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Historical notes: A bombing system born of daydreams

CRUISE MISSILES, smart bombs, underwater launching and infra-red homing devices - what would the boys in RAF Bomber Command have made of all these mind-boggling goodies when making their way to their designated targets in the dark days and darker nights of the Second World War? To those flyers, perhaps more than to most people today, post-war inventive genius is beyond belief.

Much has been made of the implementation and the results of the so-called "area bombing" when huge areas were laid to waste in massive air raids on German cities, carried out with a not insignificant loss of life by the heavy bombers in Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris's command, each plane with six or seven men aboard. Was it necessary, this loss of life in the air, this destruction and slaughter on the ground?

Even now the arguments rage, but there is one dimension which is only now being considered with the emergence of more information about Oboe, the ground-controlled, blind-bombing system which was developed by scientists at the Telecommunications Research Establishment - originally based at Worth Matravers near Swanage and subsequently at Malvern.

Oboe was the brainchild of Alec Reeves, whose boss at the time, TRE Superintendent A.P. Rowe, later wrote that it had been "born and bred from daydreams". Helping turn Reeves' ideas into reality was Dr F.E. Jones and a small team known formally within TRE as Group 4 and more usually as the Oboe group.

Oboe was unrivalled as a means of pinpointing a target, even when it was obscured by a total blanket of cloud. Most times it was the two-man, fast and high-flying, unarmed Mosquito which used Oboe, its pilot being guided towards the target by dot-dash signals in his headphones and the navigator receiving signals of his own which instructed the very moment when he must release his bright-burning, target-indicator flares. Thus, crews in the heavy bombers in their wake would be in no doubt as to the location of the target area and their own aiming point within it.

Such was the precision of Oboe, in which one ground station controlled the aircraft's track and another gave the release information, that if a crew was judged to be as much as 300 yards off-target, it was back to school again! Time after time the Oboe crews would be "spot on" in positioning their target indicators. When groups of Oboe air crew and ground personnel meet these days, some wonder why it was judged more necessary to risk so many crews in heavy bombers on "area bombing" when Oboe was on hand to pinpoint strategic targets. And, in so doing, maybe save bomber crew lives and even shorten the war? After all, Dr R.V. Jones, the air intelligence specialist, did call it "the most precise bombing system of the whole war".

In operational sorties alone, Bomber Command lost 47,268 members of air crew, the tiniest fraction of these being Oboe Mosquito pilots and navigators when compared with those who failed to return from missions in heavy bombers. If there had been more selective targeting and greater emphasis on using the two-man, far-cheaper-to-build Mosquito (the "Wooden Wonder" of the Second World War), with the Oboe "beam-bombing" equipment packed into its nose, who can envisage the effects and the results of the bombing offensive in Europe?

Oboe was sweet music in the ears to many crews in RAF Pathfinder Force, but as a precision device it fell short of achieving widespread use. This is seen by some as being a failure in strategic thinking among those who were charged with making the most of the Allies' superior air power. It was, in its day, the closest device possible to the guidance systems of present times, but let's face it - they, too, do not always hit the intended target.

Michael Cumming is the author of `Beam Bombers' (Sutton, pounds 19.99)