1941: The Difficult Year

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Special Operations A word must be said here about some of the special offensive operations, outside the normal Circus, anti-shipping, fighter sweep and Rhubarb ...
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Special Operations

A word must be said here about some of the special offensive operations, outside the normal Circus, anti-shipping, fighter sweep and Rhubarb categories, in which the Command participated between 14th June and the end of 1941.

Reference has already been made to Bomber Command’s attack on the German warships at Brest and La Pallice on 24th July. In connection with this operation six squadrons of fighters from No. 11 Group provided escort for two diversionary attacks on Cherbourg and another fourteen took part in a Circus. against Hazebrouck, while the equivalent of nine squadrons from No. 10 Group gave support over Brest and the Western end of the English Channel. Since only five squadrons of single-seater fighters with long-range tanks were available, the degree of support that could be given over Brest was necessarily disproportionate to the size of the bomber force, which suffered accordingly.

Halifaxes on a daylight raid on Brest harbour, December 1941.
[Crown Copyright]

On 12th August a force of 54 Blenheims of Bomber Command attacked two power stations at Cologne in daylight. A squadron of Whirlwinds accompanied them on the first 135 miles of their outward journey, and on the return journey a wing of long-range Spitfires [Mk. II] met them near the Dutch Coast, while another Spitfire wing made a sweep over Flushing in support. Two Circus operations over France by a total of nineteen fighter squadrons and twelve Hampdens of Bomber Command were carried out as diversions. 11 aircraft of the bomber force despatched against the power stations were lost, but Bomber Command expressed themselves as well satisfied with the results achieved. In the light of our subsequent knowledge of the enemy’s system of deploying and controlling fighters at that time, it now appears unlikely that diversions so far from the scene of the main attacks could have had any effect an the opposition in that area.

On 18th December and again on 30th December, Bomber Command made further attacks on the German warships at Brest. Fighter support was provided by ten and nine squadrons of the Command respectively. As before, the results were satisfactory from the fighter aspect, but once again the bombers suffered substantial losses.

Results Achieved by the Offensive

It would be unwise to attach too much importance to statistics showing the claims made and losses suffered by our fighters month by month throughout the offensive.

The experience of two wars shows that in large-scale offensive operations the claims to the destruction of enemy aircraft made by pilots, however honestly made and carefully scrutinized, are a most inaccurate guide to the true situation. Moreover, the results achieved by an offensive can rarely be judged by a mere statistical comparison of casualties suffered and inflicted. Except when an operation has been launched purely for the purpose of procuring the attrition of the opposing force, a broader view than this must be taken of the strategic purpose and the extent to which it has been achieved.

In the present case the original object was to wrest the initiative from the enemy for the sake of the great moral and tactical advantages bestowed by its possession. Later the Command was entrusted with the task of co-, operating with Bomber and Coastal Commands in order, first to prevent the enemy from withdrawing any more flying units from the Western Front after the middle of June, and secondly, to induce him to return some of the units already withdrawn by that time. These may be designated respectively objects numbers one, two and three.

Object number one was achieved within a few months of the opening of the offensive. By the Spring of 1941 the initiative in major daylight operations had passed from the Germans, who did not subsequently regain it.

Objective number two was also achieved, inasmuch as the Germans did in fact retain on the Western Front throughout the second half of 1941 approximately the same first-line fighter force as was present in the late Spring. In particular, two Geschwader of particularly high quality [JG 2 and JG 26], which might have been usefully employed elsewhere, remained in Northern France to oppose the Circus offensive and our other offensive operations. It is, of course, most unlikely that, even without the offensive, the Germans would altogether have denuded the Western Front of fighters: so long as even the threat of an offensive was present, a substantial defensive force would doubtless have been retained in the West in any case. Still, the fact remains that throughout the Summer and Autumn of 1941 roughly one third of the total establishment of German first-line single-engined fighters was contained on the Western Front.

Object number three was not achieved. Such moves between East and West as occurred were by way of exchange rather than reinforcement.

To turn to subsidiary achievements, the offensive against shipping went far to deny the Dover Strait to the enemy in daylight, so that the Germans were induced to pass more and more of their shipping at night. This produced favourable conditions for the employment of naval forces. Furthermore the offensive as a whole, and particularly the Circus offensive, brought about a substantial attrition of the German fighter force in Northern France during the Summer, at a substantial cost to ourselves. Such an effect could not, by its very nature, be other than transitory so long as the enemy’s means of replacement remained intact; for any slackening of the offensive, whether caused by bad weather or our own losses, would enable him to restore the situation more or less quickly. One of the clearest lessons which were later seen to emerge from this experience was that fighters operating from this country over Northern France could, at a sufficient cost, inflict such losses on the opposing fighter force as would bring about local and temporary air superiority. But this achievement could, of itself, have no decisive military value: the ability to create this situation was valuable only if means were to hand of exploiting it by some further move capable of producing a decision.

This condition was not fulfilled in 1941. Consequently the operations just described, although they achieved two of the three objects for which they were undertaken, and also provided valuable experience, were necessarily indecisive. This was, indeed, recognized as inevitable when the intensified offensive was begun, for its underlying strategy rested upon the assumption that the decisive theatre lay, for the moment, in the East. Nevertheless these operations pointed the way to the events of 1943 and 1944, when the temporary reduction of the opposing fighter force was to be deliberately and successfully undertaken as a necessary prelude to the decisive military gesture which was to lead to the defeat of Germany.

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By George Greenfield  |  2016-07-08 at 11:27  |  permalink

I’ve always thought Sholto Douglas was a second-rate commander (since discovering he advocated the creation of 10 squadrons of Defiants in 1939) and this account confirms me in that opinion. The Circus concept was militarily pointless, and merely served to cost the RAF the services of many experienced fighter pilots, who were shot down for no good reason (including Douglas Bader, for example). As a result of this mistakenly aggressive policy we gave the Luftwaffe exactly the same opportunity in 1941 as they had given us in 1940, and with an even worse result – the defending side achieved a roughly 2:1 kill/loss ratio, and the attacking side did no damage of significance. Meanwhile, Greece, Crete and Singapore were lost and Malta was beleaguered, all largely due to inadequate fighter defences. It is one of the mysteries of the war why Spitfires were not deployed overseas until June 1942, when Malta was on the verge of capitulation. Sholto Douglas was in charge during that period, and should bear much of the blame.

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