Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945. London: Continuum, 2012. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xv + 346pp.

Reviewed by Dr Ross Mahoney

9781472532824

The British Strategic Air Offensive against Germany (SAOG) and the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) remain contentious and divisive areas of debate within the historiography of the Second World War and the development of air power, respectively. Essentially the central debate on the bomber offensive has been polarised between discussing the exigencies of military effectiveness – the contribution the campaign made to the overall war effort – and the philosophical view that it was a morally reprehensible act.[1] More recently, the historiographical trend has shifted towards understanding the impact that bombing had upon civilian populations.[2] Into this field in 2012 came a new and important work by Peter Gray that examined the conduct of the SAOG innovatively, namely through a deep understanding of the role of strategic leadership in war and its relationship with the legality and legitimacy of the bombing campaign against Germany.

Gray’s book focuses on strategic leadership and the interface between key senior leaders involved in the direction of the bomber offensive against Germany. Leadership remains an often discussed but little understood area of study within military history. As a result, books are replete with inadequate or ineffective leadership claims without understanding the factors underpinning it and how it interacts with operations. Nevertheless, effective leadership remains the key to understanding military performance at all levels of war.

Gray’s professional experience both as a senior officer in the RAF – he retired as an Air Commodore – and in academia meant that he was well equipped to write this book and the PhD on which it is based. While at the time of writing, Gray is a Professor of Air Power Studies at the University of Wolverhampton; he was previously the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies at the University of Birmingham and is an acknowledged expert in air power studies and leadership. Before he retired from the RAF, Gray served in several important positions, including Director of Defence Studies (RAF) at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and as Director of the Defence Leadership and Management Centre. However, that Gray is a retired officer does not affect his objectivity towards the subject he studies. Indeed, while it can be easy to suggest that retired senior officers often suffer from what might be described as cultural blindness towards the subjects they write on, this is not the case with Gray, as evidenced by his analysis of the role of Marshal of the Royal Air Force (MRAF) Sir Arthur Harris noted below.

Gray’s work used an interdisciplinary approach grounded in an understanding of leadership theory to examine the direction of the bomber offensive. Utilising his extensive background in the military and his teaching and writing about the subject, Gray explored some of the theoretical aspects of leadership while making it clear that leadership is both complex and ambiguous at the senior/strategic level. For example, in examining the interface between the relationship of the Air Officer Commander-in-C of RAF Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, and the RAF’s Air Staff, in particular Harris’ relationship with the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), MRAF Sir Charles Portal, it is evident that numerous factors related to the complexity of ambiguity of senior leadership influenced the conduct of SOAG. These factors included relationships with allies, operational commanders, inter-service rivalry, and moral and ethical considerations. Harris does not emerge from this analysis well, with, for example, Gray describing him as ‘naïve’ to expect the lion’s share of the national resources for the bomber offensive. In addition, Harris struggled to ‘accept the vicissitudes of coalition warfare’. Nevertheless, Gray does admit that Harris operated within a problematic area where the ‘operational and strategic levels’ overlapped (p. 291).

There are numerous reasons why Harris arguably struggled in looking up and outside of his operational silo. However, as Gray lamented, Portal probably regretted that Harris never went to the RAF Staff College at Andover and instead attended the British Army’s Staff College at Camberley (p. 43). This is an important cultural point that still requires further examination. Nevertheless, while Harris has often been portrayed as the archetypal advocate of the RAF’s perceived singular focus on bombing in his development as a leader, he lacked the intellectual underpinnings that most future senior RAF commanders shared: attendance at Andover. It should, however, be noted that his attendance at Camberley also illustrated that he was well regarded in the RAF as students attending the other service Staff College’s also acted as representatives of their parent services and sought to inform fellow students about their work. Also, unlike many of his contemporaries operating at the senior level, including Portal, Harris never attended the Imperial Defence College (IDC), where he would have learned to speak the language of a combined military.

Another example of Harris’ inability to look up and out of his silo concerns the debates over relations with the other services. While Harris issued directives and loyally carried out orders, he often soured relations with a poor choice of language for a senior leader. The use of terms such ‘oily boys’ did not aid him or the Air Staff’s ability to explain complicated arguments over the effectiveness of air power to both colleagues within other services and politicians and allies (pp. 255-7). These leadership challenges were a key issue throughout 1944, especially in the lead up to Operation OVERLORD (pp. 215-28). Nevertheless, a vital problem for senior leaders is the maintenance of vision and purpose for an organisation in the face of the leadership challenges that faced both Harris and the Air Staff. Maintaining this vision and purpose had implications for the direction of the bomber offensive.

A 18825
The Quebec Conference, 23 August 1943. Left to right round table: Lord Louis Mountbatten, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, General Sir Alan Brooke, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, Air Marshal L.S. Breadner, Field Marshal Sir John Dill, Lieutenant General Sir Hastings Ismay, Brigadier H. Redman, Commodore R. Coleridge, RN, Brigadier General J.R. Deane, General H.H. Arnold, General G.C. Marshal, Admiral W.D. Leahy, Admiral E.J. King, and Captain Forrest B. Royal (Source: © IWM A 18825)

In comparison to Harris, the RAF was fortunate that, in Portal, they had a CAS who had the vision and ability to see the organisation’s central purpose through to fruition. Portal managed the shift to area bombing, and he was able to work well with both politicians and allies alike. However, Portal was perhaps aided in his work given that his key ally, the United States Army Air Force, placed as much importance as the RAF did on the bomber. However, the decision by the Combined Chiefs of Staff to place Portal in charge of the strategic direction of the Combined Bomber Offensive at the Casablanca Conference of January 1943 (p. 211) highlighted not only an indication of his abilities as a senior leader but also his standing amongst his peers. Unlike Harris, Portal was able to look up and out of his silo and interface with ‘the various organizations that contribute[d] to the greater enterprise […] across the range of Whitehall and into international arenas’ (p. 291).

Gray’s discussion of legitimacy is useful as it helps set the context for the conduct and direction of the bomber offensive and the challenges that confronted the RAF’s senior leadership during the Second World War. The interwar period saw significant discussions over air power in modern warfare. It also saw attempts to codify and limit its role through international law. While the Hague Conference of 1923 produced a report on the Rules of Aerial Warfare with genuine humanitarian intentions, it was not ratified by the nations involved. The attempt to codify laws relating to the use of air power failed most significantly at the Geneva Disarmament Conference, 1932-33. Nevertheless, this failure to agree did not mean that the RAF ignored the implications of the ethics of air power when formulating doctrine and strategy. However, beyond legal discussions, there was, as Gray argued, little in the way of contemporary philosophical debate over war in general. Indeed, the historiography concerning anti-war movements in the interwar period is ‘muddled at best’, thus raising significant questions over interpretations, such as Grayling’s (p. 48).

For Gray, the most influential writer in this period regarding issues surrounding legitimacy and international law was the jurist J.M Spaight (pp. 54-7). The reason for Spaight’s importance stems from his relationship with MRAF Sir Hugh Trenchard during his tenure as CAS, his standing within the Air Ministry and perhaps most importantly, the simple fact that his voluminous works appeared on the reading list for Andover, where future leaders would have been exposed to his writings. Although Gray does not make this point, Spaight wrote for the Royal Air Force Quarterly in the 1930s. This would have seen a broader audience in the RAF exposed his work, though the question remains how much journals such as the Quarterly were read beyond those attending Staff College.[3]

The failure to gain effective international agreement over the use of air power in war led Spaight to note that inevitably ‘cities would be bombed’ (p. 57). Similar ideas pervaded the development of air power doctrine but did not mean that other areas of operations were ignored. The focus on bombing was the logical development of an inherently offensive weapons system. When applied in the strategic sense, the application of bombing was going to raise moral issues. However, the British had a tradition of utilising its other strategic arm, the Royal Navy, to bombard and blockade so that the use of the British Army in continental warfare could be ‘sidestepped’ (p. 59). This, coupled with ineffective international control concerning the laws of war, allowed for the development of an offensively minded doctrine.

Moreover, this did not mean, as Spaight’s own writings indicated, that there was no desire to fight the war as humanely as possible. However, there was a realisation amongst the Air Staff that, as Gray has written elsewhere, ‘The Gloves Will Have to Come Off’ (p. 57).[4] This had clear operational implications for the conduct of the bomber offensive when the decision was taken to shift to both night attacks and area bombing. However, it should be seen as an incremental shift and not the obvious solution as traditionally portrayed. Nonetheless, questions over the humane use of strategic air power became acutely apparent in 1945 when the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, began to distance himself from the campaign after the raid on Dresden. Concerning this episode, Grey argues it had a degree of logic to it but must be placed within the context of being aware of the growing resilience of Germany’s military in the face of allied advances, and that the Air Staff argued that an early end to the bomber offensive might cause the loss of more lives in the long-term (p. 228).

Overall, this excellent book adds a fresh perspective to a well-trodden path in the historiography of the Second World War. Gray makes clear that before any evaluation can be made on the key areas that have occupied historians of the bomber offensive, namely the issues of effectiveness and morality; we must understand the challenges that confronted those responsible for its conduct and how they sought to deal with the ambiguities and complexities of senior leadership under the stress and strain of global conflict. It also illustrates that historians should not be afraid to learn from allied disciplines. In understanding alternative methodologies, we can bring new light to old subjects.

Dr Ross Mahoney is the Editor-in-Chief of From Balloons to Drones and is an independent scholar specialising in air power and the history of air warfare. He is currently the Senior Historian within the City Architecture and Heritage Team at Brisbane City Council in Australia. He has over 15 years of experience within the heritage and education sectors in Australia and the United Kingdom. He was the inaugural Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum in the UK. In Australia, he has worked as a Historian for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and taught at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University based at the Australian War College. His research interests are focussed on military history, with a specific focus on the history of air warfare, transport history, and urban history. He has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He has a book review website here and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header image: Air Marshal A.T. Harris, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, RAF Bomber Command points to a location on a map of Germany hanging in his office at Bomber Command Headquarters, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. On the left stands Air Vice-Marshal R. Graham (left) the Air Officer Administration at BCHQ, and on the right Air Vice-Marshal R.R.M.S. Saundby, Harris’s Senior Air Staff Officer. (Source: © IWM CH 5490)

[1] The view that bombing was morally reprehensible can be summarised by the work of A.C. Grayling. However, this work should be treated with care given the author’s clear lack of understanding of how both the SAOG and CBO were conducted. See A.C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: Is the Targeting of Civilians in War ever Justified?, Paperback Edition (London: Bloomsbury, 2007). Within the debate over the effectiveness of the CBO there are several continuing debates on themes such as the question of the bombing techniques employed by the RAF and the USAAF as well as the contribution made by the campaign in achieving air superiority over Europe before Operation OVERLORD. A key work on the debate over precision versus area bombing remains W. Hays Park, “Precision’ and ‘Area’ Bombing: Who did which, and when?,’ Journal of Strategic Studies 18, no. 1 (1995), pp. 145-74. For an examination of the role played in achieving air superiority over Europe, see: Stephen McFarland and Wesley Phillips Newton, To Command the Sky: The Battle for Air Superiority Over Germany, 1942-1944 (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991). For a discussion of how RAF Bomber Command sought to overcome some of the challenges it faced with reference to the use of operational research techniques, see: Randall Wakelam, The Science of Bombing: Operational Research in RAF Bomber Command (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).

[2] Important in this shift was the work undertaken by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project on ‘Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe, 1940-1945.’ For some of the work that emerged from this project, see: Claudia Baldoli, Andrew Knapp, and Richard Overy (eds.) Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe 1940-1945 (London: Continuum, 2011); Andrew Knapp and Claudia Baldoli, Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945 (London: Continuum, 2012).

[3] For example, see: J.M Spaight, ‘An International Air Force: Part I – Fantasy,’ Royal Air Force Quarterly 1, no. 4 (1930); J.M. Spaight, ‘An International Air Force: Part II – Reality ‘, Royal Air Force Quarterly 2, no. 1 (1931).

[4] Peter Gray, ‘The Gloves Will Have to Come Off: A Reappraisal of the Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive Against Germany’, RAF Air Power Review 13, no. 3 (2010) pp. 9-40.

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