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Stanley Baldwin in the late 1920s

The bomber will always get through was a phrase used by Stanley Baldwin in 1932, in the speech "A Fear for the Future" to the British Parliament. He and others believed that, regardless of air defences, sufficient bomber aircraft will survive to destroy cities.

Baldwin's argument

Baldwin did not advocate total disarmament but believed that "great armaments lead inevitably to war".[1] However he came to believe that, as he put it on 9 November 1932: "the time has now come to an end when Great Britain can proceed with unilateral disarmament".[2] On 10 November 1932 Baldwin said:

I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through, The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves...If the conscience of the young men should ever come to feel, with regard to this one instrument [bombing] that it is evil and should go, the thing will be done; but if they do not feel like that – well, as I say, the future is in their hands. But when the next war comes, and European civilisation is wiped out, as it will be, and by no force more than that force, then do not let them lay blame on the old men. Let them remember that they, principally, or they alone, are responsible for the terrors that have fallen upon the earth.[2][3]

This speech was often used against Baldwin as allegedly demonstrating the futility of rearmament or disarmament, depending on the critic.[4]

Basis in fact

Many theorists, especially in Britain, imagined that a future war would be won entirely by the destruction of the enemy's military and industrial capability from the air. The Italian general Giulio Douhet, author of The Command of the Air, was a seminal theorist of this school of thought.[5] H. G. Wells' pre-World War I novel The War in the Air concluded that aerial warfare could never be 'won' in such a manner as bombing, but in 1936 he depicted a war starting suddenly with devastating air attacks on "Everytown" in the film Things to Come. Likewise, Olaf Stapledon, in his 1930 novel Last and First Men depicts a very brief but devastating war in which fleets of bombers deliver huge payloads of poison gas to the cities of Europe, leaving most of the continent uninhabited.

At the time bombers had a slight performance advantage over fighters due to having multiple engines, so a successful interception would require careful planning in order to get fighters into a suitable defensive position in front of the bombers. Before World War II and the invention of radar, detection systems were visual or auditory, which gave only a few minutes' warning. Against World War I designs these systems were marginally useful, but against modern aircraft flying at twice their speed or more, they did not provide enough time to arrange interception missions. This balance of force meant that bombs would be falling before the fighters were in position and there was little that could be done about it. For Britain, the answer was to concentrate on bomber production, primarily as a deterrent force.

Before war began in 1939, such theories resulted in predictions of hundreds of thousands of casualties from bombing. The military expert Basil Liddell Hart speculated that year, for example, 250,000 deaths and injuries could occur across Britain in the first week.[6] Harold Macmillan wrote in 1956 that he and others around him "thought of air warfare in 1938 rather as people think of nuclear war today".[7] The most influential among the few who disagreed with such views was Hugh Dowding, who led RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.[8] Others included Americans Major Claire Chennault, who argued against the so-called "Bomber Mafia" at the Air Corps Tactical School,[9][10] and Lieutenant Benjamin S. Kelsey, Fighter Projects Officer for the United States Army Air Corps.[11][12]

Strategic bombing in combat

Post-war analysis of the strategic bombing during World War II indicated that Baldwin's statement was essentially correct in that bombers would get through, but at a cost in aircrew and aircraft. Under the Dowding system, fighter aircraft directed by radar were able to disrupt the German daytime offensive during the Battle of Britain, forcing the Luftwaffe to turn to less accurate night-time bombing in The Blitz. The difficulties for night-fighters meant this was relatively unopposed, but the bombing was ineffective in damaging civil morale.

The Royal Air Force's Bomber Command lost a total of 8,325 aircraft on bombing missions during the war, during a total of 364,514 sorties.[13] This represents 2.3% losses per mission on average. However loss rates over Germany were significantly higher, between November 1943 and March 1944 operations over that country resulted in an average 5.1% loss rate (Bomber Command - Max Hasting p334). The disparity in loss rates was reflected in the fact that sorties over France were only counted as a third of an op towards the "tour" total ( Yorkshire Airfields - P Otter p262). Furthermore the official loss rate figures never included aircraft crashing in the UK on their return (usually due to damage picked up on the operation) even if the machine was a write off and/or some or all of the crew were killed, this added at least 15% to the official loss figures (Bomber Command - Max Hastings p209 + P460/461). Losses on that scale could be made good through increased production and training efforts though at great cost. Indeed, the size of Bomber Command's offensive grew throughout the war. The US Strategic bombing survey came to the same conclusion. However, Douhet's belief that a small number of bombs would be successful in forcing a country to surrender proved incorrect, and bombing alone did not cause the collapse he had expected in either Britain or Germany.

In the Pacific War, bombing missions were effectively concluded by both Japan and the Western Allies. Early in the War, Japanese carrier aircraft successfully destroyed or disabled the battleships of the United States Pacific Fleet at anchor in Hawaii, and they destroyed the great majority of bombers and defensive aircraft there and in the Philippine Islands. The US military were unable to make effective use of radar based in Hawaii and visual spotters in the Philippines that should have provided an early warning to their fighter squadrons. In later stages, US bombers effectively destroyed many Japanese cities with conventional bombs before the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"The bomber will not always get through"

After World War II, the major powers built heavy strategic bombers to carry nuclear weapons. By the 1960s, however, advances in ground-based radar, guided missiles, radar-guided anti-aircraft guns, and fighter planes greatly decreased the odds that bombers could reach their targets, whether they used the traditional high-altitude or newer low-altitude approach. One 1964 study of British V bombers estimated that a bomber that did not use chaff or other countermeasures would encounter an average of six missiles, each with a 75% chance of destroying its target. The study thus stated that "the bomber will not always get through", and advocated Britain emphasise the Polaris submarine missile instead.[14] For similar reasons, the United States Navy deployed Polaris submarines during that decade. At that time, it shifted aircraft carriers away from delivering strategic nuclear weapons to a role suited for both general nuclear and limited non-nuclear wars. The United States Air Force found converting its large fleet of manned bombers to non-nuclear roles more difficult. It attempted to redesign the B-70 Valkyrie supersonic bomber project as a platform for reconnaissance and launch of standoff missiles such as the Skybolt; however, Skybolt was cancelled in 1962 after testing failures. A 1963 study stated "Long-range technical considerations, of course, militate against the perpetuation of the manned bomber".[15]

Recent re-use

In recent years, the phrase has been resurrected to refer to suicide bombers and the inability of legislation or security to stop someone intent on blowing something up.[16][17]

See also


  1. Middlemas, Keith, and John Barnes, "Baldwin: A Biography", Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969, p. 722.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Middlemas and Barnes, p. 735.
  3. "Mr Baldwin on Aerial Warfare – A Fear for the Future". The Times. 11 November 1932. p. 7 column B. .
  4. Middlemas and Barnes, p. 736.
  5. "Bomber Theory". School net. .
  6. JSTOR 27672803
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  7. Mackay, Robert (2002). Half the Battle: Civilian Morale in Britain during the Second World War. Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. 39–41. ISBN 0 7190 5893 7. 
  8. Korda, Michael (2009). With Wings Like Eagles. HarperCollins. pp. 18–19. ISBN 978-0-06-173603-2. 
  9. Greer, Thomas H. (1985). The Development of Air Doctrine in the Army Air Arm, 1917–1941 USAF Historical Studies No. 89. Office of Air Force History, p. 63–65.
  10. Boyne, Walter. "The Tactical School". AIR FORCE Magazine. Retrieved 27 July 2008. 
  11. Bodie, Warren M. (1991). The Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Widewing Publications. pp. 16–17. ISBN 0-9629359-5-6. 
  12. Kelsey, Benjamin S. (1982). The Dragon's Teeth?: The Creation of United States Air Power for World War II. Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 0-87474-574-8. 
  13. Richard Humble, "War in the Air 1939–1945", Salamander 1975
  14. JSTOR 40393629
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  15. JSTOR 40393479
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  16. "The bomber will always get through". The Economist. 6 October 2005. .
  17. Bishop, Patrick (3 December 2004). "The bomber will always get through, be he ETA or al-Qa'eda". The Daily Telegraph. London. .

External links

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