This is a book for advanced students of air power and military history. It requires some knowledge of inter-war defence politics and the senior figures of the RAF of the period. It provides a fresh angle on the decision making relating to bombing policy and the men leading the organisation who had to deal with both a changing political climate and technological advances whilst directing the organisation to meet the challenges facing it in the present whilst planning for its future.
Dr Gray is a former Air Commodore and a former Director of the Defence Leadership College, so his credentials are based both in command experience in the RAF and in training the future high-level military leaders of our services. It is therefore unsurprising that his book should be titled ‘Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945.
Those looking for a work on the operational history of the RAF bombing raids of the Second World War will not find it here; beyond scant mention of targets and the more notable raids such as Dresden the focus of this book is on the problems faced by the higher command within the RAF. Gray is particularly interested in what he calls the ‘interfaces’ where the individuals in higher command positions met with the leaders of other organisations or authorities, political and military, to contribute to policy, receive the directives so formulated and pass on to their own subordinates to implement whilst ensuring the allocation of resources was available in order to implement the current priorities.
As to the legitimacy of the bomber offensive, Gray refers to the pre-war Geneva disarmament talks in the early 1930’s concerning the limitation or banning of bombers and also the Hague Rules of 1923 which outlawed the deliberate attack of civilians from the air as well as restricting the operation of bombers against legitimate military targets in certain circumstances where collateral damage in pursuit of these would result in civilian harm. The RAF leadership was not against limitations of air power in theory but considered that at some stage “the gloves would have to come off” and the restrictions side-stepped or ignored as became the reality when night area bombing was adopted due to the technical limitations of bomb-aiming at the time.
The debate regarding the morality of the effects of this bombing within Britain at the time is not discussed nor the post-war debate that continues to the present day. Perhaps Gray considered that legitimacy and morality were not the same in this context. Discussion of the RAF Bomber Offensive is not limited to the years 1939 to 1945 or even the strategic campaign against Germany. By inception Gray means the earliest strategic bombing force that the newly formed RAF put into the field in 1918 under Trenchard’s leadership and the development of bombing policy thereafter. As Gray observes, as Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Trenchard skilfully manoeuvred politically to ensure that the Army and Navy did not crush this nascent third service soon after its birth, whilst at the same time establishing a basis for the future leadership of the organisation through the creation of a training college to inculcate the values he deemed necessary for the leaders of the new force.
Gray looks at the leaders both at the CAS level and also at Bomber Command once that body came into being from 1936. The CAS being at the strategic interface with the Air Ministry and the elected politicians in charge, whilst the leaders of Bomber Command were operational commanders focused more on relationships with their own subordinate commanders and groups and were a step removed from the political leadership at least initially, though this did become blurred once Churchill became Prime Minister.
Gray uses modern leadership theory and practice to examine the performance of the leaders of the RAF bomber offensive and how they found solutions to the “wicked problems” they faced – many of which defied easily solutions and required innovation, determination and compromise which did not always lead to clear direction in practice, certainly with regards to the operation of the British and US bomber forces once coalition warfare became a reality. This increased the number of interfaces in which leaders such as Portal (CAS from late 1940 to the end of the war) had to operate and be skilful in standing up for his service, within the limits set by both national and coalition policy. Such difficulties were not always appreciated by those in a lower echelon of command such as Harris.
Gray suggests that Harris may not have wilfully opposed Portal merely because he wanted his own way, which of course he did but because he did not have the intellectual capacity to appreciate the coalition warfare and the compromises required in order to prevent the operation of allies from falling apart. Gray also suggests such an outspoken advocate of area bombing was not removed as he could have been because he served later as a convenient scapegoat for politicians and other leaders who although they had broadly supported Harris now deemed it necessary to keep their distance towards the end of the war when the toxicity of the policy adopted became clear and an unapologetic advocate of the policy could deflect attention from their own complicity – notably Churchill.
This is both an interesting and frustrating book in that one is intrigued by the approach that Gray adopts but would like more examples of what he considers to be good leadership in this context. Clearly Portal comes into this category and Harris does not but apart from Trenchard at the beginning and Slessor later, other leaders are rather shadowy and we seem to learn less about them and how Gray rates their qualities as CAS or in other senior posts. The leaders of Bomber Command, with the exception of Harris, also seem overlooked, though this may be because the evidence is lacking on which to make judgement or their time in post was short. Given the focus on applying modern leadership theory a few organisational diagrams of the leadership structure of the RAF, Air Ministry and perhaps the Combined Chiefs would also have been useful.
At the end of the book I wondered whether the RAF had been living in a moral vacuum at the time. Neither George Beel, Bishop of Chichester, nor John Collins, RAF Chaplain in Bomber Command, are cited in the index.