Rhetoric and Reality, 1939–1942
ON Sunday, 3 September 1939, just moments after Prime Minister Chamberlain had announced “this country is at war with Germany,” an air raid warning began to wail over London and other places in Britain. It proved, however, to be a false alarm and the “all clear” was signaled a half hour later. 1 The air war did not commence with an all-out strategic bomber offensive pitting the aerial strength of each contestant against the vital centers of its enemy. No revolution in warfare had yet taken place; the older forms of warfare were not yet obsolete. Indeed, the contrast could hardly have been sharper between what happened and what many had expected to happen. 2 By the end of the Second World War, however, the combined Anglo-American air forces were waging strategic bombing attacks on a scale that approached the most dramatic and assertive interwar predictions. In the intervening years, Anglo-American air planners, supported by their governments, struggled to find means and methods of using aerial bombardment to achieve national war aims. Their efforts, which came at a high cost to their own bomber crews and to enemy civilians, were sustained by a stubborn faith in the potential of bombers. The combined bomber offensive was characterized by constant adaptation and adjustment; its history is one of ongoing, real-time reconciliation of plans and capabilities, sustained by an optimism often at odds with the realities of the situation.
Unable at the outset of war to follow through on Trenchard's strident policy of relentless offensive, RAF decision makers put a premium on air strategies designed to shield Britain and avoid pushing Germany into a “gloves off” all-out aerial assault against cities. Weakness circumscribed the range of possible action: defending Britain and conserving the bombing force for a later day became the new priorities. 3 The RAF fitfully adjusted its plans and tactics to cope with losses, limited capabilities, small force size, and the lingering array of problems that had never been solved during the interwar years. But British reliance on the bomber as a tool of war was hardly abandoned. In June 1940, those who stood with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and rejected accommodation with Hitler did so in part because of their faith in the prospects for aerial bombing. Later, German defeat in the battle of Britain did not dampen British enthusiasm for waging a strategic air campaign