Thursday, June 25, 2015

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.

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