Tag Archives: Winston Churchill

A final tally

All RAF aircrews were volunteers. They had an average age of 22.

Of 125,000 bomber aircrew involved, more than 55,000 were killed, over 8,000 were wounded and nearly 10,000 were prisoners of war. This was on a scale proportionate to British casualties in the trenches during the worst period of World War One.

43,000 British civilians were killed during the Blitz.

Through the bombing offensive, 593,000 German civilians died and 3.37 million dwellings were destroyed, including 600,000 in Berlin alone.

Hastings’ final judgment reads:

“The bomber offensive partly fulfilled useful purposes for the Allied war effort. Bomber Command entirely satisfied Churchill’s hopes… by fighting a long holding-action to buy time before launching Overlord on overwhelmingly favourable terms. If airmen had pitched their demands for resources, their own hopes and their subsequent claims more modestly, history might have judged them more kindly. As it was, the cost of the bomber offensive in life, treasure and moral superiority over the enemy tragically outstripped the results that it achieved” (458).


Was Churchill responsible?

Letter from Churchill to Harris

Excerpted from the National Archives:

“In 1992 the Queen Mother unveiled a bronze statue of Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command during World War 2. The event caused international criticism and people attacked the statue. They were protesting against the deaths and destruction caused by the bombing of Dresden.

As head of Bomber Command, Harris was responsible for bombing operations. However, he and his colleagues questioned and double-checked the decision to attack Dresden. Harris wrote in his autobiography: ‘I know that the destruction of so large and splendid a city at this late stage of the war was considered unnecessary even by a good many people who admit that our earlier attacks were as fully justified as any other operation of war. Here I will only say that the attack on Dresden was at the time considered a military necessity by much more important people than myself, …’. (Bomber Offensive, 1947, p. 242)

Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister and also the Minister for Defence when the policy of area bombing took place. He had a major input into military strategy. Historians debate whether he was directly involved in the decision to bomb Dresden. He wasn’t consulted about every bombing raid, but there is some suggestion he supported the decision to attack Dresden, perhaps as a result of a request from Britain’s allies, the Russians.”

Visit the National Archives website to read:

Air Ministry Comments on Harris

Letter from Churchill on area bombing

Harris’ view on Dresden, 1945

The lesser evil

Cologne in 1945



The next series of posts will relate to the outcomes of Bomber Command’s strategic air offensive in Europe. I’ve segmented the analysis into three topics: How did they do it- both in the moral and the operational sense? What were the results? How is it remembered and recorded?

In the early phases of the war, all raids were directed against military targets. As it became increasingly apparent that it was not possible to attack such specific destinations with precision, the campaign was shifted to area bombing.

Operation Millennium

In 1942 , Sir Arthur Harris knew that the future of Bomber Command was still in doubt. He approached both Winston Churchill and Sir Charles Portal with the bold idea of assembling a force of 1,000 bombers and sending them out in one massive raid on a German city.

Final orders were ready on 26 May with the full moon approaching. The force stood ready, waiting for the weather. His first choice of target was Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany and a great port. But the weather over Germany was unfavourable for three days running and, on 30 May, Harris decided to send the bombers to his second target choice – Cologne, the third largest city in Germany. Soon after noon on that day, the order to attack Cologne went out to the groups and squadrons and the raid took place that night.

The moral reckoning

The raid was deemed a great success, with devastating fires and casualties fueling the Allied propaganda machine. But not all agreed…

A report was sent to the Air Ministry analysing a sample of civilian letters opened by the censor after the raid: “There are those who are pleased, and those who regret that so much suffering should have to be inflicted.” (Hastings 216).

Distinguished military thinker Captain Basil Liddell Hart wrote a private reflection (219):

“It will be ironical if the defenders of civilization depend for victory upon the most barbaric, and unskilled, way of winning a war that the modern world has seen…it should be a sobering thought that but for Hitler’s folly in attacking Russia we and the Germans would now be ‘Cologning’ each other’s cities with the advantage on Germany’s side, in this mad competition in mutual devastation…”

Many of Britain’s churchmen supported the bomber offensive. The Archbishop of York wrote in 1943 “Often in life, there is no clear choice between absolute right and wrong; frequently the choice has to be made of the lesser of two evils, and it is a lesser evil to bomb a war-loving Germany than to sacrifice the lives of our fellow country-men who long for peace, and to delay delivering millions now held in slavery”.

George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (in the heart of 11 Group Territory and only a few miles from Westhampnett, where our story began) was unable to accept this compromise. He addressed the House of Lords in 1944:

“The Allies stand for something greater than power. The chief name inscribed on our banner is ‘Law’. It is of supreme importance that we, who, with our Allies, are the Liberators of Europe, should so use power that it is always under the control of law.”

Revd. John Collins was Chaplain at Bomber Command. He was also a permanent thorn in the side of authority. After the war he wrote:

“Bomber Command Headquarters was perhaps the most soul-destroying, the most depressing of the places…which I had been to serve. For there, in contrast with the natural beauty of the surroundings, the evil…policy of the carpet bombing of German cities was planned.”

How to navigate this moral battlefield?  In so many ways, little seems to have changed. The news this evening leads with more strategic air strikes on Libya. After months of highly technical precision bombing and enforcement of the ‘no fly zone’, Quadafi remains in power. And there is dismay that the airforce hasn’t yet finished the job.

History now seems uncertain about how to understand what happened from 1942 and how to reconcile the moral disgrace of the destruction with the youthful, extraordinarily brave aircrew. It explains why there are still so many people passionately campaigning for a permanent memorial- and why one has yet to be created.

A view looking up

The last word on this thought goes to Germany.

Klaus Schmit recorded the stories of Darmstadt, a town ferrociously bombed towards the end of war:

“At the turn of the century, I travelled through Germany’s towns, and each one had its own soul and face. Shortly before the war I ventured again through the same towns, and it seemed that their souls and faces were gone, as if they were dead in themselves. Now, as I walk through the ruins of the same towns, I am overcome by the terrible awareness that they have fulfilled the promise that was made before the war. Instead of living corpses they have become truly dead ones.”

Meeting them

One of my favourite stories about Park:

During the morning of 15 September Park received a visit from Churchill…

Churchill remembered Park walking up and down behind the map table, “watching with vigilant eye every move in the game…and only occasionally intervening with some decisive order, usually to reinforce a threatened area.”

Churchill now broke silence. “There appear to be many aircraft coming in”. As calmly, Park reassured him:

‘There’ll be someone there to meet them.”

Soon all his squadron were committed and Churchill heard him call Dowding to ask for three squadrons from 12 Group to be placed at his disposal in case of another attack. He noticed Park’s anxiety and and asked: “What reserves have we?”

“There are none” Park replied.

(Orange 109-110)