Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Political Bombing

Coventry bomb damage 1940.

The Cambridge University by-election of 1940 was the fourth contested by-election of the war. Unusually, the electoral truce effectively broke down, for the Conservatives and Labour parties both fielded proxy candidates. The Conservatives proposed A. V. Hill but he stood as an Independent Conservative. In response Labour supporters put up an ‘independent progressive’, the Regius Professor of Physic at Cambridge, John Ryle, who despite his archaic title was a pioneer of social medicine. Ryle stood on a platform close to that of Stokes and his peace aims campaign. Hill won two thirds of the vote, on a turnout of 42 per cent of the electorate of around 36,000. The voters in university elections were the graduates of the relevant universities, and they thus give us an indication of the politics of this group. Graduates voted overwhelmingly for Conservatives and independents.

Hill, Professor of Biophysics at University College London, was one of the most important academic politicians of his day. Elected young to the Royal Society, he won a 1923 Nobel Prize in Medicine/ Physiology. He was the only scientific laureate ever to sit in the Commons, and indeed the only laureate to be elected after winning the prize. Hill was very different from the caricature of the absentminded, long-haired professor of the 1930s. His son would recall that ‘He was tall, slim, upright in bearing, his clipped moustache, short hair were those of a soldier and reflected his often-stated liking for military men.’ Not only did he have ‘presence’ but he ‘had influential friends in high places who greatly admired him for his good looks, his vigour – he was very good company’. In the Great War he had worked on anti-aircraft gunnery and in the 1930s had been an adviser to the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments, specifically the Air Ministry and the Committee of Imperial Defence on air defence. He was Secretary of the Royal Society and a member of the Scientific Advisory Council of the War Cabinet and that of the Ministry of Supply. He was very much an establishment figure, an insider in the pre-war and wartime military-scientific complex indeed. Yet he was to become perhaps the most important public scientific critic of the Churchill government, including its commitment to strategic bombing. Lord Strabogli, a Labour peer interested in science, claimed in a Lords debate on science and the war in July 1942 that ‘whenever the Government are asking for a vote of confidence in another place, Professor Hill always votes against it’. While not accurate, there was an element of truth in this charge, as Hill did not vote in either of the two great confidence motions of the war – 8 May 1940 and 2 July 1942. In 1943 he became a founding member of the Tory Reform Committee.

In 1942 he claimed in a private paper that:
The Prime Minister and Lord Cherwell between them have been responsible for vast expenditure, tens of millions in chasing wild geese. This must be stopped, and Lord Cherwell must be prevented from interfering in technical matters: he is nothing but a liability. The Prime Minister’s fertile brain is quite unsuited to well considered technical decisions on weapons, and Lord Cherwell’s judgement on them has been shown by events to be disastrous, as his scientific colleagues foresaw.
He alluded to this when he complained in Parliament in February 1942 about too many new weapons going into production. As he put it:
If production, however, is to be rapid and as efficient as possible, new types must be few and fancy weapons must not be allowed to clutter up development and supply against the best advice of collective expert opinion.
And the problem was that:
There have been far too many ill-considered inventions, devices, and ideas put across, by persons with influence in high places, against the best technical advice. One could tell a sorry story of them. They have cost the country vast sums of money and a corresponding effort in development and production, to the detriment of profitable expenditure of labour and materials elsewhere.
It is not clear exactly what Hill was referring to, but we know from his papers that he thought the greatest waste of money was the rockets.

Although he did not participate in the censure motion debate, he added his weight to the attack with a letter to The Times during it. ‘The defeat in Libya,’ he claimed, ‘is due largely to a single cause, the inferiority of our tanks’, a case of failure to anticipate future requirements, a failure to collect and analyse evidence, and ‘unjustified optimism’. He called for a central coordinating body of ‘research, design, development and the quantitative planning of technical resources’ to parallel the chiefs of staff machinery and the Ministry of Production. He complained that technical issues were left to departments, where they were ‘subordinate to administration’. Warning of the need for ‘more critical and far-sighted technical policy’, he claimed that otherwise there would be ‘continuing failure and disaster’.

Hill was typical of many critics of Churchill in 1942 in his attacks on strategic bombing. In the Commons in February 1942 he attacked ‘the exaggeration of the importance of bombing an enemy country’. He looked back to the Blitz, commenting rather brutally that the number killed, over many months, was less than the number of prisoners of war taken by the Japanese in Singapore. The loss of production in the worst month of the Blitz was ‘about equal to that due to the Easter holidays’. The greatest cost of the bombing was in the defensive measures provoked, not the damage done. Germany was further away than Britain was from German air bases, better aircraft and navigation were needed to attack it than the Germans had needed, and German defences would be more effective. ‘The idea of bombing a well-defended enemy into submission or seriously affecting his morale, or even of doing substantial damage to him, is an illusion. It may be persisted in by those who use big and beautiful adjectives; its futility is recognized by those who prefer arithmetic.’ We know, he said, ‘that most of the bombs we drop hit nothing of importance’. The policy of bombing, he argued, was futile and wasteful, leading to lack of aircraft for army support and especially for Coastal Command. He recognized some merit in the bombing offensive against Germany, which he wanted to keep ‘within reasonable limits’. Bombing had the limited function of making the enemy ‘waste his substance in defending himself’.

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