RAF on the Offensive – The Rebirth of Tactical Air Power 1940-1941, Greg Baughen

RAF on the Offensive – The Rebirth of Tactical Air Power 1940-1941, Greg Baughen

At the start of the Second World War the RAF was largely convinced that the way to win any future war was with a large fleet of heavy bombers. The creation of a strong Fighter Command was almost a lucky afterthought, and the failure of the Luftwaffe’s own bombing campaign to knock Britain out of the war doesn’t appear to have caused much doubt. Baughen traces the evolution of RAF thought in 1940-41, comparing the attitude of the home based forces, where this orthodoxy was fiercely defended, to the behaviour of the RAF in North Africa, where effective close support methods were worked out with so much interference from above. The text is based on an impressive level of research, with accounts of the actual fighting mixing in with the debate amongst senior RAF officers, the attempts of the War Office to get more support, and of the RAF to roll back from any such commitment, as well as the attitude of Churchill.

The attitude of some of the ‘bomber barons’ in the RAF is infuriating, even eighty years after the war! Despite all the mounting evidence that the heavy bombers weren’t hitting their targets, you still get senior officers talking about the correct ‘scientific’ way to use airpower, despite their theories never once having been successfully tested in combat. It must have made the blood of army officers boil to be told in 1941 that the Germans were using their aircraft wrong, after the successful conquest of most of continental Europe. There are moments when it seems like the RAF’s approach to the problem of an invasion fleet in French ports would be to try and bomb the factories that they had already been built in! A key part of the RAF’s belief in the heavy bomber appears to have been the wishful thinking that the Germans would be more vulnerable to bombing than the British had been (after the war even ‘Bomber’ Harris had to admit that this had been a mistake, and that the nature of the Nazi regime with the ever present threat of the Gestapo meant that there effective wasn’t any civilian morale to attack. 

I do have one problem with this book – the author is so determined to make his case that he sometimes over-stretches the evidence. This includes fairly minor issues, such as criticising British fighters for being armed with too many cannon, then pointing out that British heavy bombers were vulnerable because German fighters carried cannon. The four cannon of the Hurricane is his target, which he compares to the single cannon of some Bf 109s, but the four cannon versions of the Fw 190A are ignored. I’ve also read plenty of autobiographies of both German and British pilots where less heavily armed British fighters were considered to be undergunned. The ability of the RAF to stop a German invasion fleet is often questioned, but there is no analysis of their actual operations against the actual German invasion fleet of 1940. The general belief held in Britain in 1940-41 that the army couldn’t hope to successfully liberate Europe unless Germany had first been greatly weakened (in this case by the heavy bombers) is frequently attacked, and yet it turned out to be entirely correct. It needed a combination of the stubborn resistance of the Red Army and the entry of the United States into the war to produce a situation in which an invasion of German occupied Europe was at all feasible. Claiming that the successes in North Africa suggested otherwise is to ignore the comparative weakness of Rommel’s forces in North Africa compared to the German army that had to be faced in Normandy.

This isn’t to say that I don’t agree with the author’s overall argument – I do, and in the main he makes a good case (often helped by the infuriating approach of the Air Ministry and Bomber Command), but I would have found it even more convincing if it had been more even handed. The author does a good job of tracing how attitudes began to change at the higher levels of the RAF (at least for some), with Portal in particular coming to realise that more fighters were needed in just about every theatre, while increasing evidence of the failure of Bomber Command’s night bombers to actually hit their targets forced a re-evaluation of the RAF’s role. This is a good study of how the RAF begrudgingly began to work on providing close support for the army, and almost accidentally found itself with good fighter bombers, all of which would pay off in 1944.

1 – Fighters for the Future
2 – The Bomber Route to Victory
3 – The Air Ministry Digs In
4 – Greek Discontent
5 – Desert Blitzkrieg
6 – Preparing for Invasion
7 – Discord in the Ranks
8 – The War Office Strikes Back
9 – Disunited
10 – A New Ally – New Approach
11 – Butt Bombshell
12 – Air Strategy at the Crossroads

Author: Greg Baughen
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 304
Publisher: Air World
Year: 2018

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