The airman's fantasies
The Right of the Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War 1939-45 John Terraine (Hodder 04.95)
John Terraine has built his reputation Upon his revisionist view of the First World War. Over the past 20 years, with a wealth of evidence unexplored by earlier historians, he has sought to convince us first, that the generals of 1914-18 were by no means the buffoons that Sassoon, Graves, Joan Littlewood et a/ would have us believe. And second, that the moral and Political necessity to defeat the Kaiser's Germany was quite as great as the need to destroy the Nazi Empire a generation later.
Now, he has turned his attention to the Second War. He was given much en- couragement to write this book by leaders of the Royal Air Force who hoped and believed that he could perform 'for their service's 1939-45 legend something of what he had done for that of the 1914-18 British Army. The title declares Terraine's pur- pose: to justify the RAF's claim that `it was entitled to hold, and did hold, the right of the line in the great struggle for human freedom' in other words, the vanguard, the place of honour.
That particular quotation, from Ter- raine's title page, was in fact written by one of the most fanatical apostles of air, power, an Air Ministry civil servant named Mr J. M. Spaight who wrote more nonsense than most men before, during and after World War II about the joys of strategic bombing. The exponents of air power have always Pitched their claims in the most extrava- gant terms. With that sort of start, a reader braces himself to discover that Terraine has embarked upon yet another impas- sioned overstatement of the airmen's case. Yet this book turns out to be much more Complicated than that.
The author starts with a straightforward presentation of the RAF view of the years leading to war, as thoroughly researched as all his work. The shortcomings of the RAF are shown overwhelmingly as the fault of the politicians' parsimony. Not much is made of the Air Staffs failures of design, their mystic faith in the power of bombing Without regard to the force likely to be available to carry it out. Terraine men- tions, but does not emphasise, the devas- tating failure of the airmen to apply them- selves to the problems of army and naval en-operation, a lapse undoubtedly ex- plained by the RAF's determination to achieve an independent role. With the outbreak of war, Terraine embarks upon a masterly narrative of the RAF experience. If there.is nothing espe- cially surprising, many gaps are filled and much detail is drawn. There is a superb portrait of the Battle of France, and the subsequent controversies surrounding the Battle of Britain. The author joins other recent critics in demolishing the Bader- Leigh-Mallory case for the 'Big Wing'. After the glories of the Battle of Britain, the Fighter Command story becomes dis- tressingly anticlimactic. Through 1941 and 1942, the RAF sought to pursue the battle for air supremacy over the French coast. Yet the Spitfire, although a great short- range defensive fighter, was rendered quite unsuitable for offensive action by its short range. Contemporary RAF propaganda sought to suggest that a victory was being won by the 'sweeps' and 'circuses' over France. In the second half of 1941, for example, Fighter Command claimed the destruction of 731 German aircraft for the loss of 411 British fighters. Yet in reality, in the same period the Germans lost only 154.
If not defeated, the RAF was certainly not victorious in its pursuit of air suprema- cy over north-west France in those years. And the price of its campaign was that from 1940 until the end, a grossly extrava- gant force of aircraft continued to operate from British bases when the diversion of a mere fraction of their number to the Mediterranean or Far Eastern theatres would have been of incalculable benefit to the struggles there being waged against great odds. The author makes plain the price paid by British arms for the RAF's resolute refusal through the early years of the war to accept the importance of close co-operation with the army. In Greece, the airman flatly refused to give direct tactical support on the grounds that this was 'not a proper use of air power'.
Some of the same obsessive reflexes caused the RAF to fight bitterly against the transfer of heavy aircraft to Coastal Com- mand, even when the Battle of Atlantic was at its most critical stages. Terraine's narrative of the Coastal Command cam- paign is excellent. For the long-range aircraft crews, the strange combination of countless hours of deadly monotony in which danger was never a moment distant, from engine failure or U-boat encounter, is well caught. 'The relations of Coastal Command and the Royal Navy's officers,' he writes, 'from beginning to end and despite political interference, are an exam- ple of inter-service co-operation at its best.' He rightly suggests that Coastal Command's experience and contribution have been insufficiently recognised by war historians, and his account does much to redress the balance.
But then we come to the heart of the matter: the bomber offensive, the wartime RAF's pride and central theme, the cause of five out of six of all aircrew casualties from 1939-45, the core of the controversy about Britain's employment of air power. It seems reasonable to expect, in a book with such a title, that Terraine will emerge as Bomber Command's white knight. It becomes a source of astonishment to dis- cover that he does not. Indeed, Terraine not only closely follows the arguments developed in such books as my own Bom- ber Command, but goes beyond them to savage the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, in a fashion with which I heartily concur, and which I did not have the courage to anticipate when I was writing eight years ago.
Trenchard was a fine organiser to whom the RAF owes a great debt for establishing its principal institutions in the 1920s. But all the theories of strategic air power upon which he reared a generation of senior airmen were found wanting. Between Dunkirk and D-Day, Britain possessed no means other than the bomber offensive of carrying the war to Germany, and for that reason alone the commitment to Bomber Command was inevitable. But it remains remarkable that, until the end of the war, the RAF continued at vast cost to try to do to Germany what the Luftwaffe had so signally failed to do to Britain in 1940, albeit with lesser resources. The wholly fallacious belief that the morale of German industrial workers would prove easier to break than that of their British counter- parts was based upon the crudest of nationalist beliefs.
In one of Terraine's most devastating phrases, he comments upon the reluctance of senior airmen to allow the slightest diversions from what they considered Bomber Command's 'proper activity', the assault upon Germany's cities: 'It is at times difficult, taking into account the ineffectiveness of Bomber Command's "proper" activity . . . to decide whether it is more correct to say that Bomber Com- mand was irrelevant to the war, or that the war was irrelevant to Bomber Command.'
The author rightly praises Sir Arthur Harris's remarkable qualities as a leader of men, while accepting that the function for which they were employed proved a tragic failure. For many years, Sir Charles Portal has been highly regarded as Chief of Air Staff. There is no doubt of his effectiveness as a committeeman, above all in dealing with the Americans who never liked Alan- brooke. But Portal failed in his handling of his own service, and I know no author before Terraine who has so squarely faced this fact. Even in late 1944, when Portal made it apparent that he no longer be- lieved in area bombing, he proved unable either to control or to sack Harris, by now obsessed with the destruction of Ger- many's remaining cities. Terraine wastes little space on the question of whether area bombing was moral or not: what was quite plain in 1944 was that it was not achieving damage to Germany's war effort remotely commensurate with the lives of skilled men and the resources lavished upon it.
The author singles out Portal's refusal to accept the need for a long-range fighter as the most critical RAF policy failure of the war. Much has been written about the horror of atomic weapons, yet it was Portal who cold-bloodedly proposed a bombing policy in 1942 designed to kill 900,000 German civilians. In Terraine's description of the German air assault on Malta, he remarks upon the fact that it took an average 221/2 tons of bombs to kill a single civilian. Admiral Raeder correctly per- ceived that the only realistic means of removing Malta from the war was to seize it with ground forces. The central fallacy of the RAF's thinking for much of the war was that the air power could become a substitute for ground action. Even- as late as April 1944, Harris and the USAAF's General Spaatz were still insisting that D-Day and the campaign in North-West Europe were quite unnecessary, because bombing would defeat Germany without an invasion.
I have a few small quibbles with the book's description of the experience of aircrew taking part in the bomber offen- sive. For instance, Terraine disputes my own assertion that cases of LMF — Lack of Moral Fibre — among aircrew were a serious problem at bomber stations, and were deliberately treated by the RAF with considerable harshness. I noted a letter in the Spectator's correspondence column only a month ago from a former airman who described LMF cases being put to cleaning latrines — 'such men were now marked for a hard time'. Terraine also skates lightly over the very serious RAF failure in the support of the Arnhem operation. I think he is overcharitable in his portrait of tactical air support in Nor- mandy, where he blames any failures upon the behaviour and attitude of Montgomery to Coningham. Tedder emerges unequivo- cally as the book's hero, the outstanding airman of the war. But it must be said that Tedder never dissociated himself from many of the RAF's wartime extravagances, including area bombing.
After 681 pages of narrative, Terraine turns to his own conclusions. It is here, one feels, perhaps slightly unjustly, that he recalls his own title and sets out to reassert the RAF's claims to the place of honour in the history of the war effort. While Bri- tain's overall strategic weakness continued from 1940 to 1943, he says 'Bomber Com- mand had no option but to "soldier on", like the infantry in France and Flanders in the First World War, irrespective of what we can now see to have been crippling weaknesses of its own. During that time it learnt again the truth of Lord Kitchener's sorrowful saying in 1915: "We cannot make war as we ought; we can only make it as we can".' Like any writer who addresses this period, Terraine pays warm tribute to the men who did so much and sacrificed so much towards what they were told were vital battles on the road to victory.
The sheer weight and depth of this work is immensely impressive. Yet at the end, one is left with the strange sense that the author has ended up writing a different book from that which he expected. To claim 'the right of the line' for any one service in any conflict seems a facile demand. Terraine, with his profound knowledge of warfare, knows better than most men the truth of Churchill's observa- tion to Portal in 1941, when the airman was pursuing his fantasies about winning the war by bombing alone, that 'all things are always on the move simultaneously'. When an author has devoted such labour to a book, it sounds ungenerous for a reader to say that it is difficult to see its purpose. But this is so. It seems to begin as an effort to make unique claims for the air force, and ends by merely accepting much of what has already been said and written.
In 20th-century war, air power has be- come a vital factor in making victory by the ground or naval forces possible. But the entire history of air warfare is landmarked with extravagant claims made by airmen which have remained unfulfilled on the battlefield. We have been promised the collapse of the Nazi Empire by bombing, the closing of the Yalu supply route into Korea, the shutdown of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the blocking of the Port Stanley runway. None of these things came to pass. Too many unfulfilled promises dominate the post-Battle-of-Britain history of the RAF in World War II for historians to feel easy with any grandiose claims for the service's primacy.