The Bombing Files - Arguments against the RAF bombing of German Civilians summed up
The Bombing Files - Arguments against the RAF bombing of German Civilians summed up
The Bombing Files – a compilation on the question of bombing by the RAF during the Second World War.
I thought I would assemble in one place my recent articles and book reviews on this difficult and complicated subject. I do very strongly urge those interested to read the whole thing, as it may save them from accusing me of holding views I don’t hold, or of having ‘never addressed’ various topics.
I begin with a review of Richard Overy’s recent book ‘The Bombing War’, because it contains so many useful facts:
Richard Overy’s ‘The Bombing War' is now available in a reasonably portable Penguin paperback (though I wish it was easier to navigate the footnotes).
My own position described and explained
Longstanding readers will recall my accounts of Anthony Grayling’s devastating account of the British bombing of Germany ‘Among the Dead Cities’, and of Sir Max Hastings’s excellent ‘Bomber Command’ . Others will, I hope, recall my championing, on Radio 4 and elsewhere, of Bishop George Bell (who lost two brothers in the Great War) and Major Richard Stokes MC MP (a highly-decorated Great War artillery officer) , non-pacifist objectors to the deliberate bombing of German civilians. Also some may remember a discussion of the criticisms of the effectiveness of the bombing campaign levelled by Sir Henry Tizard, as described in an interesting series of lectures by C.P.Snow.
I get into no end of trouble for my position on this. I am told that I am unpatriotic, even now, for discussing it or for being distressed by the extreme and horrible cruelties inflicted by our bombs on innocent women and children, who could not conceivably be held responsible for Hitler’s crimes. On the contrary, I believe it is the duty of a proper patriot to criticize his country where he believes it to have done wrong.
What I do not think and have not said
I am told I am defaming the memory of the bomber crews. I have never done so, and never will. They had little idea of what they were doing, died terrible deaths in terrible numbers thanks to the ruthless squandering of life by their commanders, and showed immense personal courage. It is those who, knowing what was being done, ordered them into battle that I blame.
I am told that I am equating our bombing of Germany with the German mass murder of the Jews, when I would not dream of making such a comparison, never have done so and never will. I am told that I am excusing the mass murder of the Jews, when nothing could ever excuse it and I should certainly never attempt to do so. Is it still necessary to say that two wrongs do not make a right, and that one horribly wrong thing may be worse than another horribly wrong thing, and yet they may both still be horribly wrong, examined by themselves as actions?
I am told that I wasn’t there. This is true, but Bell, Stokes and Tizard were there, and protested, much as I do and for the same reasons, moral in two cases, practical in one. I hope I should have had their courage. I think I can say that I am sometimes prepared to espouse unpopular causes.
Our survival was not at stake
I am told that the bombing was necessary because our survival was at stake. It quite simply wasn’t – Hitler had been irreversibly defeated at Stalingrad, and the USA were in the war, long before the mass bombing got under way.
Civilian deaths were intended, not a side-effect
I am also told that it was not our policy to kill civilians, and that they died accidentally as a result of attacks on military targets. This is flatly untrue, as I shall shortly show.
I am also told that the bombing was justified by its military effect upon Germany, and that it advanced Germany’s defeat. This is, to put it mildly, highly questionable.
In the following review of Professor Overy’s book, I shall adduce evidence which seems to me to devastate the case of those who continue to claim that the deliberate bombing of German civilians in their homes was militarily or morally justified. I would urge any who wish to attack this view to obtain and read the book before doing so. It is a formidable work of research and marshalled scholarship, dispassionate and carefully referenced:
The book ranges over much more than the British bombing of Germany. Did you know, for instance, that the Italian Air Force once bombed Tel Aviv? Details of German bombing of the USSR, and accurate accounts of the German bombing of Warsaw and Rotterdam in 1939 and 1940, are well worth reading, not least because of the large myths which have grown up around both of these events, quite horrible enough unadorned. The descriptions of the very heavy Allied bombing of German-occupied countries, and the strains this caused to their powerless populations, are particularly painful.
But these are things I must urge the reader of Professor Overy’s book to examine for himself or herself.
It is the British Empire’s bombing of Germany, and to some extent the parallel American bombing of Germany, which I wish to examine on the grounds of both military effectiveness and morality.
It is my view that the facts form a great cloud of witness against this form of warfare, which we must hope is never again adopted by any civilized nation, or indeed by any nation. I used to hold another view. Let us see if I, helped by Richard Overy, can persuade you.
They started it! Did they? This may surprise you
On page 243 we learn that the deliberate bombing of cities in World War Two was not a retaliation against Hunnish barbarism, but definitely begun by the RAF, on 11th May 1940, long before the Blitz, with a raid on what was then known as Muenchen Gladbach (it is now, for tedious reasons, known as Moenchengladbach) in western Germany. This was not, as some claim, a response to Germany’s bombing of Rotterdam, because Rotterdam was not bombed till 14th May.
The main reason for the attack seems to have been that Winston Churchill, who favoured bombing in general and had always supported the idea of a separate Air Force, had taken over from Neville Chamberlain, who opposed the bombing of cities on principle. The town was defined as a military-economic target and the attack was supposed to be in response to Germany’s invasion of the Low Countries, just begun.
The extent of the damage was slight. As discussed here, and particularly dealt with by Max Hastings, the RAF missed most of its targets hopelessly badly, and its inadequate bombing planes, mostly poorly designed and using outdated tactics, were blasted from the sky by the Luftwaffe in terrible numbers during the early part of combat.
Churchill’s mandate for bombing
On page 254, the language of British leaders began to take on a rather fearsome tone. Winston Churchill speculates in a letter (8th July 1940) to his friend and Aircraft Production Minister Lord (Max) Beaverbrook that an ‘absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland’ would help to bring Hitler down. Arthur Harris kept a copy of this letter and told Andrew Boyle in 1979 ‘That was the RAF mandate’.
Human beings are the stated target
The killing of workers was an explicit policy. In June 1941 (p.257) we find an Air Ministry draft directive saying that ‘Continuous and relentless bombing of these workers and their utility services, over a period of time, will inevitably lower their morale, kill a number of them and thus appreciably reduce their industrial output.’
In April of the same year (p.258) a policy review urged attacks on ‘working-class’ areas. In November that year (also p.258) a memorandum almost certainly written by Harris was asking if the time had not come to strike ‘against the people themselves’. In May (p.259), the Director of Air Intelligence welcomed an attack on the ‘the livelihood, the homes, the cooking heating, lighting and family life of…the working class’ (they were the least mobile and most vulnerable to such an attack).
In November 1941, Sir Richard Peirse, then Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, told ‘the Thirty Club’ that his planes had nearly a year been attacking ‘the people themselves’, intentionally.(p.259)
‘No scruples’ - though we preferred the world to think otherwise
‘I mention this because for a long time the Government for excellent reasons has preferred the world to think that we still held some scruples and attacked only what the humanitarians are pleased to call Military Targets. …I can assure you, gentlemen, that we tolerate no scruples.’
On the same page it is shown that senior officials knew of the policy but preferred the truth of it not to be widely known in case ‘false and misleading deductions’ were made.
A profoundly disturbing Air Staff memorandum (p.265) explicitly desires that towns should be made ‘physically uninhabitable’ and the people in them must be ‘conscious of constant personal danger’. The aim was to produce ‘destruction’ and ‘the fear of death’.
‘Kill a lot of Boche’
Harris himself wrote in April 1942 (p.287)’We have got to kill a lot of Boche before we win this war’. Harris, paradoxically to his credit, never lied to himself or anyone else about what he was doing. He never shied away from his purpose of killing Germans and wanted it acknowledged publicly. Perhaps he suspected that Churchill and others would seek to disavow the policy later.
Lord Cherwell’s ‘de-housing’ Minute
On p.288 you will find details of Lord Cherwell’s famous minute calling for the de-housing of a third of Germany’s population (an aim based on totally wrong and exaggerated ideas of the power of bombing, as it turned out). ‘Investigation seems to show that having one’s house demolished is most damaging to morale’, it said, airily. You might say. You might also say that it would be hard to destroy that many houses intentionally without, equally intentionally, destroying many of their occupants.
There is plenty more of this in Professor Overy’s account. I’ll turn later to the effectiveness, or otherwise, of the bombing.
I should point out here that careful readers of the book will find that a neglected theme of this controversy is the constant and rather nervous desire of the RAF, and of Bomber Command, to justify their actual existence, and to advance the claims of air power as an independent force, rather than (as both Army and the Navy have always wanted and still want) as an adjunct to the Army and Navy, aiding them in their purposes. The bombing of cities as independent targets, unconnected with any ground operations, is a direct outgrowth of this highly questionable view of military science.
Stalin liked bombing
As one might expect, a significant part of the drive for the killing of Germans did come from Josef Stalin, our ‘noble’ ally against Hitler, and (like Hitler) a man to whom the killing of innocent people was never a problem. Though it seems (p.394) that Stalin was not to blame for the attacks on Dresden.
Let us proceed to pages 296 and 297, where Churchill has gone to visit Stalin, who is very annoyed that the British and Americans have abandoned a plan for an invasion of Western Europe originally set for 1942, and is more or less insulting. Churchill says there will be bombing instead, lots of it.
‘Stalin took over the argument himself and said that homes as well as factories must be destroyed.’
Soon afterwards, Churchill (p.297) was pressed by Harris for a commitment to a bombing offensive. Churchill responded that he was committed to bombing, partly because it would look bad to stop such a major part of Britain’s war effort, but he did not expect it to have decisive results in 1943 or bring the war to an end. It was, Churchill said ‘better than doing nothing’.
But better for whom? This is basically war by public relations, with actions judged by their political and morale effect, rather than their military result. Can one kill innocents for the sake of appearances? It seems a moral stretch to me.
Leo Amery, a War Cabinet member, was not taken with Harris’s urgings for a full-scale bombing attack (p.297). Quoting a scientist at the Air Warfare branch who said the RAF could not hit enough German industry to do decisive damage, Amery wrote: ‘I am aware that this view of night bombing is shared by a very large number of thoughtful people’.
One answer to the claim that the bomber offensive forced Germany to divert resources from the Russian front is that a more effective bomber offensive against military targets would have done the same. Another is that the bombing campaign also forced Britain to divert scarce and costly resources – trained men, metals, explosive, engine manufacturing capacity, from the build-up of its D-Day army, and of course from the Battle of the Atlantic, the U-boat war which Churchill later confessed was the only part of the conflict that had truly worried him.
Was it a sensible use of resources?
On pp 298-299 we find that in 1942 the RAF dropped 37,192 tons of bombs on Germany. Most missed their targets completely. The raids cost 2,716 bombers lost on missions or in accidents. During 1942, the RAF also killed 4,900 Germans, two for each bomber lost (Bomber Command itself lost 14,000 dead from September 1939 to September 1942).
It was not central to victory
On p.303 Overy notes that the Casablanca Conference of January 1943, at which the USA and Britain hammered out their European strategy, did not really view the bomber offensive as central to victory. He writes ‘Bombing survived as an option not because it was central to the strategic outlook of the western allies, but because it was secondary’.
On p.310 we learn that the RAF’s Charles Portal was predicting that his force could kill 900,000 Germans in 18 months, seriously injure 1,000,000, destroy six million homes and ‘de-house’ 25 million people (so much for deaths being unintended collateral damage). Overy also points out that American fliers were puzzled as to what the RAF’s actual strategic aim was in pursuing this policy.
It was too late to ‘save us from invasion’
On p.322, we learn that Arthur Harris admitted that his bomber offensive only started seriously in March 1943. This is important because so many people like to claim that the bombing ‘saved Britain from invasion’ or ‘won the war’ or was ‘the only way we could strike back’.
Nor did it ‘win the war’
Yet the invasion had been cancelled in September 1940. Russia and the USA had joined the war in 1941(making German eventual defeat inevitable) but for nearly three years after Dunkirk, this ‘sole weapon’ had barely begun to be used.
What is more, the decisive battle of Stalingrad, after which the victory of the USSR over Germany was pretty much assured, had ended with a Soviet victory in February 1943, Von Paulus and his armies had been marched off to prison camps before Harris’s offensive even got under way.
Claims are often made that the firestorm in Hamburg, if replicated, could have destroyed German morale. Hitler’s favourite, Albert Speer is said to have held this opinion. The damage was indeed appalling. But in fact (pp.337-338) Hamburg recovered as a functioning city and port with remarkable speed.
On pp 343 there are some striking figures about RAF losses 4,026 aircraft lost, 2,823 of them in combat (the constant attrition of experienced crews meant rapid training and many more flying accidents than would have befallen well-trained crews) .
As Overy writes ‘Although both forces [British and American] advertised their success in diverting ever-increasing numbers of German fighters to the defence of the Reich, this was in some sense a Pyrrhic victory, since the bomber forces were now subject to escalating and possibly insupportable levels of loss and damage’.
Harris ludicrously overestimated the economic damage he was doing
Harris (p.344) was livid when researchers said his attacks had only reduced German economic potential by 9% in 1943. He was sure he had done far more damage. But after the war 9% turned out to be an over-estimate.
Again, the human cost of the war to our own side was appalling. During 1943, Bomber Command lost 15,678 killed or captured, and the US 8th Air Force lost 9,497.
The idea that the bombing might create some sort of revolution against Hitler was often touted. But expert analyses pointed out that Nazi Germany offered no avenue for protest, and the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender (an unexamined policy which may well have prolonged the war for a year or more) rather ruled out a more compliant government coming to office and suing for peace.
Should we have done what the Americans did?
This is not the place for a long debate on the American daylight bombing, under increasingly heavy and effective long-range fighter escort – though there is no doubt that experience shows that, had the allies made a determined attack on German oil production and refinery capacity, they would have done far more damage to the war effort than by any other means. Overy concedes that many of the American raids were in effect area bombing since they could not achieve the accuracy for pinpoint bombing,
He contrasts the Americans’ decision to take the war to the Luftwaffe itself (which in the end destroyed German air power) with the RAF’s persistence, to the end, in bombing urban targets.
In April 1944 (p.368) Overy details a costly and ineffective RAF raids against Berlin (too far away, too spread-out and too well-defended to allow concentrated attack easily) , and Nuremberg. Even Harris conceded that German night defences were so effective that they might create conditions in which loss rates ‘could not in the end be sustained’.
Overy writes ‘Between November 1943 and March 1944, Bomber Command lost 1,128 aircraft for little evident strategic gain’.
On p.381 there is an interesting discussion of possible retaliatory gas attacks, and of how they were contemplated by Churchill .
But they were not used. They would only have been used, I am sure, in retaliation against such attacks by Germany. But by then there would have been few scruples. In a very telling paragraph, Overy writes (p.382)
Why we didn’t use gas
'The RAF staff thought that incendiary and high-explosive raids were more strategically efficient [than gas or germ warfare], in that they destroyed property and equipment and not just people, but in any of these cases – blown apart, burnt alive or asphyxiated -*deliberate damage to civilian populations was now taken for granted*(my emphasis). This paved the way for the possibility of using atomic weapons on German targets in 1945 if the war had dragged on late into the year.’
Who called area bombing ‘Acts of terror and wanton destruction’?
Overy recounts how on 28th March 1945 (p.396) Churchill referred to area bombing in a memo as ‘mere acts of terror and wanton destruction’, urging that attacks turn instead to oil and transport. Harris paid no mind, and horrible things were done to several German cities in the last weeks of war.
The two major bombing powers, the USA and Britain, both conducted surveys of the effects of bombing after the war. These are described on pp 398-409. Captured Germans tended to agree that bombing of transport links and oil facilities had been crucial, bombing of cities comparatively unimportant in hampering the Nazi war effort (p.400). It is hard to see why they should have dissembled about this.
The American survey itself (p.401) said that city attacks cost only about 2.7% of German economic potential. The whole combined offensive cost a total of 17% of German economic potential by 1944, mostly due to US bombing of selected targets. (p.401). the British report largely concurred, except that it was in some way even more modest in its claims for area bombing’s effects, especially in the key year of 1844. (pp 401-402). Transport and oil remained the most important targets whoever was looking at it.
As Overy writes (p.402) : Given the uniformity of opinion on both the German and Allied sides, the one based on experience, the other on extensive research, it is surprising that the effects of bombing have occasioned so much debate ever since. The proximate causes – defeating the German Air Force and emasculating oil supply and transport - are unlikely to be undermined by further research’.
He quotes a senior RAF officer Norman Bottomley (Portal’s former deputy during the war) as saying the effect of area bombing was ‘great but never critical’.
Of course it had an impact (pp 404-405). Industrial workers died, many hours of work were lost, and most crucially huge numbers of fighter aircraft were diverted from Italy and Russia. Overy writes: ‘This situation left German armies denuded of air protection at a critical juncture’ (p.407). Though I repeat here that attacks on actual targets , as opposed to night-raids on crowded cities, would have achieved the same effect, and that the attacks were themselves a diversion of Allied strength from other fronts and aspects of the war which might have been more urgent and more productive of victory)
But he also quotes J.K.Galbraith as saying the man-hours, aircraft and bombs ‘had cost the American economy far more in output than they had cost Germany’. This again suggests that the same resources, used elsewhere, might have achieved just as much if not more effect on Germany, without the severe moral problems of bombing cities.
Overy is not much concerned with the moral aspect of the controversy. He ends his chapter on the offensive with a sort of shrug. Governments liked bombing because it squandered fewer lives than ground offensives, because they believed it was good for propaganda and morale, because it made maximum use of new technology.
To some extent the continued popularity of bombing was then, and is now, an effect of universal suffrage democracy, whose wars, as we know, are crueller than those of Kings. To question it (as I well know) leads swiftly to a questioning of the whole myth of the war, and an unwelcome examination of how we came to be waging a war in Europe against one of the greatest land powers in human history, yet had no army in Europe with which to fight it.
The day has not yet come when this conundrum can be calmly discussed in this country, even though the whole episode began 75 years ago, and finished 69 years ago.
Next, I’ll turn to another historical, rather than polemic, examination of the conflict, Sir Max Hastings’s ‘Bomber Command’
I’ve never been a great admirer of Sir Max as a journalist or editor (though I respect all war correspondents who venture directly an deliberately into combat zones). I think he has often been too ready, as a writer and an editor, to accept conventional wisdom – though of late he’s also been very brave in admitting that he has in the past been mistaken.
But his military histories are simply unequalled. He has found an extraordinarily clear and authoritative voice. He has done superb research. And his great respect for courage does not blind him to folly or wrongdoing by the courageous.
‘Bomber Command’ is in many ways a more effective polemic against Arthur Harris’s campaign than A.C. Grayling’s ‘Among the Dead Cities’. This is because it is not written as a polemic, but as an engaged and intelligent history of this episode. It is very well written (as Hemingway used to say ‘It reads easy, because it was writ hard’) and no reader here would be disappointed by it.
The claims of the Harris camp, for the military value of area bombing, are thoroughly debunked. The terrible losses of brave aircrew are heartbreakingly described. One officer’s words, those of Flight Lieutenant Denis Hornsey of 76 Squadron, deserve to be read and remembered by all thoughtful people. He wrote in 1943:’If you live on the brink of death yourself, it is as if those who have gone have merely caught an earlier train to the same destination, and whatever that destination is, you will be sharing it soon, since you will almost certainly be catching the next one’. I won’t tell you what happened to Denis Hornsey in the end. You’ll have to read the book.
They knew, you see, that they were almost certain to die, and not just die, but die horribly in the dark and the cold, and only a few hours from the comfort of homes which in many cases they had left that morning and to which they would never return.
Harris’s own obdurate resistance to more effective types of bombing is recorded (a concentrated campaign against German fuel installations might actually have shortened the war in Europe). Harris’s supporters always claim he shortened the war, but he didn’t, not least because he always objected to the use of ‘his’ bombers for such action as the raids on the synthetic fuel plants.
Sir Max also deserves much credit for the chapter in which he describes the indefensible destruction of the city of Darmstadt on 11th September 1944 (it was not, in any significant way a military target) and what it involved for those living there.
As I know well, and as I have had confirmed in many exchanges with readers in the past few weeks, there is a dogged, almost furious resistance in this country to recognising what we actually did in Germany. I think this is because many people fear and suspect that it was wrong, and prefer their comforting illusions. So they will not open the door that leads to truth. Sir Max’s book is a door that leads to truth. Try this small sample: ‘the first terrible discoveries were made: cellars crammed with suffocated bodies – worse still, with amorphous heaps of melted and charred humanity. There were whole families whose remains could be removed in a laundry basket. Some bodies had shrunk to a quarter of life-size. …There were blue corpses and purple corpses, black heaps of flesh and protruding bones. Kramer saw a man carrying a sack containing the heads of his entire family…’
Which leads me to Anthony Grayling’s ‘Among the Dead Cities, which is highly polemical, but also (in my view) overpoweringly forensic (as you can see, I wrote this some time ago):
‘Last weekend was the 65th anniversary of the RAF and USAAF bombing of Dresden. I was impressed to see that residents of that lovely city formed a human chain to prevent a demonstration by neo-Nazis, trying to equate the bombing with the Holocaust. Appalling as the bombing was, it was an act of war taken against an aggressor nation, not the same as the deliberate, cold-blooded industrial slaughter of Europe's Jews, a unique crime (which I hope will remain unique and is often falsely compared with lesser horrors by irresponsible propagandists of many kinds).
The citizens of modern Dresden, which has now at least partly recovered from the destruction, and also from nearly 50 years of Communist vandalism and stupidity, are a credit to the German Federal Republic, which has made immense efforts to build a free, law-governed society out of the ruins of Hitler's Reich, and doesn't get enough credit for its success. No, it's not a perfect society (its attitude to home schooling is insupportable, for instance). But it is a very creditable one. Perhaps now we can see (in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance) how badly such attempts to build freedom out of the rubble of tyranny can fail or falter, we should pay more attention to the German success.
Apart from anything else, anyone who seeks to excuse or minimize or diminish the Holocaust may have the effect of making a repeat of it more likely, however unintentionally. That is why the 'revisionist' arguments of some German historians, who seek to equate Holocaust and bombing, ought to be resisted.
Even so, I think we have to admit that the bombing of civilian targets by the RAF during World War Two was wrong. We can say this without in any way impugning the undoubted courage of the young men who flew in the bombing missions - and who suffered appalling casualties while doing so. But their commanders, and the politicians who knew full well what was going on, cannot be let off.
I have just read A. C. Grayling's powerful book ‘Among the Dead Cities’ (you will have to read it yourself to find out where this startling and disturbing phrase comes from). I think its case against the bombing of German civilians is unanswerable. He deals with all the standard arguments of those who justify it, pointing out that all of these would be a better argument for what the RAF largely didn't do - that is, accurate bombing of industrial, economic and military targets. One of the few missions where careful targeting was involved was the rightly famous 'Dambusters' raid, though that did inevitably cause some severe civilian casualties, many of them slave workers from defeated allied nations. Another was the bombing of the missile factory at Peenemunde. Such bombing, which was also tackled by the USAAF, also at great cost in young lives, did in fact have a much greater effect on the German ability to wage war than the bombing of civilians. The Americans, by the way, did bomb civilians in Japan, another dubious episode.
Many other issues flow from this, including the validity of the 'finest hour' and 'glorious struggle' views of the Second World War, which seem to me (who once believed them entirely) to grow more threadbare by the year. And I know that many people would simply rather not think about the matter for this very reason. The market for accounts of the Hamburg firestorm is pretty limited in Britain. That's a pity. We need to know what was done in our name, and in my view to be horrified by it, so that we can be sure we are not again reduced to this barbaric and - as it happens - ineffectual form of warfare.
It is my suspicion that the moral shrivelling of Britain since 1945, the increased violence and delinquency, the readiness to accept the abortion massacre, the general coarsening of culture and the growth of callousness have at least something to do with our willingness to shrug off - or even defend - Arthur Harris's deliberate 'de-housing' of German civilians. The British people in 1939, told of what would be done in their name within six years, would have been incredulous and astonished. I am glad at least that people such as Bishop George Bell of Chichester raised powerful voices against it at the time, at some cost to themselves. We owe it to them to revisit the argument.
While I myself think the moral objections to the bombing are overpowering, and that retaliation for German barbarism simply doesn’t pass as a justification, I know that many seek to defend area bombing as a practical necessity of war. That is why I include this article, which explains that, at the time, notable military and scientific experts rightly warned that area bombing would not be as effective as claimed
Contemplating a solitary night in a hotel somewhere deep in the new East End of London, probably accompanied with pouring rain, I needed something exceptional to read. So I did something I had been meaning to do for years. I went to the London Library, membership of which is my greatest single self-indulgence, and hunted down in its haunted, mysterious Edwardian shelves a copy of C.P. Snow’s ‘Science and Government’, the text of the Godkin lectures which he gave at Harvard in 1960.
Just finding the little volume was fun. What a setting for a ghost story or an old-fashioned murder mystery this wonderful library would be, with its vertical maze of staircases, its iron floors, its long banks of shelves, illuminated only when a reader is searching them. Like H.G.Wells’s Magic Shop (a lovely short story which I re-read for the first time in years a few nights ago) it seems to stretch on and up and in forever, like a pleasing dream, and I have never failed to get slightly, if pleasantly, lost while in search of something. More than once I’ve had to ask one of the delightful staff to find the book I’m looking for, as its system of shelving is quite unique and not all that easy to follow, and the maps it issues are baffling to me.
You don’t need to belong to the London Library to get hold of Snow’s little book. I’m sure many other libraries either have it (it was published by the Oxford University press in 1960 and 1961, and presumably in the USA by a Harvard imprint) or can get it for you on inter-library loan. It’s quite slender. But the first half of it is absolutely astonishing. I’ve always known it contained the factual background to some scenes in Snow’s particularly moving novel about deep friendship, ‘The Light and the Dark’, in which the Second World War plan to bomb German cities, and the Whitehall row about it, forms at first the background and later, rather tragically, the foreground, to the final part of the story. But I didn’t know the half of it.
Snow was deeply involved in the British state’s effort to recruit science to prepare for the Second World War. As a man of the pretty hard left of the time (just how hard is hinted at in the another book in the series, ‘Corridors of Power’, in which Snow’s semi-autobiographical hero more or less admits to sympathy for the USSR) , he longed for Winston Churchill to be in office throughout the late 1930s, believing that a Churchill government would stand up to Hitler.
And he knew several extraordinary figures in the semi-secret world where government, science and politics intersect. One was the fascinating Maurice Hankey, who appears in some of the books (as I believe) as the politician Bevill. The others, who are the principal characters in ‘Science and Government’ are Sir Henry Tizard (whom Snow obviously admired greatly) and F.A. Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), the mysterious German-born naturalized Briton, scientist and intriguer who became Winston Churchill’s chief scientific adviser. Snow is utterly fair to Lindemann, and seems to have liked him as far as it was possible to do so. He notes that both Lindemann and Tizard were abnormally physically brave, and both proved it by extraordinary flying exploits during the First World War. It is amazing that they survived.
But it would not be true to say he admired Lindemann.
The two scientists quite famously quarrelled over Lindemann’s belief that bombing German civilians would win the war.
Lindemann advocated, quite specifically, the bombing of German working class homes. ‘Middle class houses have too much space around them and so are bound to waste bombs’, as Snow explains the view. ‘Factories and “military objectives” had long since been forgotten, except in official bulletins, since they were much too difficult to find and hit.’
Lindemann argued that, given a total concentration of effort, bombing all the major towns of Germany could destroy 50 per cent of all houses.
Snow notes at this point, in a superb and (to me) moving piece of understatement: ‘It is possible, I suppose, that some time in the future people living in a more benevolent age than ours may turn over the official records and notice that men like us, well-educated by the standards of the day, men fairly kindly by the standards of the day, and often possessed of strong human feelings, made the kind of calculation I have just been describing’…. ‘…Will they think that we resigned our humanity? They will have the right’.
But he returns to the practical point. As well as being wicked, the policy was plain wrong.
Tizard said that Lindemann’s estimate of the possible destruction was five times too high. Patrick Blackett (a former naval officer who had become a noted physicist high in the scientific councils of the day and later the winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics and ennobled as Lord Blackett), independently advised that Lindemann’s estimate was six times too high (Both were slightly out. But nothing like as wrong as Lindemann was. Lindemann’s estimate of destruction was in fact *ten times too high*, as the post-war bombing survey revealed).
They might as well not have bothered to argue. ‘The minority view [that of Tizard and Blackett] was not only defeated, but squashed. The atmosphere was more hysterical than is usual in English official life; it had the faint but just perceptible smell of a witch-hunt. Tizard was actually called a defeatist’.
As Snow says‘It was not easy, for a man as tough and brave as men are made, and a good deal prouder than most of us, to be called a defeatist’
Perhaps worse was the internal exile into which Tizard was forced, denied all further influence, despite his great knowledge and experience, and exiled to the Presidency of Magdalen College in Oxford, his talents wasted at their very peak, and when they were most needed by the country he loved. No, it is not Soviet, there was no Siberian power station, and no bullet in the back of the head. But it is not English either. And it is stupid, stupid, stupid.
You will search in vain in most histories of the war for more than tiny passing references to Tizard. If there is another book which describes this moment of official insanity, I do not know where it is. I sat over my supper, shocked into immobility, my knife and fork abandoned and my glass of wine ignored, almost trembling with wasted anger over this awful story of long ago. Why had I till then been only dimly aware of it? Why is it trapped inside this small, obscure volume retrieved from deep in a rather impenetrable library? Why isn’t it taught in schools? Why hasn’t anyone written a play about it?
Well, partly because it would undermine the nonsensical cult of Winston Churchill, who for all his merits had many bad qualities which we are generally not supposed to go on about.
His complete support for Lindemann (who by the way was a non-drinking , non-smoking vegetarian with no known sexual relations with anyone, who lived on the whites of eggs, Port Salut cheese and olive oil, a strange boon companion for the boozy Edwardian WSC, who is said to have occasionally persuaded Lindemann to drink a glass of Cognac) simply crushed all opposition.
Well , that’s half the story, but – shocking as it is – there’s an even more worrying postscript. I reckon that most of my critics on the subject of bombing, the ones who say the Germans deserved it, the ones who think that burning and mangling women and children in their homes was a justified and effective means of war, the ones who tot up the diversion of resources to anti-aircraft measures and claim this somehow turned the scale in Russia (even though the bombing didn’t get properly under way until long after Hitler was beaten at Stalingrad and the course of the war was decided anyway), and yet who don’t find that the deliberate killing of civilians, in areas where opposition to Hitler was concentrated, was both stupid and immoral….
….I would reckon that even these people would say that the invention of radar and its deployment in the Home Chain on the eve of war was an unmixed blessing and possibly saved this country.
Well, if Churchill had been in power a few years earlier, there would have been no radar, because his pet Lindemann would have stopped its development.
The ‘Tizard Committee’ (officially the 'Committee for the Scientific Study of Air Defence’) began meeting in secret in January 1935. Tizard kept it small and concentrated, and picked its members with great care (Blackett being one of them) . They decided quickly that radar was the one thing to back. And they began the concentrated, brilliant, exhausting work on it (and on persuading the armed forces that it was what they needed) which would put Britain significantly ahead in its develop at a vital moment in world history.
As Snow says, most of the vital work (which made it available to the RAF in the summer of 1940)had been done by the end of 1936. The development of such devices is slow, and this was an amazing piece of prescience and competence.
And yet in 1935, Lindemann became involved. This was a result of a secret arrangement under which then then prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, agreed to allow Winston Churchill to sit on another secret committee on air defence, one for politicians rather than scientists.
With Churchill came Lindemann, who was placed on the Tizard Committee.
He very nearly wrecked it. It became full of ‘diatribes by Lindemann, scornful, contemptuous, barely audible, directed against any decision that Tizard had made, was making, or ever would make.’
Lindemann ‘demanded that [radar] should be put much lower on the priority list and research on other devices given the highest priority’.
These other devices included wholly impractical plans for infra-red detection, and the dropping of parachute mines and bombs *in front of hostile aircraft*, as if they were ships.
Two members of the committee, including Blackett, could bear it no longer and left. This happened after Lindemann abused Tizard so fiercely that the secretaries ‘had to be sent out of the room’.
With typical Whitehall cunning, the committee was reconstituted and Lindemann was somehow left off it. Radar survived and was ready in time.
But what if Churchill had by then been Premier?
Snow admits the paradox - he and his friends had at the time clamoured for Churchill to be brought back into the Cabinet, to strengthen our war preparations and stiffen our national sinews..
But if that had happened, Lindemann would have been able to do to Tizard in 1936 what he did to him in 1942 over bombing – deploy the power of Churchill to crush him.
And then what would have happened to radar? It would not have been remotely ready by 1940. Good speeches by WSC wouldn’t have won the Battle of Britain if there hadn’t been radar too.
‘With Lindemann instead of Tizard’, Snow concludes, ‘ it seems at least likely that different technical choices would have been made. If that had been so, I still cannot for the life of me see how the radar system would have been ready in time’.
It’s an interesting contrast between what we thought we knew, and what actually happened. I do urge you to read ‘Science and Government’. And I wish someone would write a play, or a TV drama about Tizard and Lindemann. That’s the way to get such things into history, now nobody knows any.