“Our Bomber Will Always Get Through”: Cognitive Barriers to US-UK Wartime Military Intelligence During the Air Offensives of 1939-1941

Posted: 4 Nov 2023

See all articles by Nicholas Blanchette

Nicholas Blanchette

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Wright Smith

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Political Science

Date Written: November 2, 2023

Abstract

In the early years of the Second World War, Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) fought the same conflict from two angles. At home, the RAF had to defend Great Britain from a strategic bombing campaign carried out by the German Luftwaffe from July 1940 through June 1941. Beyond the English Channel, it sought to carry out its own strategic bombing campaign targeting German military forces, industry, and cities. Consequently, the RAF possessed a rare opportunity: the chance to compare intelligence on the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign to intelligence on the effectiveness of their own bombing effort, and to use that comparison to innovate and improve their bombing operations. However, despite the challenges to strategic bombing that the German campaign demonstrated, such as the strength of air defenses during daytime operations, the sturdiness of industrialized economies and civilian populations, and the inaccuracy of bomber aircraft, RAF leaders, as well as American officers with the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) observing the bombing campaigns, mostly ignored potential lessons from the German experience and remained stubbornly unable to fix their own mistakes. Although the size and scale of the British and American Combined Bomber Offensive grew exponentially through 1945, at great human and materiel cost, the bombing campaign proved to be largely ineffective in its overarching goal of coercing German surrender. Why did the RAF and USAAF observers fail to take advantage of the unique military intelligence and wartime learning opportunity they were handed by the German air offensive to improve their own operations? Why did the failures of the German air campaign not prompt RAF leaders to reassess their rosy intelligence appraisals about the performance of their own bombing missions? Why did it take civilian intervention, in the form of Churchill himself ordering a civilian review of bombing missions, for the RAF to recognize that its intelligence assessments of the bombing campaign were wildly overoptimistic? In this paper, we answer these questions by pointing to two cognitive processes which we hypothesize prevented Allied airmen from recognizing the value of the intelligence that could be derived from German failures for adapting and improving the effectiveness of their own aerial operations.

Keywords: Military innovation, Wartime learning, Battle of Britain, Airpower

Suggested Citation

Blanchette, Nicholas and Smith, Wright, “Our Bomber Will Always Get Through”: Cognitive Barriers to US-UK Wartime Military Intelligence During the Air Offensives of 1939-1941 (November 2, 2023). MIT Political Science Department Research Paper No. 2023-8, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4622367

Nicholas Blanchette (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( email )

30 Wadsworth Street (Rm 470)
Cambridge, MA 02142
United States

Wright Smith

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Political Science

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