#Commentary – Biplanes against Battleships: The Fairey Swordfish Biplane and Lessons for Today’s Air Power

#Commentary – Biplanes against Battleships: The Fairey Swordfish Biplane and Lessons for Today’s Air Power

By Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey

The Fairey Swordfish flew just above the sea waves at about 30 feet while anti-aircraft artillery shells exploded around it, the sea waters splashing high due to the impact. The pilot, Lieutenant M.R. Maund, struggled to keep his plane steady to release his torpedo at an Italian battleship.[1] Maund flew a Swordfish biplane: one of the 20 Swordfish aircraft from HMS Illustrious that took part in the air attack on the Italian Navy’s (Regia Marina) battleship fleet in the harbour of Taranto on the night of 11-12 November 1940. The Italians had six battleships, 14 cruisers and 27 destroyers at Taranto.[2] During this night attack, the Swordfish aircraft dropped torpedoes and bombs and managed to sink a battleship (Conte di Cavour) while severely damaging two more (Caio Duilio and Littorio). Only two Swordfish aircraft were shot down. As a result of the attack, half of the Regia Marina’s capital ship fleet was disabled, giving the Royal Navy (RN) some tactical space and time to conduct its maritime operations in the Mediterranean.[3]

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An aerial view showing the aftermath of the raid on Taranto in November 1940. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

More importantly, the Battle of Taranto signalled a change in naval power and the use of air power.  It demonstrated the value of using aircraft to destroy an enemy’s fleet. The lessons of the Battle of Taranto were not lost on those who observed the effects of the operation. The Japanese Assistant Naval Attaché in Berlin visited Taranto and studied the raid. His findings then fed into the planning process for the massive surprise air raid against the US Navy at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The use of precision airstrikes against naval targets rendered the fleet-in-being strategy as a highly risky practice, and subsequent Second World War naval battles with air power serve to highlight this point.

The Swordfish aircraft, which was successfully used in the attack against Taranto, was an obsolete aircraft when the Second World War started. It was a fabric wire biplane first flown in 1934 and became operational in July 1936 with the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Air Force, which was later transferred to the control of the Royal Navy. It had a top speed of just 138 mph; a service ceiling of 10,890 feet; a range of 1,028 miles; and it could carry either a 1,600 lb torpedo or a 1,500 lb load of depth charges, mines or bombs.[4]  For self-defence, it was armed with a .303 Vickers machine gun above its engine and another .303 Vickers machine gun operated by the rear gunner. It had a crew of three – a pilot, a navigator-observer, and a radioman-rear gunner – flying in an open cockpit. Due to its fabric skin-cover holding the aircraft together, it was nicknamed the ‘Stringbag.’

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HMS Illustrious in 1940. (Source: © IWM (FL 2425))

By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, the Swordfish was slow and vulnerable to faster and more agile monoplane fighters. Nevertheless, the FAA used it as its primary torpedo and reconnaissance aircraft on the RN’s aircraft carriers during the war. However, its slow speed and crude design allowed it to fly slow and manoeuvre at low altitude. These qualities were crucial to victory at Taranto, when the Swordfish aircraft flew low, almost at sea wave height, enabling them to avoid Italian anti-aircraft artillery. The slow speed also allowed the Swordfish aircraft to fly around some barrage balloons and unleash their ordnance with accuracy. The fabric skin construction of the Swordfish also saved it from light cannon shells armed with contact fuses as the shells shot through the soft fabric.

The anti-battleship feat of the Swordfish was repeated when they took part in the hunt for the German Navy’s (Kriegsmarine) battleship, Bismarck. Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal launched a torpedo attack against Bismarck on 26 May 1941 and managed to destroy its port-side rudder. This caused the Bismarck to turn in circles.[5] The RN’s surface fleet eventually caught up with the Bismarck and sank it the next day. Ironically, the HMS Prince of Wales, which took part in the sinking of Bismarck, was sunk by Japanese air power on 10 December 1941 off the coast of eastern Malaya.

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Close-up of a Fairey Swordfish MkII in flight as seen through the struts of another aircraft, probably while serving with No. 824 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, c. 1943-1944. (Source: © IWM (TR 1138))

The Swordfish continued to be manufactured (2,391 were built) and used by the FAA until the end of the Second World War.[6] Despite its obsolescence at the start of the war, it doggedly flew on and even outlived some of its more modern contemporary aircraft. The Swordfish gained a solid reputation as the most successful British naval aircraft with the highest score of Axis ships sunk during the Second World War.[7] The rugged biplane was finally retired from active service in 1946.

The tactical lessons drawn from the experience of the Swordfish in the Second World War should not be lost on modern observers. Many modern countries are looking to procure the latest technologically superior combat aircraft to equip their air forces, at very expensive prices. For example, there are continued debates today on the viability for some air forces to acquire either the F-35 Lightning II or modernised versions of the F/A-18 Super Hornet or the F-16V Viper. Perhaps it might be prudent to understand that sometimes older platforms if used smartly and asymmetrically to offset their disadvantages, can yield some strategic utility as the humble Fairey Swordfish did during the Second World War. After all, it is not the machines that count, but the tactical effects yielding strategic utility that matter.

Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey is an Associate Professor in Strategic Studies, and the Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDiSS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia. He has a PhD in Strategic Studies from the University of Reading and is the author of two books on military strategy and history, including Killing the Enemy! Assassination operations during World War II published by I.B. Tauris.

Header Image: A Fairey Swordfish Mk.I from the Torpedo Training Unit at RAF Gosport drops a practice torpedo during training in the late-1930s. (Source: © IWM (MH 23))

[1] See David Wragg, Swordfish: The Story of the Taranto Raid (London: Cassell, 2003).

[2] Richard P. Hallion, ‘Dress Rehersal for Pearl Harbor?’, HistoryNet.com, August 2008.

[3] Bernard Ireland, Naval Airpower (London: HarperCollins, 2003), pp.117-8.

[4] Jim Winchester (ed.), Aircraft of World War II (Kent: Grange, 2007), p. 87.

[5] John Moffat, I Sank the Bismarck: Memoirs of a Second World War Navy Pilot (London: Bantam, 2009), pp. 226-7.

[6] Winchester (ed.), Aircraft, p. 87

[7] Justin D. Murphy and Matthew A. McNiece, Military Aircraft, 1919-1945 (Oxford: ABC Clio, 2009), p. 212.

 

The Strategic Triangle: The Air Corps Tactical School and Its Vision of Future Warfare

The Strategic Triangle: The Air Corps Tactical School and Its Vision of Future Warfare

By Dr Heather Venable

It is evil to approach war with fixed ideas; that is, without an open and flexible mind, but it is certain to lead to disaster to approach it with the inapplicable formulas of the past.[1]

To the U.S. Army’s Air Corps Tactical School’s (ACTS) Class of 1936, Major Harold George proclaimed, ‘[W]e are not concerned in fighting the past war;–that was done 18 years ago.’[2] Having dismissed much of the value of studying the First World War for insights into air power, George emphatically returned to this theme a few minutes later, reminding his students that they sought to ‘peer down the path of future warfare. We are not discussing the past.’[3] Similarly, Major Muir Fairchild emphasised the problems caused by the ‘lack of well established principles, developed from past experience, to guide the air force commander.’[4] Suggesting that little of value could be derived from a study of the First World War, it is no wonder that one monograph focusing on the impetus for the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces’ strategic bombardment campaign of the Second World War highlighted the inter-war period as a source of problematic thinking. Tami Davis Biddle’s Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare has stressed the ACTS motto as fittingly emblematic of its institutional culture: ‘we progress unhindered by tradition.’[5]

A_Concise_History_of_the_U.S._Air_Force_Page_14-1
Austin Hall at Maxwell AFB. Austin Hall was the home of the Air Corps Tactical School before the Second World War. (Source: Wikimedia)

Paradoxically, however, ACTS instructors struggled not to mine the First World War for historical lessons. Fairchild spent almost one-tenth of his lecture reading from the British official history of the First World War in the air, The War in the Air.[6] Similarly, George identified one historical lesson as central to future warfare: Germany had been defeated in the First World War not because its army had surrendered but because its people had crumbled.[7] As Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson explained, it was the ‘collapse of the German nation as a unit’ – largely because the people constituted the ‘weak link’ – that explained the war’s end (emphasis in original). As a result, ACTS ought to focus primarily on targeting civilian morale, albeit indirectly.[8]

Their vision can be modelled in order to depict how ACTS conceived of strategic bombardment and how these ideas changed as they began contemplating how to apply these ideas against Germany in the Second World War. Air War Plans Division (AWPD)-1 and AWPD-42, drafted in July of 1941 and August 1942, respectively, demonstrated important shifts in thinking about air power’s application. Moreover, they presaged a far more tactically minded employment of American air power in the Combined Bomber Offensive than has been recognised generally.[9]

This model draws on a modern interpretation of Carl von Clausewitz’s famous triangle, which is often thought of today as consisting of the following three legs: the government, the people’s passions, and the military.[10] The ACTS model could be depicted as follows: air power is best used at the strategic level to bend the enemy’s will; thus it should focus on affecting an opponent’s government and people because this approach provides the most direct path to achieving one’s desired political ends. A tactical focus on fielded forces, by contrast, is far less desirable because it is fundamentally inefficient. On occasion, however, a focus on the military might have a significant strategic effect. In other cases, an effect on electricity, for example, might have a strategic effect on the government and people as well as a more tactical effect on the military.

Diagram 1 Venable

This thinking went beyond ideas of an ‘industrial web,’ which continue to dominate many scholars’ discussions of ACTS thinking.[11] By zeroing in on the concept of a national structure, ACTS worked to link kinetic effects on industrial targets to the military as well as to the population, thus helping to refresh some aspects of strategic thinking in the wake of the Industrial Revolution – albeit with critical flaws. This thinking can be seen in ten recently published lectures of ACTS edited by and commented upon by Phil Haun. Of the more than 60 lectures presented at ACTS, Haun has identified these ten as representing the school’s ‘most mature thinking’ while reaching the greatest number of officers.[12]

A kind of national structure potentially could make room for a wider array of effects than an industrial web theory could, even if it struggled to make causal links between effects and political ends. By 1936, for example, ACTS envisioned a strategy that targeted the ‘vulnerabilities’ of ‘modern industrial nations’ aimed primarily at one point of the triangle: the people, as reflected in two lectures by George and Captain Haywood Hansell.[13] These lecturers advocated the destruction of carefully selected points in societies to cause ‘moral collapse’ – or effects on the population – as the immediate effect of strategic bombardment. The nation’s ‘will to resist’ was ‘centered in the mass of the people,’ as Hansell explained. Attacks on ‘vital elements upon which modern social life is dependent’ allowed for a focus on an opponent’s will rather than the more circuitous and inefficient focus on its means.[14] Hansell struggled to connect the effect on the people to any ‘express[ion] through political government.’[15] In effect, he wished away the government leg of the triangle. George further reasoned that even if strategic bombardment failed to have the desired effect on the population, it could have a positive effect on the military leg of the triangle due to the abundant material requirements of industrialised warfare.[16]

As such, George’s lecture anticipated a more mature 1939 lecture by Fairchild, which better integrated the effects of selected industrial attacks on two legs: people and the military, with the hope of simultaneously:

[r]educing the capacity for war of the hostile nation, and of applying pressure to the population both at the same time and with equal efficiency and effectiveness.[17]

Fairchild’s carefully parsed assumption about equal effect is dubious; after all, airpower thinkers have been infamous for their promises to be able to quantify the effect. Moreover, again, the government leg of the triangle remains absent. His point that the enablers of industry such as electricity and oil are ‘joined at many vital points’ places these critical aspects within the triangle, thereby potentially affecting each point, at least in theory.[18] Fairchild reasoned regarding the importance of preventing one’s opponent from acquiring key materials, such as petroleum, as well as the transportation system and electricity.[19] Today it is common to describe ACTS as efficiently identifying key industrial bottlenecks, but such a characterisation falls short of Fairchild’s greater vision. He did not seek to attack industry so much as ‘national structure,’ as he described it.[20]

For Fairchild, this vision appealingly provided a convenient shortcut to waging war so common to advocates of strategic attack. The ‘resulting shock effect’ and the ‘degree of facility with which these installations may be destroyed’ lured airmen with the perennial promise of being home by Christmas.[21] In doing so, Fairchild made assumptions emblematic of ACTS thinking by envisioning a kind of paralysis complemented by efficient destruction.[22] These effects allowed the ‘maximum contribution toward the Allied aim in the war at that time,’ unlike what he regarded as a more ineffective and tactical focus on the fielded forces, which airmen viewed as synonymous with slow attrition.[23]

This theory came to life in AWPD-1, hurriedly envisioned over nine days in July of 1941 by former ACTS instructors such as Lieutenant Colonel Harold George, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Walker, Lieutenant Colonel Orvil Anderson, Major Haywood Hansell, Major Laurence Kuter, Major Hoyt Vandenberg, and Major Samuel Anderson. All but one of these officers had attended and/or taught at ACTS. The plan posited 154 targets of strategic attack to be destroyed in six months in the following priority:

  1. Electricity;
  2. Transportation;
  3. Oil;
  4. Aircraft factories;
  5. Aluminium sources;
  6. Magnesium
  7. Air support in joint operations.

In compiling this list, air planners claimed to adhere to the strategic vision of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy’s War Plans ABC-1 and Rainbow 5, which in Europe required an air offensive designed to reduce German air and naval assets and material while preparing for a ground offensive. However, the planners did not set out a traditional air superiority campaign with an array of targets, including airdromes, aeroplanes, and factories. Rather, they adhered to Fairchild’s emphasis on national structure, relegating aeroplane assembly plants – the first hint of an air superiority campaign – to the fourth priority.[24]

The emphasis of ACTS continuing into AWPD-1 is modelled below, showing the split emphasis on the military and the people as two legs of the triangle, with the people receiving the primacy of focus. A plan focused on enablers such as electricity and oil doctrinally targeting national structure represented the most matured form of ACTS thinking, albeit with a problematic hope in the efficacy of strategic attack.

Diagram 2 VenableBy September of 1942, however, this vision underwent a substantial change in focus, as the emphasis shifted down the spectrum toward more tactical means. AWPD-42 prioritised the destruction of the Luftwaffe, albeit still attained primarily through industrial means in the form of attacks against aeroplane and engine factories. Regardless, such a change represented a significant change in thinking away from more general enablers such as electricity to war material itself that had a less immediate effect on society as a whole. Second, the US Army Air Forces needed to concentrate on submarine building yards, before finally turning its attention to transportation in order to sever the ‘vital link in the Germany military and industrial structure.’[25] Electricity, the epitome of a structural target, had dropped from first to fourth place.[26] In effect, AWPD-42 represented a more traditional and tactical focus, designed as it was to interdict material, though admittedly at its source, before seeking to paralyse the economy.[27] The model below reflects this distribution with more emphasis placed on the military rather than the people, as the general trend in thinking shifted toward destroying a military’s ability to meet its material requirements. Production to strike at the enemy’s fielded forces – rather than the dual enablers of the people’s will and military means – received the greatest focus in AWPD-42.

Diagram 3 Venable

The notion of a quick and easy path to victory through strategic attack proved a chimaera, as it has so often in history. Germany responded to attacks against its aircraft factories, for example, by dispersing them.[28] It also fully mobilised its economy in 1944, although it could do only so much to make up for poor strategic choices. Germany had a price to pay in reduced efficiency; but so too did the Allies in terms of the very kind of attrition that they sought to avoid in the first place. It was not enough to wage an air superiority campaign against factories. German fighters and American fighters and bombers battled each other well into 1945, especially during the Battle of the Bulge.[29]

Modelling and parsing out how ACTS envisioned strategic bombardment provides a historical case study in conceptualising strategic attack and changes in thinking over time. Doctrinally, the US Air Force continues to insist that air power used in strategic attack has the ‘potential to achieve decisive effects more directly without the need to engage enemy fielded forces.’ It cited several operations over the last 50 years in which the Air Force denied its opponents

[a]ccess to critical resources and infrastructure, defeat[ed] enemy strategies, and decisively influence[d] the enemy to end hostilities on terms favorable to US interests.[30]

Amidst the U.S. military’s reemphasis on great power conflict, it is useful to return to the fundamentals to consider how, exactly, a strategic attack might help to achieve its desired ends through a focus on the military, the people, and the government.

Dr Heather Venable is an Assistant Professor of Military and Security Studies at the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She has written a forthcoming book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918.

Header Image: A Boeing Y1B-17A in flight near Mount Rainier in Washington state, c. 1938. (Wikimedia)

[1] Quoted in Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Phil Haun (ed. and commentator), Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2019), p. 71.

[2] Major Harold George, ‘An Inquiry into the Subject ‘War” in Haun, Lectures, p. 35.

[3] George, ‘Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 37.

[4] Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 48. For another similar lecture opening, see Captain Haywood Hansell, ‘The Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 73. This same tension between rejecting history yet almost immediately jumping to a discussion of historical examples can be seen in Major Frederick Hopkins, ‘Tactical Offense and Tactical Defense’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 100-8. Hopkins also sought relevant lessons from the Spanish Civil War, for which Biddle has argued some airmen were too dogmatic to do. See Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 171.

[5] Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, p. 138.

[6] Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 52-4.

[7] George, ‘Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 40-1. George even concluded his lecture by returning to this theme. Ibid., p. 44. Also see Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 62 and Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 144. Also see Haun, ‘Introduction’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 8.

[8] Major Muir Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 140. Of course, one’s intent can differ from one’s effects, as occurred in the Second World War due to bad weather and the challenges of precision bombing. For this ethical discussion, see Douglas P. Lackey, ‘The Bombing Campaign: The USAAF’ in Igor Primoratz (ed.), The Bombing of German Cities in World War II (New York: Berghan Books, 2010), pp. 39-59.  Even with precision, indirect effects on civilians can be highly problematic. See Daniel T. Kuehl, ‘Airpower vs. Electricity: Electric Power as a Target for Strategic Air Operations,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 18:1 (1995), pp. 237-266.  

[9] See, for example, Heather Venable, ‘The Strategic Bombardment Campaign that Wasn’t? The Army Air Forces in the European Theater of Operations, 1942-1945,’ The Strategy Bridge, 6 May 2019.

[10] For background on how those ideas are improperly attributed to Clausewitz, see Christopher Bassford and Edward J. Villacres, ‘Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity.’ By contrast, Clausewitz himself set out elements of emotion, chance, and reason. See Christopher Bassford, ‘Teaching the Clausewitzian Trinity.’

[11] For this characterisation of an ‘industrial web theory,’ for example, see Scott D. West, ‘Warden and the Air Corps Tactical School: Déjà Vu’ (Thesis, School of Advanced Airpower Studies, 1999), p. v and 1.

[12] Haun, Lectures, p. xv.

[13] George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43.

[14] Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 78, 81 and 84. Even as Hansell insisted this was the ‘primary strategic objective’ of Air Forces, he did not make this link for navies’ ability to blockade, instead taking the more Mahanian view that the primary role of the Navy was to destroy other navies. In this way, he highlighted his bias for air power as offering unique shortcuts. Ibid., p. 84.

[15] Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 77.

[16] George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43. Fairchild similarly highlighted the importance of this military capacity. See Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 188-9.

[17] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 143.

[18] Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 189.

[19] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 152-7.

[20] Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 182.

[21] Ibid., p. 185.

[22] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166.

[23] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166. For the very rare recognition that ground operations occasionally could be decisive, see Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces,’ p. 186.

[24] ‘Appendix 2: AWPD-1’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 232-3.

[25] ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 258.

[26] ‘Appendix 1 – Trenchard Memo,’ p. 232 and ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42,’ p. 258 in Haun, Lectures.

[27] While highlighting the more overt focus on supporting an invasion, Robert Futrell argued that the ‘strategic philosophy of the two studies was virtually the same.’ See Robert Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1989), p. 131. For a discussion of strategic interdiction as compared to operational interdiction, see Robert Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 75.

[28] Haun, Lectures, p. 3.

[29] See Danny S. Parker, To Win the Winter Sky: The Air War over the Ardennes, 1944-1945 (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1994), pp. 248-305.

[30] Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, Annex 3-70 Strategic Attack, ‘Fundamentals of Strategic Attack,’ last reviewed 25 May 2017.

Royal Air Force ‘wings’ Brevets in Second World War Propaganda

Royal Air Force ‘wings’ Brevets in Second World War Propaganda

By Liam Barnsdale

The Royal Air Force (RAF) has used various ‘wings’ brevets as identifying symbols for aircrew since its formation, with hotly-contested political debates within the service over their symbolic value dating back to the time of their introduction by the Royal Flying Corps.[1] However, it was during the Second World War that – thanks to the RAF’s actions and resulting fame – the recognition of the insignia was catapulted beyond military circles into the wider public. Much of this recognition is either evidenced in the products, or due to the efforts, of Britain’s propagandists, who frequently included the ‘wings’ brevets in their material. Although an intrinsic component of RAF aviators’ uniforms, ‘wings’ brevets were frequently depicted independently from their associated clothing sets. Indeed, their recognition often transcended the uniforms to which they were irrevocably attached in reality — virtually every piece of uniform, insignia, and flying equipment featured in aviators’ propaganda representations. However, the ‘wings’ brevets were foremost among these symbols, coming to represent not just individual aviators, but the service as a whole.

INS 7330
An example of a pilot’s ‘wings’ brevet as used during the Second World War. (Source: © IWM (INS 7330))

Following the traditions of the RFC, the RAF recognised individual aircrew roles through brevet patches worn on the service dress and war service dress jackets’ left breast. These took the form of either two outstretched bird’s wings for a pilot or a single wing denoting non-pilot roles in multi-person aircraft. Both forms of brevet were embroidered in white silk for the wings, and bronze silk for the laurels from which they emanated. Contained within these laurels were white letters indicating the wearer’s service in the case of pilots or their role in acronym form for non-pilots. Named for their shape, ‘wings’ brevets received a modicum of public recognition before the Second World War, evidenced by their appearances in popular culture, including Thomas Somerfield likening them to RAF officers’ moustaches in Punch, August 1918. Depicting two aviators, one with a full handlebar moustache and the other with similar facial hair on only the left half of his top lip, Somerfield quipped that:

The growth of decorations, badges and honorific chevrons makes it advisable that fresh space should be found for them. Mr. Punch recommends the above method of distinguishing between an observer and a pilot.[2]

Although this reference to the brevet’s form indicated public knowledge of the insignia, it was during the Second World War that the brevet became truly famous within the British public consciousness.

INS 7331
The Air Gunner ‘wings’ that were introduced in December 1939. (Source: © IWM (INS 4909))

During the Second World War, a wider variety of ‘wings’ brevets specific to aircrew roles were produced, and their symbolic value increased exponentially, thanks in part to their promotion by the Air Ministry. With the increasing size of bombers, the typical aircrew was no longer simply a pilot and his observer. The new heavy four-engined bombers required a large and diverse range of crewmembers, each with their specially trained skillset and therefore deserving of recognition through their unique brevet. The new ‘wings’, modelled on the earlier observer’s brevet, were individually introduced throughout the war, beginning with the Air Gunner’s in December 1939 and ending with Meteorological Officer, signified by an ‘M’, in April 1945.[3] In many cases, their introduction was announced to the public in newspaper articles, with The Times publishing an article on the Air Gunner brevet’s introduction, complete with information on the wearers’ qualifications, the brevet’s construction, and accompanying photograph.[4]

The ‘wings’ brevets’ promotion was highly effective, leading to them gaining widespread public recognition. Roald Dahl, at this time an RAF fighter pilot, recalled two incidents in his memoir Going Solo in which the ‘wings’ on his jacket acted as ‘a great passport’ in London during 1941, both occurring during the same night.[5] The first instance was impressing a hotel owner into using her telephone; the second was deterring a group of ‘drunken soldiers […] searching for an officer to beat up.’[6] Dahl attributed this recognition to the publicising of fighter and bomber pilots’ activities, and the brevity of his short explanation implies that the brevet’s significance was indeed common knowledge in wartime Britain.[7] By contrast, Flying Officer James Storrar, a Hawker Hurricane pilot during the Battle of Britain, wrote to his mother about the amusement he felt at the reactions he received from non-RAF personnel while on leave in London. Upon his appearance at the Euston Hotel, Storrar wrote that ‘Army Captains look upon my dirty tunic & hat […] with disgust and two waiters titter about something in my dress.’[8] However, it was ‘honestly amusing to meet people and be introduced as a fighter pilot, the different reactions are amazing.’[9] Accordingly, the appearance of RAF aviators’ uniforms and the visibility of their ‘wings’ brevet significantly influenced their reception by the British public. While smartly dressed pilots with visible ‘wings’ brevets, such as Dahl, received positive reactions from the public, those whose dress was too untidy for identification as pilots received derision and scorn.

PST 4095
While appearing chauvanistic by modern standard, this poster was typical of those used during the Second World War. It was created in 1941 by Harold Forster, an artist noted for his illustrations on pre-war Black Magic chocolate boxes. The pilot ‘wing’s are a noticeable feature of this work. (Source: © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4095))

Popular recognition of the pilot’s ‘wings’ brevet is reflected in a variety of propaganda media. These include one of the Air Ministry’s ‘Fly with the RAF’ advertisements published in February 1941, in which it is claimed that ‘you [the reader] know’ RAF pilots ‘by “The Wings” on their tunics.’[10] Further evidence can be found in two posters from the Ministry of Information’s series ‘Keep Mum, She’s Not so dumb!’ In one, an RAF Sergeant is plied for information by his female companion, with the ‘AG’ on his half-brevet delicately legible despite the rough brushstrokes used throughout the remainder of the artwork.[11] In the second poster, officers of the three services crowd around an elegant woman, the only feature distinguishing the RAF officer from his compatriots being his uniform’s colour and ‘wings’.[12] In both of these instances, great care was taken by the artists to ensure that the ‘wings’ brevets were included in their work, clearly indicating the insignia’s symbolic value, both to Britain’s propagandists and within popular culture.

The ‘wings’ brevet also appeared frequently in commercial advertisements. Two Cardinals Luxury Coffee included the brevet in their poster featuring a smiling RAF pilot wearing service dress with visible ‘wings’ brevet.[13] By associating the brand with the heroic defenders of the realm, whose ambassador is identified only by his insignia, the audience is assured of the product’s quality. A similar use of the brevet for ‘authenticating’ a product can be found in newspaper advertisements for Fighter Pilot, Paul Richey’s anonymous Battle of France memoir.[14] First editions of Richey’s book also sported the fêted insignia on its otherwise-image-deprived cover.[15] Other book covers utilising the brevet include Leslie Kark’s novels The Fire Was Bright and Red Rain, both of which used the ‘wings’ as a method of clearly identifying their topics to potential readers.[16] Similarly, the Ministry of Information’s internationally-distributed children’s picture book Britain’s Royal Air Force began beneath a large colour illustration of a pilot’s brevet.[17]

Cinema, however, presented the most prominent recognition of the ‘wings’ brevet’s symbolic power. Although aviation films produced in the war’s formative years merely included the brevet as a part of their actors’ costumes, later films came to place great emphasis on the brevet as a symbol of the characters’ occupation.[18] Exemplifying this is Jack Watling’s character Buster, the RAF fighter pilot briefly included in Carol Reed’s 1944 film The Way Ahead as a token emblem of his service.[19] In every shot depicting the character, his ‘wings’ are clearly visible, continually reminding the audience of his coveted role within his already-glorified service. This careful inclusion is echoed in a brief shot from the Sergeant’s Mess scene in Michael Powell, and Emeric Pressburger’s 1942 Oscar-nominated One of Our Aircraft is Missing wherein the ‘wings’ of the Sergeant pilot leaning against the radio is clearly, but unnecessarily, visible at the bottom of the image.[20] Joseph Lee also utilised this careful framing in his cartoon ‘Smiling Through: Point of View’, published in the Evening News in July 1942. Although the central character’s left arm is raised casually, it is angled just low enough for the artist to include his ‘wings’ in the image.[21] In each of these examples, the characters’ ‘wings’ brevets need not have been included, and their presence; therefore, merely proves their symbolic value to both creators and audience.

The Way Ahead
“Well, shot up a bit…” Buster in The Way Ahead (1944).

A similar reverence is placed upon the ‘wings’ brevet in Anthony Asquith’s 1945 work The Way to the Stars, with the film’s characters wordlessly acknowledging their symbolic value. When encountering John Mills’ character, RAF bomber pilot-turned-controller Peter Penrose, American bomber crewmember Joe Friselli, played by Bonar Colleano, initially took him for a non-flying officer. This assumption is based on Penrose not wearing his War Service Dress jacket and his introducing himself as a controller and “not a flier.”[22] Friselli proceeded to loudly elucidate on his untested expertise in bombing and the qualities of his aircraft. Penrose, meanwhile, took his coat down from the hook on which it was hanging, and Friselli stopped short as he noticed the ‘wings’ brevet just visible to the audience on the jacket’s left breast. Friselli’s tone changed immediately to one of apologetic respect, and humble, yet faintly-dumbfoundedly enquired into Penrose’s experience as a pilot.[23] The brief interaction between Friselli and Penrose was aimed to bring a form of Schadenfreude to the British public, playing on their widespread irritation with the ‘over-paid, over-sexed and over here’ American servicemen based in their country. However, the scene also proves the brevet’s power as a symbol independent of the RAF’s uniform, for unlike Buster’s The Way Ahead, Penrose’s ‘wings’ remain either out-of-focus or partially obscured throughout the scene. Regardless, instant audience recognition is expected of Friselli’s wordless indication to the brevet’s location, just as the brevet’s significance goes unexplained yet remains pivotal to the dialogue.

While incidental inclusions such as these in both film and print were common, the Royal Air Force Film Production Unit went one step further. Under the direction of John Boulting, the Unit’s 1945 film Journey Together dug into the perceived elitism of pilots and dedicated the entire film to promoting the value of non-pilot aircrew, with particular emphasis on the role of navigator. The film tells the story of two fictional RAF trainees, David Wilton and John Ayneswoth played by Richard Attenborough and Jack Watling respectively, both hoping to become pilots. Wilton failed in his endeavour and instead became a navigator, while Ayneswoth achieved his goal, much to the envy of Wilton, until both came to cooperate and accept the equal importance of navigator and pilot. Wilton’s initial envy is communicated most effectively in a mostly non-verbal scene in a Canadian hotel bar, where Aynesorth took off his greatcoat to expose the new ‘wings’ on his service dress. After a moment of tense silence, Wilton showed his support for Aynesworth’s achievement by offering to brush his wings to reduce their dazzle.[24] Throughout this brief but tense scene, the brevet dominated as the object of conversation, both spoken and unspoken, with great emphasis placed on its coveted status and symbolism.

From their repeated use in multiple media formats to identify and promote aviators, the RAF’s ‘wings’ brevets held significant symbolic value within British Second World War society. Be it through intimation of their elite status in cinema, or their inclusion as a service-identifying emblem in printed material, brevets were repeatedly used without accompanying explanation of their meaning, with audiences expected to both recognise them and appreciate the qualifications and accompanying heroic traits they represented. There is limited evidence to support any claim that the insignia was indeed widely-recognised by the British public, and any claim that recognition of ‘wings’ brevets was universal would be almost impossible to prove. However, the material examined in this article indicates that the Air Ministry and Ministry of Information believed public recognition of ‘wings’ brevets to be sufficient to make explanation unnecessary. If their assumptions were correct, which could be argued based on these agencies’ access to public opinion polling, this would indicate that the brevets’ fame was deeply embedded in the British public consciousness, well beyond its earlier and later boundaries within the service. This fame, founded in the propagandised efforts of the RAF, merely exacerbated the ministries’ ability to use them as a propaganda tool to further promote the service. Therefore, RAF ‘wings’ brevets exemplified not only the power of the symbols in wartime propaganda but the reciprocal interaction between propaganda and public opinion, each of which influences the other. Public knowledge of the brevets was due to its use in propaganda, and its use in propaganda was based on expected public knowledge. Regardless of the origins of their fame, the innumerable representations of RAF ‘wings’ brevets in British Second World War propaganda indicated their popularity among the contemporary British public.

Liam Barnsdale has recently completed his Master of Arts thesis at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. His thesis, titled ‘‘The sort of man’: Politics, Clothing and Characteristics in British Propaganda depictions of Royal Air Force Aviators, 1939-1945′, examines depictions of RAF personnel in multiple media during the Second World War, identifying and analysing the symbols and characteristics systematically used in these depictions.

Header Image: Wing Commander Guy Gibson, OC No. 617 Squadron, with members of his crew. Left to right: Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar; Pilot Officer P.M. Spafford, bomb aimer; Flight Lieutenant R.E.G. Hutchinson, wireless operator; Pilot Officer G.A. Deering and Flying Officer H.T. Taerum, gunners. Prominent in this picture are the various ‘wings’ worn by the members of the crew. (Source: © IWM (TR 1127))

[1] For further discussion of this historical debate, see C.G. Jefford, Observers and Navigators: And Other Non-Pilot Aircrew Roles in the RFC, RNAS and RAF, Revised Edition (London: Grub Street, 2014), pp. 61, 81, 257.

[2] Thomas Somerfield, ‘The Growth of Decorations…’, Punch, 21 August 1918, p. 124.

[3] Andrew Cormack, The Royal Air Force 1939-45 (London: Osprey Publishing, 1990), p. 7.

[4] ‘New Badge for Air Gunners,’ The Times, 1940, p. 8.

[5] Roald Dahl, Going Solo (London: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 207.

[6] Ibid., pp. 207, 209.

[7] Ibid., p. 207.

[8] Royal Air Force Museum, London, X005-4835/002, Letter from Flying Officer James to his Mother, c. 1940, p. 2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Air Ministry Information Bureau, ‘Fly with the RAF,’ The Times, 18 February 1941, p. 7.

[11] Imperial War Museum (IWM), Art.IWM PST 13908, ‘Keep Mum – She’s Not So Dumb! – Careless Talk Costs Lives’, 1939-1945.

[12] IWM, Art.IWM PST 4095, ‘Keep Mum – She’s Not So Dumb! – Careless Talk Costs Lives.’

[13] Museum of Brands, Two Cardinals Coffee, ‘Two Cardinals Luxury Coffee is Delicious’, 1939-1945.

[14] ‘Fighter Pilot,’ The Times, 30 August 1941, p. 2

[15] Paul Richie, Fighter Pilot, Fourth Edition (London: B.T. Batsford, 1941), cover.

[16] Leslie Kark, The Fire was Bright (London: Macmillan, 1943), cover; Leslie Kark, Red Rain (London: Macmillan, 1945), cover.

[17] Anonymous, Britain’s Royal Air Force (London: Ministry of Information, 1943), p. 1.

[18] See Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst & Adrian Brunel, The Lion Has Wings (London Films, 1939) as an example of early-war aviation propaganda, in which little to no emphasis is placed upon the pilot’s ‘wings’ on the two lead actors’ uniforms.

[19] Carol Reed, The Way Ahead (Two Cities Films, 1944).

[20] Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, One of Our Aircraft is Missing (The Archers, 1942).

[21] Joseph Lee, ‘Smiling Through: Point of View,’ Evening News, 14 July 1942.

[22] Anthony Asquith, The Way to the Stars (Two Cities Films, 1945).

[23] Ibid.

[24] John Boulting, Journey Together (Royal Air Force Film Production Unit, 1945).

Attacking Refugees for Military Effect during the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive

Attacking Refugees for Military Effect during the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive

By Dr Luke Truxal

Allied air campaigns against Axis petroleum have dominated the discussion of the bombing of Romania during the Second World War. Less exists in the current scholarship regarding assaults on targets other than oil such as attacks against railways, airfields, and the aerial mining of the Danube River.[1] One aspect of the American bombing campaign against Romania that has not received enough attention is the attacks against Romanian refugees during the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive from 8 April to 6 June 1944. In the spring of 1944, the Allies realised that exploiting the Romanian refugee crisis aided the Red Army’s advance into the Balkans. As a result, the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces (MAAF), under the command of Lieutenant General Ira Eaker, identified a series of crucial transportation targets that had the greatest potential to inflame the refugee crisis. Throughout April and May of 1944, the MAAF bombed key transportation targets that included rail stations and bridges to prevent refugees from escaping Romania. The Allies hoped the influx of refugees would impede the movement of Axis forces and supplies to the front lines throughout the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive. While further research is needed to ascertain the full effects of the bombing on refugee targets, preliminary evidence shows that attacks succeeded. For example, during the Second Iasi-Kishinev on 20 August 1944, Romanian troops had to use the roads to retreat because rail centres could not handle civilian and military rail traffic.[2] This indicated that at some level, the attacks against Romanian refugees had the desired effect.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-J24359,_Rumänien,_Kolonne_von_Panzer_V_(Panther).2
Vehicles and Panther tanks of the German Grossdeutschland division in Romania, c. April 1944. (Source: Wikimedia)

On 8 April 1944 the Red Army’s Second Ukrainian Front, under the command of Field Marshal Ivan Konev, advanced towards Iasi, Romania. Soviet forces encountered the Romanian Fourth Army and the German Eighth Army under the command of General Mikhail Racovita and Field Marshal Otto Wöehler. Initially, the Russians gained ground at Tirgu Frumos, but a German counterattack repulsed the Soviet advance. Konev tried to resume his offensive with an attack on Podu Iloaie, but his forces were once again stalled by a desperate defence made by the Axis forces. At this point, Konev directed his left wing forward toward the city of Kishinev, which was defended by the German Sixth Army under the command of Field Marshal Karl-Adolf Hollidt. The fighting around Kishinev, much like the fighting around Iasi, saw limited Soviet success and ended with a well-coordinated German counterattack that repulsed the Soviets.[3]

As the military situation on the Eastern Front deteriorated for Axis forces, refugees flooded into the interior of Romania as they fled the advance of the Red Army. The Soviets posed a significant threat to Axis civilians living in Romania: in 1945, they deported 70,000 to 97,762 people living in Romania into forced labour camps.[4] The majority of the refugees were Romanians fleeing the Soviet advance in Moldova and Bessarabia. In early April 1944, the Romanian Fourth Army retreated into Moldova. Roads became crowded with refugees who fled the advance of the Red Army, which impeded the retreat of the Romanian Fourth Army. Additionally, Racovita encouraged civilians within six kilometres of his sector to evacuate.[5] In Bessarabia alone, 82,580 Romanians fled the oncoming Soviet advance during the spring of 1944.[6] This created a flood of refugees that placed strain on Prime Minister Ion Antonescu’s fascist government.

Supporting the Soviets

The Second Ukrainian Front’s advance toward Bessarabia provided the MAAF with the chance to assist the Soviets. On 21 March 1944 the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, informed the commander of the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe, Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz, that bombing Bucharest must become a top priority in light of the reports of the deterioration of the Romanian rail system.[7] The following day, Portal notified Spaatz that he was authorised to bomb the rail lines at Ploesti only. Furthermore, Portal emphasised that attacks should focus on transportation target because the Soviets had advanced into Romania.[8] On 23 March, Spaatz told the commander of the United States Army Air Forces, General Henry H. Arnold, that he intended to prioritise air attacks on Romania soon. He said:

It is of crucial importance to the situation on the Eastern Front and in Romania to act immediately and in the fullest possible strength with the Fifteenth Air Force.

He also informed Arnold that he planned to attack Ploesti and Bucharest as soon as the weather cleared.[9] On 25 March, Portal communicated orders to Spaatz and the Supreme Commander Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Field Marshal Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, that instructed them to attack – at the earliest available opportunity – the Bucharest railway centre, Sofia, and other towns in Bulgaria. Spaatz inquired about using this as an opportunity to attack Romanian oil but was rebuffed.[10]

The First Attack

On 4 April 1944, the Americans attacked the Bucharest main railway station dropping 863 tons of explosives on the target area. The raid resulted in the deaths of refugees from northern Moldova. Mihail Sebastian wrote in his diary on 8 April 1944:

From the railroad station to Basarab Boulevard, no house was left unscathed. The view was harrowing […] I couldn’t get beyond Basarab, I went back home with a feeling of disgust, horror and powerlessness.[11]

Conductor Emanuel Elenescu recalled:

A tram still standing was leaning against a house, and the rail was bent. All the dead people were untouched by the bombs, all died from the shock wave.[12]

On 5 April 1944, American strategic bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force struck the Ploesti marshalling yards that serviced key lines into Moldova. The field order itself stated:

The Ploesti [Marshaling Yard] is a key point in rail lines to Moldova. Current tactical situation on Russian Front makes this target an important and active communications center for the Germany Army.[13]

The two attacks resulted in 7,600 dead, 7,600 injured, and the destruction of 46,523 homes. The bombing affected many Romanian officers who were given leave to care for their families.[14]

Exploitation

Shortly after the bombing, Allied air leaders sought to exploit the attacks on Romanian rail and refugees. Spaatz revealed to the commander of the MAAF, Eaker, on 6 April 1944 that he felt ‘it of utmost importance that these attacks be continued to attempt complete interruption of rail traffic.’[15] On 11 April Portal sent a message to Spaatz and Wilson detailing the prospect of attacking refugees to aid the Soviet advance. He wrote:

[The] Russian advance into Roumania has created [a] chaotic refugee movement south-westwards […] Maximum possible bombing effort in the Balkans until further notice should be concentrated on Roumania, where German military position weakest, German economic interests greatest and the Government most shaken.[16]

Romanian civilians and Axis refugees now represented a secondary target that the Allies were willing to exploit.

On 24 April 1944, the MAAF produced a paper outlining the potential targets of an infrastructure bombing campaign against Romania. Along with an in-depth analysis of the military effects of the bombing, the paper pointed to the benefits of targeting civilian rail lines to aggravate the ongoing domestic problems within Romania.  Group Captain J.C.E. Luard, who wrote the analysis, argued attacking civilian rail lines placed increase pressure on Romania, which might knock the key German ally out of the war. Luard argued that attacks against civilian rail had the most significant potential for creating unrest in Romania. He argued that:

[t]heir destruction or damage leads to the dislocation of internal distribution of food, fuel, and other essentials for the civilian population.[17]

Slowing the Axis forces’ ability to supply their frontline troops in Bessarabia and the ensuing panic of civilians represented Luard’s defence for centring on civilian and refugee targets. Ultimately, he hoped to force Romania, a key German ally, out of the war.

Luard stressed that the strike on rail stations and bridges should focus on those transportation centres leading westward out of Bucharest to hinder the flight of the refugees. He gave the Bucharest rail centres the highest priority for American bombers. Aside from the military impact, Luard argued that bombing caused internal unrest. He noted that there was:

[c]onfusion created during a recent raid at the Bucharest North Station by the presence of crowds of refugees from Bessarabia and Transnistria awaiting trains to the west.[18]

In addition to Bucharest, Luard listed Craiova as a priority target due to the refugees that flowed through the city. Luard assessed that refugees from Bessarabia were being evacuated from Bucharest through Craiova. He believed that an attack against Craiova might clog rail traffic in western Romania. [19]

Along with marshalling yards, Luard identified one highway for bombing, Route Three. Route Three connected Bucharest westward to Caransebes, and its destruction had the potential to cause the most significant harm to Axis road traffic entering and exiting Romania. Six bridges were identified as critical targets. According to the report:

[t]he destruction of bridges closer to Bucharest would impede the movement of refugees west and complicate the dispatch of repair supplies from Budapest, Vienna, or Germany.[20]

Both Route Three and the rail lines from Bucharest to Craiova were the primary routes in and out of Romania. Damaging these two means of evacuation meant flooding the country with refugees.

The Air Campaign

For a brief period, the MAAF launched an effective air campaign aimed at bridges, rail lines, and other transportation targets listed in Luard’s planning document. The attacks against the Romanian rail lines were devastating. According to a report compiled by the Romanian General Staff on behalf of the United States Office of Strategic Services after the war, the air attacks against the Romanian rail network and supply lines from 4 April to 18 August 1944, crippled the ability of the Romanians to move troops and equipment throughout the country. During this period the Americans destroyed 157 locomotives, 619 passenger cars, 3,010 cars carrying goods, 1,525 tanker cars, and ten auto motors.[21] Months after the First Iasi-Kishinev, Antonescu warned the Adolf Hitler, of the danger posed by the continued bombardment of his country by the MAAF. On 5 August 1944, Antonescu told Hitler:

We have concluded that if Germany does not give us the possibility to defend ourselves, Romania cannot keep up this position infinitely, because it would [lead] to her total catastrophe.[22]

He also informed Hitler that the attacks against the Romanian infrastructure significantly weakened the Romanian civilian and military transportation network.  By August 1944 follow up attacks after the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive had brought rail and road traffic to a complete standstill.[23]

Bucharest_bombed_April_4,_1944_2
The bombing of Bucharest on 4 April 1944. (Source: Wikimedia)

As the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive subsided, so did the attacks on Romanian military and civilian transportation targets. With the Red Army’s advance stalled, Spaatz received permission to shift the focus of the air war in Romania to oil production facilities. On 10 May 1944, the Soviets told the United States military representative in Moscow Major General John Deane that due to the stabilisation of the Romanian front, they would be more amenable to the resumption of attacks on the Ploesti oil facilities.[24] On 16 May the Soviet emphasised that while they remained open to the Americans launching a strategic air campaign against the Romanian oil refineries, they wanted the Americans to continue their air attacks against the Romanian transportation targets, which included refugees. While much of the bombing during June and July 1944 focused almost entirely on attacks against the refineries, there were occasional moments when the Americans returned to targeting refugees. On 4 July, the 450th Bomb Group of the American Fifteenth Air Force attacked one of the six major railway bridges servicing refugees who were fleeing Bucharest westward at the town of Pitesti. The bridge spanned the Arges River and allowed the trains to move west to Craiova. At 10:17, 23 B-24s of the Fifteenth Air Force dropped 57.5 tons of bombs on the bridge destroying it.[25] Even in the height of the oil offensive against Romania, refugees remained a target.

Conclusion

During April and May 1944, the MAAF conducted an aggressive air campaign against Romania’s infrastructure to support the Soviet Union’s advance into Romania. As the situation in Romania deteriorated, the Allies expanded their bombing campaign to aggravate a refugee crisis inside the country. They hoped that the bombing would both destabilise Romania politically and the refugees themselves might impede Axis rail and motor traffic to the front. American bombers struck rail stations, lines, and bridges used by refugees to flee the Soviet invasion of Romania. While this article highlights the bombing of Romanian refugees during the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive, more research is needed to better grasp the extent and nature of the air attacks against Axis refugees on the Eastern Front.

Considering the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, it is tempting to romanticise the Allied efforts to liberate Europe during the Second World War. While defeating Nazi Germany and its allies were paramount, it does not excuse overlooking actions taken by the Allies that can only be described as war crimes. The Romanian refugees were civilians, not military combatants. Nontheless, the Allies chose to turn them into weapons to achieve a strategic goal: the defeat of Romania. It is important to have a public discourse about all actions taken by the Allies to win the Second World War. Without such a dialogue, future policymakers are likely to make mistakes by examining the Allied experience through the ‘good war’ narrative.

Dr Luke Truxal is an adjunct at Columbia State Community College in Tennessee. He completed his PhD in 2018 from the University of North Texas with his dissertation ‘Command Unity and the Air War Against Germany.’ Luke received the Outstanding Dissertation in Military History award from the University of North Texas. His previous publications include ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network’ in the Spring 2018 issue of Air Power History. He has also written ‘The Politics of Operational Planning: Ira Eaker and the Combined Bomber Offensive in 1943’ in the Journal of Military Aviation History. He can be reached on Twitter at @Luke_Truxal.

Header Image: B-24H-5-CF ‘Dixie Belle’ of the 719th Bomb Squadron, 449th Bomb Group. It was lost on the mission to Bucharest on 4 April 1944. (Source: American Air Museum, Duxford)

[1] For more recent scholarship that covers the bombing of Romania outside the spectrum of oil see Mark Conversino, Fighting with the Soviets: The Failure of Operation FRANTIC, 1944-1945 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997). For an analysis of the MAAF’s attacks against Romanian rail targets and the mining of the Danube see Robert S. Ehlers Jr., The Mediterranean Air War: Air Power and Allied Victory in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2009), p. 364 and pp. 373-7; Conrad Crane, Bombs, Cities, and Civilians: American Air Power Strategy in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1993), pp. 95-8; To date, the best analysis of the attacks against Romanian civilians is Richard Overy, Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 8, 404, 413. For further analysis of attacks against the Romanian infrastructure see Luke Truxal, ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ Air Power History, 65:1 (2018).

[2] Ehlers, The Mediterranean Air War, p. 374.

[3] For a comprehensive history of the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive, see David Glantz, Red Storm Over the Balkans: The Failed Soviet Invasion Spring 1944 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2006), pp. 60-70, 76-100. Glantz is the first historian provide a detailed analysis of the Red Army’s failed first attempt to take Romania. He argued that the history of the campaign was forgotten because of its shortcomings.

[4] For an analysis of the military setbacks that prompted the evacuation see Robert Citino, The Wehrmacht Retreats: The German Campaigns of 1944-1945, (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2017), pp. 303-4; For the numbers of refugees in Romania who were deported after the defection of Romania to the Allies, see Janos Krustof Muradin, ‘The Deportation of Germans from Romania to the Soviet Union in 1944-1945,’ Acta Universtatis Sapientiae, European and Regional Studies, 7 (2015), p. 43.

[5] Citino, The Wehrmacht Retreats, 527-528, 532.

[6] Alesandru Dutu ‘Drama of Bessarabian and Bucovinian Romanian Refugees,’ Alesandrudutu.wordpress.com, 7 July 2017.

[7] Library of Congress (LoC), Personal Papers of General Carl Spaatz, Air Ministry to USSAFE and AFHQ Algiers, 21 March 1944.

[8] LoC, Spaatz Papers, Air Ministry to MAAF and USSTAF, 22 March 1944.

[9] LoC, Spaatz Papers, Carl Spaatz to Henry Arnold, 23 March 1944.

[10] LoC, Spaatz Papers, Air Ministry to USSTAF and AFHQ Algiers, 25 March 1944.

[11] For tonnage of bombs, see Combined Arms Research Library, Technical Subcommittee on Axis Oil, ‘Oil as a factor in the German war effort, 1933-1945,’ p. 173. For first-hand accounts of those who survived the bombing, see Steliu Lambru, ‘The Bombing of Bucharest in April 1944,’ Radio România Internaţional, 29 April 2013.

[12] Lambru, ‘The Bombing of Bucharest.’

[13] Jay A. Stout, Fortress Ploesti: The Campaign to Destroy Hitler’s Oil (Havertown, PA: Casemate Publishing), PP. 99-102.

[14] Grant Harward, ‘Holy War: The Romanian Army, Motivation, and the Holocaust, 1941-1944’ (PhD Thesis, Texas A&M University, 2018), pp. 533-4.

[15] LoC, Personal Papers of General Ira Eaker, Ira Eaker to Nathan Twining, 6 April 1944. See also Luke Truxal, ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ p. 15.

[16] LoC, Spaatz Papers, Charles Portal for Henry Maitland Wilson and Carl Spaatz, 11 April 1944.

[17] LoC, Spaatz Papers, Group Captain J.C.E Luard, ‘The Balkan-Situation-Possibilities of Air Attack,’ 24 April 1944, p. 2.

[18] Ibid, p. 7. The mission that Luard referenced was the 4 April 1944 attack on the Bucharest rail stations.

[19] Ibid, p. 8.

[20] Ibid, p. 9.

[21] Truxal, ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ p. 19.

[22] Dinu C. Giurescu, Romania in the Second World War (1939-1945), translated by Eugenia Elena Popescu (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), p. 133; See also Truxal, ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ p. 20.

[23] Citino, The Wehrmacht Retreats, p. 310.

[24] LoC, Spaatz Papers, John Deane to Spaatz, 10 May 1944.

[25] For the military intelligence analysis of the importance of the Pitesti bridge in relation to refugees see Luard, ‘The Balkan-Situation-Possibilities of Air Attack,’ p. 9; For a brief mission summary of the attack against the Pitesti bridge see 450th Bomb Group Memorial Association, S-2 Reports, ‘Mission Date: 4 July 1944, Mission NBR. 96.’

Royal Air Force Shoulder Patches as a Propaganda Tool during the Second World War

Royal Air Force Shoulder Patches as a Propaganda Tool during the Second World War

By Liam Barnsdale

As a means of acknowledging its increasingly diverse composition, the Royal Air Force (RAF) introduced shoulder patches to its uniforms during the Second World War. These small pieces of cloth, varying widely in construction, not only identified the wearer’s nationality to the viewer, but highlighted the contributions of non-British personnel to the service, and thereby the international scale of the broader conflict. Although Commonwealth aviators had made significant contributions to the RAF’s numbers since its foundation, the service’s diversity was further compounded during the Second World War by an influx of exiled aviators from continental Europe and volunteers from neutral countries such as Ireland and the United States. While many occupied nations’ air arms retained their administrative independence from the RAF, all, save for the Free French, adopted the RAF’s uniform as their own.[1]

Shoulder Patch
A New Zealand shoulder patch on an RAF service dress. (Source: Author’s collection)

Many adapted their uniforms to reflect their original services by altering insignia, such as replacing the RAF’s ‘wings’ brevet with their own air forces’ brevets, or dying their uniforms a darker shade of blue, as Australian aviators did. Despite their differences, however, all adopted the RAF’s shoulder patches as a part of their varying insignia, sewing them just below the shoulder seams of their Service Dress uniform jackets, in a similar fashion to the British Army’s regimental insignia. Their introduction was often at the request of the RAF. Produced for all major nationality groups serving in the RAF, the patches presented the wearer’s original service, such as the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), or home country either in full, or in acronym, stitched in light blue or white thread on dark blue or black cloth. Introduced at intermittent stages across the conflict’s duration, the patches came in a wide range of shapes and sizes, from single-line titles to the comparatively ostentatious insignia worn by American Eagle Squadron pilots. Regardless of their format, however, all patches made the wearer’s nationality abundantly clear.

Even in the case of the Eagle Squadron patch, omitting written reference to the United States, it nonetheless clearly communicated national identity through a large embroidered replication of the country’s national symbol. Despite their innocuous size, RAF personnel attached great sentimental value to their shoulder patches. Wing Commander ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, the British commander of Canadian No. 144 Wing from 1943 to 1945, was presented a pair by Leslie ‘Syd’ Ford, one of the Wing’s Squadron Leaders, after his first operation with the unit. Johnson recalled Ford stating that ‘the boys would like you to wear these. After all, we’re a Canadian wing and we’ve got to convert you.’[2] This action’s ‘deep significance’ to Johnson reflects the shoulder patches’ extended symbolism beyond that of personal identity, for Johnson was not Canadian, to one of inclusivity and group identity.[3]

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Squadron Leader William Taylor of No. 71 Squadron  RAF (Source: IWM)

Thanks to the Ministry of Information’s (MoI) interest in promoting international support for Britain, particularly before the United States’ entry into the conflict, RAF shoulder patches were frequently included in British domestic propaganda. Among the various media to feature them were newspaper articles, with international airmen serving in the RAF frequently promoted through photographs of specific individuals and their insignia. Exemplifying this is a small pictorial Times article on Squadron Leader William Taylor, ‘the fighting commanding officer of the new R.A.F. Fighter squadron with all American pilots’, in which Taylor is posed side-on to the camera, compelling the audience to notice and recognise his prominent Eagle Squadron patch.[4] Shoulder patches also appear in numerous MoI posters, one example being ‘King George VI Meets Pilots of Fighter Command’ from the ministry’s ‘For Freedom’ series, in which a New Zealand pilot, identifiable by his camera-facing shoulder patch, appears in the centre of the poster’s illustration.[5] In many cases, propagandised aviators appeared as anonymous members of a group, appearing only in close-up shots of their shoulder patches. The November 1943 British Movietone News newsreel story ‘Battle of Berlin – New Phase Opens’ exemplifies this phenomena, dedicating eight seconds of its length to a succession of shots showing the shoulders of a Canadian Air Bomber, an Australian Air Gunner, a New Zealand Navigator, and a Rhodesian Sergeant, each shot excluding the subjects’ faces.[6]

Other stories utilising aviators’ shoulder patches include those covering the influx of immigrant RAF personnel from Empire Air Training Scheme, often before their allocation to nationally-specific units. The October 1941 British Movietone newsreel story ‘King and Queen with Empire Airmen’ exemplifies this theme.[7] As its title suggests, the story, also covered by Pathé Gazette under the title ‘Their Majesties and Airmen from Overseas’, shows King George VI and Queen Elizabeth inspecting foreign RAF personnel newly-arrived in Britain.[8] Most of the segment’s one-minute length is dedicated to a sequence of shots focusing on selected personnel’s shoulder patches. Aviators from Canada, Singapore, South Africa, the USA, New Zealand and Rhodesia receive the camera’s attention in turn, with their identifying shoulder patches appearing in each shot’s centre, often, as in ‘Battle of Berlin’, at the expense of their owners’ faces.

Originally intended as a political concession to overseas governments’ requests for increased autonomy within the RAF, the shoulder patch’s frequent centre-stage appearances reveal that its symbolic value extended beyond its simple cloth constitution. By focusing solely on the unnamed aviators’ shoulder patches, both ‘Battle of Berlin – New Phase Opens’ and ‘King and Queen with Empire Airmen’ eschew all of their subjects’ characteristics save for their nationalities, depicting them as simply their nations’ de facto ambassadors. Commonwealth military historians such as Jeffrey Grey have criticised their nations’ ‘disastrous’ ‘surrender’ of aviators to the RAF under the Empire Air Training Scheme and the subsequent reduction of Commonwealth air arms to ‘training organisation[s] for the RAF’.[9] Similar disdain was voiced by Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, who opined that:

[a]n ordinary mixed British crew from all parts of the British Isles […] is much better disciplined and certainly better educated than the average colonial and dominion crew.[10]

However, the frequent appearances of the commonwealth and overseas aviators and their national insignia in British domestic propaganda indicate that their value extended beyond strategy and aided significantly in the MoI’s emphasising of the international support for Britain’s war effort.

Liam Barnsdale has recently completed his Master of Arts thesis at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. His thesis, titled ‘‘The sort of man’: Politics, Clothing and Characteristics in British Propaganda depictions of Royal Air Force Aviators, 1939-1945′, examines depictions of RAF personnel in multiple media during the Second World War, identifying and analysing the symbols and characteristics systematically used in these depictions.

Header Image: Airmen from all parts of the world who took part in the Dieppe Raid in front of the Hurricane ‘Urundi’ of No. 43 Squadron at RAF Tangmere, 20 August 1942. From left to right – Pilot Officer Andrzej Malarowski of No. 317 Polish Fighter Squadron, pilots from Australia, Gold Coast, Canada, USA and New Zealand. (Source: © IWM (HU 128191))

[1] Andrew Cormack, The Royal Air Force 1939-45 (London: Osprey Publishing, 1990), p. 19.

[2] Leslie Ford in J.E. Johnson, Wing Leader (London: The Reprint Society, 1958), p. 163.

[3] Johnson, Wing Leader.

[4] ‘Squadron-Leader W.E.G. Taylor’ in ‘The Prime Minister’s Son Enters Parliament,’ The Times, 9 October 1940, p. 6.

[5] Air Force Museum of New Zealand, Ref. No. 2017/131.7, ‘King George VI Meets Pilots of Fighter Command’, 1942-1945.

[6] ‘Battle of Berlin – New Phase Opens’, British Movietone News, 29 November 1943.

[7] ‘King and Queen With Empire Airmen’, British Movietone News, 30 October 1941.

[8] ‘Their Majesties and Airmen from Overseas’, Pathé, 30 October 1941.

[9] Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, Third Edition (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 150-151.

[10] Arthur Harris, Bomber Offensive (London: Collins, 1947), p. 64.

#BookReview – Be Bold

#BookReview – Be Bold

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Rosier with David Rosier, Be Bold. London: Grub Street, 2011. Hbk. 256pp.

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Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Rosier had a long and distinguished career in the Royal Air Force (RAF). Granted a short service commission in 1935 (p. 19), he was the last Air Officer Commander-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) of RAF Fighter Command before it merged with Bomber Command in 1968 to form Strike Command. This autobiography, written with his son David who finished it after his father’s death in 1998 (p. 10), highlights many interesting facets of service in the RAF during two pivotal events in twentieth-century history; the Second World War and the Cold War. Concerning the former, this book gives us a view from a rising junior officer who served in both frontline and staff positions during the Second World War. Regarding the latter, we have a view of the Cold War and its threats from the perspective of an officer rising to senior command. As such, it illustrates many of the challenges and ambiguities associated with senior leadership.

The genres of autobiographies and memoirs and the associated field of biography remain an ever popular and vital element of military history. While it is often easy to criticise biographers of hagiography and autobiographers of viewing the past through the prism of hindsight, they do offer valuable insight to the past. Indeed, biographies and memoirs/autobiographies are arguably the most commercially viable method of making military history accessible to wider audiences. Additionally, biographies and memoirs/autobiographies are an essential source for historians seeking to understand the period they study. More specifically, with regards to the RAF, there are too few accounts either by or about senior officers who served during the Cold War period. Indeed, for officers who served during the Cold War, we are unlikely to see the type of voluminous personal papers that we see with such former senior officers as Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Trenchard and Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten. As such, it has become more critical that the service experience of these men be recorded. In this vein, memoirs and autobiographies offer a useful adjunct to the historians’ toolkit as they, just like oral history, can offer a personal view on many of the events that we read about in official archival sources. Thus, Rosier’s account is much welcomed.

Most interesting for this reviewer is that Rosier’s career offers an insight into his career progression and leadership development in the RAF. Rosier’s career illustrated that it was possible for suitable short service officers to be granted a permanent commission. This had been Trenchard’s expectation when the short service scheme had been established. After the Second World War, and granted a permanent commission, Rosier followed the typical route to senior command with attendance at both the RAF Staff College in 1946 (pp.156-162) and the Imperial Defence College (IDC) in 1957 (pp. 208-214). Rosier also spent time as Directing Staff at the recently opened Joint Services Staff College between 1950-52 (pp. 186-190). However, his reminisce about his time as a student at the RAF Staff College highlights a fundamental problem with autobiographies; the issue of confusion. Rosier lamented (p. 156) that the inter-war course at the RAF Staff College had been two years. However, this is inaccurate as they were only a year. As such, we must always be careful about what an auto-biographer recollects.

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At the parade to mark the disbanding of RAF Fighter Command held at RAF Bentley Priory on 30 April 1968, Air Marshal Sir Frederick Rosier KCB CBE DSO ADC, the last Air Officer Commander in Chief of the command stands with several of the most famous Second World War aces, from left to right: Air Vice Marshal ‘Johnny’ Johnson CBE DSO** DFC*, Group Captain P.W. Townsend CVO DSO DFC*, Wing Commander R.R.S. Tuck DSO DFC** DFC (US), Air Commodore A.C. Deere OBE DSO DFC* DFC (US) and Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader CBE DSO* DFC*. (Source: © Crown Copyright. IWM (RAF-T 8374))

Rosier’s posting from the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE), to Fighter Command as Group Captain – Plans in 1954 (pp. 200-1) also highlights the process of career management in the RAF. It highlights the influence that seniors officers had in determining someone’s career. Rosier related that he had expected a posting as Group Captain – Operations at Fighter Command. However, this had been changed to a posting to the Royal Aircraft Establishment. This was not to the liking of the AOC-in-C of Fighter Command, Air Marshal Sir Dermot Boyle, who managed to have that posting changed to that of Group Captain – Plans. This was an unexpected turn of events as Rosier had not served in a plans position up to this point in his career.

Nonetheless, it is clear that this posting was designed to give Rosier further experience of working with the other services and with allies; an essential prerequisite for senior command. Rosier recorded (p. 204) of this period as one ‘of broadening my education.’ What is more, this section of this autobiography, and that describing his time at the IDC, comes in a chapter entitled ‘Climbing to the Top.’ Indeed, after his time at Fighter Command as Group Captain – Plans, Rosier went on to be Director of Plans in the Air Ministry in 1958 after having spent time at the IDC. Again, at the Air Ministry, Rosier served under Boyle who by now was Chief of the Air Staff. Importantly, periods of service in staff positions were an essential marker in an officers rise to senior command primarily because this experience not only insured that individuals came into contact with those who could nurture and shape one’s career but also that it further developed ones understanding of the organisation that they would, potentially, one day lead.

In addition to this vital period of staff work, Rosier inter-weaved his career with significant periods as an operational fighter commander. This notably included time in North Africa during the Second World War where he was, alongside the future Air Chief Marshal Sir Kenneth Cross, a key fighter leader in the Western Desert Air Force (pp. 63-114). During this period, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Indeed, except for his time at the Air Ministry and a period as Senior Air Staff Officer at Transport Command, Rosier’s career was very much tied to either fighter aircraft or Fighter Command more specifically.

Finally, and importantly, in the context of the Cold War Rosier also spent time working within the coalition system. Between 1948 and 1950 he served on an exchange tour with the recently formed United States Air Force that also included time at the US Armed Forces Staff College (pp. 171-85). Rosier also served with the Central Treaty Organisation and his final command was as the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces Central Europe.

In conclusion, this is a very valuable autobiography of a senior RAF officer. In addition to the critical facets discussed above this book provides an excellent insight into life in the RAF in both war and peace. It also provides some excellent insights into the important personalities of the period. For example, Rosier recalled his visit to the Soviet Union in 1956 while he was at Fighter Command. His most notable recollection (pp. 205-6) was an incident during an open-air reception at the Kremlin where both Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev got drunk and related in their respective speeches how much they disliked each other. This book is recommended to anyone with an interest in the RAF.

Dr Ross Mahoney is a contract Historian at the Departments of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia as well as the owner and Editor of From Balloons to Drones. He is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and a Vice-President of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: Aircraft past and present of the Central Fighter Establishment at RAF West Raynham in October 1962, as the unit moved to RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire. The aircraft pictured here represent the various aircraft used by the constituant organisations which merged to form the CFE. The aircraft are (left to right): Supermarine Spitfire (P5853) of the Central Fighter Establishment, English Electric Lightning F.1 (XM136) of the Air Fighting Development Squadron, Gloster Javelin, Hawker Hunter F.6 (XF515) and Hawker Hunter T.7 (XL595) both of Fighter Combat School. (Source: © IWM (RAF-T 3476))

#BookReview – The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945

#BookReview – The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945

By Toby Dickinson

Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945. London: Penguin, 2013. Illustrations. Maps. Bibliography. Notes. Index. xxvii + 852 pp.

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Between 1939 and 1945 over 600,000 civilians were killed across Europe in aerial attacks. Over a million more were injured. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, claims had been made in both fiction and theory as to the devastating consequences and strategic utility of bombing against an enemy’s ‘vital centres’ and the ‘will of the people’. While the human consequences were indeed devastating, there is room to question and doubt the strategic utility of the bombing campaigns waged by both sides in the European theatre in the Second World War.

In a work that revises and challenges our existing understanding and analysis of the bombing campaign of the Second World War – including Overy’s prior work on the subject – Richard Overy goes beyond the traditional study of the planning and execution of the Blitz and the Allied bomber offensive to provide fresh insights into this controversial topic.[1] In aiming to provide a narrative of the bombing war in Europe, Overy sought three new treatments of the subject (p. xxv); first, an account that covered the experience of the whole of Europe – Allied, Axis, occupied, and neutral. Second, Overy placed the bombing operations of both sides in their strategic military context alongside other operations and identified the essential supporting, rather than the decisive, character of these operations. Sweeping across Europe, Overy assessed the strategic bombing performance of the Luftwaffe over the UK and the USSR, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Army Air Force over Germany, Italy and Axis-occupied Europe. Third, he contrasted the experiences of both the bombers and the bombed, and it is Overy’s treatment of the subject of the bombed that makes this work original and essential.[2] Overy drew on local archives of bombed cities and reexamined existing archives. By using this ‘double narrative’ of what bombing campaigns were designed to achieve and the reality of their impact on populations, Overy has sought to provide a fresh look at the issues of the campaign’s effectiveness and ethical ambiguity. Indeed, the ethical dimensions of the bombing of German targets in occupied Europe was the subject of political debate in the UK, Overy noting that ‘the erosion of ethical restraints’ and the subsequent escalation of bombing efforts against German cities was ‘a simpler issue than the moral dilemma of causing civilian casualties’ in occupied Europe (p. 549).

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Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial taken over Dresden, Germany, following the two devastating attacks on the city by aircraft of Bomber Command on the night of 13/14 February 1945. A large number of fires still burn fiercely in the vicinity of the central goods depot and marshalling yards south of the River Elbe. (Source: © IWM (C 4973))

Overy’s analysis is influenced by his adoption of a classical division of bombing actions into ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’, where ‘strategic’ is taken to mean bombing conducted at long range, against economic (or at least non-military) targets, and ‘tactical’ is taken to mean attacks against enemy airfields and interdiction of enemy ground forces. This taxonomy can obscure more than it reveals. If air action against an enemy’s airfields is ‘tactical’ in character as it was by the Allies in 1944-1945, then so were the attacks by the Luftwaffe against RAF airfields in the summer of 1940. Moreover, when discussing the events of 1940, Overy contended that the separation in time of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz into discrete activities is inaccurate and ascribes this narrative to, in part, the Battle of Britain being fought by Fighter Command, and ‘the Blitz by the civil defence forces, anti-aircraft units and small numbers of night fighters.’ While it may be legitimate to see the Battle of Britain and the Blitz as part of a common continuum – as the Luftwaffe did – Overy’s use of force elements and their command states to explain this difference between narratives is problematical. Anti-aircraft units were under the command of Fighter Command during both periods, as were night fighters. The Blitz was not fought by civil defence forces, because their role is not to fight, their role is to manage some of the consequences of some of the enemy’s actions (pp. 73-4). Further, it is legitimate for historians to regard the Battle of Britain and the Blitz as distinct: while the Luftwaffe regarded itself as having fought a single campaign against the UK from July 1940 to June 1941, it clearly has two distinct elements: ‘tactical’ operations against the RAF’s air defences to gain control of the air prior to an invasion, and ‘strategic’ operations against industrial and civilian targets.

A similar ambiguity between ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ operations exists in any analysis of the German bombing campaign on the Eastern Front. Overy noted that aerial attacks on Leningrad were part of the German siege of that city, rather than any independent ‘strategic’ action against industrial targets. More successful were attacks against Soviet lines of communication, in particular, railway infrastructure: stations and supply centres, rather than more easily repaired tracks and bridges (p. 207). Nonetheless, both Overy and several reviewers have noted that there were occasions where Allied or Axis’ bombing was bearing fruit: denying their enemy’s air defences, reducing the production and distribution of key materials. However, the effectiveness of these strikes were reduced as targets were switched: either because of poor intelligence analysis, as with the Luftwaffe’s move away from attacking the RAF’s airfields in 1940 to bombing British cities, or because bomber aircraft were reapportioned from industrial and military targets to political ones as with the switch in effort by RAF Bomber Command to target Berlin in the autumn of 1943.[3]

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 A luminous gas mask case on sale at Selfridge’s department store in London. These gas mask covers were on sale for 2/11. (Source: © IWM (D 76))

Overy also covered in great detail the civilian preparations for an experience of the bombing: the establishment of air raid warning systems, civil defence organisations, and individual preparations by citizens. He recorded systems of compensation for civilian loss of earnings, noting too that as early as December 1940 the German Government banned Jews from receiving compensation for loss of earnings (p. 422). Effective civil defence in Germany is contrasted with almost the total lack of preparation in Italy, which lacked an air defence network and – unlike the other totalitarian regimes fighting in the war – ‘failed to mobilize a large mass movement for voluntary civil defence’ (p. 517). It is new perspectives like these that have led to the book being described as: ‘the standard work on the bombing war…probably the most important book published on the history of the second world war this century.’[4]

In analysing the contribution of strategic bombing to combatant’s overall aims, Overy made it clear that whatever the desires or claims of bomber leaders from Wolfram von Richthofen to Arthur Harris, neither Allied nor Axis strategic bombing efforts were ever more than supporting. Overy noted J.K. Galbraith’s conclusion that the bombing campaign did not win the war, and that the bombing campaigns were all ‘relative failures in their own terms’ (p. 609). Overy also noted that strategic bombing was ‘in the end inadequate in its own terms for carrying out its principal assignment and was morally compromised by deliberate escalation against civilian populations’ (p. 633). This has led to at least one reviewer noting that this represents a shift from Overy’s previous works, which took a far more positive view of the strategic contribution of Allied bombing efforts.[5]

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 A locomotive and its tender, upended by an explosion during heavy raids by Bomber Command, is inspected by an RAF officer in the railway yards at Munster, Germany. (Source: © IWM (CL 2372))

Scored against their aims, the allied bombing efforts were indeed ‘relative failures’, but it is legitimate to ask whether they had utility as an instrument of strategy in delivering a net positive effect. Viewed through the lens of an indirect strategic approach, one cannot, as Gary Sheffield observed, ignore the fact that Germany was forced to apportion resources to the air defence of the home front that could otherwise have been used to other ends: ‘the Germans were forced to commit resources to home defence – anti-aircraft guns, aircraft, optical sights, manpower – that could not be put to other uses.’[6] It is also important to assess the bombing campaigns not against the fiction of H.G. Wells and others, nor the equally far-fetched prophecies of Giulio Douhet, but in the longue durée of strategic thinking. In an unacknowledged nod to Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that ‘the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive’, Overy noted that the failure of German and Axis bombing operations in the Battle of Britain, and against both the USSR and Malta ‘highlighted the extent to which the balance between air defence and air offence was moving in the defender’s favour’ (p. 626).[7] The same challenge faced the Allies in late 1943: if the Allied bombing campaign drew more resources away from the Eastern Front, at some point, those resources would threaten to impose unsustainable costs on the Allied bomber forces (p. 343). The response to this developing stalemate was an escalation of bombing effort.

In conclusion, commenting on the ‘balance sheet of bombing’, Overy noted that not even the known weaknesses of bomber capability and performance ‘prevented the escalation of all the major offensives’, and that (p. 628) ‘the issue of escalation is central to any judgement about the broader ethical implications of the bomber offensives.’ At its most destructive, the Allied bomber offensive perhaps came closer than any warfare before or since to Clausewitz’s description of war divorced from its political object: ‘a complete, untrammelled, absolute manifestation of violence.’[8]

Toby Dickinson served in the RAF from 2002-2018. He is currently a student on the War and Strategy MA programme at the University of Leeds.

Header Image: The personnel of No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron RAF assembled in front of, and on, an Avro Lancaster at Mepal, Cambridgeshire. (Source: © IWM (HU 94991))

[1] In America, Overy’s book has been published under the title, The Bombers and The Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe, 1940-1945 (2014). This version misses out significant elements of the early period covered in the UK edition of Overy’s book.

[2] On this theme, see: Tami Davis Biddle, ‘Book Review – The Bombing War: Europe, 1939–1945 by Richard Overy,’ War in History, 21:4 (2014), pp. 553-5.

[3] Adam Tooze, ‘To Break an Enemy’s Will,’ Wall Street Journal, 12 July 2014.

[4] Richard J. Evans, ‘The Bombing War: Europe 1939‑1945 by Richard Overy – Review,’ The Guardian, 27 September 2013.

[5] Biddle, ‘Book Review,’ pp. 553-5

[6] Gary Sheffield, ‘Death from the Skies,’ New Statesman, 142:5179 (2013), pp. 42-3.

[7] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 358.

[8] Ibid., p. 87.