A hundred years of air raids

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Originally published in Gafencu Magazine, May 2015

The advent of death from the skies marks its sad and ominous centenary…

Death from the skies is a relatively recent phenomenon in the long history of warfare. When the intrepid Wright brothers took flight for the first time in 1903, it didn’t take long for governments the world over to recognise the military potential that aviation provided. And a whole new battlefront was opened up.

Barely eight years later, the Italians were lobbing grenades out of their planes, all squarely aimed at Libya’s troublesome Turkish population. A few short months after that, the Bulgarians graduated to the first aerial bombing raids during the Balkan War (1912–13). Again the local Turks were on the receiving end.

The ongoing centenary of World War I throws up a fresh anniversary virtually every day, though perhaps one of the most significant – and unsettling – of these many landmarks is the first ever air raid on London – 31 May 1915, 100 years ago this month. This particular attack was mounted by zeppelin, the giant German airships of the day.

A line had been crossed. There was to be no turning back. For a century now, death has rained down from the skies, blighting many of the world’s greatest cities and terrorizing civilians far from the primary battlefronts. Speaking at the time, with really quite chilling prescience, Peter Strasser, German zeppelin corps commander, said: “Nowadays there is no such animal as a non-combatant. Modern warfare is total warfare.”

That first air raid on the UK capital saw a single slow moving zeppelin drop 90 incendiary devices and 30 grenades into the heart of London, killing seven people and causing widespread panic. In time, the fleet of zeppelins grew larger and, despite their slow speed, they managed to kill more than five thousand people during WWI – largely because no viable air defence strategy had been developed. Their general failure to hit critical targets was largely irrelevant as far as the Germans were concerned, believing that the raids would strike at the enemy’s morale and weaken their resolve to fight. The distinction between “legitimate” military targets – armed forces, factories, ports – and civilians was already blurred.

Not surprisingly, the first ever air raid counter measures were soon in place across London. This saw basements swiftly requisitioned and shelters set up deep in London’s Underground rail network. There was also the introduction of the blackout – a total ban on ground level lighting that bombers could home in on. This was followed by a rapid ramping up of air defences, including the deployment of searchlights and an anti-aircraft artillery ring around London.
By the following year, the development of planes that could fly at the same high altitude as the attackers, together with the creation of incendiary bullets designed to ignite the airship’s hydrogen-filled chambers, gave the Brits their first zeppelin kill. The pattern for aerial warfare in the 20th century was set – essentially a never-ending game of “see you, and raise you.”

As in most wars, technological advances came at a breakneck speed, and nowhere more rapidly than in the field of aviation. By the end of WWI, virtually all of the major participants had their own first generation of bombers capable of carrying larger payloads, as well as faster and deadlier fighter planes. The scramble for air superiority was on.

Post-World War I, the military thinking was that future conflicts would be fought – and won – by aerial means alone. Trench warfare was now a thing of the past. In 1921, Giulio Douhet, an Italian military theorist, wrote The Command of the Air. This outlined the way that strategic bombing would win future wars without the need to deploy forces on the ground or at sea. While his theory hasn’t proved entirely correct, one of his key phrases – “strategic bombing” resonates to this day. Fear was the key – especially, as Stanley Baldwin, intermittently Britain’s prime minister post the WWI years, said: “The bomber will always get through.” Who or what could resist this unstoppable force?

A string of conflicts throughout the 1930s did little to reverse this line of thinking. The Japanese subdued Shanghai via aerial bombardment in 1932 and 1937, while Hitler road tested his Luftwaffe by loaning it out to General Franco during the years of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). Guernica, the bombing of a Basque village, later immortalised by Picasso, provided both appeasers and warmongers with ample justification to back up their own points of view.

Writers and filmmakers, too, were inspired by the battle for the skies. Things to Come, Alexander Korda’s 1936 masterpiece, based on the writing of H. G. Wells, foretold of a 100-year war. This saw the Airmen – an aviation United Nations – emerge from the turmoil to form a civilisation, known as “Wings over the World,” which put an end to war – by bombing anyone who disagreed. It may well have been science fiction, but it scared the daylights out of the cinemagoers of the time.

The film also depicted the widespread use of gas bombardment, a terror fresh in the memory of the few that had survived the WWI trenches. Within four years of the movie’s premiere, London was again being heavily bombed night after night, with the Battle of Britain raging overhead. Now the pre-war theories could be put to the test. How high would the casualty rate be? Would gas be widely used? How long could Britain withstand the Blitz?

One thing swiftly became apparent – aerial superiority was only one factor in waging a successful war. Despite earlier predictions of up to 250,000 fatalities a week, only around 40,000 people in Britain actually died as a result of Germany’s WWII raids. Compared with the tonnage of bombs dropped, the figure is actually tiny.

To put the figure into context, for every ton of explosives dropped on the UK by the Germans in WWI, there were 10 people killed. In WWII the figure was less than one casualty per ton. As for gas attacks, although everybody in the UK had been issued with a gas mask, this particular nightmare never materialised. This was possibly because, as was seen later with nuclear weapons, bilateral use would leave no victors.

Overall, statistically speaking, just why were there so few fatalities in the WWII air raids on the UK? Certainly better defences, the strength of the Royal Air Force, mass evacuation and organised air raid protection all played their part, as did the rather blunt assessment that the Germans were pretty poor shots. Rather like the zeppelins less than 30 years before, the Luftwaffe was hampered by a lack of accurate intelligence and reliable navigation, largely rendering their approach to one of “hit and hope” as long as it created fear. That, though, would change.

Although clearly exaggerated for propaganda purposes, there is clear evidence that many Londoners became almost laissez faire with regard to prolonged bombing, often eschewing larger reinforced shelters in order to stay in their own basements or cellars. Amazingly, at the beginning of WWII, the British government had ordered “deep” shelters, namely the Underground, to be kept locked to deter Londoners from using them – since the authorities feared they’d never get the people out again.

Before the end of the war, the next phase of aerial combat had manifested itself – the V1 and V2 rockets. In part, these were developed by Werner von Braun, the man whose innovations, three decades later, would be largely responsible for landing the first men on the moon. Then it happened – the royal flush in the high stakes game of aerial poker – the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The ensuing Cold War and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) saw a “regression” to high-level bombardment as the aerial intimidation of choice. At the same time as the Americans and the Russians were stockpiling Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), the former had few qualms when it came to dropping two and a half million tons of bombs on Laos between 1964 and 1973 – more than the combined total the USAF dropped on Germany and Japan in the entire Second World War. Although, the USA wasn’t even officially involved in a conflict with Laos, some 50 years later, its unexploded cluster bombs are still killing local farmers.

The first advice on what to do in the event of an air raid actually dates back to 1915. Unsurprisingly, as technology and tactics have advanced, however, the recommended course of action has been frequently revised. Never, though, has the advice been quite as controversial as when the nuclear threat hung over the world. In Britain, the Protect and Survive public information series of pamphlets, broadcasts and films, employed from the late 1970s and early 1980s, trotted out Boy Scout level advice on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

This guidance was the subject of widespread ridicule, not least for its assumption that anyone would actually survive such a conflagration long enough to worry about makeshift toilet arrangements. Raymond Briggs, best known for his children’s Christmas classic, The Snowman, depicted a more realistic view of the wake of a nuclear attack in When The Wind Blows. The narrative of this poignant children’s book follows an aged couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, as they dutifully follow government advice on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack, detailing how they cope – or rather how they don’t – with radioactive fallout.

In the early 1980s President Reagan took “protect and survive” to a truly galactic level when he championed the proposed Strategic Defence Initiative. SDI would use both ground  and space-based systems to protect the USA from nuclear attack – with the initiative being quickly dubbed Star Wars after the 1977 sci-fi blockbuster. SDI never got off the ground, so to speak, but is still largely credited with accelerating the USA’s missile defence capabilities.

By this stage, “smart” munitions – missiles that could be guided to their targets either by laser or satellite – were being heralded by the military as weapons that could kill the bad guys while sparing the innocent. Sadly, with dodgy data often leading to regrettable results, these only proved the old adage: garbage in/carnage out.

In a NATO bombing raid on Belgrade in 1999, the input of incorrect coordinates, for instance, saw an embassy being hit with the loss of three lives. The target for the raid had been the Yugoslav Federal Directive for Procurement and Supply on the same street. Not the first, or last, instance of Friendly Fire From Above resulting in casualties.

After a century of this, it’s largely depressing to envisage the future form of aerial warfare. Certainly, the increasing use of unmanned drones is perhaps the biggest indicator of where we’re heading. Bizarrely, the assurance of mutual destruction via aerial warfare – as with nuclear weapons – may act to keep the would-be warring nations in check. On a less optimistic note, ever more sophisticated technology allows the more advanced nations to wage war remotely and impersonally, never risking their own citizens in the field of combat. Never getting blood on one’s hands, never facing the wrath of grieving families back home, a clean war could be far more dehumanising and total than any truly dirty one.