The bomber will always get through
Even before the first aircraft took to the skies, theorists had envisaged their role in war. The very first bombers were nothing more than the standard little biplanes of the day, flying at 50 to 60 mph. Almost naturally, pilots took it to themselves to carry a few grenades with them and throw them out of a totally open and exposed cockpit. Another popular weapon of the earliest days was bundles of ‘flechettes’. These were nothing more than metal darts without explosives. The idea was that a bunch of these would pierce through the helmets of soldiers below. They caused quite a bit of panic, but it was quickly realised that the chance of being hit by these projectiles was very unlikely.
Gradually the first bombs were designed, such as the 20 lb Cooper bomb, and bomb sights were developed, very rudimentary at first but still a great improvement. As engines became more powerful, more bombs could be carried over longer distance. This culminated with the Handley Page bombers, especially the massive V/1500 which was designed to fly missions to Berlin and back. This shows the revolutionary advances in aviation; only 9 years earlier Louis Blériot struggled to get across the English Channel.
The Interwar period saw the RAF focus on ‘policing the Empire’, a terrible euphemism for suppressing local revolts. Aircraft turned out to be the perfect weapon to control large territories and bomb tribes into submission. It was a sign of things to come, though we shouldn’t fall into the trap of moral equivalence; the times were different back then …
In the 1930s clouds appeared over Europe as the menace from Nazi Germany grew. The prevailing thought was ‘The bomber will always get through’. At the time, bombers had a slight performance advantage over fighters due to having multiple engines. This was the time before radar and a timely interception was deemed unlikely.
It was believed that bomber aircraft would dominate and even decide future wars. When the Second World War broke out, many people and military theorists such as Basil Liddell Hart speculated that much of Europe would be destroyed by fleets of bomber aircraft. Not only bombs, but also poison gas was most feared. In London, this led to a mass evacuation of children. Not only their lives were at stake, but the future of Britain.
Yet, reality turned out to be different for both sides. Bomber Command which was formed in 1936 to group all the RAF bomber squadrons was mainly equipped with light bomber aircraft, such as the Fairey Battle and Bristol Blenheim, carrying only a small payload, with insufficient protection. Very vulnerable against ground fire and fighter interceptions, they were soon forced to fly under the cover of darkness. Basic navigation technology meant targets were difficult to find at night, let alone bomb accurately.
While Bomber Command expanded and introduced heavier bombers such as the Short Stirling and Avro Lancaster, limitations on targets were gradually broken down. A now controversial decision was taken to target civilian centres and break German morale. City after city was bombed by releasing a deadly combination of huge blast bombs and incendiary devices. This ‘area bombing’ strategy was partially driven as a retaliation of similar German actions, but also because accurate bombing of factories, bridges or military installations was impossible. Early reports, compiled in the 1941 Butt report, showed only one in eight bombs fell within a 5-mile radius. Large city centres were the only thing Bomber Command had a chance of hitting at night.
Technology came to the rescue by the introduction of GEE and Oboe radio waves and H2S radar navigation. The first to be equipped with such devices were the so-called ‘pathfinders’, selected from the best crews. Their job was to find and mark the targets with colourful flares before the arrival of the main bomber force. This combination greatly improved the accuracy and proved decisive in the bombing campaign against the German chemical industry, which destroyed most of the synthetic oil facilities, depriving Nazi Germany of fuel, explosives, and other chemicals.
Of all the armed services, Bomber Command suffered the highest number of casualties. More than 55,500 perished which statistically meant that these young men had a higher chance of dying than finishing their tour of 25 (later 30) sorties.
Then, on 6 August 1945 a single bomb changed everything. The Americans dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan, instantly wiping out 90 percent of the city. The ensuing Cold War was dominated by nuclear weapons and mutual assured destruction. Both the West and the Soviet Union had hundreds of large bombers ready to drop enough nuclear weapons to annihilate each other. The RAF deployed its famous V bombers: the Valiant, Vulcan and Victor. A number of these would be on Quick Reaction Alert, ready to take off within minutes.
The current RAF is playing a different game. It now fields stealth jet aircraft packed with laser- and GPS-guided missiles, capable of hitting targets with great precision. The latter is a result of military requirements, but maybe more importantly, the reduction of collateral damage is an important factor in the eyes of the public. On the other hand, the morality of autonomous attack drones, the future of military aviation, will soon be coming to the fore.