The RAF: On Record, Off Target

Taylor Downing appreciates the continuing relevance of an article questioning the accuracy of popular views of the wartime RAF.

Flying boats of RAF Transport (the two PB2Y Coronado aircraft) and Ferry Commands on the tarmac at RAF Darrell's Island during the Second World War.Michael Paris’s examination of the RAF’s portrayal on screen in the early days of the Second World War hits the nail on the head. The RAF’s actions as they were depicted in popular culture, particularly in the films of the day, bore little resemblance to what it was doing or, indeed, could do.

By 1941, after the winter Blitz in which the Luftwaffe had relentlessly bombed the cities of Britain, the British people wanted to know that the RAF were ‘giving it back’ to the Germans. Later that year, as Paris describes, Harry Watt directed his film Target for Tonight for the Crown Film Unit. Made with actual RAF personnel performing a script written by Watt, Target follows the story of a single raid on an imaginary railway yard and oil depot somewhere near a bend in the Rhine. The film sought to celebrate the quiet heroics of the RAF, which is shown to have the ability to mount a precision raid with great success. Audiences no doubt cheered to see the (models of the) target ablaze and to know – or, rather, believe – that the RAF was creating havoc in the enemy’s heartland.

The heroics of these wartime films pervaded the popular view of the Second World War for at least 20 years after its conclusion. This became the era of so-called ‘realist’ war films, whether drama-documentaries in the style pioneered by Target for Tonight; feature films like The Dam Busters (1955) and 633 Squadron (1964); or countless American war movies, from The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) to The Longest Day (1962), which was shot in black and white to make it feel more authentic.

By the 1960s, however, historians had gained access to two principal sources of information about the war, which questioned such romantic views. First, there were the memoirs: for example, Churchill’s massive six-volume The Second World War (1948-54), or the many newly published accounts of soldiers, sailors and airmen who had fought. Second, there were the official histories, the principal source of the most accurate information about the conflict, published under the aegis of the Cabinet Office from the late 1940s. One of these was The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, written by Sir Charles Webster and Noble Frankland and published in four volumes in 1961. This was the history that revealed the enormous inadequacies of the RAF bombing campaign in the early part of the war. According to a secret Cabinet report, which analysed aerial photographs in the summer of 1941, the RAF failed to get even one third of its bombs within five miles of its targets. The Strategic Air Offensive was published much to the chagrin of wartime RAF leaders such as Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris and generated intense and widespread controversy.

By the 1980s it was largely accepted that, before new navigational aids were introduced in 1942, the RAF offensive had been a complete failure. Although the moral debate about the rights and wrongs of ‘area’ or ‘indiscriminate’ bombing has continued ever since, there are no serious historians today who challenge the accuracy of the Webster-Frankland account. And so, in 1990, Paris was able to point out the gulf between what the RAF pretended had been happening and what, in reality, was going on.

It is an important message for us today. When we read of or see images of ‘precision bombing strikes’, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, we need to ask where those images have come from – usually official sources such as the Pentagon or the Ministry of Defence. There is no question that military strike aircraft with ‘smart weapons’ are today capable of levels of precision that could only have been dreamed of in 1942. But we still need to question what we are told and to be critical of what the military would have us believe. This is as relevant now as it was in 1941.

Taylor Downing’s most recent book is Spies in the Sky (Little, Brown 2011).