During the interwar years there was much discussion about the psychology of war and how the morale of the people could affect a conflict’s outcome regardless of the tactical situation on the battlefield. The Great War had shown this to good effect with the Russian Empire collapsing under the weight of a disheartened people coupled with the strains of war. The revolutions of 1917, while already being seeded long before the outbreak of war in 1914, was fuelled by the Russian’s inability to defeat German and Austro-Hungarian forces thus creating a useful distraction for the Marxists. The chaos in Russia itself saw the Russian Army retreating from the war and the Germans achieving what was effectively victory in the east.
This fact was not lost on British planners during the interwar years, particularly those who tried to envision the role of air power in the next global conflict. Much was written about how the damaging of a nation’s morale through the systematic destruction of large population centres could both crush the will to resist further and inspire dissent against the hostile nation’s government. This would destroy the enemy’s social infrastructure as well as his technical infrastructure and thus the country would be unable to function.
By the same token, it was important to keep one’s own people informed of what their armed forces were doing to destroy the enemy and win the war. The spirit of getting behind the boys at the front and not wanting to let them down at home was a vital resource to be tapped to keep up war production and the gelling of the nation towards the common goal of survival.
This was where the war correspondent came in.
For the majority of the nation the war correspondent was the only view of how the fight was progressing as they reported from the frontlines. Historically, war correspondents had often been serving officers or government officials who were assigned the role of spin doctor to put a positive twist on the truth at the front in order to keep up the morale of the people even if that meant lying. The Great War would see the pinnacle of this form of propaganda with stories of glorious actions written by respected authors such as Rudyard Kipling overshadowing the true tales of horror that returning soldiers from the front told at the local pub. The demilitarization of war correspondents and the increasing number of genuine journalists at the front did much to alleviate the growing cynicism towards the earlier let’s-go-get’em style of reporting which itself was proving counterproductive.
One of the most influential of these new breed of war correspondents was Richard Dimbleby of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Born Frederick Richard Dimbleby in 1913, he was himself the son of a journalist and when his education was complete he went to work in the family owned Richmond and Twickenham Times before joining the BBC in 1936 as a radio broadcaster. In 1939 he was selected to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) as they crossed to France and in doing so earned himself the accolade of being the BBC’s first war correspondent and he would more than live up to it.
Over the next six years, Dimbleby’s words would be broadcast in to every home in Britain and beyond that had a radio, narrating some of the most pivotal and often the darkest moments in the country’s history. From the first days of fighting on the western front when Hitler’s troops bypassed the Maginot Line to the evacuation of the BEF from the Normandy beaches to the battle of El Alamein, Dimbleby’s voice told the story of the fight against Nazi Germany’s lust for conquest but one feeling prevailed throughout the world during these broadcasts; Britain was on the defensive. The Army was fighting to stop Rommel’s Afrika Korps in Egypt while the Royal Navy was waging a bitter war against Dönitz’s U-boats in the North Atlantic that were close to starving Britain in to submission.
Only one force seemed to be waging a truly offensive war against Nazi Germany; RAF Bomber Command.
The fleets of aircraft and their international crews sourced from all over the Commonwealth that made up RAF Bomber Command had the potential to strike at the very heart of Germany and directly affect the country’s ability to wage war. Knowing that the RAF’s bombers were pounding Germany night after night inspired the British people in to the belief that not only was Hitler getting a bloody nose but that victory was still possible despite the sometimes dire situation the country found itself in during the early years. As long as the bombers kept going over to Europe with their deadly loads then Britain and indeed the free world itself was still in the fight.
And the grand prize of them all was Berlin.
British bombers first visited Berlin on August 25th 1940 in retaliation for Luftwaffe bombers engaged in the Battle of Britain accidentally bombing London. The target was Tempelhoff aerodrome but while the damage was light the psychological effect on Germany and Hitler was immense. The Nazis had promised that no bomb would ever fall on the capital city and now that promise was in tatters. After more visits by RAF bombers, Hitler pushed back and directed his bomber fleets away from RAF bases to retaliate against London. In doing so, the RAF was spared destruction in the Battle of Britain and as a result it became impractical for Germany to attempt an invasion.
Through 1941, Bomber Command visited Berlin time and time again but while they did wonders for the morale of the British people the raids themselves achieved little in strategic terms. Bomber Command’s aircraft such as the Vickers Wellington, Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley and the Handley-Page Hampden (Above) barely had the range to reach Berlin and carried warloads too light to seriously damage the city enough to produce the desired results. If that wasn’t bad enough, navigation was a major obstacle in the early years since there were few accurate ways to navigate at night over such long distances. This, of course, was to say nothing of German defences comprising of anti-aircraft fire and radar-directed nightfighters.
As 1941 dragged on the men of RAF Bomber Command were suffering badly while trying to deliver the expected knock-out blow against the Nazi capital. Anti-aircraft fire was so dense in some places that the concentration of exploding shells created shockwaves that literally shook aircraft to pieces. Coming under increasing pressure from Whitehall, the head of RAF Bomber Command, Air Marshall Richard Peirse, ordered one of the largest raids against Berlin on the night of November 7th/8th 1941 involving 160 aircraft. By this time the crews of Bomber Command, bloodied and tired, felt an overwhelming sense of dread and despair over the news that they would be returning to Berlin. It was felt to such a degree that there were a handful of cases where crews refused to fly the mission regardless of the consequences. Nevertheless, the mission went ahead and once again Bomber Command would pay a high price. Over 12% of the total force was lost to anti-aircraft fire and nightfighters. These losses coupled with poor results saw Peirse relieved of his position and replaced by the man most associated with Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris – “Bomber Harris”.
Harris believed wholeheartedly that air power alone could smash the German infrastructure and above all the will to fight. The poor results thus far shown by Bomber Command, he attributed to inadequate equipment and the chaining of his force to attacking targets to support the Army and Royal Navy. After the disaster in November 1941, Bomber Command stopped hitting Berlin and found itself primarily trying to knock out U-Boat production and supporting facilities to ease the pressure on the Atlantic convoys. While important work, Harris wanted his men to return to the German capital and to take with them their latest four engined heavies – Short Stirling, Handley-Page Halifax and of course the superlative Avro Lancaster (Right). The change of direction for Bomber Command in 1942 did at least offer Harris the chance to sufficiently build up his forces ready to hit Berlin again and with greater devastation than ever before. In January 1943, Harris was finally granted permission to send his bomber fleets back to Berlin. It would be the first mission to the capital since the disaster of November 1941 and was intended to show the Germans (and indeed the people at home) that the tide had truly turned against the Nazis.
Eager to exploit the morale value of the operation it was decided that a journalist should go along as an observer to report on the operation and the ideal man for the job was Richard Dimbleby who by now had experienced as much if not more combat than most frontline servicemen. It shouldn’t be underestimated how dangerous an assignment like this was for a journalist. In the air they were at as much risk as the airmen themselves since flak and nightfighters didn’t discriminate. If proof of this were needed, then it can be found on the night of December 2nd/3rd 1943 when two journalists were killed flying in separate aircraft on the same mission over Europe.
Dimbleby was assigned to join No.106 Squadron of Bomber Command based at RAF Syerston in Nottinghamshire and equipped with the handsome-looking Avro Lancaster. While some commanding officers may have bawked at the idea of having to take a journalist along with them on an operational sortie, Dimbleby found 106’s commander to be quite enthusiastic about it hoping it would show what life was really like for the bomber crews. He was Wing Commander Guy Gibson who will forever be associated with the great Dambusters raid that would take place four months later in May 1943.
Even before he became a household name, Gibson had developed a fine reputation in the RAF as a competent leader and experienced combat pilot. In January 1943 he was serving out his third tour of operational flying having previously conducted a tour with No.83 Squadron flying Handley-Page Hampdens at the start of the war and then flying another tour with Fighter Command flying Bristol Blenheim and Beaufighter nightfighters scoring three confirmed kills on Luftwaffe bombers and a number of probables or damaged. Dimbleby was therefore in quite capable hands.
Briefings and pre-flight checks complete, Dimbleby settled in to the cramped cabin of the Avro Lancaster (although no doubt some of the older crewmembers would have pointed out how “luxurious” the Lanc’ was compared to the earlier aircraft) with the rest of the crew as Gibson taxied the Lancaster out. Dimbleby records that the Lancaster’s wheels left the tarmac at 1630hrs on January 16th 1943 and set off for the dark, wintery skies of occupied Europe. Dimbleby must have felt somewhat out of place amongst the well trained and experienced six-man crew who went about their duties in an almost robotic fashion but he would forever afterwards comment on their professionalism and declare that he was proud to have flown with them. The journey out proved almost mundane with very little activity but knowing that Berlin was the target ahead hung in the thoughts of all onboard especially Dimbleby for whom it was his first mission.
As they neared Berlin, the capital’s defences began to spring to life. From here on, Dimbleby took to recording the events as they happened ready for broadcast the next day. He also took a small video camera with him to record the events. In his own words Dimbleby described what he saw;
There was a complete ring of powerful searchlights, waving and crossing. Though it seemed to me that when many of our bombers were over the city, many of our lights were doused.
Dimbleby is referring to the use of target indicator flares being used by the RAF to mark the target. Pathfinders flew ahead of the main force deploying these flares for the follow-up bomber force. Many of the bravest citizens of Berlin would rush out to try and put out the burning markers in an effort to save their city from destruction.
It was then that Dimbleby experienced what it was like to fly through anti-aircraft fire.
There was also intense flak. At first they didn’t seem to be aiming at us. It was bursting away to starboard and port in thick yellow clusters and dark smoky puffs. As we turned in for our first run across the city it closed right around us. For a moment it seemed impossible that we could miss it. And one burst lifted us in the air as if a giant hand had pushed up the belly of the machine.
Over Berlin, each bomber searched for their markers and began to unleash their loads. According to a declassified dispatch sent to Stalin by Churchill the next day regarding the raid, the RAF dropped 142 tons of high explosive bombs and 218 tons of incendiaries on the Nazi capital. Dimbleby, in Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s Lancaster had a front row seat to the devastating spectacle.
Just then another Lancaster dropped a load of incendiaries. And where before there had been a dark patch of the city, a dazzling silver pattern spread itself. A rectangle of brilliant lights, hundreds, thousands of them, winking and gleaming and lighting the outlines of the city…Score after score of these firebombs went down and all over the dark face of the German capital these great incandescent flowerbeds spread themselves. It was a fascinating sight…At last our bomb-aimer sighted his objective below and for one unpleasant minute we flew steady and straight. Then he pressed a button and the biggest bomb of the evening, our three-and-a-half tonner, fell away and down. I didn’t see it burst but I know what a giant bomb does.
Known as a “cookie” bomb to the crews, the weapon Dimbleby is referring to was one of a number of large conventional bombs carried by RAF bombers. Weighing 8,000lbs, the Lancaster was one of the only aircraft capable of carrying such a heavy weapon without major modifications and it was often carried in conjunction with the much smaller incendiary devices (left). Together, this weapon configuration gave a single Lancaster the capability to destroy a typically sized Berlin street. To give an idea of just how far Bomber Command had come in just three years, the 8,000lb “cookie” alone weighed twice the maximum bombload of the Handley-Page Hampden twin-engine bomber that was one of the types that took the service to war.
I couldn’t help wondering whether anywhere in [the “cookie’s”] area of devastation such a man as Hitler, Goering or Himmler or Goebbels might be cowering in a shelter. It was engrossing to realise that the Nazi leadership and their ministries were only a few feet from us. And that this shimmering mass of flares and bombs and gun flashes was their stronghold.
The last words of his narration must have reaffirmed the British people’s belief in the need to strike hard at the German capital and the other cities of Germany. Harris frequently spoke on newsreels and the radio about the necessity to wipe out the cities and in doing so crush the enemy’s ability, and of course the will, to continue the fight. There was also a certain feeling of satisfaction in British cities that had suffered under German bombardment that now it was their turn.
Those opinions would change dramatically near the end of the conflict when the true horror of Bomber Command’s war became apparent to the world. Newsreel footage of the almost annihilated German cities of Dresden, Cologne and Berlin showed that allied bombing had inflicted atrocious devastation and casualties which resulted in public opinion swinging far against Harris and his men. Bomber Command enjoyed enormous prestige and respect in the darkest days of 1940 to 1944 only to end the war as something of an ugly, almost scandalous, truth that many in British politics wanted to sweep under the carpet as quickly as possible.
Regardless of the leadership decisions in the RAF and Whitehall that sent them there, Dimbleby’s description of Gibson’s crew and by association the crews of Bomber Command as a whole during the mission reflects their bravery and dedication to their duty.
I understand their hardship now. And I am proud to have seen the stars with them.
Both Dimbleby and Gibson would find their place in the history books albeit for different reasons. Dimbleby would fly another nineteen missions with Bomber Command before the war’s end. After the war he became a famed and almost revolutionary broadcaster helping to perfect the art of live broadcasts after the war often in unusual conditions including one notable time when he recorded a program for the BBC in a deep sea diving suit! Dimbleby would also be one of the presenters to launch the long running BBC current affairs television program, Panorama. He passed away in 1965 from cancer but left an enormous legacy in British journalism.
Guy Gibson would of course become almost inseparable from his leadership of No.617 Squadron during the Dambusters operation which overshadows his already excellent career. Sadly, on September 19th 1944 he would be lost in De Havilland Mosquito B.XX KB267 over the Netherlands. The exact circumstances surrounding his death remain the source of some debate but his loss was felt deeply by the British people including Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Both Dimbleby and Gibson excelled in their respective fields and used their talents when their country needed them most. While many know of them individually, few realise that for one night in the war the two of them flew together on a mission over one of the most heavily defended targets in the world and the very heart of the Nazi machine.
Important Source: the transcript for Dimbleby’s broadcast can be found in Patrick Bishop’s excellent book “Bomber Boys: Fighting Back 1940-45”