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An assessment of the bomber war against Germany, subtitled 'Churchill's Greatest Triumph'
This week’s excerpt comes from an unusual study of the bomber war against Germany. Roddy Mackenzie’s father served in RAF Bomber Command, part of the very significant contribution made by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Some of Bomber Command: Churchill's Greatest Triumph retraces his father’s war and the 34 combat operations he flew, with particular emphasis on the experiences of Canadians who came to Britain in the war. Relations between the RCAF and the RAF were not always harmonious - and the author highlights some little-known incidents.
Interwoven into this very personal story (accompanied by many personal photographs), the author paints a broader picture of the bomber war. He uses a wide range of resources to build the context not only of how Bomber Command developed and became the potent force that it was, but considers the impact that it had, and reassesses the importance it had in winning the war. Mackenzie considers that Bomber Command’s accomplishments have been unfairly undervalued, especially in the context of post-war controversies and myth-making, some of them stemming directly from wartime Nazi lies.
So a study of particular appeal to Canadians but also of interest to anyone trying to comprehend the bomber war. Mackenzie pays attention to the German assessment of what the bombing war did to Germany, both what they were saying at the time and how the German Research Institute for Military History ( the ‘Institute’) has assessed it since:
Battle of the Ruhr
In the early days of the war, Germany quite rightly recognized that the RAF was unable to conduct effective bombing because it had neither the aircraft nor the bombs it needed. But the Institute recognizes that as the war progressed the RAF succeeded in creating both a powerful bomber fleet and much more accurate navigation and target-finding. That brings us to the Ruhr, which the Institute refers to as the ‘Vulcan’s Forge’ of the Reich for building tanks, artillery, U-boats and air armaments, and mining coal needed to produce Germany’s steel.
The Battle of the Ruhr commenced on 5 March 1943 with Bomber Command bombing Essen. It ran from 5 March to 31 July 1943. The Allied aircrew nickname for the heavily defended Ruhr was ‘Happy Valley’. Targets included Barmen, Bochum, Cologne, Dortmund, Duisburg, Dusseldorf, Elberfeld, Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Hamborn, Huis, Krefeld, Mulheim, Oberhausen, Remscheid, Ruhr and Wuppertal. To prevent Germany from concentrating defences in the Ruhr Valley, during the course of the battle of the Ruhr Bomber Command also bombed Aachen, Berlin, Frankfurt, Friedrichshafen, Hamburg, Kiel, Munich, Munster, Nuremberg, Pilsen, Stettin (now Szczecin) and Stuttgart.
On 8 May 1943 Hitler told Field Marshal Milch, the successor to Luftwaffe Generaloberst (Colonel General) Ernst Udet as chief of procurement and supply, that either the Luftwaffe’s tactics or technology was lacking. Goebbels that day blamed Goring and Udet. Goring had also tried to blame Udet for losing the Battle of Britain.
Torn between loyalty and truth, and being forced by Goring to lie to Hitler, as well as realizing the Russian invasion would end in catastrophe for Germany, but failing to convince Hitler of this, Udet had a nervous breakdown. On 17 November 1941, while on the phone with his girlfriend, Udet committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. The Nazis kept his suicide secret and lauded him as a hero at his funeral, even burying him beside Manfred von Richthofen, the First World War fighter pilot ace best known as the ‘Red Baron’ who, at age 25, was killed on my Dad’s sixth birthday, 21 April 1918.
After meeting Hitler on 8 May 1943, Goebbels wrote ‘The technical failure of the Luftwaffe results mainly from useless aircraft designs. It is here that Udet bears the fullest measure ofblame.’
Tooze [The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy - one of the most important post-war studies of the war, certainly the most enlightening from an economic perspective] says Bomber Command severely disrupted German production, and its impact was underestimated in later accounts. The Ruhr was Europe’s most important source of coking coal and steel, and the main source of components. Bombing the Ruhr disrupted production all over Germany, and even forced a large cut in ammunition production. Tooze concludes that in the Ruhr ‘Bomber Command had stopped Speer’s armaments miracle in its tracks’. In spite of losing 640 bombers and most of their crews, Bomber Command increased in size between February and August 1943 due to increased output of British aircraft.
The Institute says the Ruhr Battle created for the first time in the war a serious threat to Germany’s economy. The massive destruction inflicted by bombing the Ruhr forced Germany to find more raw materials and use increasing numbers of ‘foreign workers’ most of whom were slaves.
A highlight of the Ruhr battle was the Dambusters’ spectacular Operation CHASTISE on 16/17 May 1943 breaching German dams. The Institute says their bombing created serious water shortages that prevented Germans from adequately fighting the many large fires that broke out.” Albert Speer immediately visited the Ruhr to survey the damage. In his judgement it could jeopardize Germany’s whole economic structure, so in August 1943 the ‘Ruhr Staff’ was created, answering directly to Speer.
In an associated passage the author includes a series of excerpts from Josef Goebbel's diaries, in which he records his reactions to the unfolding Battle of the Ruhr:
The fact is that the Royal Air Force is taking on one industrial city after another and one need not be a great mathematician to prophesy when a large part of the industry of the Ruhr will be out of commission.’
9 April 1943: Goebbels ‘with a large entourage’ arrives in Essen to confer with Milch ‘who spoke in terms of sharpest criticism’ about Goring for the failure of the Luftwaffe against Bomber Command. New planes are needed but large-scale production takes time. Goebbels writes: ‘Until then tire English can lay a large part of the Reich in ruins’ and Goring’s prestige ‘has suffered very much.7
10 April 1943: Goebbels tours Essen on foot because driving is impossible. The damage inflicted by the last three air raids is ‘colossal and indeed ghastly’ and city building experts say normally it would take twelve years to repair the damage. Goebbels writes: ‘I believe Essen today is the city hit hardest by the English raids’ and that ‘The construction of bunkers and bombproof shelters is the most urgent problem.”
10 May 1943: ‘The painter Gerhardinger has refused to let the Munich Art Exposition have his canvasses because he fears they might be destroyed by air raids. The Fuhrer ordered that he be punished very severely. It just won’t do for an individual painter to arrogate to himself the right of avoiding part of the national risk.... Things would come to a pretty pass if behaviour like this went unchallenged and the artists were allowed to shirk their national duty.’
15 May 1943: ‘Air raids are becoming more frequent again. During the night the Skoda works near Pilsen were hard hit. Among other targets the drafting room was destroyed. This is naturally quite a setback for us. However, the number of planes we shot down is colossal. Within forty-eight hours the English lost seventy-eight four-engine bombers.’
18 May 1943: ‘Air raids the past night inflicted heavy damage on us. The attacks of British bombers on the dams in our valleys were very successful. The Ftihrer is exceedingly impatient and angry about the lack of preparedness on the part of the Luftwaffe.’
19 May 1943: ‘The English and Americans discuss practically nothing but air warfare. Their successful raid on the German dams created a great sensation both in London and in Washington. Of course they know exactly what they achieved by this attack ... from a Jew who emigrated from Berlin ... .1 feel certain that treason was involved in this whole attack, for the English were so absolutely in the know and after their attack had such exact knowledge of what damage was done, that it is hardly to be presumed they ascertained this solely by air reconnaissance.’
21 May 1943. The English at present are making a sport of driving as large sections of our population as possible out of their beds by air alerts ... . In the daytime, too, we have more alerts now, even in Berlin. The English accomplish this with their small Mosquito machines which are exceedingly hard to hit... We cannot just stand air warfare indefinitely. We must try as fast as possible to develop counter measures, especially reprisal attacks .... Otherwise sooner or later air war will become unbearable for us.’
25 May 1943: The night raid of the English on Dortmund was extraordinarily heavy, probably the worst ever directed against a German city .... Reports from Dortmund are pretty horrible. The critical thing about it is that industrial and munition plants have been hit very hard. One can only repeat about air warfare: we are in an almost helpless inferiority and must grin and bear it as we take the blows from the English and the Americans ... received reports from Bochum and Dortmund indicating a new low in morale ... we must recognize people in the West are gradually beginning to lose courage. Hell like that is hard to bear for any length of time, especially since the inhabitants along the Rhine and Ruhr see no prospect of improvement.... The fact is that the Royal Air Force is taking on one industrial city after another and one need not be a great mathematician to prophesy when a large part of the industry of the Ruhr will be out of commission.’
27 May 1943: ‘The English are giving sensational publicity to their successes in the air. They exaggerate a lot, but unfortunately much of what they claim is true. Their attack on Dortmund, especially, is praised as a great accomplishment of the Royal Air Force. As a matter of fact we do have extraordinary difficulties to overcome there.’
28 May 1943: ‘Our supremacy in the air was wrested from us by the English not only by a tremendous expenditure of energy on the part of the RAF and the British airplane industry, but also because of a number of unfortunate circumstances and negligence on our part... .It seems to me that air warfare ought to be regarded as one of the most important phases of war and that it ought to be conducted quite independently of developments in the East.’
This excerpt from Bomber Command: Churchill's Greatest Triumph appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.