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Failure to provide defence for pilots


Problems in bombing policy and aircraft design
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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What the Command needed, of course, was somebody to tell them that their basic strategy was wrong and that they should stop and start doing something else. That nobody ever did. That's what Blackett would have done.

[Q] And this was part of the... during World War II, the notion of strategic bombing and winning the war through aerial warfare?

Yes. And of course it worked in Japan and it didn't work in Germany, and there are many reasons for that, but primarily the reason it worked in Japan was that it was very, very sudden. In Japan the strategic bombing started in March 1945 with overwhelming strength. The B29 force was already very big.

[Q] Would be thousands.

Not thousands, it was only a few hundred - but still the B29 of course carried many more bombs than a Lancaster, and... and so Japan was saturated with bombs within three months. I mean essentially all the Japanese cities were not completely destroyed but very severely damaged in three months. And that really worked. It meant the society was really disorganised and demoralised to a great degree, and then the coup de grace of course, was Hiroshima, but in Germany it was much more gradual. The bombing started seriously in '41 and built up over four years, and the Germans just made very good use of opportunities to build defences which were very good, and the German defences, both passive and active, were just too strong. We never could do what we needed to do. Of course originally we intended to bomb Germany in daylight, but the defences were so strong that we just got shot to pieces, and so then the Command turned to night bombing and the night bombing could never be accurate enough to be particularly harmful. I mean the total damage we did to the Germans was roughly half of what it cost us to build the airplanes, and so it was clearly a waste of resources as far as we were concerned. Apart from 40,000 young men got killed in the planes; and 400,000 got killed on the ground. So it was a total tragedy.

[Q] And you were fully aware of it?

So by the end we were fully aware. I mean, it was Hamburg was... gave us a false impression at first, for a few months after Hamburg I still believed that something like this could work, but it became clear in the winter of '43 we had the Battle of Berlin which was the equivalent of the Battle of Britain. We had repeated heavy maximum effort attacks on Berlin, about twelve attacks, over and over again, with maximum force, and the losses just went up and up and up; each time we'd lose more, and the bombing was more and more scattered on the ground as the defences got better. So by the winter of January, February of '44 it was clear that we had failed and if we couldn't make a fire storm in Berlin then what was the point of the whole thing? And we certainly weren't hitting the factories and the German weapons' production was going up constantly all through those times. And so we became, I think, completely aware of this by about March 1944, and from then on it was simply, you did what was the sort of - my job was to save the lives of the bomber crews and that was all I could do. I wasn't really contributing to the war.

[Q] And you were frustrated in that too...

Right. I mean that was in addition: frustrated by the bureaucracy. One of the reasons we were killing so many of the air crew was that the escape hatches in the bombers were too small, and it was extremely hard for them to crawl out of the escape hatches after they'd been shot, after they had been seriously damaged. So bailing out was in fact very rare. The fraction who successfully bailed out of the planes that were shot down was something like 12%; whereas the Americans, who bombed in daylight, and had larger escape hatches, were saving about 50%; something like 50% of the crews could bail out. So we were losing something like 40% of the crews just because their escape hatches were too small. So a friend of mine, Michael Lochlan, whom I shared the office with, discovered this and he fought a hopeless battle to try to get the escape hatches enlarged and never succeeded before the end of the war.

Freeman Dyson (1923-2020), who was born in England, moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He published several books and, among other honours, was awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: RAF Bomber Command, WWII, Japan, Germany, 1945, Hiroshima, 1941, Battle of Berlin, 1943, 1944, Patrick Blackett

Duration: 5 minutes, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008