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Chapter 1

Background



The Sylt Raid of 19 March 1940 was announced in the House of Commons, featured in the newspapers and was very much a talking point. All this despite the fact that the damage inflicted on the target was rather less than impressive.

The raid hit the headlines at the time for various reasons. Not the least of these was the fact that it was the first even moderately successful attack carried out by RAF Bomber Command since the war had begun in September 1939. Not that this was entirely the fault of Bomber Command - the Germans and the French must take their share of the blame as well.

On earlier attacks, RAF bomber crews had found that German defences - particularly the Luftwaffe fighters - were considerably better than anticipated. Losses of aircraft and men proved to be unsustainable, so the RAF ceased long-range daylight raids altogether. They still carried out night raids, but their actions here were severely hampered by the French.

The French government had seen what bombers did to Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and to Warsaw in September 1939. They were terrified of seeing Luftwaffe bombers over Paris or other French cities and so decided to follow a policy of non-aggression. The French High Command reasoned that if they did not attack German cities, the Germans would not attack theirs. The French air force was, therefore, banned from attacking any target inside Germany that either lay in or near a town or where civilian casualties might result. Only strictly military targets such as barracks or training camps could be bombed, and those only if they were nowhere near civilian housing.

The French government insisted that the RAF follow a similar policy, arguing that German reprisals were most likely to fall on French towns, which were closer to German air bases than British towns. Given that bombaiming at night was still in its infancy in 1939, that pretty much ruled out nearly every target the RAF wanted to bomb. Instead the RAF dropped leaflets over German towns and cities. This inflicted no damage, but did at least give the crews experience of night navigation over enemy territory.

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