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New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)

CHAPTER 17 — Mission Completed

page 442

Mission Completed

The war against Germany was over but Japan still fought on, and in order to hasten her defeat the RAF now pressed forward its plan to move certain units from Europe to the Far East to reinforce those already engaged in that area. Some would go to Burma and a group of heavy bombers, to be known as ‘Tiger Force’, would operate from an island base in the Pacific against the Japanese mainland. A new stage of intensive training was begun in June 1945, but before final preparations for the transfer were complete the first atomic bombs had been dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the war against Japan was also ended.

Three New Zealand squadrons were among the units originally chosen to move to the Far East and a number of New Zealand aircrew trained with RAF squadrons; but with the cancelling of the various arrangements all thoughts turned homewards. Shipping was scarce and in great demand so there were inevitable delays in repatriation, but most men made good use of the time that remained to them in Britain. Some took advantage of the Government's rehabilitation scheme and spent time in study or with industrial or commercial firms; others accepted hospitality in British homes or travelled to visit historic and traditional spots in the Old Country. Most valuable work was done by the small group of New Zealanders with the RAF's Missing Research Unit which sought information regarding the fate of men lost on operations.

Meanwhile the few available ships ploughed back and forth until, within a year of the end of hostilities, the majority of the New Zealand airmen were back in their own country where they were glad to return to civilian life on the land or in city office and factory. But not all - there is a story of two airmen who, after celebrating their demobilisation in Wellington for two days, found the prospect of civilian life so cold and forbidding that they turned into the nearest recruiting station and rejoined. Of those men who preferred to remain in the air service some chose to continue flying with the RAF, thus maintaining the link which had been established in the early days of the First World War. By 1950 some three hundred men from the Dominion were holding commissions in the Royal Air Force, playing their part as instructors, squadron com- page 443 manders, test pilots, or as aircrew in important operations such as the Berlin air lift and in the Malayan and Korean campaigns.

* * * * *

The record of her airmen during the war in Europe is one of which New Zealand may well be proud. From the early days of the battles for Norway and France right through the many air campaigns to the final battle of Germany, they had, as Lord Tedder remarks, ‘shown themselves grand comrades working with their colleagues of the other Dominions and the Home Country.’ They had rendered sterling service as leaders, as commanders of various units, and as specialists in many fields. A high standard of personal skill, determination, and courage had been displayed by the aircrew while those who worked on the ground had shown technical integrity, skill, and perseverance in full measure. By their general bearing, fine physique and all-round efficiency, the New Zealanders had won high regard not only in the RAF but throughout Britain. Here is the message sent to New Zealand by the Air Council at the conclusion of hostilities in Europe:

Now that the armed might of Nazi Germany has been laid low, the Air Council send you their warm congratulations on the illustrious part which New Zealand airmen have played in this resounding triumph. Many New Zealanders were serving in the Royal Air Force even before the war. The comradeship thus begun grew rapidly and before long large numbers of New Zealand air-crew were serving with distinction in Royal Air Force squadrons. They have brought honour to their country and to the Royal Air Force by their gallant service in all theatres of war. With great foresight you developed your training organisation, you became a ready partner in the Empire Air Training Plan which was to lay the foundations of our air supremacy; in all this you held nothing back, but gave to the limit of your power.

All that now remains is to review briefly the achievements in which New Zealand airmen may rightly claim their share.

What was the contribution of the Allied air forces to the defeat of Germany? Much has been written on this subject in the post-war years, but by far the most exhaustive and complete study yet made is that contained in the United States Strategic Bombing Survey. Here is the emphatic conclusion reached in its final report:

Allied air power was decisive in the war in western Europe. Hindsight inevitably suggests that it might have been employed differently or better in some respects. Nevertheless, it was decisive. In the air, its victory was complete; at sea, its contribution, combined with naval power, brought an end to the enemy's greatest naval threat - the U-boat; on land, it helped turn the tide overwhelmingly in favour of Allied ground forces. Its power and superiority made possible the success of the invasion. It brought the economy which sustained the enemy's armed forces to virtual collapse, although the page 444 full effects of this collapse had not reached the enemy's front lines when they were overrun by Allied forces. It brought home to the German people the full impact of modern war with all its horror and suffering.

Certainly the winning and the holding of air supremacy must be considered the foremost achievement, for it was Allied command of the air which made possible the campaign on the Continent and which gave the heavy bombers their opportunity to wreck the industries of the Reich. Until this supremacy was won Europe could not be invaded; further, in selecting targets for the bombers, the air commanders always had to reckon with the German fighter force and the gulf between what ought to be attacked and what could be attacked was always there and was often great.

The defeat of the Luftwaffe was a long, costly, and complicated campaign. Its outstanding features were first, the winning of the initiative by the RAF during the early years, then the combined assault by British and American squadrons against German fighter strength in the air and on the ground, and finally, the attack on the synthetic oil plants which deprived the German Air Force of fuel. The offensive against the enemy aircraft industry is now known to have been less effective than was thought at the time. Recovery from the bombing was remarkably quick even after the peak attacks of February 1944. In the next five months the Germans more than doubled their production of aircraft, and in September 1944 they turned out no fewer than 3375 machines, which was twice the number estimated by Allied intelligence at the time. Certainly the attacks on aircraft factories and assembly plants warded off the much larger increase which the Germans had planned. But machines were not the limiting factor. It was the shortage of trained and experienced pilots and of aviation fuel which brought about the final collapse of the Luftwaffe.

In many respects the air battles of late 1943 and the spring of 1944 were critical for it was during those months that the German fighter squadrons suffered heavy losses both in aerial combat and from the guns of the bomber fleets, losses which virtually wrecked Hitler's once proud and powerful air force. By mid-1944 the best German pilots were dead or crippled; they could not be replaced, for Germany was never again able to provide proper training even though she could produce the aircraft.

The second outstanding achievement of Allied air power was its disruption of the German war economy. Here the main contributing factors were the RAF's long campaign against industrial cities and the final assault by both American and British bombers against enemy transport and oil. It is now generally agreed that the oil and transport campaigns were by far the most successful features of the combined bomber offensive, yet it is as well to remember that it page 445 was Bomber Command's earlier attacks on cities which caused the wholesale transfer and dispersal of German industry and thus rendered it more vulnerable to the subsequent attacks on oil and communications. Moreover, to have concentrated the attack solely on these latter objectives would almost certainly have led to an intensification of their defence and made their destruction a more difficult task than it was.

But when this has been said it must still be admitted that a good deal of the bombing effort, particularly that employed against German towns in the later years, was misdirected. There is, indeed, much to be said for the contention that the Allied air forces, while not giving up the attack on industry altogether, might well have begun the intensive assault on oil targets earlier than they did. Such is the view of the compilers of the United States Strategic Survey. Speaking of action by the American Air Force, they state:

As regards the timing of the bombing offensive it can be said that oil production should have been bombed as soon as it became possible, opera- tionally, to penetrate deep into Germany. This appears to have taken place in February 1944 with the use of long range fighter escort.

British bombers working by night would not have needed fighter escort, and operationally there seems no reason why their attack on oil in 1944 could not have begun much earlier than it did. What the effect might have been can be judged from the statement of one of Germany's leading airmen, General Erhard Milch, after his capture in May 1945. He said that ‘if the synthetic oil plants had been attacked six months earlier, Germany would have been defeated six months sooner.’ It is, indeed, an interesting speculation whether the war might not have been shortened if someone who believed as strongly in the offensive against oil as Sir Arthur Harris did in the offensive against cities had been chief of Bomber Command in 1943-45.

The third major achievement of the Allied air forces was their contribution to the success of the land campaign in Europe. The German generals were almost unanimous in testifying that their defeats had resulted above all from the Allies' air power. Allied ground commanders, although sometimes critical of the mass bombing attacks on the battlefield, were generous in their tributes for the assistance they received. ‘The overwhelming superiority in the air,’ says Eisenhower, ‘was indeed essential to our victory. It at once undermined the basis of the enemy's strength and enabled us to prepare and execute our own ground operations in complete security.’

Undoubtedly the removal of the German air threat, the pre-invasion bombing and the wrecking of enemy communications, all helped to make victory on the ground more certain. There was also page 446 a superb co-ordination of effort between the advancing armies and the supporting air forces. From the initial assault in Normandy right through to the final battle of Germany, the tactical squadrons gave invaluable aid through their reconnaissance and transport operations, by covering and working with the forward troops and, above all, by their incessant attack on enemy strongpoints, com- munications, and supplies. The heavy bombers also answered frequent calls for direct assistance on the battlefield, and it is as well to emphasise that this involved a considerable diversion of their effort from strategic targets, thus inevitably making the bombing offensive less effective than it might have been.

In the achievement of victory at sea the air forces, and particularly the RAF, could claim a large share. No fewer than 339 German and Italian submarines were sunk by Allied shore-based aircraft- 240 of them by the RAF - and a further 41 were destroyed in conjunction with naval forces. The toll of enemy shipping was equally impressive. Of the total tonnage sunk and damaged in northern European waters during the war, over four-fifths was the result of air action, either mines laid by Bomber Command or direct attack by Coastal Command. In addition, German shipping movements were severely hampered and most of the German fleet was finally disposed of by air bombing. All these were highly satisfactory results, but it is necessary to record two less happy features of the air war at sea, namely, the failure to bomb the German U-boat bases in the French ports before they were encased in concrete and the tardy allocation of long-range aircraft to convoy protection in the North Atlantic. In the glow of later achievements it is easy to forget the six million tons of Allied shipping sunk by the U-boats during the black months of 1942.

Against the German V-weapons Allied aircraft enjoyed very considerable, although not complete, success. Royal Air Force reconnaissance gave timely warning of German preparations and the Allied bombers and fighters delayed the launching of the actual attack. When it eventually came, much of the sting was removed by fighter patrols and by bomber attacks on the firing and supply sites. But an end was not put to the nuisance until the armies finally captured the launching areas.

Such, then, were the main achievements of Allied air power in Europe. They did not by themselves win the war but they were the decisive factor. They were attained only with difficulty and at great cost in men and material. They depended upon good leadership, courage and fortitude, and gallant action on the part of thousands of young men, and upon the extraordinary progress made by Allied research, development, and production. The failure of any one of these might have seriously narrowed the margin.