The RAF on Screen 1940-1942
During the early days of UK involvement in World War II, official British films deliberately created a particular view of the air war, perhaps distorting our perceptions of some key phases.
Wartime cinema has generally been regarded as the classic period in British film history. Much film production was in the hands of the documentary film-makers – John Grierson, Harry Walt and Edgar Anstey, among others – who brought a critically-acclaimed element of realism to British cinema. One of their most interesting experiments was the 'faction film', a strange but frequently successful hybrid, scripted as a traditional feature but employing real servicemen and women in situations which were posed as commonplace in military life. Among the most popular of these films were those which dealt with the Royal Air Force: Target for Tonight (1941) and Coastal Command (1942). These films, together with several straightforward documentaries, helped to create a powerful and enduring image of the RAF at war which not only became firmly entrenched in the public mind but which continued to influence film-makers long into the post-war period.
From the end of the First World War air force enthusiasts had claimed that the air weapon had the ability to win wars almost without the assistance of other arms. This belief was enshrined in RAF doctrine by successive chiefs of the air staff, and most notably by Sir Hugh Trenchard (CAS, 1919-29). Throughout the inter-war years emphasis had been laid on the role of the strategic bomber, its ability to strike direct at the enemy heartland, create destruction and panic and undermine the enemy's will to continue a war. The RAF, in its passion for the bomber, almost totally ignored tactical and fighter defence roles which had been developed at great cost in the period 1914-18. And when fighter defence of the United Kingdom was re-organised and increased in the late 1930s it was mainly to allay public fears. The best possible defence, the RAF argued, was attack from the air on the enemy's capacity to wage war. But by 1939, even senior officers were suffering doubts, for there was a distinct lack of heavy bombers. Consequently, on the outbreak of war, the RAF, like the Luftwaffe, initially pursued a basically defensive strategy. The much-discussed and much-feared attack from the air did not materialise.
The German attack on France in 1940 came as a revelation to the air force. Despite having had the lion's share of the pre-war rearmament budget, the RAF was totally outclassed and out-manoeuvred by the Luftwaffe. British machines were outdated, and tactics and training were found to be inadequate. Antiquated Battle and Blenheim bombers attacking tactical targets by day were shot out of the skies. Churchill, newly installed as prime minister, refused to countenance RAF reinforcements for France and consequently, the British Expeditionary Force criticised the RAF for its failure to provide air cover for hard-pressed ground forces. Although the air force was active during the Dunkirk evacuation, the action was often out of sight of the beaches and returning troops had little good to say for the 'Brylcreem Boys'.
In late 1939, Bomber Command had instituted raids against German warships and North Sea ports. However, RAF chiefs were appalled at the losses incurred during these daylight raid and it was clear that bomber formations could not protect themselves against fighter and anti-aircraft attack. In May 1940, partly in the hope of drawing away German air strength from the Campaign in France, the Cabinet made the decision to commence night bombing attacks against specified targets in the Ruhr. The first raid took place on the night of May 15th, when 100 Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens attacked marshalling yards and oil storage depots. Despite these missions, public opinion began to regard the RAF as almost irrelevant; the inevitable anti-climax following the realisation that the bomber was not the decisive weapon the air enthusiasts had claimed. The prestige of Fighter Command was restored by the Battle of Britain, largely fought out in the skies over Southern England. Yet although the 'Few' appeared to have saved the nation from a German invasion, they could not prevent the subsequent onslaught on British cities. The complacency of the 'Phoney War' gave way to anger and an increasing desire for revenge. For this the bomber was needed. Thus, strategic bombing was not only believed to be a means of disrupting the German capacity to make war by striking at aircraft factories and oil targets, it was also the only means to restore the British public's morale – the only direct method by which Britain could strike back at the enemy during the dark days of 1941-42. It was against this background that the official RAF films were produced.
Having been told with monotonous regularity through the 1930s that 'the bomber will always get through', the public, in September 1939, had to be convinced that this was a miscalculation; that only some bombers would get through and that British air defence was in fact highly effective. Harry Watt's documentary Squadron 992 was an attempt to demonstrate this and re-inforced the message of earlier documentaries designed to prepare the population for war. If War Should Come (August 1939), for example, reminded its audience, 'Do not be afraid of the noise of an air raid. Much of it will be the sound of our guns dealing with the raiders.'
The twenty-five-minute Squadron 992 deals with the training and organisation in an RAF barrage-balloon squadron. The balloon, the commentary informs us, is 'the main defence against the dive bomber and, from the first day of war, balloon squadrons were in action protecting vital targets against air attack'. The film reconstructs the Luftwaffe attack on shipping in the Firth of Forth in the autumn of 1939 and how the raiders were dealt with by 'superior' British fighters. Three German machines were in fact lost in this attack, but several of the Royal Navy's ships were damaged. Realising that the target might warrant a second attack, Squadron 992 is dispatched to Scotland to protect the area. The finale shows the Forth Bridge and its balloon guardians – a 'new defence', we are told, 'the sentinels of the Sky, silent and deadly.' The propagandists' view of the effectiveness of the blimps had already been demonstrated in the first feature film of the war, The Lion Has Wings (November 1939), which showed a German air fleet turning back in fear at the sight of a balloon barrage. Nevertheless, they did have some effect in preventing low level attacks and inspired a quite irrational sense of security among civilians.
Completed in April 1940, Squadron 992 was largely irrelevant when it was finally shown after June. By that time the German onslaught on France had shown that something far more effective than barrage balloons was needed to stop the enemy blitzkrieg. The German air attack on British cities later in the year demonstrated that public morale was not likely to crack under aerial bombardment, despite the poor showing of anti-aircraft guns and nightfighters. Beaverbrook (the minister for aircraft production) and Churchill, backed by the RAF Staff, claimed that the blitz created a growing desire for Britain to hit back in kind. While this was to some extent true, it is interesting that the reports collected by Mass Observation found little evidence for this view among the citizens of heavily bombed areas – most demand for reprisals came from relatively unbombed districts. What was needed to restore British morale after the disasters of 1940 was the knowledge that Britain was hitting back, that the great effort in production and to re-build the services was not in vain; and was having some effect on the enemy. In 1940-41, the long arm of RAF Bomber Command was the sole means of achieving this. Typically overstating the case, the prime minister told the Cabinet in early September, 'The bombers alone provide the means of victory.'
Target for Tonight , made in the spring of 1941 and released in August of that year, was central to this concern. Written and directed by Harry Watt, it was one of the first of the dramatised documentary films to use RAF personnel. Produced for the Ministry of Information by the Crown Film Unit (the GPO Film Unit was thus renamed in April 1940), the film had an apparent official status denied to other features. The film deals with one Wellington bomber, F for Freddie, operating from the pseudonymous ‘Millerton' station and the planning and execution of a single night bombing raid on Germany. A study of aerial reconnaissance photographs reveals an important rail junction, oil storage tanks and barges at Freihausen in the Black Forest region. Bomber Command call for a 'maximum effort' raid and an experienced squadron are detailed to make a low-level attack. Target makes considerable play of the team effort involved in preparing the raid, from the intelligence officers who plan the raid, to meteorologists and the ground crews who prepare the aircraft. At the crew briefing, they are told the importance of the target, that there will be plenty of 'flak' but that the target should be easy to find because it is bounded by railways and a river-canal network.
Taking off at dusk, F for Freddie has little trouble in locating the target and, despite the heavy anti-aircraft fire, drops at least one bomb on the storage tanks: 'I got a bulls-eye with that one', the bomb-aimer tells the crew. However, the Wellington is hit by flak and the radio operator wounded. With a dead radio and a damaged engine, F for Freddie begins the lonely return flight to base. The first planes of the squadron return at 3 a.m., but as there is only silence from Freddie, the operations room gradually give up hope. Meanwhile, nearing base, the pilot of the Wellington offers his crew the choice: to bale out or attempt a landing in fog with a damaged port engine. Unanimously the crew elect to stay with the aircraft and a safe landing is made. At the de-briefing the crew explain the first bombs were short of the target but 'that the last one started a major fire. Having described the type of fire – 'black smoke, dullish red flames' – the intelligence officer confirrns, 'Sounds like oil all right', and the raid is judged successful.
Documentary films were not usually popular with audiences but Target for Tonight proved an exception. As Dilys Powell, the film critic wrote, 'The actors were serving airmen, the dialogue was simple, realistic, ironic in the English manner – but somehow imagination had eradicated a plain story of everyday experience. Here was a new genre in the cinema, a fact, a fragment of actual life, which still had the emotional tremor of fiction'. Considerable advance publicity ensured that Target for Tonight was eagerly awaited. While, as Clive Coultass has pointed out, this sometimes led to disappointment, the film was a successful rival to straight feature films and even did well in America where it was favourably compared with Hollywood trivia. Among British audiences. Target fulfilled a particular need – it provided visual proof that a counter-effort was being made. Harry Watt, the director, later attempted to explain this popularity:
I can say that while the film was honest and well-made, it was no cinematic revolution, but an understated and unemotional account of an average air raid... I believe, away back in many people's minds, there had arisen the doubt that we could ever win. Then came this film, actually showing how we were taking the war into the heart of the enemy, and doing it in a very British, casual, brave way. It was a glimmer of hope, and the public rose to it.
Target for Tonight was carefully packaged propaganda designed to convey the message that Bomber Command was striking at the heart of the Third Reich and severely damaging the German capacity to wage war. It succeeded far more than ever anticipated, and in so doing created a particular and lasting view of the RAF's bomber offensive.
From June 1940, the RAF was directed to attack specific targets in Germany – oil-storage facilities, aircraft factories and other industrial concerns. The Service itself helped foster the view that their bombing was accurate and that all targets were vital to the German war effort. Target for Tonight explicitly reinforced the belief that bomber crews were capable of locating and destroying targets deep inside Germany at night. In reality, during the first years of war it was difficult for bombers to locate the target, let alone bomb it accurately: quite simply the crews did not possess the navigational aids, bombsights or training. On March 19th, 1940, for example, during the first night raid of the war, fifty bombers were detailed to attack the German seaplane base at Hornum on the Isle of Sylt. On their return, the crews reported they had located the target and caused considerable damage to hangars, living quarters and other buildings. A photo-reconnaissance mission over the base some days later revealed little evidence of this, while German reports noted only several aircraft damaged. Clearly, whatever the crews believed they had destroyed, it was not Hornum. Even as late as August 1941, a Cabinet secretariat survey based upon photographic evidence, revealed that one-third of all bombers did not attack the right target, and of those that did, only one-third bombed within five miles of the aiming point.
Yet in the films which have dealt with the bomber offensive, it was precision bombing that became the dominant image. The Dam Busters (1955), the most widely known feature about Bomber Command, is remarkably similar in structure to Target for Tonight in that it deals with the planning, preparations and execution of a raid against a specific target – in this case the Eder, Mohne and Sorpe Dams. While it cannot be denied that the accurate bombing of the dams in 1943 was a remarkable feat of precision bombing, it should be noted that 617 Squadron was created for this single operation and comprised the most experienced crews available with almost unlimited training facilities. It should also be pointed out that the effects of breaching the dams were minimal in contrast to the impression given in the film and that the crew casualty rate was appalling. Four-fifths of the aircraft attacking the Sorpe Dam were destroyed. Of the other two feature films dealing with bombing, 633 Squadron (1964) and its sequel, Mosquito Squadron (1967), both deal with fictional attacks on precise targets.
Considering the many real heroic acts performed by RAF personnel during the Second World War, there have been remarkably few feature films which have dealt with the bomber offensive. The most likely explanation is the dubious morality of what the Air Staff referred to as 'area bombing' but which might be more accurately described as indiscriminate bombing. As intelligence sources revealed the ineffectiveness of precision bombing, the RAF was forced to consider alternative strategies. It fell back on the doctrine first stated at the end of the First World War, that the most effective target was the enemy civilian population and their will to continue the war. On October 30th, 1940, the Cabinet agreed with this assessment; but it was not until after the German blitz on Coventry (November 1940), that RAF crews were directed to aim at the centre of enemy cities. The first such raid was against Mannheim on December 16th, 1940, but again was relatively ineffective owing to so many of the crews bombing wide. However, as the offensive continued, new navigational aids, heavier bombers and new techniques such as marker-bombs and the creation of the Pathfinder Force, ensured that target destruction became enormous. In May 1942, for example, during the first 'Thousand Bomber Raid' against Cologne, over 600 acres of the city were destroyed.
Thus while Target for Tonight was in production and later demonstrating to cinema audiences the effectiveness of precision bombing against specific economic targets, the RAF was in fact using indiscriminate bombing to crush German civilian morale. While some novels of air warfare have explored the moral debate (Len Deighton's Bomber or Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter House Five, for example), only one film made reference to this issue, Alexander Korda's little-remembered 1943 production The Biter Bit. This did briefly examine the effects of air bombardment on civilians, but it also justified such attacks. A similar view was taken in the more recent BBC Television production Bomber Harris (1989), which, despite references to the moral dilemma, justified area bombing on the grounds that it appeared, to the RAF at least, to be the only way to win. More common of contemporary opinion was the view expressed in War Work News (issue 43, 1944), produced for the Ministry of Supply, which described the new 4, 8 and 12,000lb. 'bigger and more beautiful bombs' currently being used in the Battle of Germany and the almost gleeful accompanying film of a raid in progress; 'We can keep it up for as long as they want', the commentary informs us. Film ignored the moral implications of bombing, but the single-mindedness of the Air Staff, and particularly Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber Command's leader, not to divert resources from the bomber offensive often meant that there were insufficient men and machines for other duties – especially for Coastal Command's role during the Battle of the Atlantic; and it was this area which was explored in the second fictionalised documentary about the RAF, Coastal Command (1942), directed by J.B.Holmes.
The film's central concern is T for Tommy, a Sunderland flying boat of Coastal Command, operating from a Scottish island base. The film begins with Tommy being sent to escort an Atlantic convoy because of the suspected presence of a U-boat. This entails a ten-hour patrol during which the Sunderland drives away a long-range German reconnaissance aircraft. A Catalina flying boat, on its way to relieve the Sunderland, sights the U-boat on the surface and destroys it. Meanwhile a German surface raider, the Dusseldorf has been sighted south of Iceland and Tommy’s next job is to shadow the vessel until a strike of Coastal Command bombers is ready to attack. In an episode clearly based on the sinking of the Bismarck the previous year, the raider is attacked by torpedo bombers and damaged. Unfortunately, the ship eludes its shadow and when T for Tommy arrives at the last reported position, a long search ensues. Once located, a further bomber strike is called in. The Sunderland is ordered to close with the Dusseldorf and report the damage. This leads to the aircraft being hit and forced to return to base. An Australian Sunderland is sent out from Scotland to escort her in. Despite an attack by German fighters, T for Tommy arrives safely back at base just as the radio reports the sinking of the Dusseldorf by ships of the Royal Navy.
Made and released at a time when the Battle of the Atlantic was at its most serious, the film was an attempt to show the varied duties of Coastal Command and the successful part the RAF was playing in winning the battle. These duties included long-range convoy escort, anti-submarine and shipping strikes and close co-operation with the Admiralty. Yet even in 1942, much of this was wishful thinking.
The most serious weakness in the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic was that the RAF was not prepared for a naval-air operation. As the struggle grew in intensity, the Admiralty insisted that the key to success was increased use of land-based aircraft. The Air Ministry, and particularly 'Bomber' Harris, unwilling to divert machines from the main offensive against Germany, argued that the challenge of the U-boats could only be met by destroying the centres of production. The situation was not resolved until August 1942 when the prime minister, while agreeing that the bomber offensive must be maintained, diverted some air resources to anti-submarine warfare in the form of long-range machines for Coastal Command under the control of the Admiralty. Nevertheless, the use of the air weapon in this role had not been encouraging during the first years of war. Lord Beaverbrook had stated as late as November 1940, 'Coastal Command of the RAF is quite inadequate.'
Despite an increasing number of anti-submarine and shipping strikes, the RAF did not sink its first U-boat until 1941; and between September 1940 and March 1941, only 21 ships were sunk at the cost of 101 aircraft. The main problem in anti-submarine warfare was detection. There were insufficient long-range aircraft available and even when a U-boat was spotted on the surface, it could be fully submerged within seconds and long before an aircraft could start its bombing run. The chance of a successful attack, as in Coastal Command, was remote. The first radar sets, installed in Coastal Command aircraft from January 1940, were ineffective and unreliable (radar was completely absent from the film for security reasons). However, from 1943, with very long-range aircraft operating in the mid-Atlantic, the support of the United States Army Air Force, improved radar, weaponry and better training, the RAF began to hit back and of a total of 326 U-boats sunk during the war, the RAF accounted for 169, or 41.5 per cent. The exploits of T for Tommy and the other aircraft in Coastal Command should perhaps not be seen so much as a distortion of reality, but rather as an idealised prediction of what would happen within a year of the film's release.
One of the basic propaganda aims of wartime film was to demonstrate the contribution of the Dominions and the Allies: and the RAF films proved no exception. An Australian pilot is mentioned in Target for Tonight and a Royal Australian Air Force flying boat escorts the damaged T for Tommy back to base in Coastal Command . It became a basic ingredient in later films that each combat group's quota from the Dominions was emphasised: the strong Australian contingent in The Dam Busters , the wild Canadians in Reach for the Sky and even 655 Squadron was given a Canadian leader. Allied co-operation is a strong element in Coastal Command , made soon after America entered the war in December 1941. The RAF is shown using American aircraft Catalinas and Hudsons (one of which is patriotically named 'Spirit of Lockheed Vega Employees') and American fighter aircraft are shown operating from Iceland. Interestingly, the Anglo-American detente reached its climax in Way to the Stars (1945) where USAAF and RAF squadrons share the same base.
To demonstrate that Allied co-operation was essential for victory was an important element in British propaganda, but equally important was to make clear that victory could only be achieved by a national collaborative effort. In this sense, wartime documentary film tended to emphasise the contribution of ordinary people to the war effort: to make heroes of the citizens whether in the armed forces or not. In this context, the work of the ambulance driver, the auxiliary fireman and the war worker was just as important as the soldier, sailor or airman. This can be seen at its most effective in the 1945 production The Way Ahead which deals with a diverse group of men who gradually come together, both officers and men, into a cohesive, mutally interdependent combat group. It was handled with less success in the RAF films, mainly because of the unique nature of that Service. Unlike the army and navy, it was officers who bore the brunt of combat; and they were hardly 'ordinary'. Many were from the public school system or products of the pre-war university air squadrons (a point made several times in Dam Busters ). Mass Observation reported that many people who saw Target for Tonight , were put off by the 'frightfully Oxford accents'. Possibly something was learned from this for the following year, when Coastal Command was made, the crew of T for Tommy were mostly sergeants and from widely differing regions.
In these films attempts were also made to show the contribution of ground crews to a successful mission. Target for Tonight has several scenes of the bomber being prepared by armourers and engineers and the vital role, played by meteorologists, planners and control room staff are noted. More interesting in this context was the 1943 production Workers Weekend which describes how civilian workers at one aircraft factory gave up their weekend to build a Wellington bomber in record time and thus make their own contribution to the bomber offensive. Nevertheless, the main emphasis naturally remained on aircrew, and even though most later films had the mandatory scene involving the faithful batman, rigger or fitter, the legacy of the official films was to help create the enduring image of the RAF 'type' so familiar in later productions: casual, brave, with a tendency to school-boy humour and 'high jinks' in the mess, but operating with cool professionalism under fire.
Target for Tonight and Coastal Command were influential for several reasons. Feature films, perversely, often present a greater degree of reality for their audience than documentaries and not only were these films made in a recognisable feature style, they were produced for the Ministry of Information and thus had 'official' status. More importantly, that they used actual servicemen in situations posed as commonplace added considerahly to the degree of realism. Clearly, in the public mind these films showed the absolute reality of the air war. Little wonder, then, that their influence could still be seen long into the post-war period.
The purpose here is not to criticise RAF wartime policy, or the airmen who risked their lives night after night over the Ruhr or the cold waters of the Atlantic, but to examine how the official films, 1940-42, selected and emphasised certain themes of the RAF's role. This has resulted in a distorted view of air defence, the bomber offensive and the air aspects of the Battle of the Atlantic which have been perpetrated in later feature films. These productions continue to influence the public through frequent television screenings and it is important that we should appreciate their particularised view and their historical context if we are to make any real assessment of the part played by the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.
Michael Paris is the author of The Novels of World War Two: An Annotated Bibliography of World War Two Fiction (Library Associated Publishing, 1990).
- Tony Aldgate & Jeffrey Richards, Britain Can Take It (Basil Blackwell, 1986)
- Noble Frankland, The Bombing Offensive Against Germany (Faber, 1965)
- RJ Overy, The Air War, 1939-45 (Europe, 1980)
- Philip M Taylor, Britain & the Cinema in the Second World War (Macmillan, 1988)
- John Terraine, The Right of the Line (Hodder & Stoughton, 1985)
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