Review of Randall T. Wakelam, The Science of Bombing:
Operational Research in RAF Bomber Command. Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 2009. Pp. ix, 347. ISBN
Wakelam's The Science of Bombing fills a gap in the vast
literature of Britain's World War II strategic bombing campaign
against Germany. There is no lack of published material on virtually
every aspect of the campaign, but this is the first work to focus on
the contribution of RAF Bomber Command's Operational Research
Section (ORS). The civilian scientists of the ORS analyzed problems
and sought solutions to increase the effectiveness of British
bombing and cut the devastating losses of RAF aircraft and crew
sustained early in the war.
Wakelam is director of research and symposia at the Canadian Forces
College and assistant professor of Defense Studies at the Royal
Military College. More pertinent to the writing of this book is his
previous career "of some three decades in the air force including
over 3000 flying hours, experience in command and staff
appointments, and over a decade providing education programs for
mid-level staff officers and senior commanders" (3).
experience has made Wakelam skeptical about the value of operational
research: "To be specific, not once ... did I see the active
participation of the air operational research staff in providing
advice on how best to organize for specific roles and missions, what
equipment to purchase, or how to optimize the air force and its
policies and procedures for the most efficient use of limited
resources" (4). Moreover, his first look at some "neglected"
material, including the Section's reports, and an unpublished
history of the ORS written by the scientists themselves, suggested
that these "brilliant" outsiders had delved "into areas of military
technology and process for which they had no previous training.
Despite this ... once they had 'won their spurs' ... the conclusions
and advice they provided were accepted on all occasions" (4). As
this did not fit Wakelam's own experience, he set out to discover
how this could have come about. The result is the first close
investigation of the role the ORS played within Bomber Command.
war did not start well for Bomber Command. Britain's bombing
concepts grew out of limited experience in the Great War, based on a
belief that the bomber was the ultimate weapon, against which
defending fighter aircraft would be ineffective. Bombing was to be
carried out by day--difficulties in identifying targets made
precision bombing at night problematic. RAF leadership did not fully
realize the challenges of strategic bombing and was not prepared for
it. "As the official history states bluntly, 'thus, when war came in
1939 bomber command was not trained or equipped to penetrate into
enemy territory by day or to find its target areas, let alone its
targets by night'" (15).
Evidence for the poor state of the RAF was there to see: "Between
1937 and 1939 there were no fewer than 478 cases of aircraft being
forced down when the pilots became lost, and this over the United
Kingdom.... It was concluded that the average pilot could only get
his aircraft to within fifty miles of the target using dead
reckoning" (15). By the end of 1939, RAF daylight attacks frequently
had unsustainable loss rates of fifty percent. Night attacks brought
relatively few casualties, but were ineffective (19). One commander
described them as "'a never ending struggle to circumvent the law
that we cannot see in the dark'" (20).
October 1940, the new Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Charles Portal,
faced "the prohibitive losses of unescorted day bombing and the
navigation problems of night bombing." His solution, to use "night
precision attacks where illumination permitted, and area attacks
when not," was disliked by many senior RAF leaders, who believed
that precision bombing could be carried out at night. "Moreover,
raid reports claimed outstanding navigation and bombing accuracy"
fact, the crews were reporting what they thought they were
seeing, while reconnaissance photos taken after attacks "rarely
showed evidence of bomb strikes reported by the crews." A study of
photos suggested by the Prime Minister's scientific advisor showed
that only one aircraft in three got within five miles of its target.
Portal looked for solutions; among them was the establishment of an
operational research section at bomber command (23).
Operational research was a new field. Wakelam offers several
complicated definitions before settling on "the more straightforward
and useful in this context: '[OR is] concerned with the allocation
and planning in complex situations requiring scarce or limited
resources'" (25). In any case, the scientists, or "boffins," would
employ their particular scientific methods to identify the problems
that hindered effective bombing, and then seek cures.
nucleus of ORS was a few scientists already engaged with Bomber
Command. Chosen as section head was physicist Basil Dickins, a
rising star in his early thirties. He won the confidence of Bomber
Command leaders and headed ORS for the remainder of the war (34-36).
At its peak in 1943, ORS employed fifty-five scientists, ten lab
assistants and about a dozen clerks.
ORS came together in late summer 1941, the "first and most
pressing task was to come to grips with the challenge of measuring
the accuracy, and by extension efficiency, of bombing operations"
(55). A new data collection process was established: Sortie Raid
Reports prepared by each aircraft would be the basis for analysis.
More importantly, cameras were to be installed in each bomber, not
to assess damage, but to record the actual dropping of bombs. With
that, "commanders would have the necessary information to know where
their crews were and what they were doing" (51).
new item of technology, T.R. 1335 or "Gee," showed great potential
to ensure two essentials in hitting targets: "navigating to the
target area, and finding the aiming point" (59). Signals from three
ground transmitters were received by aircraft on a cathode ray tube
as two position lines, or gee coordinates. A special map let
experienced navigators pinpoint an aircraft's position in less than
one minute. The signals were "line-of- sight" and limited Gee range
to 300-400 miles. Bomber Command believed that, once started, Gee
could be used for six months before the Germans learned how to jam
developed attack scenarios and recommended trials. Experimental attacks
proved the effectiveness of the proposed "Shaker" attack technique.
Shaker would use "Gee-equipped flare-dropping 'Illuminators,'
incendiary-dropping 'Target markers,' and finally, the 'Followers'
bombing with high explosives," on the conflagration that marked the
Attacks by Gee-equipped bombers in March and April 1942 showed
improved results, but not as good as expected. ORS recommended the
use of Pathfinders, "special target-locating squadrons," that would
find their targets with Oboe--a device like Gee, but much more
accurate--and drop marker bombs for the "follower" aircraft. The ORS
had raised the Pathfinder concept as early as the previous December.
Finally, Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, head of Bomber Command,
established the Pathfinder Force (PFF) in August 1942. Although
opposed to creating a new "elite" force, "he was not in fact against
the target-finding concept" (75).
bombing effectiveness increased, ORS had to deal with rapidly
improving German air defenses.
was also clear that concentration in both time and space was vital,
not only over the target, but on the route as well. By sending in an
attack en masse, the defenses could be overwhelmed.... In fact, one
of the aims of the thousand bomber raids that would be launched in
the summer was to show that concentration could lower losses....
According to Dickins, "we had to reduce it all to mathematics, and
to work out the actual chance of a collision .... While a collision
was a half percent risk, the chances of being shot down by flak or
fighters was at three or four percent risk. So we could allow the
collision risk to mount by quite a bit..." (81).
scientists analyzed losses by cause and aircraft type. Since few
returning aircraft had significant damage, it seemed "that
losses must then be due to some catastrophic in-flight
circumstances" that followed hits by flak or fighters.
Investigations focused on in-flight fires and concluded that overall
losses could be reduced through use of inert gas in the fuel
tanks to minimize fires. "By April 1943 Bomber command was
'demanding' that all aircraft be so equipped" (90).
for aircraft types, the Halifax was among the oldest and the slowest
and suffered a series of problems that ORS identified and tried to
resolve. Then the Lancaster, the most effective bomber of the force,
was found to have a lower crew survival rate than the Halifax. In
sixty-eight percent of Lancasters shot down, there were no survivors
(151). ORS Chief Dickins believed he could have an explanation in
"two or three weeks." It was four months before the problem was
determined "to be due primarily to the more restricted space within
the aircraft and to the poor rear escape hatch" (150). The ORS
study, as was typical, had had to take on many related issues, from
hatch design to crew training and the need for a new type of
parachute, to fire-warning lights to alert crew in time to abandon
the aircraft. The process often took many months.
the war went on, Bomber Command made good use of new technology in
large-scale operations. Concentration of the bombers over targets
had an effect, until the Luftwaffe adapted to it. The introduction
of Window--tin foil strips that interfered with German radar--made
flak less effective and degraded the Luftwaffe's ground-controlled
intercept operations. The fighters could not easily find the
bombers--until German controllers reacted with a running commentary
on the progress of the bomber stream that enabled fighters to find
the stream and enter it, "until two-thirds of the [bomber]
casualties were caused by fighters" (145). Bomber Command introduced
new airborne jamming equipment like "Cigar," and equipped aircraft
with receivers to alert crews to radar-equipped night
There were disappointments. H2S, a ground mapping radar, seemed the
solution to lingering navigation and target identification problems,
but brought difficulties of its own. By the end of 1944, however,
"many of the other systems and tactics were producing a winning
combination.... Bomber Command could, within limits, go pretty much
where it wanted and when--and hit the target when it got there"
(204). American long-range fighters helped neutralize German fighter
defense, enabling Bomber Command to make raids day and night. "The
final phase of the war from October 1944 to May 1945 was the most
spectacular in terms of results achieved, 'but from the point of
view of the operations themselves, it was perhaps the least
interesting ....' For the decision makers, including the boffins,
this was the denouement of the piece; it was almost anticlimactic to
watch the bombers return op after op with general success and few
Personalities do not figure much in this work, with the exception of
Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command from February 1942.
"Bomber Harris"--"Butcher Harris" to his critics--is central to
Wakelam's thesis that ORS made its mark on the bombing campaign
through influencing Harris's major decisions. Wakelam largely avoids
the points of controversy--they are indeed beyond the scope of the
book--but he does not agree with critics who "believe that Harris
did not have a quick intellect" (66), or with the ORS scientist who
saw Harris as a "commander in chief who accepted no criticism either
from above or below, never admitted his mistakes, and appeared to be
indifferent to the slaughter of his own airmen as he was to the
slaughter of German civilians" (67). Nor does he see Harris's role
as ruthless or unethical--area bombing had been adopted before his
arrival at Bomber Command, he notes: "What Harris did
do was direct the operations and staff activities of his force as
effectively as possible, day in and day out for over three years, to
ensure that when he did send his crews against the enemy they would
be as effective, and safe, as possible" (7). He did so, Wakelam
believes, by accepting many ORS recommendations. But the evidence
adduced that Harris was not as rigid and dominating as he
is often portrayed, will likely not convince the "butcher's"
study of "questions of tactics and technique" (5), the book
succeeds. As "an examination of how [Bomber Command] directed the
strategic bombing campaign against Germany" (3), it does not. There
are glimpses into decision making, particularly as
Bomber Command implemented
recommendations, but any
examination of the process is necessarily limited. ORS was just one
of many entities that affected the functions of the RAF. We learn
little of the others, their interaction with ORS and Bomber Command,
or the extent of their influence on the bombing campaign.
Science of Bombing
contains interesting charts and photos and a useful glossary. The
book's subject will appeal more to specialists than general readers.
In particular, its detailed examination of the role of the ORS will
be invaluable to aviation historians concerned with WWII in Europe.