that if Great Britain would promise to allow Germany to keep Hitler's loot—or at least most of it—the military would topple him. He would hark back to that experience when approaches from German opponents of Hitler reached London in later years. It was in this context that the British turned for a while to the rather unlikely idea of getting the dissident Nazi Otto Strasser to raise a revolt within Germany against both Hitler and the old elites cooperating with him; nothing came of it all, but it reflects the thinking of a government that hoped someday to find successor regimes in all of Nationalist Socialist controlled Europe.

While the imposition of Nazi rule was believed likely to create conditions for anti-German revolts in the occupied areas, those conditions would be further exacerbated not only by the sabotage SOE would hopefully organize, but also by the impact of the blockade and bombing. Enforcement of economic warfare measures was believed likely to strain the German war economy and the situation in German-occupied Europe to a vastly greater extent than turned out to be the case, in part because of the basic misassessment of the German economy previously referred to. There was, furthermore, an even more hopelessly inaccurate perception of what could be accomplished by bombing. Not until 1942 was some degree of realism injected into the assessment of the possible effectiveness of bomber operations against Germany; but what must be recognized, if the subsequent course of the war in Europe is to be understood, is that in the summer of 1940 and for considerable time thereafter the bombing offensive looked like and in fact was the only practical way for Britain to strike at the Germans. The German invasion preparations could be and were interfered with by attacks on the port facilities from which any invasion might be launched as well as on the ships being gathered there for the purpose. But beyond that essentially defensive project lay the offensive one of attacking German and German-controlled industries and cities. And that meant a major commitment of material and human resources to the building up of Bomber Command, the British strategic air force. The impetus given to this program by Churchill in the summer of 1940 helped define the British effort until the end of the war.

In the midst of these preparations to defend themselves against invasion and destroy German control of Europe by blockade, bombing, subversion, and the eventual return of small contingents of troops, the British government was not interested in checking out some vague peace soundings coming out of Germany. Churchill was willing to use the theoretical possibility of any successor government handing the British fleet over to Germany as a means of pressuring the United States into providing more aid to stave off a German victory, and some in the British diplomatic service suggested a somewhat similar scare tactic of warning of a possible Anglo-German peace to awaken the Soviet Union to the dangers facing them in their continued support of Germany. The record shows, however, that the government was not interested in exploring any possibilities of a negotiated peace, the assumption being that no terms offered by Germany would be acceptable—and that any acceptable terms could not be trusted.

By the time Hitler made a public gesture, suggesting on July 19 that England should call off the war, the government in London had long passed beyond considering such possibilities, and it was left to Lord Halifax to reply with a public rejection. Hitler's assertions in his speech that the Allies had been about to invade Holland and Belgium, that the British had bombed Freiburg, and that they should now simply leave him with his conquests were not likely to inspire confidence in a government which knew that he was lying. Hitler made fun of the British government's intention to continue the war from Canada if necessary, noting that the British population would then be left behind to face the harsh realities of war. He refrained from explaining his government's intention of deporting the male population aged 17-45 to the continent, but people and government in England had some understanding of the nature of Hitler's "generosity" without needing to have it spelled out.

In holding on, the British looked for support to the United States. They would need weapons made in the United States, and they faced the early exhaustion of the financial resources needed to pay for them, a process necessarily speeded up both by London's taking over the French contracts in America and any increasing deliveries of American arms. The United States was neutral, though most of its people were sympathetic to the Allied cause. There was some talk of improving German-American relations again on both sides in early 1940, but nothing came of the idea of returning the ambassadors who had been recalled in November 1938, when the United States reacted against the anti-Jewish violence in Germany. The ideological differences were too great.

Military Demand for Aircraft

Rumpler Taube

Instantly recognizable by its sweptback, birdlike wing tips, which warped for flight control, the Austrian Taube (“Dove”) had its origins in the Etrich-Wels glider of 1907. Manufacture was initially licensed to Rumpler, and the design is now generally associated with that company. Although a pre-war design, its initial success as a reconnaissance machine on the Western Front led to it being built by Albatross, Gotha, and D.F.W.

Although airships were added to the resources of both navies and armies, aeroplanes generally proved themselves more useful and reliable. They were also far cheaper to produce – a very important consideration. It was only in Germany that zeppelin advocates held their ground, diverting major resources away from aeroplane production.

Between 1911 and 1914, European military establishments became major buyers of aeroplanes and the main influence on the development of the air industry. Military competitions set manufacturers targets to aim at, with lucrative contracts at stake. The lure of profits brought substantial investment from the likes of German banker Hugo Stinnes, arms manufacturer Gustav Krupps, and Russian industrialist Mikhail Shidlovski. Some private firms experienced rapid growth. Henri Farman (see page 32) was employing around 1,000 workers by 1914, and the Gnome aero-engine company operated on a similar scale. Governments also set up their own establishments to encourage aircraft development – notably Britain’s Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough.

However, the situation in the United States was strikingly different. America was not preparing for a major war. Its armed forces were under no pressure to embrace cutting-edge technology, and its politicians were reluctant to vote funds for military hardware. By the summer of 1913, when the biggest European military air arms were already numbered in hundreds, the US Army had 15 aeroplanes. Without substantial military contracts, the American air industry stagnated. In 1914, only 168 Americans were employed making aircraft.

Aircraft Designs
The domination of European aviation by military contracts brought a distinct change in priorities. Since they did not yet take seriously the prospect of combat in the air, the armed forces demanded sturdy, reliable aircraft that could be flown in most weather conditions by average pilots and still carry a reasonable payload. Sporting pilots willingly risked their lives in treacherous high-performance machines built for speed or for stunting, but the military wanted stable aeroplanes that would survive prolonged use and keep their newly trained pilots alive. Although light monoplanes continued to be ordered for army use – for example, Taubes in Germany and Morane-Saulniers in France – there was a strong prejudice in favour of solid biplanes. A typical example was the two-seater B.E.2, designed by Geoffrey de Havilland for the Royal Aircraft Factory in 1912.

The record-breakers for speed around 1912–13 were the light monoplanes produced by French manufacturers Nieuport, Morane- Saulnier, and above all, Deperdussin, all of which made an attempt at streamlining with a fully enclosed fuselage and engine cowling. In comparison, a biplane such as the Farman Shorthorn, used for military training, was described by a cynical trainee pilot as looking “like an assemblage of birdcages”. But although the monoplanes were sleek and fast, their thin single wing generated inadequate lift for carrying much weight. It was also structurally frail, and was still braced by external wires attached to struts on the fuselage. Their control systems also made these aircraft difficult to handle.

At the time, a thin wing section was considered obligatory by aeroplane designers. In fact, as aerodynamic research would soon reveal, a thicker wing section provided improved lift, as well as a stronger structure. In 1910 a German high-school professor, Hugo Junkers, took out a patent for “an aeroplane consisting of one wing, which would house all components, engines, crew, passengers, fuel, and framework”. This flying wing was never built, but the idea led the way to the cantilever wing, requiring no external struts or bracing wires, that Junkers would incorporate into aircraft design during World War I. The cantilever wing would eventually make the monoplane the aircraft of the future. But in 1913–14 the machine that established a new benchmark for performance was a biplane, the Sopwith Tabloid – the first British-designed aircraft to compete successfully for speed with the French. The Tabloid pointed forward to the leading fighter-aircraft design of World War I.

First Bombing Raid
In the autumn of 1911, Italy declared war with Turkey in a dispute over the territory now known as Libya, then part of the decaying Turkish Empire. The Italian army possessed a number of foreign aircraft – French Blériots, Farmans, and Nieuports, and German Taubes. An air flotilla, initially comprising just nine aeroplanes and 11 pilots, was sent off with the Italian force that embarked for the Libyan coast in North Africa. In the short but brutal war that followed, the aeroplanes performed creditably, carrying out reconnaissance missions, mapping areas of the desert, and dropping propaganda leaflets promising a gold coin and sack of wheat to all those who surrendered. On 1 November, Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades over the side of his Blériot on to a Turkish military encampment at the Taguira oasis, in the first ever bombing raid by an aeroplane. Despite the fact that they faced little opposition, the aviators were hailed as heroes by patriotic Italians. Although the 1899 Hague Convention banned aerial bombing from balloons, Italy argued that this ban could not be extended to aeroplanes.