Printer Friendly

Sir Arthur Harris and panacea targets.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, who was at the head of Royal Air Force Bomber Command from 1942 to 1945, was famously fond of making disparaging remarks about what he called panacea targets, that is, targets for bombing attacks which so-called experts claimed would bring the German war economy grinding to a halt if knocked out. The letter printed below, to Air Marshal Norman Bottomley, Deputy Chief of Air Staff, is the fullest statement of his views on the subject. (1) The first two paragraphs have been published previously, in Dudley Saward, "Bomber Harris": The Story of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris.... Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Bomber Command, 1942-1945 (paperback edition London 1985) p. 298 and parts of paragraphs 7 and 9 appeared in Charles Webster and Noble Frankland The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, 1939-1945 (4 vols. London 1961) vol. 2 p .66-67, but the complete text is worth reading in its entirety as an eloquent critique of the mindset which with its unjustified pre-assumptions and over-ambitious conclusions has bedeviled air warfare since its inception a century ago: the fact that in this instance Harris was almost certainly wrong does not detract from the accuracy of his general analysis.

Before the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Germany imported 65 percent of its oil requirements, 50 percent of total requirements from outside Europe. Fourteen Bergius and Fischer-Tropsch synthetic oil plants were operating, and an additional six were under construction, and more than a million tons of natural crude were being produced from domestic sources, much of it in the recently annexed territory of Austria. (2) The cutting off of imports from overseas by the British maritime blockade was initially made up for by imports from the Soviet Union following the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement 1939, but the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 threw the Germans back on supply from Romania. In the event, prior to the commencement of a systematic Allied campaign against synthetic oil targets in May 1944, and the Soviet overrunning of Romania later that summer, imports and domestic supply fell short of consumption only in 1941. (3) Nevertheless, Germany's oil situation was always very tight, and the operations of the German and Italian navies (the latter dependent on supply from, or permitted by, Germany) was significantly curtailed by fuel shortages: the Italian navy, having entered the war with a reserve of 1.8 million metric tons of fuel oil, estimated monthly requirements at 200,000 tons but by the first quarter of 1943 could operate only at a level of 24,000 tons a month. (4)

As early as March 1940, the British War Cabinet authorized sending a Royal Engineers field company, about 200 men, from Alexandria, possibly via Turkey, to blow up oil wells in Romania. (5) Covering large areas of ground and more than averagely combustible, oil installations were of course eminently suitable targets for air attack, and it might be noted that that the only sustained strategic bombing campaign carried out by the Italian Regia Aeronautica was against oil targets. (6) Romania's oil installations were of course out of range for the British and Americans for the first half of World War II, and the heavy losses suffered by the USAAF flying from Libya to bomb Ploesti on August 1, 1943 discouraged repetition of the experiment. Oil targets in Germany were of course much nearer to Allied bases. An Air Staff directive of September 21, 1940 described attacks on German oil installations as "the basis of our longer term offensive strategy," and a directive of January 15, 1941 specified the destruction of seventeen German synthetic oil plants as the "sole primary aim" of RAF Bomber Command. (7)

At this stage (months before Harris became head of Bomber Command) the RAF simply lacked the technical and quantitative means to carry out this task effectively, but later, because of Harris's insistence that the destruction of German urban centers was the most worthwhile objective, it was not until mid-1944 that the RAF began to bomb oil targets in any strength, and not till January 1945 that RAF bomb loads directed at oil targets began to exceed those of the USAAF. (8) By this stage the war was practically won anyway: Germany had more or less run out of territory to fight on, and trained manpower to fight with. Oil did not represent the only strategic bottleneck in the German war economy, but it was certainly the most vulnerable one. Even the RAF's Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, admitted the impossibility of starving Germany of ball bearings, and felt obliged to recommend "direct action by means of acts of sabotage" to cut off supplies from neutral Sweden. (9)

The war in the Far East demonstrated that it was indeed possible to paralyze the war economy of an enemy country by attacking a strategic bottleneck. The destruction of the Japanese merchant navy and the resultant elimination of imports of raw materials probably contributed more to bringing Japan to its knees than the firebombing of Japanese industrial centers: the United States Strategic Bombing Survey remarked that "Japan's economy was in large measure being destroyed twice over, once by cutting off of imports, and secondly by air attack," but even if Japan's factories had not been attacked they would have run out of raw materials, and the workers would have been too starved to work. (10) Indeed it is arguable that the use of Boeing B-29 bombers to lay mines from the air was a far more cost-effective employment of these aircraft than sending them to bomb urban centers. If this is so, the U.S. Twentieth Air Force's bombing campaign against Japan was quite as inconsistent with the principle of economy of means as the combined bombing offensive against Germany: or, as Sir Arthur Harris might have said, yet another example of the experts making a hash of it. The fact that he was mistaken in his personal choice of strategy does not refute his claim that experts were generally wrong.

Verbatim copy of letter from Sir Arthur Harris to Air Marshal Norman Bottomley Copy


Headquarters, Bomber Command, High Wycombe, Bucks.

20th December, 1943

Your letter S.46368/TV/DCAS, dated 17th December 1943

I do not regard a night attack on Schweinfurt as a reasonable operation of war. The town is in the very center--by any angle of approach--of the most highly defended part of Germany. It is extremely small and difficult to find. It is heavily defended, including smokescreens. In these circumstances it might need up to six or seven full-scale attacks before a satisfactory result was secured on the town as a whole. Even then the chances' of individual factories being written off are dubious.

In consequence, as I have repeatedly stated, if Schweinfurt is as important as it is alleged to be, it is pre-eminently a job for the U.S. Bomber Command rather than for us.

2. I still have only 6 H2X aircraft, [i.e. aircraft equipped with H2X (or H2S) high definition radar giving an image of the ground below the aircraft.] of which only a proportion are serviceable at any given time, and a still smaller portion remain operationally serviceable by the time they reach the target: In any full-scale attack on a target of that size only a small proportion of the attack can be expected to get into the target area, even if the attack is "on" at all. After the H2X aircraft have put down their markers the first wave of the main force obliterates the surroundings in a cloud of high explosive and incendiary smoke. It is our invariable experience that thereafter the attack tends to spread in all directions, but mainly in the direction of our approach. For these reasons there can be no less economic operation of war than an attack on a small target at night.

3. Apart from the advisability of this attack as an operation of war I have, as you know, strong views on the subject of "Panacea" targets. These are already known to you but I will give you some examples.

The claims as to the actual percentage of Germany's ball-bearing supply manufactured in Schweinfurt have always been exaggerated and have been progressively reduced, even by their authors. At this stage of the war I am confident that the Germans have long ago made every possible effort to disperse so vital a production. Therefore even if Schweinfurt is entirely destroyed I remain confident that we shall hear no more of the disastrous effects on German war production now so confidently prophesied. I am supported in this contention by an unending series of previous examples with "Panacea" targets.

4. Had we claimed two years ago to have been able to do half the damage to the German railway system and rolling stock that has since been done, I have not the least doubt that the "Panacea" mongers would have claimed such a scale of damage as lethal to the entire internal communication system of Germany.

Nevertheless, these people go out of their way in their reports now to point out that everything we have done to German transportation is ineffective because the destruction to industry has so reduced the demands on the railways that the railways have now plenty and to spare for dealing with what remains! This is a statement which in various guises occurs again and again in M.E.W. [Ministry of Economic Warfare] reports.

5. For years we have been told that the destruction of the Moehne Dam alone would be a vital blow to Germany. Both the Moehne and Eder dams were destroyed and I have seen nothing either in the present circumstances of Germany or in M.E.W. reports, to show the effort was worthwhile except as a spectacular operation.

6. We were repeatedly pressed to destroy the molybdenum mine at Knaben, the sole source of any ponderable supplies of that metal to the enemy. This again was going to be a vital blow. We destroyed the mine, and just lately, since it was repaired, the U.S VIII Bomber Command have destroyed it again. There is no evidence that the German war machine has even been discommoded. We are told that the Boche has merely reverted to the use of an alternative commodity.

7. We spent many months, indeed the best part of a year, in attempting to destroy German synthetic petrol sources on the assurance that the German fuel situation was utterly precarious. On top of that assurance the Germans opened and waged the most extensive war of movement in Russia that the world has ever seen. In that campaign they used billions and billions of gallons of fuel which according to the "Oily Boys", they never even possessed. That obvious refutation of their claims by no means brought the "Oily Boys" to despair. Their reaction was simply this: That the vast and unpredicted extra consumption of fuel for the Russian campaign had made the shortage still more acute and the necessity of blotting out oil plants still more urgent. Hence the ridiculous venture of Ploesti, [i.e. the attack on the Ploesti refineries by 177 U.S.A.A.F. B-24's flying from Benghazi on 1 August 1943] which achieved nothing except to jeopardise and indeed ruin the American air offensive over Germany proper this summer.

8. We were told it was a vital matter to destroy the Modane marshalling yards. We did so. Everybody knows that railway lines themselves are indestructible, and that a single line was soon working through the Modane route. It would be a double line but for the damage in the tunnel caused by saboteurs. We are now told that the Modane marshalling yards are apparently empty, the line is working and that the requisite marshalling is being done further back in France. So much for the "vital" marshalling yard.

9. In the light of the above examples of the infallible fallibility of "Panacea" mongers and parochial experts, you must excuse me if I have become cynical with regard to the continual diversions of the bomber effort from its legitimate role in which, as we all know, it has inflicted the most grievous and intolerable damage to Germany. In fact I am completely convinced, while not denying that the claims of the "Panacea" mongers are put in good enough faith, that the continual stressing of targets which necessarily remove bombing pressure from the German nation as a whole to concentrate on objectives such as the above (and, as further instance, such as "Crossbow" sites) [i.e. launch sites for V-l flying bombs], is in many cases a deliberately engineered A.R.P. [Air Raid Precaution] manoeuvre initiated by the enemy sources. Some dispersions are eagerly, if innocently, swallowed, by those many people who like to have a finger in the bomber pie when it comes to direction or misdirection of the Bomber Offensive, while having no responsibility for it whatever as a military operation or in regard to its possible failure as major part of our strategical purpose. It may indeed well fail if these perpetual diversions are not curbed to the utmost possible limit.

10. We cannot afford to lose any favourable opportunity of hitting Germany hard, particularly at the present time, and half a dozen attempts on Schweinfurt would probably mean the loss of at least three successful full scale attacks on worth-while targets. We have only four months left [i.e. before D-Day].

In these circumstances any attack by us on Schweinfurt must at least await not only particularly favourable circumstances, but, in addition, the acquisition of many more H2X aircraft. Even then, for reasons, I have given above, I do not regard it as a reasonable operation of war for night bombers. If it takes us three attempts under favourable conditions to hit Hanover once, and three in favourable conditions to hit Kassel once, I am satisfied it would take us at least half a dozen before we hit Schweinfurt at all. I therefore represent that if the job is vital, and most emphatically I do not believe it is, then the VIII Bomber Command should have another cut at it. If they can set the place alight in daylight, then we may have some reasonable chance of hitting it in the dark on the same night. Otherwise, I'm not prepared to take it on.

(Sgd) A.T. Harris

Air Chief Marshal.

The National Archives, Kew, London AIR 20/3239


(1.) See also the Harris's letter to Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Trenchard, April 14, 1943 in the Trenchard Papers, R.A.F. Museum, Hendon London, quoted in Henry Probert, Bomber Harris: His Life and Times: the Biography of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, the Wartime Chief of Bomber Command (London 2001) p. 257: 'I do not believe in "panacea targets", e.g. oil, rubber, ball bearings.... If the "panacea" fails all is lost'.

(2.) Burton H. Klein, Germany's Economic Preparations for War (Cambridge, Mass. 1959) pp. 40,51 and The Effects of Strategic Bombing on the German War Economy, p. 75, & p. 77 Table 39 in David McIsaac ed. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey (10 vols. New York 1976) vol.1.

(3.) The Effects of Strategic Bombing on the German War Economy' p.77 table 39 and 'Oil Division, Final Report (European Report #109)' figures 15 and 16 after p.20, in McIsaac, United States Strategic Bombing Survey vol.5.

(4.) Vincent O Hara, The German Fleet at War: 1939-1945 (Annapolis 2004) p.128 and Marc' Antonio Bragadin, II Dramma della Marina Italiana: 1940-1945 (Milan 1969 edit.) p. 6.

(5.) The National Archives, Kew, ADM 116/4269.

(6.) See A. D. Harvey, 'The Bomber Offensive That Never Took Off: Italy's Regia Aeronautica in 1940', RUSI Journal vol.154 no.6 (December 2009) p.96 -102, at p.99 -100 for the Italian raids on oil installations at Haifa.

(7.) Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, 1939-1945 (4 vols. London 1961) vol. 1, p. 153, vol. 4, pp .126, 132.

(8.) 'Oil Division Final Report' p. 122.

(9.) The National Archives, Kew, London, Air 20/3239 Note by Chief of Air Staff to Chiefs of Staff, 'Export of Swedish Ball Bearings to Germany, p.9.

(10.) Summary Report (Pacific Report #1) p. 19 in McIsaac, United States Strategic Bombing Survey vol.7, and Jerome Cohen, Japan's Economy in War and Reconstruction (Minneapolis 1949) p. 106-10. The idea that a nation's economy might be attacked at a single point with devastating results goes back till at least the seventeenth century: see A. D. Harvey, Body Politic: Political Metaphor and Political Violence (Newcastle 2007) p.83-98.

Since 1990 A. D. Harvey has contributed more than a dozen articles on air warfare to publications such as Journal of Contemporary History, War in History, RUSI Journal, Air Power History, and BBC History Magazine. Various aspects of air warfare are also discussed in his two books Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World, Wars 1793-1945 (1992) and Arnhem (2001).
COPYRIGHT 2014 Air Force Historical Foundation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:'"Bomber Harris": The Story of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Bomber Command, 1942-1945' and 'The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, 1939-1945, vol. 2'
Author:Harvey, A.D.
Publication:Air Power History
Article Type:Excerpt
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jun 22, 2014
Previous Article:German aircraft design during the third Reich.
Next Article:Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters