Orchestrated Hell

In 1943, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow took his radio audience along on a RAF bombing mission to Berlin.

Londoners inspect the damage following a night raid. After 57 consecutive nights of German attacks, 375,000 Londoners were left homeless. (NASM (SI NEG. #85-18328))
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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.

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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.

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