IN late September 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was frustrated with Bomber Command, his primary weapon against Hitler's offensive. The first rigorous evaluation of Bomber Command's performance in the war, the Butt Report, was discouraging: on any given night only about one in five crews put bombs within five miles of their targets. 1 This information came as a jolt—indeed, many in the Royal Air Force (RAF) could barely believe it. Sir Richard Peirse, head of Bomber Command, declared, “I don't think at this rate we could have hoped to produce the damage which is known to have been achieved.” 2 What he “knew” came largely from pilot accounts, and these were now proved to be highly unreliable: Peirse and those under him had engaged in a great deal of wishful thinking.
For Churchill, however, the ramifications had sunk in. He directed his ire at Sir Charles Portal, former head of Bomber Command and, since late 1940, Chief of Air Staff (CAS). Portal had just sent Churchill a paper calling for 4,000 heavy bombers for use in a massive air offensive designed to break German civilian morale. The prime minister received the scheme with skepticism and despondency. Strongly implying that he had lost faith in Bomber Command, he responded to Portal with a note that pessimistically concluded, “The most we can say [about Bomber Command] is that it will be a heavy and I trust a seriously increasing annoyance [to Germany].” 3
Portal, not one to shrink from the prime minister's tempests, pointed out that Churchill's own rhetoric and decisions to date had all relied on the strategic air arm—if not to win the war on its own, at least to help prepare the continent for an allied ground invasion. He defended the RAF scheme and then challenged Churchill directly: “We could, for example, return to the conception of defeating Germany with the army as the primary offensive weapon.” Knowing that Churchill would find this distasteful, he continued, “I must point out with the utmost emphasis that in that event we should require an air force composed quite differently from that which we are now creating. If therefore it is your view that the strategic picture has changed since the issue of your original directives I would urge that revised instructions should be given to the Chiefs of Staff without a moment's delay.” Portal thus called the prime