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Monday January 31 2011

I am continuing to read Leo McKinstry’s book about the mighty Avro Lancaster, and of course I continue to track the cricket in Australia, where England have been suffering a characteristic one-day anticlimax following Ashes success.

So I was rather charmed to encounter, in the Lancaster book, this quote (p. 263) from an interview with one Norman Boorer, a draughtsman who worked with Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the famous bouncing bomb, which was used to destroy two big dams in Germany in May 1943:

Wallis had studied old naval cannonball techniques, where the bomb was fired on a low trajectory and bounced, giving it more range.  In his experimental work, he also found that backspin would allow it to bounce two or three more times.  George Edwards, who was working closely with Wallis, was a very good cricketer - he could probably have been a county cricketer if he had not been a designer.  He was a fine spin bowler and he explained that if you spin it backwards it will shoot and if you spin it forwards it will dig in.  There was the other point that when the bomb hit the dam, if it were spinning backwards, it would hug the face and roll down, whereas if it were spinning forwards there was a chance it would climb up over the top of the dam.

So there we are.  Cricket won the war.

Bomber Harris was a virulent opponent of the dams raid, as he was of anyone or anything which, in his eyes, diverted anyone or anything from the job of flattening German cities and slaughtering German civilians.  Even after it had succeeded, he remained a sceptic.  Too bad he wasn’t similarly sceptical about his own obsession with winning the entire war only with his own preferred sort of bombing raids.

I am delighted that McKinstry’s Lancaster has a chapter about the dams raid, having long wanted to learn whatever might have been patriotically wrong about the famous film they made about it, which I first saw when I was a mere boy, and which was based on this book by Paul Brickhill, which I first read when I was a mere boy.  It would seem that Brickhill’s telling of the story is pretty much right.

And one of the best of the 617 Squadron men was Micky Martin, an Aussie, and very heavily decorated for his bravery as a pilot and leader.

Shane Warne vs the Nazis - no contest.

Posted by Tom B on 01 February 2011

Yes, KcKinstry names Martin, along with Gibson and Cheshire, as one of the three greatest WW2 bomber pilots of the RAF.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 01 February 2011

Guy Gibson describes Martin, in his book “Enemy Coast Ahead” as “a bit “split-arse” “, which I take to mean that the fellow flies low and aggressively.

Barnes Wallis, who in his very, very old age used to “take” some A-level physics classes at the school I was in, told us boys all about what he called “the mine”. It was still secret then, but as he said, memorably to us, once:-

“Now, gentlemen (he always referred to us in the 6th form as “gentlemen"), the Germans did recover one of my mines intact, very sadly a few hours after its crew crashed in Holland. They made details and drawings of it, which we here at Vickers learned about a month later. It really does not matter now, if I will now tell you how it worked”.

We were rivetted, as you can imagine.

The strategic objective of Bomber Command was achieved. It kept the majority of Skoda-88mm guns pointing upwards in Germany, rather than horizontally against Allied armour in the East and the West.

Posted by David Davis on 02 February 2011

"The strategic objective of Bomber Command was achieved. It kept the majority of Skoda-88mm guns pointing upwards in Germany, rather than horizontally against Allied armour in the East and the West.”

Is that true?  Wasn’t there some sort of order setting out the strategic aims?  Something about destroying industrial capacity and demoralising the civilian population?  And, anyway, if there was a shortage of 88s couldn’t the Germans/Czechs simply have made some more?  Cheaper and easier, one presumes than making a Tiger tank or an Me262.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on 02 February 2011

Was there an order?  Yes, there was:

Posted by Patrick Crozier on 02 February 2011

According to Bomber Harris the objective of Bomber Command, stated again and again, was to win the war entirely with the bombing offensive.  This did not happen.

The bombing offensive surely had consequences which contributed to winning the war, although other ways of conducting it would probably have contributed more.  But the stated objective was winning the war on its own.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 02 February 2011

McKinstry mentions the thing about how one of the big bouncing bombs got captured by the Germans, when one of the planes crashed on its way to the dams, or got shot down, or whatever.  Anyway, it was fixed to not go off in such circumstances, so the Germans got to see it all.  This being one reason why this particular kind of bomb was never used again.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 02 February 2011

Unless a crash was extremely violent and the plane lost height almost gravitationally, the “mine” as BW called it in that Physics lesson, would only detonate if one of three hydrostatic pistols was triggered. This would be by wtare pressure at more than 30 feet depth (about 1+ atmosphere of excess pressure on the trigger.)

Harris knew perfectly well that public opinion, and simple morale-protection among the civilian population by the “Gauleiters”, would force large numbers of 88s to be kept in Germany rather than deployed. He never thought it necessary to spell out the other benefits such as this, of his bomber offensive, since they would at the time have been self-evident. Perhaps these secondary effects are no longer so evident, to us in this generation. Such as Germany having to devote almost the whole of its air effort into producing fighters, and training fighter pilots faster than they could be killed, rather than making artillery or tanks or...strategic bombers. You can bet 5p Hitler would have commanded work on bombers if he could. But he couldn’t since there was not sufficient available labour, even from slaves, so he caused rockets to be made instead.

As to guns vs taks: about 100% of all the expensive metallurgy is in the gun: the tank might as well be made of thick cardboard....that’s an exaggeration of course, but you get the drift.

Posted by David Davis on 03 February 2011


The reason Harris never spelt out these other benefits was because he didn’t care about them.  I repeat, his plan was to win the war entirely with the bombing offensive, not to merely help the rest of the war effort to win the war by sucking German resources away from other battles.  His version of victory was that he would bomb Germany into surrender.  No contested invasion by land forces would be necessary.  His idea was that he would bomb Germany into a state where it had no resources to devote to anything, no guns, no rockets, no air effort, no nothing.

You are revising the objective, clearly and repeatedly stated by Harris at the time, to fit what ended up happening.  The bombing offensive can be partially defended by talking about its results, if not (to me) persuasively, then at least reasonably.  That its central intention failed is beyond doubt.

It is simply not true that the objective of the bombing offensive was to “tie up” German resources and thereby make victory on other fronts easier.  The objective was entirely to destroy German resources.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 03 February 2011

Some thoughts:

The manufacture of tanks also includes engines and transmissions.  Complicated stuff.

When it comes to intentions it depends on who was doing the intending.  It seems to me that Harris’s intentions and the intentions behind the Bombing Directive were different.

To say that the campaign did not succeed in its intentions is not the same as saying the campaign failed.  Columbus didn’t succeed in getting to China after all.

Resources.  It occurs to me that Britain had a problem between 1941 and 1944 in that it couldn’t fully employ all its resources in a land war against Germany.  You physically couldn’t put everything into the Desert War.  So, you might as well put your efforts into bombing.  The corollary to this is that by the time the Allies could put all their efforts into the land war the bombing infrastructure was so advanced there was no point in ramping it down.  And, anyway, my understanding is that the bombing campaign was at its most successful in 1945.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on 03 February 2011


A partial retraction.

I’ve now read the bit in Lancaster about the Normandy landings.  Before, during and after these, the army, and Allied bosses generally, wanted Bomber Command to contribute with precision bombing of targets in France, which they did.  But before being given the direct order, which to his credit he obeyed with great energy and effect, Harris did argue against relaxing the bombing of Germany, with just the kind of arguments you refer to.  He talked about how the attacks on German cities did indeed drain German resources away from other theatres.

But his reason for arguing like this was so that he could sustain his bombing offensive on Germany, and win the war with only that.

I also take the point that the overall purpose of the bombing offensive on Germany was not necessarily what Harris thought it was and repeatedly said that it was.  Others may well have supported it - did support it - for exactly the resource-diverting reasons you talk about.

I haven’t yet got to the bit where McKinstry argues that Harris’s notion was a huge error, and that had he done things differently, the war might have ended a lot sooner.  I am looking forward to it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 05 February 2011
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