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)
ROYAL AIR FORCE WING COMMANDER Jock Abercrombie and other pilots of Bomber Command gathered at mid-afternoon on Thursday, December 2, 1943, to find out the day’s weather, which was cloudy, and the day’s target, which was Berlin. On that night’s mission, Abercrombie’s four-engine bomber, an Avro Lancaster with the nose art D for Dog, would carry to the German capital five tons of high explosives and one passenger. The passenger was the chief CBS radio correspondent in Europe, Edward R. Murrow.
Murrow was likely the most influential private U.S. citizen during the Second World War. In London during the Blitz, he had his own, personal, finest hour. Each night, standing exposed on rooftops, he gave to an American audience of 20 million live coverage of the city’s bombardment and its citizens’ resilience. Introduced with the trademark phrase “This… is London,” Murrow’s reports converted many of his listeners from isolationists into supporters of the British cause. Speaking back in the United States in 1938, he told his audience, “Whether we like it or not, the answer to Europe’s problems will be found, not in Europe, but right here in the United States.”
Murrow would make his flight on D for Dog the subject of a 17-minute radio broadcast, the longest he gave during the war. With it, he transported his audience from their comfortable living rooms to the cold belly of a big black Lancaster. Listening to it now, 60-plus years later, we feel what he felt: the bumpy ride, the considerable fear, the mission accomplished, and the relief of safe return. (Click here to listen to the recording.)
The strategic bombing of Germany—of which D for Dog’s mission was a tiny part—remains a matter of debate among historians. Drawing upon military records, the recollections of crew members, economic data, and other sources, historians have both defended and condemned the policy. Murrow’s broadcast also makes a judgment, and it is interesting to hear the conviction in the newsman’s words after reading the contentious analysis published in the years since he spoke them. As historians I interviewed point out, such eyewitness reporting suffers from a shortage of available fact and the pressure of deadline. “What you can get from a broadcast is a powerful impression,” says Richard Overy, author of a dozen histories of World War II, including The Air War: 1939–1945. “You don’t get an answer to the broader questions historians ask: Why were the airplanes there? What were they doing? Did they have any effect?”
Yet eyewitness reporters like Murrow can provide what better researched interpretations may lack: a sense of participation in history. We feel that we are there with Murrow from the very first words of his broadcast: “Last night, some of the young gentlemen of the RAF took me to Berlin.”
The United Kingdom and Germany began exchanging bombs in August 1940, when German bombs intended for an airfield on the outskirts of London landed instead on the city. The U.K. retaliated with attacks on Berlin, and Germany launched the Blitz on London that, among other things, made Murrow a household name. Initially, the British missions against Germany did little more than show the flag—Britain’s bombers were few, their payloads small, and the navigation highly erratic. In late 1941, it was determined that only one aircraft in three managed to drop its payload within five miles of its target. The British adopted a policy of “area bombing” cities—later the subject of considerable controversy—in part because a city was the smallest target that British bombers, operating under the cloak of night, could identify.
By the time Murrow boarded D for Dog, strategic bombing had become central to Allied war policy. Between the fall of France in June 1940 and the landings in Italy in September 1943, no Western army engaged the Germans on the continent of Europe. Bombs were the only weapon available. As Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to Lord Beaverbrook, his minister for aircraft production, “We have no continental army which can defeat the German military power…. [T]here is only one thing that will bring [Hitler] down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.”
Britain committed a quarter or more of its war production to strategic bombers. In February 1942, British military leadership gave command of this air arm to Arthur “Bomber” Harris, whose views of warfare were notably unromantic: “We are going to scourge the Third Reich from end to end. We are bombing Germany city by city and ever more terribly in order to make it impossible for her to go on with the war. That is our object, and we shall pursue it relentlessly.”
Murrow was also relentless. During the Blitz, he had received permission to broadcast live from London by taking his case to the prime minister, Winston Churchill. Churchill, formerly a correspondent in the Boer War who believed that Murrow’s reports would dramatize England’s underdog status and would therefore appeal to Americans, overrode layers of British officialdom and got Murrow on those rooftops. With American entry into the war, Murrow’s circumstance changed. After Pearl Harbor, his wife, Janet Brewster Murrow, said Murrow felt “uncomfortable” in civilian dress. He tried to enlist but was told his reporting was a greater contribution to the war effort. So he tried to get closer to the action: For the whole of 1943, he badgered British officials and his superiors at CBS to get on a bombing run. (Apparently the U.S. Army was more tractable. Newspaper reporters, including Walter Cronkite and Andy Rooney, went along on the first B-17 mission into Germany in January 1943.)
Ostensibly, Murrow’s motive was accuracy: “Let me ride in a bomber,” he told CBS president William Paley, “and I can know a little better how the pilot feels when the tail is shot off.” But Murrow wasn’t satisfied with a single ride. He went along on 23 more combat missions, including a September 1944 ride on a transport delivering paratroops for the ill-fated Market Garden assault (the subject of the book and movie A Bridge Too Far).We may wonder about his motivation for these other flights; his broadcast of December 3, 1943, was the only one he made about his experience of the bomber war.
The principal aim of strategic bombing, Richard Overy writes, is to undermine an enemy’s capability to wage war. During World War II, combatants hoped to cripple the enemy’s production capability through continual attack on industrial targets, and, by strikes on non-military targets, to destroy the will of the citizenry to continue the fight. Although the original orders to the Luftwaffe were to destroy the British air capability, by the end of 1940 German airplanes were deliberately targeting population centers like Coventry, an industrial city the Germans set infamously ablaze with incendiary bombs and high explosives. In return, England launched thousand-bomber raids in 1943 over Cologne, Essen, and Bremen. In May of that year, 19 specially trained Lancaster aircrews destroyed dams on the Ruhr, spilling flood waters down the Ruhr Valley for 50 miles, extinguishing blast furnaces and flooding coal mines. Fifty-six of the 133 crewmen died in the assault.
Some raids were devastating. Almost 600 factories were obliterated in a July mission over Hamburg, and an estimated 42,000 people died. Hamburg, wrote Hitler’s armaments chief, Albert Speer, “put the fear of God in me.”
The results of attacks on strictly industrial sites were less definitive. A costly Bomber Command raid in August against Germany’s crucial ball bearing works at Schweinfurt, German sources reported, cut production by 38 percent, but in the following weeks, output was largely restored.
As 1943 progressed, a greater share of the air war against Germany was conducted by the U.S. Eighth Air Force, which had been established in Britain by June 1942. The Americans took a fundamentally different approach to bombing. The British almost always bombed at night; the Americans held that their more heavily armed B-17s and B-24s were, when operating en masse, sufficiently self-defending to fly in daylight. That strategy allowed use of the highly accurate Norden bombsight.
Daylight operations proved, however, equally hazardous. In October, the Eighth Air Force sent 290 bombers on a second attack of Schweinfurt. The attack temporarily cut production by two-thirds. The cost was startling: 60 aircraft shot down. Given that cost, further attacks on the site were curtailed, to what Speer called his “overwhelming relief.”
The British aircraft that played the most effective part in the bombing was the type Murrow rode to Berlin, the Avro Lancaster, arguably the finest heavy bomber of the European war. Although the Lancaster was a touch slower than the B-17, it could carry 14,000 pounds of bombs to Berlin. Max Hastings, author of Bomber Command: Myths and Reality of the Strategic Bombing Offensive, says, “The Lancaster was a stupendously reliable piece of machinery; crews had enormous confidence in it.” The Lancaster entered service in early 1942. In May of that year, Great Britain had only 29 of them; by January 1943, it had 178, and they made up better than a third of its frontline component. Historian Robin Neillands, who interviewed dozens of Bomber Command veterans for his book The Bomber War, says, “They adored the Lancaster.”
Preparing for takeoff, Murrow and D for Dog’s crew pulled on parachutes and Mae West vests. Parachutes were an uncertain asset. For all its strengths, the Lancaster was a difficult aircraft to get out of in a crisis—only about one in six crewmen shot down reached the ground alive. As D for Dog’s crew waited to board, a small station wagon drew up delivering for each man a thermos of coffee, chewing gum, an orange, and a square of chocolate. With that, the aircraft took off into what Murrow in his broadcast would term a “dead, silent, and expectant” sky.
In the broadcast, Murrow introduced the crew by their first names only. The Lancaster had a high cockpit, 19 feet above the ground. Jock, the pilot, sat there, with the flight engineer at his side. The navigator—on D for Dog, his name was Dave—sat behind the pilot at a small curtained-off table lit by a pinpoint lamp; Titch, the wireless operator, was backed against the main spar. His dispatches would be few and brief: German radio-interception equipment was so sensitive, according to Neillands, it could pick up the sounds of radio sets in England warming up prior to takeoff. Farther back were Boz, the bomb aimer; Wally, the mid-upper gunner; and Jack, the tail gunner. The rear gunner, Neillands writes, had the worst job: “stuck on his own at the far end of a vibrating fuselage; sucking on an oxygen line; particularly vulnerable to aircraft coming from astern.” D for Dog’s crew members were likely young: Most bomber personnel were between 19 and 22. All were volunteers.
Early in the war, the pilot was thought to be the key to success, but experience taught that crews survived only as a team. Perhaps reflecting this, Murrow would broadcast that as the flight advanced toward Germany, “Jack in the rear turret, Wally, the mid-upper gunner, Titch, the wireless operator—all seemed somehow to draw closer to Jock in the cockpit. It was as though each man’s shoulder was against the others’.”
In 1943, bombers left England with fighter cover but arrived at many targets unescorted. Not until spring 1944 did the United Kingdom get the North American P-51B Mustang, which had the range to escort bombers all the way to Berlin. After the fighters accompanying the December 2 mission turned back, Murrow reported, “Jock looked up at a vapor trail curling across above us, remarking in a conversational tone that from the look of it he thought there was a fighter up there.”
The German night fighters were the striking arm of an integrated air defense system of radar, searchlights, and anti-aircraft guns. Allied aircrews developed considerable respect for their foe. Once, after the German Focke-Wulf fighter was introduced, a poster was hung in a crew room picturing a bomber pilot asking, rhetorically, “Who’s afraid of the new Focke-Wulf?” Someone pinned paper to the poster and, not rhetorically, every member of the unit signed.
When D for Dog reached Germany, Murrow began to see flak explode. It looked, he reported, “like a cigarette lighter in a dark room—one that won’t light. Sparks but no flame.” The flak most feared came from the German 88-mm gun. This versatile weapon, highly potent against tanks in land combat, could send a shell five miles high in seven seconds. When Murrow asked the pilot to estimate how close the flak bursts were to the aircraft, he responded, “Not very close. When they’re really near, you can smell ’em.”
Murrow’s own apprehension rose: Thirty miles from Berlin, he later broadcast, “D-Dog seemed to be standing still, the four propellers thrashing the air. But we didn’t seem to be closing in.” Cloud cover was “ten tenths”—complete. Instantly, the dirty gray clouds turned white; the aircraft was caught in the gleam of searchlights. Describing the vulnerability of being in a dark aircraft cast against suddenly gleaming clouds, Murrow reported: “D-Dog seemed like a black bug on a white sheet.” The pilot wore gloves with the fingers cut off; Murrow saw his fingernails turn white as he gripped the wheel. Sensing danger, the pilot whipped the aircraft into a climbing turn that dropped Murrow to his knees. Some pilots, Max Hastings notes, banked cautiously for fear of losing a wing; “[o]thers—the ones who lived—recognized that the danger of a wing collapsing was nothing as that of a fighter’s cannon.”
Jock and Boz, the bomb aimer, considered the target, wreathed with smoke. Murrow described the exchange: “Boz said he liked the two green flares on the ground almost dead ahead.” Soon thereafter, “there was a gentle, upward thrust under my feet, and Boz said: ‘Cookie gone’… and D-Dog seemed lighter and easier to handle.”
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.”
Murrow, meanwhile, had drawn a lesson of his own. What most governed Murrow’s outlook, fellow newsman Eric Sevareid later noted, was that he “was a great moralist. He expected individuals, and his government, to live up to high moral standards.” The typical Murrow broadcast contained a moral, often one that used the specific to illuminate the general.
In his broadcast, Murrow reported that as the bomber was returning to England, Dave, its navigator, announced when the craft left the airspace of German-occupied Europe for that of the English Channel. When Murrow heard that announcement, he said, his mind went back to a 1938 flight he had made to London from Prague. Seated ahead of him were two refugees, an older couple. When the pilot announced the airplane had left German territory, “the old man reached out and grasped his wife’s hand.” Murrow’s comment: “The terrible symphony of light and flame” that D for Dog and 500 other bombers had performed upon Berlin was “a massive blow of retribution for all those who have fled from the sound of shots and blows on the stricken continent.”
The judgment that bombing was retribution is one military historians sharply reject. “Harris was not much interested in retribution and neither am I,” Robin Neillands says. “His aim was to shatter Germany from the Rhine to the Oder and weaken that nation’s eagerness to fight.” Richard Overy notes, “Most of the prevailing propaganda was very keen to argue that this was not in any sense retribution or revenge. Rather, it was based on solid assessment of the enemy’s social and economic weakness, which is going to be attacked and undermined, leading to that enemy’s surrender.” Overy added that Murrow’s view may reflect “the more popular sense that the Germans had done pretty nasty things and that they deserved everything they got.”
Known today by the memorable phrase “orchestrated hell,” Murrow’s broadcast helped him win the coveted Peabody Award for radio journalism. Still, superiors at CBS had been aghast at the prospect of putting him in a bomber over Berlin. Murrow was their treasure—the world’s first newsman as star—and the thought of his being shot down appalled them. Following the D for Dog broadcast, CBS news director Paul White sent Murrow a note. While he appreciated Murrow’s motives in wanting to go, White said, “I hope you are cured. Please, please, please don’t do it again.”
Visiting London, network president William Paley confronted his chief European correspondent: “I tried to convince him that that he was a damn fool to go out on so many night bombing missions over Germany.” Going once, Paley acknowledged, enabled Murrow to talk authentically on the subject, but “what do you have to gain to do it the second, third, fourth, or fifth time?” He would always say, ‘Oh, I agree with you.’ ” Then, a few nights later, Murrow would head out on another mission.
Sevareid thought Murrow was afraid to admit he was afraid. During the Blitz, Murrow had refused to set foot in bomb shelters, telling a fellow correspondent, “Once you start going into shelters, you lose your nerve.” Possibly, by 1943 Murrow simply felt dishonest—living the life of a much-toasted broadcaster in London while men younger than he were dying in a war he had worked to bring the Americans into.