In 1943, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow took his radio audience along on a RAF bombing mission to Berlin.
- By Mark Bernstein
- Air & Space magazine, May 2006
NASM (SI NEG. #85-18328)
(Page 4 of 5)
Murrow’s December 2-3 flight to Berlin was the fifth of 16 air assaults launched against the German capital between November 18, 1943, and March 2, 1944. Arthur Harris believed this air campaign would cost the Allies between 400 and 500 aircraft, but that “it will cost Germany the war.”
Only the first prediction came true. Of the 500 aircraft sent out just on the night Murrow flew, 50 were shot down. At the end of the mission, Murrow telephoned his wife. Janet Murrow later reported, “He sounded shaken.”
Near midnight, London time, on December 3, Murrow presented 20 million American listeners with his account of D for Dog’s attack on Berlin. Murrow recounted the mission, which from his airborne, buffeted vantage appeared to turn the German capital into “a thing of orchestrated hell—a terrible symphony of light and flame.” He also commented on the matter-of-factness of those engaged in the effort. The bomber crews, he said, speak of it as a job: “[A] young pilot with old eyes said to me: ‘I see we’re working again tonight.’ ” Another comment showed that Murrow had no illusion that the suffering was limited to the aircrews: “Men die in the sky while others are roasted alive in their cellars.” It was, he noted, a “calculated, remorseless campaign of destruction.” It was a campaign, not incidentally, that a month later would claim the life of D for Dog’s pilot, Jock Abercrombie.
Arthur Harris remained determined. On December 7, four days after Murrow returned to London, he predicted a German surrender by April 1, 1944. But Berlin was a city of stone buildings, with wide avenues that acted as firebreaks, and the destruction, though great, was not sufficient to force Germany to negotiate terms of surrender.
Richard Overy argues that strategic bombing, unlike combat on the ground, does not produce sharply defined victories or defeats. It does not win territories or lose them; rather, its effects are cumulative. “The Battle of Berlin,” he says, “continued the process of having the Germans pull back their resources from the defense of the Rhine, and [required them] to decentralize their production. In that sense it was no more or less a failure than other attacks. Berlin’s a big target; it’s a rather difficult thing to destroy.”
Robin Neillands offers a less positive judgment of the series of raids: “Harris did not have the aircraft to shatter Berlin quickly and had to divert to other targets to prevent the buildup of flak and fighter resistance over the big city.”
Controversy over the strategy began during the war itself, even before Murrow took his ride on D for Dog. Rising in Parliament in March 1943, Member Richard Stokes asked whether the government was “aware that a growing volume of opinion in this country considers indiscriminate bombing of civilian centers both morally wrong and strategic lunacy?” In fact, those who openly opposed strategic bombing were few, but included persons of standing: A.V. Hill, one of the developers of radar; historian A.J.P. Taylor; military theorist Basil Liddell Hart; and the Bishop of Chichester.
Responding to Stokes’ parliamentary question, deputy prime minister Clement Atlee had said, “There is no indiscriminate bombing. As has been repeatedly stated in the House, the bombing is of those targets which are more effective from the military point of view.” Atlee’s statement, most historians agree, was not only dissembling, it was foolish. First, it set up the government for future criticism on its own terms. Second, despite Stokes’ reference to “a growing volume of opinion” against the bombing, popular opposition was slight. The British public had lived through the Blitz and Coventry. Max Hastings, though critical of the bombing strategy, wrote, “It is most unlikely they would have opposed area bombing if they had been allowed to vote on it.” He tells of one Royal Air Force officer who made morale-building visits to aircraft factories: When he told one audience that the flames of German cities burning could be seen 50 miles away, they “burst into cheers.”