Massacre by miscalculation: Britain's targeting of German cities was not only immoral, but a waste of bombs, says Tom Wilkie

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The Independent Online
SUNDAY's Channel 4 drama- documentary The Valour and the Horror: Death by Moonlight, which told the story of Canadian bomber crews in the Second World War, sparked outrage in some predictable quarters. One newspaper recruited a fashionably right-wing historian to give its readers an 'expert view of TV war film that has upset the Queen Mother'.

The expert's verdict was unambiguous: 'a grossly insulting distortion of the truth. Hitler's propaganda chief Dr Goebbels could not have done a better job.' The film energetically put forward the view that the actions of Bomber Command in targeting civilian areas in cities and deliberately trying to demoralise the German population by destroying them and their homes was immoral.

Partly because of its highly dramatic style and its tabloid television focus on human interest, the programme ultimately failed to convey the reality of the blanket bombing of German cities by British and Allied air crews in the later stages of the war. War is not an individual fight but a highly organised, collective endeavour carried out in accordance with rigid military discipline. By concentrating on the individuals, the programme lost sight of other factors that are vital to understanding the events of 50 years ago.

For a start, the programme ignored the fact that all the death and destruction was a mistake. Strategic area bombing, the deaths of women and children, the firestorms of Hamburg, the destruction of Dresden, were immoral, certainly, but they were also the catastrophic consequences of faulty arithmetic.

Dropping bombs from aeroplanes was not a matter of flying to Germany, opening the bomb-bay doors, and hoping for the best. The pattern in which bombs drop and the probability of their hitting the target can be calculated. The British specifically targeted working-class homes in Germany because middle-class dwellings with gardens were too far apart and would be a waste of bombs.

The point is that the scientific techniques to assess the efficacy of the area bombing strategy were available. The sums were done in 1942 and the British government was told that Bomber Command simply could not drop enough bombs on Germany for the enterprise to be militarily effective. On the contrary, if industrial resources within Britain were diverted to manufacture bombers and thousands of elite fighting officers and men died while flying those machines to Germany, the cost to Britain would be greater than the cost to Germany.

Without for a moment denying or denigrating the personal valour of those who flew the bombers, one has to conclude that their bravery and the deaths of their comrades-in-arms were pointless. Bomber Command made victory harder to achieve. This is not a piece of historical revisionism: it was known at the time.

One version of the story was set out in Science and Government, by CP Snow, a series of lectures he gave in 1960, although these did not attain the notoriety of his earlier The Two Cultures. With a novelist's eye for human drama, Snow cast the issue as a modern morality play between the forces of light and rationality, represented by Sir Henry Tizard, scientific adviser to the Air Ministry, and the dark passions of Frederick Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell, a friend of Winston Churchill.

Tizard was the man chiefly responsible for fostering the development of radar. He did not invent it, but he realised its potential and it was because he had pushed so hard that Britain set up the coastal chain of early-warning stations that tipped the balance in the Battle of Britain. Tizard should be a national hero. Since he was a scientist, though, and since this is Britain, his name is largely unknown to the generations that owe their freedom in large measure to his genius.

Tizard was the son of a Royal Navy officer who had opted for science only when a medical examination discovered that he had a blind spot in one eye that barred him from the Navy. He had a glittering scientific and administrative career as permanent secretary at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and later as Rector of Imperial College.

Lindemann, on the other hand, was born in Baden Baden, Germany; his father was a naturalised Briton of French origin and his mother American; and almost all his education came from German schools and universities. Snow is scathing about him and even the Dictionary of National Biography finds it difficult to be complimentary: 'his background was wealthy, his contacts aristocratic, and his views extreme right wing'. In the early Twenties, however, it was Lindemann who started the transformation of Oxford University into a centre for scientific research.

In 1942 the two men clashed spectacularly over the issue of area bombing. In his lectures, Snow (who was a scientific civil servant during the war and so close to the 'action' inside Whitehall) recalls that 'the English and Americans had, for years past, believed in strategic bombing as no other countries had. Countries which had thought deeply about war, like Germany and Russia, had no faith in strategic bombing and had not invested much productive capacity or many elite troops in it.'

The strategy had not been thought out, Snow noted. It was just an unrationalised article of faith - in which Lindemann was a true believer. By 1942, Lindemann was in the Cabinet as paymaster general and produced a paper describing in quantitative terms the effect on Germany of a British bombing offensive. The paper claimed that, given a total concentration of effort on the production and use of bombing aircraft, it would be possible to destroy 50 per cent of the houses in every German town with a population of 50,000 or more.

'The paper went to Tizard,' Snow continued. 'He studied the statistics. He come to the conclusion, quite impregnably, that Lindemann's estimate . . . was five times too high.'

The paper also went to Patrick Blackett, an outstanding left-wing physicist who virtually invented the mathematical field known as operational research during the war and was awarded a Nobel prize shortly afterwards. Independently, Blackett came to the conclusion that Lindemann's estimate was six times too high.

'Everyone agreed that, if the amount of possible destruction was as low as that calculated by Tizard and Blackett,' Snow recalled, 'the bombing offensive was not worth concentrating on. We should have to find a different strategy, both for production and for the use of elite troops.' After the war, a survey of destruction in Germany revealed that Lindemann's estimate had been not five, nor six, but ten times too high.

Tizard's analysis foundered against the political reality that Lindemann was a member of the Cabinet and of Churchill's inner circle. No one else capable of checking the calculations had comparable political clout. Tizard was labelled a defeatist and was shut out of government work until the end of the war. Lindemann was made a viscount in 1956 when he retired from Oxford. Tizard was never granted a peerage and spent his retirement on a government pension, perpetually short of money.

Tizard was in part defeated by the power of the big idea. Snow said: 'Over bombing, Lindemann was positive that he had the recipe to win the war. Tizard was sure he was wrong, but had nothing so simple and unified to put in its place. Even at the highest level of decision, men do not really relish the complexity of brute reality, and they will hare after a simple concept whenever one shows its head.'

The situation is replete with terrible ironies. The architect of the area bombing of German cities was born and educated in Germany. His strategy was immoral and ineffective, but its very ineffectiveness has shielded us from having to pay the monstrous moral price of a victory achieved by the means he proposed. Only if the British had been in possession of the atomic bomb could Lindemann and his colleagues in the War Cabinet have killed as many women and children as they needed to. Bomber Command did not cause enough death and destruction to serve their purpose. Hundreds of thousands of German civilians died because there was an error in an Oxford professor's arithmetic.

(Photograph omitted)