Firefighters working after the heavy bombing of the city of Manchester by the German Luftwaffe, also known as the Manchester Blitz, 1940.
Firefighters working after the heavy bombing of the city of Manchester by the German Luftwaffe, also known as the Manchester Blitz, 1940.
Wikipedia Commons

ONE lesson taught by the second phase of the air operations in the present European war [i] is that superior strength on the land and in the air can produce a decision far more quickly than in the days before the air was conquered. This was the lesson taught by the German triumphs in Norway, Holland, Belgium and France. It was taught, too, more clumsily, by the Russians in Finland. Even if a belligerent makes almost every possible tactical error in land operations, predominance in the air will enable him to blind and overwhelm an opponent whose air arm is inadequate and whose army, even though well directed and, indeed, superior in fighting quality, is numerically inferior. Such, at least, was the lesson of the mid-winter campaign in Finland.

In the air, as on land, Russia had an immense superiority of strength. Finland had probably less than 100 first-line planes; her total strength in serviceable aircraft can hardly have exceeded 150. What Russia's first-line strength was is uncertain, but it was undoubtedly immense. The estimate of "Max Werner," [ii] 10,000 to 12,000 first-line aircraft, was certainly excessive; that of M. Laurent Eynac,[iii] 3000 aircraft, was probably too low. M. Pierre Cot placed the figure at 4500-5000 machines, and General Sikorski at 5000, with an equal number in reserve.[iv] The figure of 4200 to 4500 was suggested in 1938 in a French publication[v] and was probably not far wrong. In the fighting in the Karelian Isthmus on February 15, 1940, more than 500 machines were reported to have been in the air, and on a later day in February at least 1000 were flying in all the Finnish theatre.

The Russian machines were on the whole of poor quality. The I-16 single-seater fighter had a maximum speed of only 248 miles per hour and a comparatively poor armament. The standard bomber, the S.B., had a top speed of no more than 250 miles per hour and a range of only 620 miles. Another bomber, the Ts.Kb.26, had a range of 1300 miles, with a similar maximum speed. Both would have been shot to pieces by modern fighters. The quality of the Finns' aircraft was not, however, much better. Their machines were a scratch collection. The fighters were largely Bristol Bulldogs, long discarded in Great Britain. Better machines were gradually acquired. Gladiator fighters and Blenheim bombers were obtained from Britain and a number of modern aircraft were also supplied from France and the United States. Altogether, 101 planes were sent from Britain during the war, as well as 15,700 aircraft bombs.[vi] By the end of the war Finland had probably more and certainly better aircraft than she had had at the beginning. She was still, however, woefully inferior to Russia in the air.

How ruthlessly Russia exploited her superior strength is notorious. It is true that the Red Army Command issued at the beginning of March 1940 a categorical denial of the charges that the air arm had bombed non-military objectives and machine-gunned civilians. The evidence in support of the charges is too strong. Photographs of the destruction wrought at Helsinki, Viipuri, Hanko and other places were published in many newspapers.[vii] The verdict of Sir Walter Citrine, who, with Mr. Philip Noel Baker and Mr. John Downie, visited Finland in January 1940, on behalf of the National Council of Labor, is quite uncompromising. He and his colleagues most certainly had no bias against Russia and their condemnation of her acts is accordingly the more impressive. Of Turku (Aabo) he wrote that "by far the vaster proportion of the damage was utterly without military importance" and that "it was certain that the bombing was indiscriminate."[viii] Of the destruction of Hanko he wrote: "It seemed diabolical to me that a country which only a couple of years ago was denouncing to the world the German and Italian bombing in Spain should now be resorting to this means of trying to terrorise the Finnish people."[ix]

So flagrant were the Soviet attacks on hospitals that the Finnish medical authorities abandoned the use of the Red Cross as a protective emblem. Before they did so it was reported that a couple of Russian prisoners captured in the Isthmus protested against being taken to a Red Cross hospital. "That," they said, "is the kind of house our airmen bomb." [x] Some terrible photographs of the devastation caused by bombs in the hospital at Rovaniemi, where the operating theatre and a ward were hit, five nurses and many patients being killed, were published in a British newspaper.[xi]

The ruthless bombing undoubtedly had its effect. A well-known war correspondent, who followed the operations in Finland, has stated that "Russia's air supremacy was really the deciding factor." The advantages which it gave were, he states, that it prevented all counter-bombing by the. Finnish air force; it allowed the Russian aircraft to observe all that occurred on the other side; it stopped the flow of Finnish munitions and food to the front; and, above all, it deprived the exhausted Finnish soldiers of rest.[xii]

It is nevertheless open to question whether the Soviet authority in the air would have sufficed to quell the Finnish resistance except in combination with a vast superiority on the ground. It was the "Russian steam-roller" below that made the assault from above so effective. All that one can say as a result of the campaign in Finland is that predominant air power plus predominant land power is decisive today in war, in circumstances in which sea power cannot be brought into play. There is not sufficient evidence that the first without the second would have succeeded in forcing Finland to capitulate.

Meanwhile in the western theatre of war the strange lull in the air which marked the first phase of the conflict continued. The fact that no attempt was made on either side to carry the war into the enemy's country during the first eight months of hostilities was the cause of surprise and bewilderment alike in Britain and in Germany. In Britain, it had been expected that terrific attacks would be made on London. In Germany, it was expected that they would be made against Berlin. Referring to the British declaration of war, Dr. Goebbels said in a speech at Poznan on 19 January, 1940: "One would have expected that on the afternoon of that very day their much-vaunted bombers would have appeared over Berlin." In both capitals a measure of relief was felt that the bombing had not started at zero hour -- or before it.

What was still more extraordinary was the failure of the Luftwaffe, on one side, and of the British and French air forces, on the other, to interfere with the great troop concentrations which took place in September 1939 and thereafter. As long ago as 1927 Lord Thomson, the former Secretary of State for Air, had written that "should such a calamity as another world war occur, hostilities will begin at once, there will be no breathing space of ten days or a fortnight for mobilization. . . . In these circumstances the embarkation of the British Expeditionary Force would have been hampered, if not prevented, and a number of our warships would have been disabled before they could put to sea."[xiii] Yet the British Expeditionary Force of 1939 had been able to embark, to cross to France, to disembark there and to move up to the line, without let or hindrance. There might have been no German air force whatever for all that that great army, moving with its impedimenta, knew about it in September 1939, or in the following months when reënforcements for it crossed to France.

A still greater surprise, to the well-informed, was the abstention of the British and French bombers from interfering with the huge concentration of the German forces in the west. Britain had sent a strong "Advanced Air Striking Force" to France in the first days of the war; and the French had their striking force, too. Neither struck. Division after division moved from the east to the west of Germany. They did so in perfect peace. "The extraordinary thing," wrote Mr. E. Coleston Shephard, "is that while they held the initial command of the air in the west, the French and British Air Forces did not attempt to prevent the swift transfer of troops by concentrated bombing on railway junctions, roads and aerodromes up to a hundred miles or more behind the German lines. The bombing fleets had been built for just such a purpose." [xiv]

Not until after the end of the war shall we know, probably, the full reasons for the strange quiescence in the air in its early stages. Prima facie it appears as if each side lost a golden opportunity. It is evident that none of the belligerents was inclined to initiate air attack upon the enemy's territory. Why each of them held back is not entirely clear, though many different reasons could be suggested for the mutual restraint. At the back of all the reasons there was, one must surmise, the working of the balance of air power. Each feared the other's riposte.

In a speech at the Rheinmetal-Borsig armament factory on September 9, 1939, Field Marshal Göring said: "If the British aeroplanes fly at tremendous heights at night and drop their ridiculous propaganda in German territory, I have nothing against it. But take care if the leaflets are replaced by one bomb. Then reprisals will follow as in Poland." (Later, the propaganda film, "Baptism of Fire," was made in Germany to show what this threat of frightfulness meant in practice.) "We shall return blow for blow," said M. Daladier on November 30. "If the destructive fury of the enemy falls upon our villages we shall strike back at him with the same harshness." When in a raid upon Scapa Flow on March 16, 1940, bombs were dropped on Orkney Mainland and one civilian was killed and seven were wounded, the Royal Air Force promptly retaliated, on March 19, by bombing the German air base at Hörnum in the island of Sylt. About three months earlier the German official news agency had alleged that bombs had been dropped on Hörnum and another small town in Sylt (Rantum). This was at once denied by the British Air Ministry, and a similar denial was issued on February 10, 1940, when it was again alleged in Germany that Hörnum and Rantum had been attacked. Not until after the invasion of Norway was Sylt again bombed; the aerodrome at Westerland was heavily raided on the night of April 23-24. That the raid was not intended to mark a departure from the general policy was implied in the Air Ministry's announcement that it (as well as the raid on Aalborg aerodrome in Denmark) was directed "against air bases available to the enemy for use in the invasion of Norway."

Norway itself was not included in the unexpressed ban, and that unfortunate country experienced the full measure of German Schrecklichkeit from the air. Not only towns like Namsos, Aandalsnes, Elverum and Stenkjer, but many villages were largely destroyed, and peaceable inhabitants were machine-gunned on various occasions. The Germans had a marked superiority in the air and exploited it to the full. It was, indeed, that superiority which forced the Allies to abandon the idea of capturing Trondheim. "Intense and continuous bombing of the bases at Aandalsnes and Namsos prevented the landing of any large reinforcements," said Mr. Churchill in the House of Commons on May 8, 1940, "and even of artillery for the infantry already landed, and of many supplies. It was therefore necessary to withdraw the troops or leave them to be destroyed by overwhelming forces."

It was Germany's superiority in the air which brought Britain's intervention in Central Norway to a premature and unsatisfactory end, and it was the same superiority which deterred the Allies from taking the initiative in raiding military objectives in Germany. There were hundreds of objectives there simply shrieking for attention from their long-range bombers. There were the oil-fuel installations, for instance. Yet it was not until May 17 that any attempt was made to destroy these vital sources of Germany's armed strength. On that night British bombers attacked the petrol storage tanks at Hamburg and Bremen; they repeated the operation on later occasions and included the tanks at Hannover also, for luck, and by the end of September the oil refineries at Hamburg, Bremen and Hannover had been bombed no less than 36, 31 and 19 times respectively. The Germans at once complained that the Royal Air Force had killed 29 people and injured 51 in the raid on Hamburg. Possibly they had, but then civilians are likely to suffer if they are in the vicinity of military targets. In subsequent communiqués the German High Command charged the British Air Force with making "random attacks" on non-military objectives. That allegation was only to be expected; it was a good opening for propaganda. What is quite certain is that British airmen did not deliberately attack noncombatants. They aimed solely at military objectives.

The policy of waiting before carrying the war into Germany was defended by Mr. Churchill in a speech at Manchester on January 27, 1940. He asked, Ought we to have begun bombing? No, he said, our policy was right. We were not as well prepared as Germany. We were now much better organized and stronger in defences than at the beginning of the war. There had been, he said, a great advance in the protection of the civil population and in the punishment which would be inflicted upon the raiders. There were others who took a different view, but the question was a very difficult one.

Many prominent people were far from satisfied with Britain's policy of restraint. Mr. Amery and Mr. Duff Cooper, both out of office at the time but soon to become ministers again, pleaded in public for the adoption of much sterner methods. The view of the aeronautical world was reflected in The Aeroplane, which kept hammering away at the same point. Why on earth, the editor, Mr. Colston Shephard, asked in effect, were we not hitting at Germany's strength at its source and bombing Dessau, Bremen, Rostock and Oranienburg, where dozens of new aeroplanes were being produced every week to be used against us? Lord Trenchard, the greatest figure in British military aviation, added his powerful support to their plea. In the House of Lords on May 8, 1940, he asked why we waited, and said that if it was because we had promised not to bomb "open towns," this meant that Germany need not retain any defences at home. Nobody, he added, wanted to kill civilians, but the British people would not shrink from facing whatever risk was necessary to bring the war to a successful conclusion. "Make no mistake about it," he said. "When it suits Germany's book she will hit open towns and all, mercilessly and thoroughly. Why should we await her convenience before striking at German military might in Germany?"

Lord Trenchard's words were prophetic. It suited Germany's book to begin bombing the homelands of the western Allies in the second week of May, when she attacked Holland, where a whole district of Rotterdam was practically wiped out, and Belgium, where the cities of Tournai, Louvain, Nivelles and Namur were savagely bombed. German bombers also attacked aerodromes and railway stations at a large number of French towns -- Nancy, Lyon, Lille, Colmar, Luxeuil, Pontoise, Béthune, Lens, Hazebrouck, Abbeville and Laon. Some 44 bombs were dropped, too, by a German aircraft in a wood in Kent where they did no damage; they were probably jettisoned. The Allies on their side bombed aerodromes, troop concentrations, mechanized columns on the move, bridges, and roads behind the German lines. The war in the air was thus carried for the first time into the enemy's country.

Since then the incursions of the Royal Air Force into Germany and of the Luftwaffe into Britain have steadily increased in frequency and vigor. Those of the British airmen have been aimed exclusively at impairing Germany's military strength. Oil refineries, synthetic oil plants and petrol storage depots have been among the chief targets. Not only in western Germany but also as far away as at Leuna in central Germany, at Pölitz (near Stettin) on the Baltic, and at Regensburg on the Danube have Germany's oil fuel installations been raided with damaging effect. Other objectives of importance for the German war effort have also been attacked unremittingly. The aircraft factories in which the Focke-Wulf, Dornier, Fieseler, Junkers, Gotha and Messerschmitt machines are constructed or assembled have been bombed. So have the aero-engine works of the B.M.W. and Daimler-Benz firms. The great Fokker factory at Amsterdam was heavily raided as soon as it had been brought into operation for German purposes. The rail and canal communications of western Germany have been repeatedly bombed. The great railway centre of Hamm, which serves as a clearing house for the whole of the goods traffic of western Germany, was attacked no less than sixty times in the three months which ended on September 30. The aqueduct of the Dortmund-Ems canal, which carries the equivalent of 400 train-loads daily and serves as the chief link between the Rhineland and northwest and central Germany, has been put out of action, repaired, and put out of action again. The naval dockyards and ports of Hamburg, Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, Kiel and Cuxhaven have been the objectives of recurrent attacks.

Indeed, the whole of Germany's industrial and economic system has been seriously affected by the incessant blows rained upon it by the Royal Air Force. These have ranged as far afield as Pilsen, in Czechoslovakia, where the great Skoda armament works were successfully bombed on the night of October 27 -- a feat eclipsed by the British Bomber Command four days later, when oil plants and military objectives at Naples were attacked by aircraft starting from England.

So great, indeed, was the effect of those blows that the menace to the effectiveness of Germany's war machinery was already becoming evident in the summer. Something had to be done to bring the activities of the British bombers to an end. The obvious course was, if possible, to invade and overrun Britain just as France and the other victims of Germany's armed might had been invaded and overrun, or, if that was not possible, at least to drive the British Air Force out of the sky. Invasion was the solution -- preferably by sea, land and air; but by air alone, if the other alternatives could not be achieved. So in the autumn of the year all the necessary preparations were put in hand for loosing a combined attack upon southeast England and, as a preliminary to that attack, for overwhelming the Royal Air Force in that corner of the country.

There is reason to believe that first one and then another date was fixed for the launching of the grand assault. The first was in mid-August. To gain command of the air, an essential condition for the success of the invasion by sea and land forces, a mass attack was launched against the air bases in southern England on August 15. A veritable armada of bombers and fighters came over the coast. The bombers were largely Junkers 87 dive-bombers, "Stukas," as they are called, the machines which, in combination with mechanized columns and tanks, had enabled the Germans to smash their way through northern France in May and June. There were thousands of these machines in the Luftwaffe, and thousands more of the Junkers 52 troop-carrier, which had also played a prominent part in Germany's successes, notably in Norway and Holland. The stage was never reached at which the Ju-52's could be used against Britain. The Ju-87's were used -- and the tale was a sorry one for their pilots and crews.

Already the dive-bombers had been handled roughly by the Spitfires, Hurricanes and Defiants of the Royal Air Force over the beaches of Dunkirk. When they ventured over the English coast they suffered more severely still. Nine of them were shot down in a few minutes by a Spitfire squadron near Southampton on August 13, but it was on August 15 that they were veritably massacred. On that day the Luftwaffe lost 180 aircraft over and around southern England; the slaughter of the Stukas really sealed the fate of the first project of invasion.

The August plan had come to naught. The next attempt was more carefully planned. It was fixed, apparently, for mid-September. Early in that month the Germans began to concentrate barges, shipping and light naval forces in the ports along the Dutch, Belgian and northern French coasts, with the intention of making a sudden dash across the English Channel. The Royal Air Force foiled that plan, too. It struck again and again at the concentrations of light craft, first at the mouth of the Scheldt and at Ostend, then, when they were moved westward, at Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne and Le Havre, and finally even at Lorient in the Bay of Biscay. One particular onslaught was a veritable disaster for the would-be invaders. It coincided with a dress-rehearsal for the invasion; on that night the barges were packed with fully equipped troops, who were caught unawares by the British bombers. Many were killed, many drowned, others burnt by the blazing oil which covered the sea after incendiary bombs had been dropped and the tanks of the barges had been set on fire. To that disaster in the tidewater was added another, which befell the Luftwaffe about the same time. On September 15 a second mass attack was made on southern England in the air and routed even more decisively than that of a month before. The definitely confirmed losses of German aircraft on that day amounted to 185; it is highly probable that in reality not less than 232 machines were destroyed. No such destruction of aircraft in one day has been known in the annals of war.

It was undoubtedly the inability of the German air force to penetrate the British defence by day which inspired the savage attacks by night upon London and other cities in Britain. Those attacks were a confession of failure. The Luftwaffe had not been trained for night operations. It was in this respect both technically and professionally far inferior to the Royal Air Force. The latter, as a result in part of the "leaflet raids" carried out during the winter of 1939-40, knew the darkened face of Germany as well as it knew that of England. Its personnel was highly skilled in night flying. Its matériel was, for this purpose, superior to Germany's. The pilots and bomb-aimers had been trained to a pitch not even approached by those of the Luftwaffe. Precision of aim was inculcated and practised. Long periods were spent in the search for and exact location of targets. If the designated objective could not be found, and if no alternative target could be bombed with reasonable precision, no attack was launched. Bombs cost money and it is folly to dump them where they can do no harm. Frequently a full bomb-load has been brought home because it could not be dropped on a military objective. There is nothing of blind or indiscriminate bombing in the work of the Royal Air Force. A similar statement cannot be made of the Luftwaffe, as those who, like the present writer, reside in the outskirts of London far from any military objective, and whose houses have suffered from the incompetence -- it was that, probably, rather than malice -- of the German airmen, have practical reason for affirming without any hesitation whatever.

While these words are being written, the callous, ham-fisted bombing of London continues. Defence in the air has proved to be more effective by day, less effective by night, than had been expected. In time, no doubt, a solution of the problem of the night bomber will be found. That time may possibly be soon. Meanwhile we have to grin and bear our adversity, and that is what in fact we are doing. There is no likelihood whatever that the random, indiscriminate attack to which the once-chivalrous German air force is subjecting the civilian population of London and other cities will break their spirit. Rather, it is steeling them to a grimmer determination to put an end to the régime which can slaughter women and children as a mere incident of its march to world-domination, to stop the wheels of the Nazi juggernaut for all time. It will do something more, too: it will give British air power a freer hand when the day of reckoning comes. There will be little mercy then for the butchers of the air.

The day of reckoning is coming. The air strength of Britain and the Empire is being marshalled. The Luftwaffe is still numerically stronger than the Royal Air Force. Mr. Churchill stated, however, in his speech in the House of Commons on August 20, that the new production of aircraft in Britain is already considerably larger than Germany's, and, he added, the American production was then only beginning to flow in. Soon it will be a flood. Some 500 aircraft are believed to be coming each month from the United States. The number will increase to 700 by the end of the year and to 1000 by the early summer of 1941. Canada, we know from statements by two of her ministers, Mr. Power and Mr. Gibson, will be sending 360 aircraft a month by then. Britain expects to overtake the German lead in 1941, Mr. Churchill stated on October 8. In his broadcast to the French people on October 21 he was still more definite and said that in 1941 Britain would have command of the air.

The British Air Force, already qualitatively superior to the German, will soon be better still. Air Marshal Sir Philip Joubert stated in a broadcast on October 24 that the new machines soon to come into operation will be as distinct an advance upon the existing ones as they were upon their predecessors. New American aircraft of very high performance are also under construction. The Bell, Brewster, Curtiss and Lockheed fighters, the Douglas, Boeing and Martin bombers, will be a most important supplement to the new and improved types of both classes now on the stocks in Great Britain. The Coastal Command of the Royal Air Force knows, from its experience with the Lockheed Hudson, about the quality of American machines; and the new Lockheed Vega is understood to be a super-Hudson. There will be advances in German quality, too, no doubt; but Britain, with American help, should be well able to keep her lead. When it is a quantitative lead also, then the end of this great struggle will be near at hand.

The first lesson of the second phase of the air warfare has been, as stated at the beginning of this article, the swiftness and decisiveness with which the combination of superior strength on the ground and in the air became effective. What was involved there was the overrunning of a weaker belligerent whose land frontier marched with that of a more powerful neighbor. What of belligerents separated by the sea? Will sea power plus air power be able to bring about a decision? This lesson remains to be learned. Already it has been established that sea power has not been materially affected by the coming of the aeroplane. Destroyers, sloops, minesweepers have been sunk by air action. Larger warships have, in general, been immune. Usually, it has been the aircraft and not the ship which has had to lick its wounds after the encounter. What has not yet been proved is whether sea power and air power can overcome land power and air power. That is really the crux of the matter as between Britain and Germany.

There will be encounters, no doubt, on land. In the Middle East there will be a clash of armies. The war will not be decided there, however, though it appears probable that the result of Mussolini's attack on Greece will be to give British sea and air power alike footholds from which shattering blows can be aimed at Italy's naval and air bases and her maritime communications with her expeditionary forces. The success of the fleet air arm at Taranto may be the first of a series of strokes which will end in knocking Italy out of the ring. Unfortunately, Germany may not be the weaker on that account.

The vital theatre will still be in the west of Europe. No triumphs elsewhere will profit Germany -- or Italy -- if the island of Great Britain remains inviolate and defiant. If that outpost of the British Empire still holds out, and if British strength on the sea and in the air is unbroken and increases -- as increase it will -- the Axis cannot win this war, however far it extends its conquests elsewhere. Given the achievement of the task which the British nations have undertaken -- to mass overwhelming strength in the air -- the Axis must lose. It will be crushed in the grip of two mighty forces, sea power and air power, against which land power, backed by air power that is outmatched, will find it useless to struggle. That, one makes bold to predict, will be the lesson of the third phase of the war.

[i] Editor's Note: See "The War in the Air: First Phase," by J. M. Spaight, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, January 1940.

[ii] "The Military Strength of the Powers," New York, 1939, p. 61.

[iii] In L'Air, July 1939.

[iv] Articles in Sunday Times, April 8, 1939, and June 4, 1939.

[v] "L'Aviation Soviétique," 1938, p. 7.

[vi] Statement by Mr. Chamberlain in the House of Commons, March 19, 1940.

[vii] See, e.g., The Times, December 8, 1939.

[viii] "My Finnish Diary," 1940, p. 42.

[ix] Ibid., p.56.

[x] The Times, January 30, 1940, report from correspondent at Stockholm.

[xi] See the Daily Telegraph of February 10, 1940.

[xii] Article by G. L. Steer on "Looking Back on the Reasons for Finland's Heroic Failure," Daily Telegraph, February 8, 1940.

[xiii] "Air Facts and Problems," 1927, pp. 21-22.

[xiv] The Aeroplane, October 5, 1939.

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