Historical Notes: The 20th century's most controversial weapon

FOR MANY, the abiding memories of the Second World War will have been the wartime bombing raids, the "Blitz" on British cities. For many, the bombing during the long dark winter nights of 1940-41 has passed into folklore, as parents (and increasingly it is grandparents) revive memories of nights spent in air-raid shelters, whether public or private, and of not knowing whether or not they would have a home to return to.

In fact, the Germans suffered more from bombing than we did. This was partly because of a decision taken during the late 1930s to abandon the development of heavy bombers for the German air force, the Luftwaffe. This was justified on the grounds that more medium and dive bombers could be built in the time available, and it also fitted the German military philosophy that the air force should operate closely with ground forces. Only the British and the Americans saw the strategic potential of the bomber. This meant that German aircraft over Britain usually carried between 2,000 and 4,000lb of bombs, while British aircraft over Germany would carry up to 8,000lb, and often much more.

The Germans also failed to follow up their attacks, with the notable exception of the raids on London, which took place on all but one of 67 consecutive nights. Provincial cities had time to rebuild. While the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force did not always return to their targets as often as they might have done, they did so frequently enough to inflict real damage, revealed in the writings of top Nazi leaders such as Goebbels, the propaganda minister, and Speer, the armaments minister.

Of course, the other abiding memory of the Second World War is the way in which it ended, with the atom bomb being used first against Hiroshima and then against Nagasaki. Before this, Tokyo had been devastated by USAAF bombers using incendiaries, leading to massive firestorms.

The role of the bomber has remained controversial to this day. We need to examine what eye-witnesses had to tell, whether it be of the impact of bombing, or of what it was like to be on a bombing mission. Flying night after night over enemy territory, often in winter, took great courage.

The longer winter nights also meant greater safety for the bomber crews, although this was cancelled out by being tasked with deeper penetration raids. Frostbite became a great hazard, and even the hot soup in thermos flasks froze.

What were the aircraft like to fly? The Lancaster, almost certainly the best heavy bomber of the war years, was heavy. The Stirling, a disappointment with its split bomb bay so that 8,000lb bombs could not be carried, was easier to fly, and described by some as a "gentleman's aircraft".

Post-war, attention centred on nuclear weapons, the weapons of assured mutual destruction, and increasingly less on the bomber than on the intercontinental ballistic missile. The bomber survived all of this for many years, being prominent and controversial once again during the Vietnam War in the Sixties. Even in the recent Nato air campaign over Yugoslavia, the USAF could still find a use for its elderly B-52 Stratofortress bombers, as these launched cruise missiles.

Yet, recent conflicts in the Gulf and over the former Yugoslavia, and even in the Falklands, have shown the end of the day for one of the century's great weapons. In the Falklands, it took 11 tanker aircraft for a single bomber to attack the airfield at Port Stanley, and the islands could not have been regained by British forces had it not been for the Royal Navy's Sea Harriers. The aircraft which did most of the damage were fighter bombers, such as the diminutive Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, used against the ships of the task force.

David Wragg is the author of `Bombers' (Sutton Publishing, pounds 25)