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Book Reviews

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The Science of Bombing ~ Operational Research in RAF Bomber Command

Reviewed by Jim Barrett

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by Randall T. Wakelam
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009
ix + 347 pages, $75.00
ISBN 978-08020-9329-6 (paper)
Reviewed by: Jim Barrett


The Science of Bombing does much more than tell a fascinating story of how science went to war. This fine first book by Colonel Randall Wakelam opens a whole new window into RAF Bomber Command operations and the functioning of Command headquarters at High Wycombe during the Second World War. No scientific treatise, this is a very readable account of  “…a body of brilliant young civilian scientists and technicians at Bomber Command headquarters, who did work of inestimable value in subjecting all aspects of our operations to an impartial scrutiny” – Sir Arthur Harris's own words.  Drawing on unpublished primary sources, Wakelam tells how, at the same time, these young scientists helped bring into being a new scientific discipline. As war threatened, the rapid development of the Chain Home radar system brought scientists and engineers into military headquarters, applying their skills to complex problems of immediate operational importance. The term “Operational Research,” (O.R.) was coined to describe this innovation, new to airmen and scientists alike, which quickly proved its worth in Fighter Command and Coastal Command.

In September 1941, Bomber Command's Operational Research Section (ORS) was established under the direction of Dr. Basil Dickins, who led the more than 50 members of the ORS until war's end. Most were located at High Wycombe, but many were detached to the six bomber groups. The O.R. approach was to elaborate a scientific model of a given problem, taking account of as much complexity as possible, including the significance of chance and risk. Researchers would then recommend a preferred course of action, subsequently testing decisions taken against data from actual missions.

We can let Dickins himself provide an example. Airmen had long debated whether concentration over the target would be an improvement over the dispersed routing practice then in use. Bombers arriving en masse would saturate the defences – but concentration introduced other risks, notably that of collision. “We had to reduce it all to mathematics, and … it became quite obvious to us at ORS that while a collision was a half-percent risk, the chances of being shot down by flak or fighters was at three or four percent risk. So we could allow the collision risk to mount by quite a bit, provided that in doing so we could bring down the losses from other causes.” Characteristically, this assessment makes no mention of how the aircrews might feel about the increased risk of collisions with friendly aircraft. However, aircrew were not without input, as another operational researcher wrote later: “Our remit was somewhat vague, … investigating anything we were asked to and at the same time anything else we thought might be useful, as far as the time permitted. In the armed forces, this worked well, since ... the intimate contact between the O.R. Staff and the officers, not only in the offices and Nissen huts but in the mess, meant that personal confidence was established... and that there was the possibility of hearing the gossip that reveals what will be an important problem.”

That “intimate contact” does not tell the whole story, of course. Without the confidence of the new Commander-in-Chief, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, the ORS would not have accomplished much. While Dickins did not work directly for Harris – his immediate superior was the Deputy Commander in Chief, Air Marshal Sir Robert Saundby – it was clearly a relationship that worked very well. The Science of Bombing details the contributions of the ORS to a host of issues, familiar to any student of the bombing war: appropriate evasive manoeuvres, Halifax and Lancaster escape hatches, fuel and engine fires, the applications of Gee, Oboe and H2S, the formation of the Pathfinder Force, the use of Window, and much, much more – any and all problems that fell under the headings of navigation, target identification, and loss reduction. The progress of ORS research, and subsequent actions taken, furnishes The Science of Bombing'snarrative thread, one which runs parallel to the familiar account of the area bombing offensive.

British policy, initially restricting bombing to military targets, was relaxed in 1940 to permit attacks on industrial targets. Devastating losses during daylight raids forced a strategy of night bombing, which quickly revealed the sorry state of navigation and bombing techniques. Of the bombs dropped on Germany by night, only five percent had hit genuine objectives. Nonetheless, Churchill saw in strategic bombing the “one sure path” to winning the war, and so, in July 1941, the Air Staff directed an area bombing offensive, with the objective of destroying the morale of the German civilian population. It was the best that could be done at the time. But difficult and costly campaigns – the Ruhr, Hamburg, Berlin – bought substantial improvement, and, by 1944, Bomber Command could rightly claim a capability for precise and effective bombing, bringing into question the need for continued area bombing. Harris continued to argue that area bombing alone would bring about Germany's collapse, and thus avoid the need for a costly invasion. 
The criticism leveled at Dickins for the ORS part in this debate is one of the most fascinating topics addressed by The Science of Bombing, illuminating the challenges that existed at this intersection of science and operations, and the inevitable questions about scientific integrity. Wartime O.R. was not laboratory science. Recommendations had to make sense to operational airmen, so the conclusions of the ORS often included an “operational factor” based entirely upon the airmen’s experience and intuition. This approach could be troublesome to other scientists. Thus, when Harris sought to demonstrate that the resources required to bomb compact targets would be excessive (and thereby to justify continued area bombing), Sir Solly Zuckerman, a scientist serving with SHAEF, complained that estimates had been grossly inflated by this non-rigorous “operational factor.” He complained also that the ORS was, on occasion, “…constrained by assumptions which uncannily fitted their masters' preconceived ideas.” While there might be a grain of truth here, this statement is very unfair, both to the researchers and their “masters.” Certainly, Dickens developed his conclusions not for open peer review but as a staff officer subordinate to a senior commander who alone was responsible to pass judgment upon the advice he received. The evidence strongly suggests that Dickins deftly balanced meeting the expectations of his superiors with maintaining scientific objectivity. Here Saundby as well surely deserves some credit, for the integration of scientific culture into an operational headquarters demands adaptation, and, sometimes, the relaxation of accepted military practice. As Wakelam emphasizes in his conclusions, there are important lessons here for modern scholars and operators alike; this is an area that demands serious study.

The Science of Bombing gives us a first glimpse into a headquarters where science and operations made common cause. It is, one hopes, only the first of many such studies, not least because we again find such headquarters in the Canadian Forces, and their function is not sufficiently well understood.

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Doctor Jim Barrett is a former navigator in post-war Maritime Air Command (Lancasters), a professor, Dean of Science, and Dean of Continuing Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada, and a Director of Learning and Innovation at the Canadian Defence Academy.

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