Review – The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945

Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945. London: Continuum, 2012. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 346 pp.

The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany and the Combined Bomber Offensive remain contentious and divisive areas of debate within the historiography of both the Second World War and the development of Air Power respectively. Essentially the central debate over the bomber offensive has been one between the exigencies of military effectiveness, the contribution the campaign made to the overall war effort and the philosophical view that it was a morally reprehensible act. A.C. Grayling, who has described the ‘Area’ bombing campaign as morally inexcusable, has summed up the latter position.[1] While this review is not the place to debate Grayling’s contentions it should be noted that his work is narrow in focus and lacks a genuine understanding of the evolution of bombing techniques utilised by the Royal Air Force (RAF) who were the focus of his work. By the end of the Second World War, RAF Bomber Command were able to bomb as accurately by night when weather permitted as the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe were doing by day.[2] Concerning, its effectiveness it has long been recognised that the offensive serious distorted the German economy and played a key role in allied victory in Europe.[3] Additionally, another area where the campaign contributed to victory was in the defeat of the German Jagdflieger prior to Operation OVERLORD.[4] More recently the historiographical trend has shifted towards an understanding of the impact that bombing had upon civilian populations. This has been driven by an AHRC funded project on ‘Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe, 1940-1945’ led by Richard Overy that is now starting to deliver important monographs on the subject.[5]

Into this field comes a fresh and important work by Peter Gray that examines the conduct of the bomber offensive in an innovative manner, namely through a deep understanding of the interplay of leadership and ethics. The book focuses on senior leadership and the interface between key leaders involved in the direction of the bomber offensive.  Leadership remains an often discussed but little understood area of study within military history. Books are replete with claims of poor or ineffective leadership without understanding the factors that underpin it and how this interacts with operations. Nevertheless, effective leadership remains the key to understanding military performance at all levels of war. Gray is the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies at the Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham and an acknowledge expert in the field of air power studies and leadership and this is clear in this book. Prior to his retirement from the RAF, Gray served in several key positions including Director of Defence Studies (RAF) at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and as Director of the Defence Leadership and Management centre. In the former position, he was responsible for the production of a number of key-edited publications on air power.[6] The fact that Gray is a retired officer, however, does not affect his objectivity towards the subject he is writing. Indeed, it can be suggested that his background in working and co-operating with academia over the past fifteen years has increased his objectivity towards his own service.

In this book, Gray introduces an interdisciplinary approach to understanding military leadership. Utilising his own extensive background in the military and in teaching and writing about leadership, Gray explores some of its theoretical aspects while making it clear that leadership at the senior/strategic level is both complex and ambiguous (p.26). In examining the interface between the relationship of the AOC-in-C Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, and the Air Staff, in particular Harris’ relationship with the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Charles Portal, it is obvious that numerous external factors influenced the conduct and direction of the campaign. The factors included relationships with allies, operational commanders, inter-service rivalry, and moral and ethical considerations. Harris does not emerge from this analysis well with Gray describing him as ‘naïve’ to expect the lion’s share of the national resources for the bomber offensive and that he struggled to ‘accept the vicissitudes of coalition warfare’, though he does admit that he operated within a difficult area where the ‘operational and strategic levels’ overlapped (pp. 291-293). As Gray laments, Portal probably regretted that fact that Harris never went to the RAF Staff College, Andover, but rather attended the Army Staff College at Camberley (p. 43). This is an important cultural point, which while outside of the scope of this work requires further examination. While Harris has been portrayed as the archetypal advocate of the RAF’s perceived singular focus on bombing it is clear that in his development as a leader he lacked the effective underpinning that most future senior RAF commanders shared, namely attendance at Andover. Additionally, Harris, unlike many of his contemporaries including Portal, never attended the Imperial Defence College (IDC) where he would have learnt to speak the language of a combined military. Another example of Harris’ inability to look up and out of his own silo, concerns the debates over the apportionment of resources and relations with the other services. While Harris would, once issued a directive, loyally carry out orders he often soured relations with a poor choice of language for a senior leaders. Again, this possibly relates to his lack of attendance at the IDC. The use of terms such ‘oily boys’ did not aid his, or the Air Staff’s ability to explain difficult arguments over the effectiveness of air power to both colleagues within other services but also politicians and allies (pp. 255-257). These leadership challenges were a key issue throughout 1944 (pp. 215-228). Nevertheless, a key issue for senior leaders is the maintenance of vision and purpose for an organisation in the face of the leadership challenges that clearly faced both Harris and the Air Staff. Maintaining purpose had implications for the direction of the bomber offensive. The RAF was fortunate that, in Portal, they had a CAS who had the vision and ability to see the central purpose of the organisation through to fruition. The shift to area bombing was managed by Portal and he was able to work well with both politicians and allies alike, though he was perhaps aided concerning the latter as the United States Army Air Force placed as much importance as the RAF did on the bomber. However, the decision by the Combined Chiefs of Staff to place Portal in charge of the Combined Bomber Offensive at the Casablanca Conference of January 1943 (p. 211) highlights not only an indication of his abilities as a senior leader but also his standing amongst his peers. Unlike Harris, Portal was able to look out of his silo and interface with, ‘the various organizations that contribute to the greater enterprise…across the range of Whitehall and into international arenas’ (p. 291).

Gray’s discussion of the question of legitimacy is useful as it helps to set the context for the conduct and direction of the bomber offensive and the challenges that confronted the RAF’s senior leadership. The inter-war period saw significant discussions over the place of air power in modern warfare. It also saw attempts to codify and limit its role through international law. While The Hague Conference of 1923 produced a report on the Rules of Aerial Warfare with genuine humanitarian intentions, it was not ratified by any of the nations involved. The attempt to codify laws relating to the use of air power failed most significantly at the Geneva Disarmament Conference, 1932-33, when discussions over issues relating to civilian aviation and the concept of an International Air Force led to disagreement between the parties involved. Nevertheless, this failure to come to an agreement did not mean that the RAF did not consider the implications of the ethics of air power when formulating doctrine and strategy. For Gray the most important writer in this period was the jurist J.M Spaight (pp. 54-57). This is largely because of Spaight’s relationship with Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Hugh Trenchard during his tenure as CAS, his standing within the Air Ministry and perhaps most importantly the simple fact that his voluminous works appeared on the reading list for Andover where future leaders would have been exposed to his writings. Additionally, though Gray does not make this point, Spaight wrote for the Royal Air Force Quarterly in the 1930s and this would have seen his work given exposure to a wider audience within the RAF.[7] The failure to gain effective international agreement over the use of air power in war led Spaight to note as early as 1924 that inevitably ‘cities would be bombed’ (p. 57). The existence of similar ideas pervaded the development of air power doctrine but did not mean that other areas of operation were ignored. The focus on bombing was the logical development of an inherently offensive weapons system. When applied in the strategic sense the application to bombing was going to raise moral issues but the British had a tradition of utilising its other strategic arm, the Royal Navy, to bombard and blockade in order that the use of the British Army in continental warfare could be ‘sidestepped’ (p. 59).[8] This, coupled with ineffective international control concerning the laws of war, allowed for the development of an offensively minded doctrine. However, this did not mean, as Spaight’s own writing indicate, that there was not a desire to fighter war a humanely as possible, however, there was a realisation amongst the Air Staff that, as Gray has written elsewhere, that ‘The Gloves Will Have to Come Off’ (p. 57).[9] This had clear operational implications for the conduct of the bomber offensive when the decision was taken to shift to both night attacks and area bombing; however, it should be seen as an incremental shift and not the obvious solution, which is how it has been traditional portrayed. Additionally, as Grey makes clear, there was little in the way of contemporary philosophical debate over war in general and that the historiography concerning anti-war movements is ‘muddled at best’ thus raising significant questions over the interpretation of the likes of Grayling (p. 48). Questions over the humane use of strategic air power became acutely apparent when the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, began to distance himself from the campaign in the aftermath on the raid on Dresden. Concerning this episode, Grey argues it had a degree of logic to it but has to be placed within the context of being aware of the growing resilience of Germany’s military in the face of allied advances, and that the Air Staff argued that an early end to the bomber offensive may cause the loss of more lives in the long-term (p. 228).

Overall, this excellent book adds a fresh perspective onto what is a well-trodden path in the historiography of the Second World War. It makes clear that before any evaluation can be made on the key areas that have occupied historians of the bomber offensive, namely the issues of effectiveness and morality; we must understand the challenges that confronted those responsible for its conduct and how they sought to deal with the ambiguities and complexities of senior leadership under the stress and strain of global conflict. It also illustrates that historians should not be afraid to learn from allied disciplines and that they in understanding alternative methodologies we can be bring new light to old subjects.

Reviewed by Ross Mahoney, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

Citation: Ross Mahoney, ‘Review of Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945’, Birmingham “On War”, 4 February 2013

You can download a copy of this review here.


[1] See; A.C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: Is the Targeting of Civilians in War ever Justified?, Paperback Edition (London: Bloomsbury, 2007) passim.

[2] On this theme see, W. Hays Park, “Precision’ and ‘Area’ Bombing: Who did which, and when?’, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1 (1995) pp. 145-174. On the problem of bombing with particular reference to the contentious bombing of Dresden in 1945 see; Sebastian Cox, ‘The Dresden Raids: Why and How’ in Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang (eds.) Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945 (London: Pimlico, 2006) pp. 18-61.

[3] Richard Overy, The Air War, 1939-1945, New Edition (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2005) 119-126.

[4] See; Stephen McFarland and Wesley Phillips Newton, To Command the Sky: The Battle for Air Superiority Over Germany, 1942-1944 (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).

[5] See; Claudia Baldoli, Andrew Knapp and Richard Overy (eds.) Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe 1940-1945 (London: Continuum, 2011); Andrew Knapp and Claudia Baldoli, Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945 (London: Continuum, 2012).

[6] See; Peter Gray (ed.) Air Power 21: Challenges for the New Century (Norwich: HMSO, 2000); Peter Gray and Sebastian Cox (eds.) Air Power Leadership: Theory and Practise (London: The Stationary Office, 2002); Sebastian Cox and Peter Gray (eds.) Air Power History: Turning Points from Kitty Hawk to Kosovo (London: Frank Cass, 2002); Peter Gray (ed.) British Air Power (Norwich: HMSO, 2003).

[7] J.M Spaight, ‘An International Air Force: Part I – Fantasy’, Royal Air Force Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 4 (October 1930; J.M. Spaight, ‘An International Air Force: Part II – Reality ‘, Royal Air Force Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1 (January 1931).

[8] In a similar vein see; Hew Strachan, ‘Strategic Bombing and the Question of Civilian Casualties up to 1945’ in Addison and Crang (eds.) Firestorm, pp. 4-5.

[9] Peter Gray, ‘The Gloves Will Have To Come Off: A Reappraisal of the Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive Against Germany’, RAF Air Power Review, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Autumn/Winter 2010) pp. 9-40.

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