Churchill Archive Platform - Churchill and Airpower

Documents from the Archive

  • Winston Churchill, minute to Captain Murray Sueter, 31 May 1914, CHAR 13/6B/265
  • Field Marshal Sir John French to Winston Churchill, 14 November 1914, CHAR 13/27B/92-93
  • Winston Churchill, draft statement in the House of Commons, 23 November 1914, CHAR 13/29/194
  • H.W. Chilcott, letter to Winston Churchill, 3 November 1915, CHAR 13/53/42-43
  • Minutes of First Meeting of Aerial Operations Committee, 26 September 1917, CHAR 27/5/2-4
  • Minutes of First Meeting of Air Raids Committee, 1 October 1917, CHAR 27/6/1-7
  • Winston Churchill, letter to David Lloyd George, 10 January 1919, CHAR 2/105/3
  • Winston Churchill, letter to the Admiralty, 8 February 1919, CHAR 16/1/45-50
  • Ralph Wigram, letter to Winston Churchill, 3 May 1935, CHAR 2/235/67
  • Winston Churchill, letter to Pierre-Étienne Flandin, 7 March 1936, CHAR 2/274/1-2
  • Winston Churchill, letter to Eleanor Rathbone MP, 13 April 1936, CHAR 2/274/12-13
  • Air Council to Winston Churchill, 27 March 1939, CHAR 2/568B/199
  • Winston Churchill, notes for a speech to the House of Commons, 18 June 1940, CHAR 9/140A/32-55
  • Winston Churchill, letter to Sir Archibald Sinclair, 10 July 1940, CHAR 20/2A/27-28
  • Winston Churchill, notes for a speech to the House of Commons, 20 August 1940, CHAR 9/141A/37-68
  • Winston Churchill to General Hastings Ismay, 26 December 1940, CHAR 20/13/9
  • Winston Churchill, notes for a speech at County Hall, 14 July 1941, CHAR 9/152A/1-16
  • Winston Churchill, telegram to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 11 February 1942, CHAR 20/70/12
  • Winston Churchill, telegram to Sir Archibald Sinclair and Sir Charles Portal, 17 August 1942, CHAR 20/87/40
  • Winston Churchill, telegram to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 16 September 1942, CHAR 20/80/39-42
  • Winston Churchill, telegram to Marshal Joseph Stalin, 25 June 1944, CHAR 20/167/64-65
  • Winston Churchill, Air Ministry telegram to Air Marshal Arthur Harris, 15 May 1945, CHAR 20/229C/329

Further Reading

  • Paul Addison (eds), The Burning Blue: A New History of the Battle of Britain (London: Pimlico, 2000)

  • Paul Addison (eds), Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden 1945 (London: Pimlico, 2006)

  • Uri Bialer, ʻElite Opinion and Defence Policy: Air Power Advocacy and British Rearmament in the 1930sʼ, British Journal of International Studies, 6 (1980)

  • Anthony Boyle, Trenchard: Man of Vision (London: Collins, 1962)

  • Adrian Fort, Prof: The Life and Times of Frederick Lindemann (London: Jonathan Cape, 2003)

  • Christopher Harmon, ʻAre We Beasts?ʼ: Churchill and the Moral Question of World War II ʻArea Bombingʼ (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 1991)

  • Ian Hunter (ed.), Winston & Archie: The Collected Correspondence of Winston Churchill and Archibald Sinclair (London: Politico’s, 2005)

  • Neville Jones, The Origins of Strategic Bombing (London: William Kimber, 1973)

  • Martin Kitchen, ʻWinston Churchill and the Soviet Union during the Second World Warʼ, Historical Journal 30 (1987)

  • Robert McCormack, ʻMissed Opportunities: Winston Churchill, the Air Ministry and Africa, 1919–1921ʼ, International History Review 11 (1989), pp. 207-12

  • David Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force 1919–1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990)

  • Vincent Orange, Dowding of Fighter Command: Victor of the Battle of Britain (London: Grub Street, 2008)

  • Richard Overy, ʻGerman Air Strength 1933 to 1939: A Noteʼ, Historical Journal 27 (1984)

  • Richard Overy, ʻ"The Weak Link?": The Perception of the German Working Class by RAF Bomber Command, 1940–1945ʼ, Labour History Review 77 (2012) , pp. 11–34

  • Probert Henry, Bomber Harris: His Life and Times (London: Greenhill, 2003)

  • Sebastian Ritchie, Small Wars and Insurgencies in the Middle East 1919–1939 (Northolt: Air Historical Branch, 2011)

  • Stephen Roskill, Hankey: Man of Secrets: Volume 3, 1931–1963 (London: Collins, 1974)

  • Ronald Schaffer, ʻThe Bombing Campaigns in World War II: The European Theaterʼ in Yuki Tanaka, Marilyn Young (eds), Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-century History (New York, NY: New Press, 2009), pp. 30-45

  • John Sweetman, ʻCrucial Months for Survival: The Royal Air Force 1918–1919ʼ, Journal of Contemporary History 19 (1984) pp. 529-47

  • Wesley Wark, ʻBritish Intelligence on the German Air Force and Aircraft Industry, 1933-39ʼ, Historical Journal 25 (1982), pp. 636-7

Churchill was an enthusiast for the military use of aircraft throughout his long public career and a keen amateur aviator. This module explores his relationship with military aviation from the early days of the naval air force established when he was First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914, through his role as Minister of Munitions in 1917–18 and then Air Minister in 1919–20, and his eventual position in the Second World War as Prime Minister and Minister of Defence when he could play a full part in shaping Royal Air Force strategy and development. The major question remains Churchill’s part in approving and sustaining the bombing of German cities and civilians, and particularly the controversial question of Dresden. The module explores Churchill’s wavering support for bombing and his eventual view that it was useful as a political tool as much as a strategic necessity. The moral implications of bombing, including the atomic attacks, played little part in his calculations.

From the very onset of the air age in the decade before 1914 to the end of the Second World War, Churchill was an enthusiast for the aeroplane as a military instrument. He ordered the first long-range air attacks in 1914-15 against the German Zeppelin threat, was Air Minister shortly after the post had been created in 1917, and later went on to help set up and sustain the major air campaign against Germany between 1940 and 1945. In the 1930s, in his so- called ʻwilderness yearsʼ, it was the threat posed by the new German Air Force that set him on the campaign trail for more rapid and large-scale rearmament. The air is one of the important threads running through Churchill’s long public career.

Churchill found the advent of powered flight exhilarating in the extreme. Unlike most other statesmen of his experience and age, he decided on appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty that he should try out flying for himself. In early 1912 he had his first flight in a naval seaplane, seated behind Commander Spenser Gray. It was to be the first of many. He later wrote that he had taken up flying from a sense of duty mixed with curiosity, but then continued ʻfor sheer joy and pleasureʼ. [ 1 ] Churchill admitted to an early sense of profound trepidation, but then adjusted to the dangers. He led what in retrospect seems a charmed life; aircraft in which he had been flying just hours before often crashed on their next flight, killing the pilot. As Minister of Munitions in 1917 he was flown back and forth to France in poorly serviceable machines. On one occasion the engine failed. ʻI thought extinction certain and near,ʼ he wrote, but the engine spluttered back to life. In 1919 the aircraft he was in crashed, leaving him with no more than bruising, but bringing his aerial adventures to a close. [ 2 ] Later, in the Second World War, in a converted bomber on his way to the Casablanca Conference of January 1943, he found the cold hard to bear. A small paraffin stove was lit for him, until the danger of fire became acute. He arrived safely, but he might easily on many other occasions have become a victim of the technology he so much admired. It is hard not to see his survival as providential or his fascination with flight as both fearless and reckless.

As a result of his strong personal interest in flight, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was formed in the spring of 1914 under his authority as First Lord of the Admiralty, though he would have preferred to call it the ʻFlying Wingʼ. [ 3 ] The RNAS had the distinction of carrying out the first long-range air attacks against targets on the home front in September and October 1914 when naval aircraft, with Churchill’s firm approval, undertook raids against the sheds and repair facilities of the German Zeppelin airships. Churchill feared the role that the airships would play in naval warfare in observing the bombing of the British fleet. On 22 September 1914, four naval aircraft attacked targets in Cologne and Düsseldorf; on 9 October just two aircraft were sent off, this time hitting a Zeppelin hangar; in November, the Zeppelin factory at Friedrichshafen was attacked, a ʻfine feat of armsʼ, Churchill told the House of Commons. [ 4 ] The RNAS continued to plan long-range bombing of economic and military targets in Germany after Churchill had left the Admiralty in 1915. [ 5 ] As Minister of Munitions in David Lloyd George’s government in 1917-18, Churchill once again tried to sponsor long-range bombing plans. He was a member of two ad hoc committees set up in autumn 1917 to investigate air defence and retaliation against German raids: the Aerial Operations Committee and the Air Raids Committee. [ 6 ] On 21 October 1917 he drafted a memorandum on ʻMunitions possibilities of 1918ʼ in which he argued for long-range raids (what became known as strategic bombing) against enemy industrial centres, a strategy that he was to pursue energetically twenty-five years later during the Second World War. [ 7 ] The government indeed approved the establishment of an Independent Force of the newly founded Royal Air Force for a campaign against German industry, but it had little chance to demonstrate what bombing might do before the end of the war.

After the election of December 1918, Churchill returned to the cabinet as Secretary for War, but at Lloyd George’s insistence he accepted the additional post of Air Minister, succeeding Lord Weir in a post first created only in January 1918. Lloyd George hoped that the joint post of Secretary of State for War and Air, which Churchill took up on 10 January 1919, might lead to a re-integration of the army and air force, but Churchill was committed to the ʻseparate independent stateʼ of the RAF, and succeeded in deflecting naval and military pressure to create two separate air forces, one for army support and one for naval aviation, each under their control. [ 8 ] He appointed General Hugh Trenchard as the first peacetime chief- of-staff, a man who shared with Churchill a passionate defence of air independence. Already in February 1919 Churchill had approved a different set of rank titles for the RAF - air commodore, group captain and so on. [ 9 ] In November 1919 a White Paper was published on the ʻPermanent Organisation of the Royal Air Forceʼ and the future independence of the RAF was guaranteed. [ 10 ] Under a minister other than Churchill this outcome might have been uncertain, though he was unable to devote more than a fraction of his time to air affairs as minister given the pressures on him as Secretary for War. Although not quite the father of the force, Churchill played a critical political role in securing its survival as an independent service, an outcome that shaped the way in which British airpower developed over the twenty years before the coming of a second war.

Churchill also presided over the first experiments in ʻair policingʼ. Late in 1919, an insurgency in the East African territory of British Somaliland made necessary an expensive army expeditionary force for which the Colonial Office was unwilling to pay. The Air Ministry suggested a squadron of DH9 aircraft as a cheap way of projecting colonial power. In January 1920 a series of air operations brought the revolt to an end at only modest cost. A year later, on 7 January 1921, Churchill was moved to the Colonial Office where air policing, in collaboration with a modest military presence, became a standard way of coping with insurgency. [ 11 ] Almost all the senior air officers who collaborated with Churchill later in the Second World War had gained experience of air policing in the inter-war years. Churchill’s own later confidence about what airpower could achieve may well have derived from this early experiment in the projection of airpower. Late in 1941, the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, tried to explain to Churchill the current strategy against Germany as an adaptation ʻthough on a greatly magnified scale, of the policy of air controlʼ. [ 12 ]

Churchill maintained his interest in air matters but from January 1921 onwards, when he left the post of Air Minister, he had no direct responsibility for airpower until he became Prime Minister and Minister of Defence in 1940. Nevertheless in the 1930s, on the back benches, and a regular critic of the National Government’s slow rearming and uncertain foreign policy, Churchill latched on to the arms race in the air as the means to illustrate what he saw as a failure of government responsibility in the face of the rapid rearmament of Hitler’s Germany. Much of the intelligence information was superficial and impressionistic, and Churchill seems to have had access to the principal source, former RAF Group Captain Malcolm Christie, who had been British air attaché in Berlin in the 1920s. Christie passed on unreliable information to the Foreign Office, and in turn Ralph Wigram in the Central Department of the Office, passed on information to Churchill. [ 13 ] In 1935, when German rearmament in the air was formally declared by Hitler, Churchill harried Stanley Baldwin’s government to speed up British air preparations. ʻFrom being the least vulnerable of all nations,ʼ he told the House of Commons in March 1935, ʻwe have, through developments in the air, become the most vulnerable.ʼ [ 14 ] In spring 1936 he wrote in response to an enquiry about his air statistics that ʻwe are really in great dangerʼ, and he seems certainly to have believed it. [ 15 ] Most of Christie’s suggested figures greatly overstated German readiness in the air (trainer aircraft were regularly defined as frontline aircraft), and Churchill earned for himself a reputation as a warmonger among a largely anti-war public. The concern over airpower did, however, push Neville Chamberlain, when he became Prime Minister in May 1937, to pump additional funds into the development of RAF defences (monoplane fighters and radar), which bore fruit in the later Battle of Britain for which Churchill has always taken the credit.

Churchill entered the Second World War with the same office, First Lord of the Admiralty, that he had held at the start of the First. It was only when he became Prime Minister on 10 May 1940 that he was in a position for the first time since 1920 to influence the way British airpower was to be deployed. He appointed his close friend, the Liberal politician Archibald Sinclair, as his Secretary for Air, a post he held until May 1945. One of the first decisions that Churchill’s new cabinet had to make concerned whether to send British bombers to attack targets in German cities to relieve pressure on the front in Belgium and France. The German Air Force had not yet attacked the British home front, and Churchill was aware of what this meant in both moral and legal terms. On 12 May the cabinet discussed what they called ʻunrestricted air warfareʼ. Churchill claimed that the Hitler regime had proved itself so inhuman that there was ʻample justificationʼ for retaliation. On 13 May approval was given to a raid against oil and rail targets, and two days later, despite Churchill’s anxiety about what effect it might have on American opinion (though not about the damage it would cause German civilians), a general policy was agreed to mount a bombing offensive. For more than 100 days across the summer months, RAF medium bombers raided targets in German towns by night. [ 16 ]

There can be no argument that Churchill, with the agreement of the War Cabinet, gave formal political approval in May 1940 for a campaign against Germany which lasted right down to the last raid, against Kiel on 2–3 May. He had great expectations of what bombing could achieve. In 1918 he had favoured developing a heavy bomber capable of undermining German morale by raids designed ʻto harry [the enemy’s] hungry and dispirited cities without pause or stayʼ. [ 17 ] In May and June 1940 he hoped for the same morale impact and seems to have had no moral qualms about ordering a campaign that was bound to inflict civilian casualties, perhaps heavy casualties. The decision to bomb was taken in his belief that the Nazis (or Huns, as he so often called them) could have no cause to complain, given their moral record, but also because the emergency following Dunkirk and French defeat meant that bombing was the only way to get at the German enemy. He readily accepted the view that bombing was likely to produce very rapidly a social or political crisis among the menaced people. On 8 July, in a much-quoted letter, he wrote to his friend Max Beaverbrook, now Minister of Aircraft Production, that he could see only one way of defeating Hitler: ʻan absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombersʼ. [ 18 ] Great play has been made of Churchill’s use of the word ʻexterminatingʼ, which was an unfortunate choice for a campaign that was still on paper aimed at military and economic targets. It was not the only time during the war that Churchill would put a literary flourish before any moral considerations that might have influenced his view. For Air Marshal Arthur Harris, the future chief of Bomber Command, the letter was, in his words, ʻthe RAF mandateʼ for area bombing. [ 19 ]

Given Churchill’s identification with the bombing campaign, it is something of an irony that the defence of British air space against German bombers in the Battle of Britain (to which he had unintentionally given the title in a speech on 18 June 1940) came to symbolize British resistance to the German threat. [ 20 ] It was Churchill who fortunately insisted that Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, should remain in post rather than be forced to retire in July 1940. [ 21 ] Churchill was easily affected by the damage being done during the battle and had little grasp of air force realities. At one point he wanted every pilot capable of flying, including overage pilots and the staff of all the training schools, to be mobilized into frontline units. He harried the Air Ministry to explain why every fighter produced could not be in the air at once, when they were needed for training, or were under repair, or were stored as reserves. On 19 August, the day when he famously visited the headquarters of Air Marshal Keith Park, commander of 11 Group RAF, he became aware of how limited British air strength appeared to be, and the monstrous odds against it. In the car back he muttered the phrase that he immortalized in a speech to a half-empty and sleepy House of Commons a day later, that ʻnever in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so fewʼ. [ 22 ]

There is a good case for saying that the Battle of Britain was won in spite of Churchill, whose understanding of how an air force worked - the long training hours, the importance of reserves, the conservation of strength, the complex logistical tail - remained rudimentary both then and throughout the war. He pressed the RAF to prepare for a possible poison gas war from the air, which would have been politically and strategically disastrous had it ever been unleashed. [ 23 ] This did not prevent him from identifying himself closely with the service. He was pleased to be made an Honorary Air-Commodore of 615 squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force in March 1939, and later, in April 1943, was awarded honorary pilot’s wings by the Air Council (partly, it was rumoured, to formalize Churchill’s unofficial use of the insignia earlier in the war). [ 24 ] He liked to be seen in his RAF uniform, and wore it at both the Casablanca and the Teheran Conferences with Stalin and Roosevelt. In the end, it did not matter that his knowledge of an air force was limited. His great strength was to inspire resistance, and the Battle of Britain has remained embedded in the historical memory of the West as a symbol of Churchill’s defiant bellicosity. Indeed, Churchill’s ability to make of the Battle of Britain and its heroic ʻFewʼ a beacon for Western resistance against totalitarianism contributed to the growth of American support for the British war effort and gave hope to the millions of Europeans now under German domination.

For Churchill the Battle of Britain and the subsequent Blitz presented a paradox. They both demonstrated the real limits of a modern bombing campaign at just the time that the RAF, with Churchill’s strong support, was busy expanding its own operations against Germany. He became increasingly critical of the British bombing campaign and although he promised the public, particularly in his speech at County Hall in London at the end of the Blitz, that the Germans would be repaid in their own coin, he could see that the pre-war fantasies about the collapse of the civilian front under bombing had been, after all, merely fantasies. [ 25 ] In October 1941 Churchill wrote to Portal with his new view of the bombing war and it is worth quoting here:

Before the war we were greatly misled by the pictures they [the Air Staff] painted of the destruction that would be wrought by Air raids. This picture of Air destruction was so exaggerated it depressed the Statesmen responsible for pre-war policy ... Again the Air Staff, after the war had begun, taught is sedulously to believe that if the enemy acquired the Low Countries, to say nothing of France, our position would be impossible owing to Air attacks. However, by not paying too much attention to such ideas, we have found quite a good means of keeping going. [ 26 ]

A few weeks before this, his scientific adviser, Lord Cherwell, had demonstrated, with the help of the young statistician David Butt, that most RAF bombs missed their target by a wide margin. A further investigation requested by Churchill in the spring of 1942 - the Singleton Report - showed little improvement. The RAF moved to a strategy of bombing entire urban areas, concentrating deliberately on the most congested residential zones as the best that could be expected from night bombing. Cherwell was a strong advocate of what he called ʻde-housingʼ as a means to break the German economy and undermine morale, and although Churchill remained sceptical that airpower could do more than support the eventual land war, he did nothing to oppose the shift to the deliberate targeting of civilians and the civilian milieu. [ 27 ] In the end Churchill’s own doubts about what bombing might do to the enemy economy and morale were borne out by the post-war surveys, which showed that area bombing had inflicted no more than the loss of a few percentage points of German war production, and had failed to provoke the social or psychological collapse of the German population.

There has been a great deal of historical argument about the extent to which Churchill did or did not have moral qualms about the bombing campaign conducted in his name against German cities. He saw Harris infrequently, though they got on well when Harris was a guest at Chequers; he told Harris on a number of occasions not to exaggerate the claims Bomber Command was trying to make about the effects of airpower, but he did not suggest that the campaign should not be continued. Throughout the war he remained optimistic that bombing, used in the right way, would produce a political dividend of some kind and he used bombing to help maintain the political support of both major allies, the Soviet Union and the United States, and to deflect criticism from the failure to open a ʻSecond Frontʼ. [ 28 ] For Churchill, bombing was a useful tool even when its effects were open to criticism. When Bulgaria was wavering in support for the Axis in late 1943, it was Churchill who insisted on bombing Sofia to give the Bulgarians ʻa sharp lessonʼ. [ 29 ] When his colleagues and the RAF hesitated to bomb Rome because of its associations with the Catholic Church and its artistic heritage, Churchill was indignant that any immunity should be granted to the city. When the Allied air forces in Italy asked for permission to raid the marshalling yards at Florence one mile from the famous cathedral, it was Churchill who insisted to the Chiefs-of-Staff ʻcertainly bombʼ. [ 30 ] And it was Churchill who angrily pressed the Air Ministry and the Air Staff in January 1945 to keep up the heavy bombing of cities in eastern Germany in the path of the oncoming Red Army, which resulted in the firebombing of Dresden on 13-14 February 1945.

The bombing of Dresden has always been regarded as a turning point in Churchill’s view of British air policy. When news leaked out that the bombing had been aimed deliberately at the residential centre of the city there was an evidently unfavourable reaction in both Britain and the United States to the report. It has often been claimed that this caused Churchill to write a minute to Sir Charles Portal on 28 March 1945 deprecating the continued bombing ʻfor the sake of increasing the terrorʼ. Harris responded vigorously in rejecting the claim that he bombed for the sake of terror, and Portal persuaded Churchill to moderate his original minute. [ 31 ] It seems more likely that Churchill was affected not just by Dresden but by a growing realization of just what an instrument he had helped unleash against German civilians. He sat on the banks of the Rhine lunching with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery on 26 March 1945 looking across at the ruins of the Ruhr cities just two days before he wrote his memorandum. It is possible that the sight provoked in him deep memories of walking through ruined British cities during the Blitz. Whatever the cause, Churchill chose to distance himself in the post-war period from his own involvement in supporting the bombing campaign. The bombing of Dresden and its aftermath is scarcely mentioned in his Second World War. Asked about Dresden in May 1950 he commented that he thought ʻthe Americans did itʼ. [ 32 ] Harris, at the height of the Cold War, wrote that it was not his decision to bomb Dresden, but a response to pressure from the Soviet leadership. When the biographer Anthony Boyle asked Harris, shortly before his death, about the rift with Churchill after Dresden, Harris responded forcefully that Churchill’s attitude to him and to the bombing campaign did not alter ʻin any perceivable wayʼ between 1942 and 1945. [ 33 ] Churchill had certainly given fulsome acknowledgement to Harris in May 1945, after the German surrender, when he thanked him ʻfor the glorious part which has been played by Bomber Command in forging the victoryʼ. [ 34 ]

Churchill also had no qualms at the time about supporting the American decision to use the atomic bombs against Japan, operations that marked in an acute form the extent to which the air weapon could now be used to obliterate whole cities at a stroke. On this point, too, he equivocated later in his career, but at the time of the atomic test and the dramatic discussions at Potsdam, Churchill seems to have given his full approval. [ 35 ] What seems evident from this example, like the decision to begin bombing German cities in 1940 and his pressure on the RAF to bomb Dresden and other east German cities, is his willingness to endorse the exercise of airpower as a strategic desirability without interrogating very closely its ethical implications. He was always ready to order bombing if it seemed militarily necessary or politically expedient, and he did understand what its effects would be. When the decision came to bomb French transport targets prior to D-Day, Churchill was the stumbling block in the cabinet and in the Chiefs-of-Staff discussions because of the French casualties that would result. He deplored, as he told the Defence Committee on 5 April 1944, ʻthe butchery of large numbers of helpless French peopleʼ, though this did not prevent him from reluctantly granting approval. [ 36 ] The result was that Churchill, at one level the most humane of men, was capable of suspending his moral scruples for the greater moral good, as he saw it, of Allied victory.

Churchill and airpower present an ambiguous legacy. From the First World War to the Second he was persuaded that the advent of the aeroplane would transform war and was willing to argue that the enemy home front was a legitimate and strategically worthwhile objective. At the same time he thought that the German bombing of Britain was a terrible crime and worried at times that if the British indulged in the same tactic, they might be accused of descending into similar immoral depths. ʻAre we beasts?ʼ he asked rhetorically when he watched a film of the raids in June 1943, ʻAre we taking this too far?ʼ [ 37 ] This was a circle that Churchill failed to square throughout the Second World War.

Richard Overy, University of Exeter

Richard Overy is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He has written more than twenty-five books on the air war, the Second World War and the European dictatorships, including The Air War 1939–1945 (3rd ed., 2007), Why the Allies Won (1995) and The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilization between the Wars (2009). He won the Wolfson Prize for History in 2004 for his book The Dictators and the James Doolittle Award in 2010 for his contribution to aviation history. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Member of the European Academy for Sciences and Arts.


  1. 1. Winston S. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures (London: Macmillan, 1942), p. 153.
  2. 2. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures, pp. 158, 166-7.
  3. 3. Winston Churchill, minute to Captain Murray Sueter, 31 May 1914, CHAR 13/6B/265.
  4. 4. Winston Churchill, draft statement in the House of Commons, 23 November 1914, CHAR 13/29/194.
  5. 5. Stephen Roskill (ed.), Documents Relating to the Naval Air Service: Vol. 1, 1908–1918 (London: Naval Records Society, 1969), pp. 179, 309, 408–9; Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Volume III: The Challenge of War: 1914–1916 (London: Heinemann, 1971), pp. 88, 122–3.
  6. 6. Aerial Operations Committee, Draft Minutes of First Meeting, 26 September 1917, CHAR 27/5/2-4; War Cabinet Air Raids Committee, Minutes of First Meeting, 1 October 1917, CHAR 27/6/1-7.
  7. 7. Winston Churchill, ʻMunitions possibilities of 1918ʼ, in H.A. Jones, The War in the Air: Appendices (London: HMSO, 1937), Appendix IV, pp. 19–21.
  8. 8. Winston Churchill, letter to David Lloyd George, 10 January 1919, CHAR 2/105/3. See too Robert McCormack, ʻMissed Opportunities: Winston Churchill, the Air Ministry and Africa, 1919–1921ʼ, International History Review, 11 (1989), pp. 207–12.
  9. 9. Winston Churchill, letter to the Admiralty, 8 February 1919, CHAR 16/1/45-50; ʻthe future independence of the Air Force and Air Ministry will be in no way prejudicedʼ, he wrote.
  10. 10. John Sweetman, ʻCrucial Months for Survival: The Royal Air Force 1918–1919ʼ, Journal of Contemporary History, 19 (1984), pp. 529–32, 540.
  11. 11. See Sebastian Ritchie, The RAF, Small Wars and Insurgencies in the Middle East 1919–1939 (Northolt: Air Historical Branch, 2011), pp. 2–7.
  12. 12. Charles Portal to Winston Churchill, 25 September 1941, Portal Papers, Christ Church, Oxford, Folder 2/File 2.
  13. 13. Ralph Wigram, letter to Winston Churchill, 3 May 1935, CHAR 2/235/67.
  14. 14. Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (London: Heinemann, 1991), p. 542. On Christie see Wesley Wark, ʻBritish Intelligence on the German Air Force and Aircraft Industry, 1933-1939ʼ, Historical Journal, 25 (1982), pp. 636–7.
  15. 15. Winston Churchill, letter to Eleanor Rathbone MP, 13 April 1936, CHAR 2/274/12-13.
  16. 16. Martin Gilbert (ed.), The Churchill War Papers: Volume II: Never Surrender: May 1940–December 1940 (London: Heinemann, 1994), pp. 17–18, 25, 38–41.
  17. 17. Cited in Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, p. 394.
  18. 18. Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War: Volume II: Their Finest Hour (London: Cassell, 1951), p. 567.
  19. 19. Arthur Harris, in conversation, 18 July 1979, Cambridge University Library, Boyle Papers, Add 9429/2c.
  20. 20. Winston Churchill, notes for a speech to the House of Commons, 18 June 1940, CHAR 9/172: ʻthe battle of Britain is about to beginʼ.
  21. 21. Winston Churchill, letter to Sir Archibald Sinclair, 10 July 1940, CHAR 20/2A/27–28.
  22. 22. Winston Churchill, notes for a speech to the House of Commons, 20 August 1940, CHAR 9/141A/37-68; Jock Colville, The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985), p. 227, entry for 20 August; on the origin of the phrase, John Winant, A Letter from Grosvenor Square: An Account of a Stewardship (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947), pp. 29-30.
  23. 23. Winston Churchill to General Hastings Ismay, 26 December 1940, CHAR 20/13/9. Churchill returned to the possibility of gas warfare regularly throughout the Second World War.
  24. 24. On his appointment as air commodore, Air Council to Winston Churchill, 27 March 1939, CHAR 2/568B/199.
  25. 25. Winston Churchill, notes for a speech at County Hall, 14 July 1941, CHAR 9/152/A/1-16.
  26. 26. Winston Churchill to Charles Portal, 7 October 1941, Portal Papers, Christ Church, Folder 2/File 2.
  27. 27. Winston Churchill to Charles Portal, 7 October 1941, Portal Papers, Christ Church, Folder 2/File 2.
  28. 28. Winston Churchill, telegram to Sir Archibald Sinclair and Sir Charles Portal, 17 August 1942, CHAR 20/87/40: ʻStalin attaches special importance to attacking Berlin ... Let me know what your intentions are.ʼ
  29. 29. Minutes of Chiefs-of-Staff meeting, 19 October 1943, National Archives, PREM 3/79/1.
  30. 30. Conclusions of Chiefs-of-Staff, 2 March 1944, National Archives, AIR 19/215.
  31. 31. Norman Bottomley (Deputy Chief-of-Staff) to Air Marshal Arthur Harris, 28 March 1945, Harris Papers, RAF Museum, Hendon, H98; Air Marshal Arthur Harris to Norman Bottomley, 29 March 1945, Harris Papers, RAF Museum, Hendon, H98.
  32. 32. David Reynolds, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004), pp. 480–81.
  33. 33. Air Marshal Arthur Harris to Anthony Boyle, 13 June 1979, Boyle Papers, Cambridge University Library, Add 9429/1B.
  34. 34. Winston Churchill, Air Ministry telegram to Air Marshal Arthur Harris, 15 May 1945, CHAR 20/229C/329.
  35. 35. Reynolds, In Command of History, pp. 481–4.
  36. 36. Minutes of the Defence Committee, 5 April 1944, Zuckerman Papers, University of East Anglia, SZ/AEAF/7.
  37. 37. Christopher Harmon, ʻAre We Beasts?ʼ: Churchill and the Moral Question of World War II ʻArea Bombingʼ (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 1991), pp. 3-4.

(c) 2013 Richard Overy