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Thread: Target for Tonight - who chose the targets for Bomber Command and Special Ops ?

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    Default Target for Tonight - who chose the targets for Bomber Command and Special Ops ?

    I'm interested in how targets were chosen for raids / attacks by Bomber Command and Special Combined Operations, and others.

    This has always interested me, to put it crudely, how did we get the right people into the right positions when fighting a war. Who took the decisions ? Economists, scientists or geographers ? Where did they get the experience to call themselves 'Military Strategists' ?

    Had we contingency plans in place from the moment we realized there would be war with Germany ? But clearly that didn't extend to Occupied France who we never expected to be bombing.

    So we mobilise all our resources, like the way we seek the support from other Commonwealth nations, or we get the best brains from Trinity College Cambridge Mathematics Faculty into Bletchley park, etc, etc, then we adopt the less obvious routes to gathering intelligence, like approaching the large banks in USA who had been investing in big business in Inter-War Germany and so they had detailed plans of buildings & factories that would become RAF targets, etc

    So, who chose Morlaix Viaduct in January 1943 in Brittany ? The viaduct was of strategic importance being in the centre of the city, but the railway line had plenty of other bridges and viaducts along its route to Brest and the German U-Boat pens.

    I have been researching the raid by 226 Squadron on Morlaix Viaduct on 29th January 1943, in which my mother's first husband, John Bicknell flew as a navigator, in Boston B2281 ‘B and the Morlaix community, were then , and are still now, at a loss as to how the target was chosen.

    Translated from a contemporary Morlaix newspaper,
    'On a clear and sunny day on Friday, 29 January 1943, at 2:15 p.m., Royal Air Force squadron 226, based at Swanton Morley 150 km north east of London, in two waves of six Douglas Boston III bombers in combat formation, escorted by numerous fighters and flying at low altitude to thwart radar surveillance, burst into the sky of Morlaix, less than a minute after the air raid warning sounded. Under fire from A-A batteries, they targeted the Morlaix viaduct and dropped 48 250-kilogram bombs, only one of which hit the target, damaging an arch. The others fell in the vicinity, on the Churches of Saint Charles and Saint Melaine, and caused serious damage: 67 civilian deaths are recorded, among them 39 children from two to six years old, and a teacher of the School Notre-Dame de Lourdes, located just under the viaduct, and unspecified losses among the occupation troops.'

    Ten days later, on 8th February 1943 the line was restored. The Morlaisians, the railway workers never understood the reason for this bombing, when it was easy to bomb the viaduct of the Méaugon west of Saint-Brieuc, but in the middle of deserted countryside.

    So I got to thinking about how the 'targets' were identified for Bomber Command and Special Combined Operations, and others.

    Whether it's true or not legend has it the raid on the Dams in 1943 - 'Chastise' - looks as though it had its origins with Barnes Wallis approaching the Air Ministry with his plan...a sort of 'on the hoof ' approach to target setting...

    But as a rule, I am led to believe, Intelligence gathering involved three RAF stations, in close proximity in Buckinghamshire: reconnaissance flights from RAF Benson; interpretation and analysis at RAF Medmenham; and cartography at Hughenden Manor.

    First requirement was the photographic evidence, supplied by especially adapted high altitude Spitfires, capable of flying at 400mph, and at 45,000 feet.
    These flights from RAF Benson, with cameras loaded in the belly and wings of their aircraft had built up a supply of millions of pictures from all over Nazi Occupied Europe. On their return the reels of film were removed from the Spitfires and developed, and those negatives, of maximum interest, were shipped by a team of motor cycle outriders immediately to RAF Medmenham, a country house in rural Buckinghamshire where prints were made for interpretation and analysis.

    I can see that this detailed PR would throw up key strategic targets were of principle interest: factories, bridges, dams, power stations, railways terminuses, harbours and ports, and of course, Luftwaffe airfields, and the Noball V1 & V2 sites.

    Any part of the Nazi war machine that might be a legitimate target for destruction was of special interest to the hundreds of intelligence personnel closely examining their spools of film. The motor cycle outriders then took these precious dossiers to RAF Hughenden Manor, where in the former country seat of Prime Minister Benjamin D’Israeli, the process of map-making went forward. Here expert cartographers, a dedicated team of men and women 150 strong, worked tirelessly with meticulous precision, each with their own skills at evaluation and interpretation, or at cartography, or model making, and produced detailed coloured maps in 3-D, with contours and rivers, roads and railways, that proved invaluable to the bombers setting out form East Anglian airfields.

    How were personnel recruited for these posts ? Did adverts appear in papers ? Or were recruits swept up by being approached by Ministries ?

    And how were people recruited for the Ministry of Economic Warfare ? ( the source for many of Bomber Command targets surely.)

    I gather the Ministry of Economic Warfare (MEW) was in favour of selecting target towns according to their importance for the German war effort.
    In 1943 the MEW issued the 'Bombers’ Baedecker' an extensive collection of German towns of more than 15,000 inhabitants, evaluated according to the war-economic significance of their industries, infrastructure and traffic.

    A year later a second edition for the MEW and the number of towns had risen considerably from 392 to 518. Even municipalities with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants had been included, provided that they housed industries of war-economic significance.

    From the BBC website for a Timewatch programme in 2001 I see they mentioned Wurzburg as being a puzzling choice of target the month after Dresden had attained infamy. The website says'

    'Britain and the US bombed small towns in Germany in the final stages of the second world war because they would burn easily and not because they were strategically important, documents found in the public record office reveal including Wurzburg in southern Germany, with its baroque palace, and rich in art and architecture, Wurzburg had little industry of wartime importance. According to the British Ministry of Economic Warfare, it had only one potential target, a power switching station, yet on the night of 16th March 1943 226 Lancaster bombers took off for Wurzburg. The crews were briefed that the town was an important communications centre.
    Yet it was clear to them that their mission was a fire attack on residential parts of the town. Their bomb loads contained mainly incendiaries. In just 17 minutes, they dropped nearly 1,000 tons of bombs on Wurzburg; 82% of the town was destroyed and almost 5,000 people were killed.'

    To use heavy bombers in every way possible to hasten a German collapse, new targets for area bombing were needed. In January 1945 Wing Commander Arthur Fawssett, intelligence officer for targeting at Bomber Command, made a list. Towns were first selected because they were easy for the bombers to find and destroy. One of the main selection criteria was that the towns had "structural features" that made them "suitable or otherwise for fire attack".

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    Default Re: Target for Tonight - who chose the targets for Bomber Command and Special Ops ?

    Apologies for the rambling reply which follows:

    My focus right now is on individual targets and raids and the tactics used to attack these targets, September 1944-March 1945. As such I am fuzzy on much of this so had to refresh my understanding. Here are some thoughts.

    Harris determined the target for any given evening or day of operations. Always! His decision was final. When it came to the “Area Bombing” directive he interpreted it quite liberally. Harris’s first directive came to him on Valentines Day, 1942 “It has been decided that the primary objective of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular the industrial workers…” to which Portal added a note to Bottomley, “Ref, the new bombing directive: I suppose it is clear that the aiming points are to be the built-up areas, not, for instance the dockyards or aircraft factories where these are mentioned in appendix “A”.” (-Referenced from Middlebrook and Everitt, Official History, Vol IV, p. 144 and Vol I p. 324.)

    A very good source would be to look at those who were around for the decisions: Harris's own account of what he did, “Bomber Offensive” would be a good place to start, as would be the biography “Bomber Harris” by his loyal deputy, Dudley Saward who was a direct witness to the events for Harris' entire command. This will cover one side of how well Harris followed directives and his view on these at various stages in the war.

    The “Ministry of Economic Warfare” provided assessments of potential targets:
    https://discovery.nationalarchives.g...tails/r/C15808

    Directives came down from the Air Ministry and from Portal. On the lead-up to Overlord, Tedder and Eisenhower played important roles.
    Lionel Lacey-Johnson’s book “Point Blank and Beyond” covers some of the lead-up to Overlord. He will reference the primary documents here. It’s been years since I’ve read it (2nd edition) but it’s a very thorough book.

    After Overlord, the last important directive came down on September 25, 1944, from Bottomly at the Air Ministry to Portal and thence to Harris which provided direction on the Air Offensive for the remainder of the war (See Webster and Frankland, SAO, III pp 58-59 and 172-173). Oil, Transportation and Civilian Morale would be the principal targets and “High Wycombe” would be directed to take on the “undamaged parts of major industrial cities to achieve a virtual destruction of the areas attacked”. Again, you should look for the various memos that Harris received and judge for yourself how closely he followed these directives.

    Other sources include Middlebrook and Everitt “BC War Diaries”, as well as Overy's book, “The Bombing War”. M&E reference most of the over-arching directives at critical stages of the war, as will Overy.

    So to conclude with emphasis: I think you need to do your own research on this topic. I wouldn't be relying on 3rd party histories. If I was asking this question, I would want to examine the "primary historical" sources, available at the National Archives. Don't rely on anyone else's interpretations, particularly TV documentaries or films such as the Dams Raid.

    Jim

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    Default Re: Target for Tonight - who chose the targets for Bomber Command and Special Ops ?

    Thanks, Jim, for your very detailed and informative reply. I have ordered Overy's 'The Bombing War' but I am persuaded, as you suggested, that it is only from the primary sources that I will discover the provenance of any raid on Occupied Europe. I have been fascinated by the way some OPs were put together, in particular , 'Operation Colossus' ( and will post my findings.

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    Default Re: Target for Tonight - who chose the targets for Bomber Command and Special Ops ?

    The random and serendipitous nature of some 'target setting' continues to enthral me. And apart from the Air Ministry, and SOE / Ministry of Economic Warfare, and PR at RAF Medmenham, I have come across the ISSB Inter-Services Security Board - which was part of Churchill's War Cabinet, and they co-ordinated planning, too.

    I have heard many times that an appeal went out for good citizens of Great Britain to send in their holiday snaps taken in pre-war Europe, and wonder which Department had the herculean task of sifting through them !

    One example, of this apparent ad hoc target setting, is provided by Damien Lewis in his excellent book, ‘Churchill’s Shadow Raiders’ providing evidence of the random nature of some military planning in the early part of WW2, and in particular the provenance of ‘Operation Colossus.’

    Apparently on 27th June 1940, within a few weeks of the last troops returning from Dunkirk, Professor Colin Graham Hardie, an Oxford University classicist, wrote to SOE ( Ministry of Economic Warfare) at their Berkeley Square HQ. They hid their clandestine planning behind various shadow identities like ISRB - ‘Inter Services Research Bureau’ - and Hardie advised them from his recent personal knowledge, of the terrain, (having been on an educational tenure in Rome), of the strategic importance of the Aqueduct Pugliese.

    Professor Hardie was summoned to a meeting in London, with engineers from a civil engineering firm, George Kent and Sons. The contractor had originally built this aqueduct near a place called Tragino near Naples in southern Italy, and they provided SOE with with detailed knowledge the aqueduct which ran for 213.5 kms and furnished 65 towns with water and the damage, he assured the meeting, to the aqueduct in Southern Italy could severely damage the water supply of the whole of South Eastern Italy, between 2-3 million people, and the water supply to the three naval bases at Bari, Taranto and Brindisi and so disrupt supply to the Italian Army in North Africa.

    Following the study of air reconnaissance photographs taken in the autumn of 1940 by the British War Office,
    Damien Lewis says the planners at SOE researched every available resource including ‘Milan Journal of Civil Engineering’ and a British engineer came forward saying he had worked on the original construction of the Tragino Aqueduct and that , it seems was how Operation Colossus was born. The engineers said this aqueduct had masonry pillars (brickwork) as opposed to concrete pillars, and would be easier to dynamite.

    This information was of great interest to Hugh Dalton, Director at SOE, who liked targets of industrial and military importance and could be so effectively sabotaged. Dalton recruited Professor Hardie, and other academics were soon approached to join the growing number of ‘experts’ at SOE headquarters.

    Five months later, in November 1940, SOE said it was beyond their capabilities so handed back to Roger Keyes at Combined Operations. Various options were looked at and finally a request to help went to Britain’s only parachute unit. This was the 11th Special Air Service Battalion who had formed from No 2 Commando in the middle of 1940.

    By the way, Damien Lewis writes with such bravura his research reads like an Ian Fleming novel and you expect James Bond to be part of the raiding party. ( Incidentally David Niven the colourful debonair British film star was a deputy at Command Operations)

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