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Effectiveness of Bomber Command

LAURENCE REES: How effective was the work of Bomber Command?

TAMI BIDDLE: When we think about Bomber Command you sort of think, oh, well, they just did area bombing, but they get tremendously sophisticated as time goes on and they get not only better at being able to find and target and devastate and completely destroy cities, but they also get very good by 1944 at being able to go after specific targets. And this is something that is really under-appreciated in the historiography, and this is one of the reasons why I’m very sorry that there was never a fully comprehensive bombing survey done of Bomber Command’s effort.

This was partly because Churchill was sensitive and he didn’t really want a full bombing survey as he was nervous and anxious about what it might reveal regarding area bombing. But the fact that there was no survey meant there was no attempt to tell the story of how Bomber Command made a huge contribution to the pre-D Day preparation by attacking railway stations and marshalling yards and bridges and some very specific targets, and then later in 1944 were able to contribute in enormous ways to the attack of synthetic oil which became a real Achilles heel for the Germans. As the Red Army starts to move westward and the Anglo-American armies start to move Eastward, Germany is kind of in a pincer and they’re having to fall back on their own indigenous resources more and more. As the Red Army eliminates their supply of oil in south-east Europe, for instance, they’ve got to rely more and more on their own synthetic oil plants. Well, it turns out Bomber Command is fantastic at taking down these plants. They get extremely good at it, and when they shut them down they shut them down for months at a time. The Americans are never able to carry the load in B17’s and B24’s that Lancasters can carry, and because the British are very sophisticated by 1944 at flying on instruments and they’re very sophisticated at flying through terrible North European weather, they can really have a huge impact on the bomber offensive late in the day.

And so there is this huge component of being able to attack specific targets in 1944 for a variety of reasons, and Bomber Command is a big part of that. The Americans obviously are driving in that direction.

Spaatz who becomes the head of American strategic forces in Europe, is very anxious to attack oil. He’s convinced, and some of this is because of Ultra – he’s reading the Ultra traffic and is clued into what that means -  and he knows that the Germans are in trouble by the summer of 1944 and he wants to really lean in and bear down on oil. And that’s why Portal really presses Harris to join in that as much as possible. And Harris does; he doesn’t get as much credit as he ought to, for his own contribution, and  the Bomber Command contribution to that oil campaign is pretty huge. Unfortunately, right as the Americans have got the Germans truly up against the wall in the summer of 1944 with the oil situation, the weather really deteriorates badly in the autumn, and that means the Germans get a little bit of a break because the Americans and the British cannot keep going to oil and hammering it the way they had been in the summer. And that gives them just enough breathing space to kind of gather themselves back up again and be able to contemplate something like the Battle of The Bulge.