Bombing the population into submission
Is that even possible?
We all bet on the future. How could it be any other way? I don’t know what’s going to happen next year, next month. So I guess at what I should do to plan for that time. At the logical extension of the thinking, I don’t even know what’s going to happen in ten minutes. So I bet.
In our comfortable and safe lives today, betting on what will happen in ten minutes is often of little consequence. For so many decisions and predictions, the stakes are low. What should I eat for lunch? Hardly matters what I decide. For some things the stakes are much higher, like making the final decision to buy a house. But in those cases, the full decision-making process is usually much longer than 10 minutes.
It’s harder to bet on what will happen in a year, or five years, or decades. Should I buy the house I’m going to need 25 years to pay off? Should I sacrifice now to save lots of money for retirement? Will I even live that long?
The further out the timeline, and the higher the stakes, the more precarious it gets. The percentage chance of being right diminishes.
But what about an uncomfortable, unsafe, totally uncertain life? Thinking about 20 years from now is absurd. But so is betting on what will happen in 10 minutes. It’s not just difficult, it can be pointless.
For the pilot who is 2000 ft. in the air over hostile territory on a moonless night with droplets of rain stabbing him in the face and an enemy plane chasing him, what happens in 10 minutes is irrelevant. What happens in 10 seconds may be a waste of time and energy to try to predict.
Then when he hears a cough and a splutter from the engine and watches the propeller in front of him shudder to a stop, well the future really isn’t a thing anymore. If there are any decisions left to to make, they are of the immediate here and now.
The more dangerous your life, the shorter your time horizon. But it’s not just individuals who need to bet on the future.
In 1917, the British air forces laid down a big bet. As I have written before, General Hugh Trenchard thought strategic bombing would help win the war. The idea of relentlessly bombing German towns 24/7, not only to physically deplete Germany of the ability to make bombs and bullets and tanks, but to shatter the morale of the population. Grind them down mentally until they give up.
Trenchard said the moral effect of strategic bombing was 20 times more effective than physically destroying factories and military installations.
One obvious question is: did it work? Did strategic bombing help win the war? The answer is debated to this day.
But I think there’s a more interesting and enlightening question to ask. Was he right about the effects? Does strategic bombing actually defeat people mentally, and induce them to give up?
What’s fascinating about that question is that it played out in real time during the First World War. Strategic bombing was a new, untested idea. The war itself was a grand psychological test, and the entire population of Europe were the lab rats.
The morale war
In 1917, the Germans were bombing London, destroying factories and killing innocent people. Everyone in the city knew that more air raids were coming, and that military installations would be targeted.
This presented a problem. People were scared. In September, the Woolwich Arsenal, which made bullets, was suffering from a labour shortage. Many of the men who worked there knew the place was a target. So they stayed home to stay safe. Production of bullets went down.
At this point, the blame was placed squarely on the news media.
British cabinet ministers thought the panic among Londoners was brought on by pictures of air-raid damage in the newspapers. So the Prime Minister met with editors, asking them to stop printing the pictures and describing the destruction in such detail.
There’s no word on what the response from the editors was, but the stories and pictures in The Times and elsewhere kept coming.
The effect of the newspaper stories, and the actual attacks, on morale isn’t straightforward. On the one hand, people were genuinely terrified. They crammed themselves into Tube stations to escape air raids, trying sleep on train platforms amid hot stale air, the stench of makeshift latrines, and little food or drink. There’s no doubt people were traumatized. But does that mean they wanted to give up the fight against the Germans?
It doesn’t look like it. Londoners called for reprisal attacks. They wanted the British government to intensify the war, not give up. Plus, the government used the attacks on London for recruitment. It could even be argued that the bombings of London are what contributed to the huge, rapid expansion of British air forces. The public demanded it. Getting bombed only made them want to fight harder.
Scaring and terrorizing people is not the same thing as breaking their morale.
What about the Germans
The story on the German side of the lines is similar.
By 1918, the British were bombing German towns relentlessly, hitting military, industrial and civilian targets daily.
Officials at industrial and munitions factories described the attacks as “annoying", which hardly suggests morale was suffering. Often, when air raid sirens blared, workers calmly sought shelter in basements and dugouts, and then went back to work when the all-clear sounded. Some even held dances during the alarms to pass the time.
Where the bombing raids were more frequent, output at factories declined as workers stayed away or did less. They were terrorized, and possibly sleep-deprived from being repeatedly awakened by sirens. An attack on a factory the night of the 25th of August, 1918 by British heavy bombers definitely affected the workers. The planes confidently flew low, making one pass after another among the chimneys, dropping bombs and firing their machine guns at anything that moved. The workers were said to be shocked and demoralized by the daring of the British pilots.
But did this want to make them give up entirely? Go home and admit defeat? It’s doubtful. As soon as the immediate threat of an air raid was gone, most or all of them went back to work.
German generals noted that life was tough for a lot of people. Not only from the constant air raids, but influenza had begun tearing through the population, and food wasn’t always easy to come by. But it wasn’t inducing huge numbers of people to call for surrender.
Carnival of destruction
Long before the war ended in late 1918, the RAF had acquired a lust for long-distance bombing from the air. At least in the minds of the RAF’s leadership, there was no question of its usefulness, both to physically cripple the enemy’s ability to wage war, and to damage the minds of the populace. To them, bombing the enemy from the air was a winning strategy any way you looked at it.
Of course, earlier in the war, no one knew it would be over before the end of 1918. Air force leaders did know that any ambitious expansion would take years. So in 1917, they asked for the creation of 66 long-distance bombing squadrons that would be deployed against Germany in early 1919. The plan, which also included a huge buildup of the air forces generally, was enthusiastically approved by the Army Council.
It’s sickening to contemplate now, but air force leaders had a dream: to destroy Berlin by bombing it from the air. The Navy’s air force (one of the predecessors to the RAF), had stated early on that one of its goals was to be able to strike Essen and Berlin.
By late 1918, it nearly happened. The RAF was racing to develop a new heavy bomber, something even bigger than the already large Handley Page O/400 (which my great-grandfather flew in). The V/1500 had a range unlike any other aircraft. It could take off from the east coast of England, strike Berlin and make it back non-stop. A few V/1500s were built and delivered to squadrons by October, 1918, but none flew any combat missions by the time the armistice was called.
There were many men in the air force, from pilots and mechanics right up to top generals, who dreamed of turning the city of Berlin into a pile of rubble and bodies. To achieve this, the air force had placed a few big bets on the table. One, that they’d be able to develop an airplane that could do it. Second, that the war would last long enough for them to carry it out.
The first bet paid off. The V/1500 was built and was capable of flying to Berlin. The second bet they lost. They simply ran out of time.
There was bitter disappointment at losing that second bet — that the war ended “too soon.”
An early history of the air war (written shortly after the armistice) reported that the Royal Naval Air Force was grief-stricken, because Berlin had escaped unscathed. “The coming of the armistice interrupted the fulfilment of these large plans, and saved the world from a carnival of destruction.”
Would that have broken the morale of Berliners? Thankfully, we don’t know.
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