8. MOMENT OF DECISION
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It was twenty minutes past nine on the morning of Saturday 30th May when Harris walked from his office in the main air staff building at High Wycombe, down a narrow path between the beech trees and through the iron door into the hump of ground which betrayed the site of the underground operations room, completely hidden though it was from the air. With his peaked cap pulled well down over his ginger-grey hair, and his shoulders hunched characteristically in best blue—he never wore battle-dress—he strode into the operations room, accompanied by his personal aide. As he took off his cap and handed it to Tomlinson, the privileged few grouped themselves around him.
There was a ritual about Harris's morning conferences which has been described before. The scene has even been painted. Present in the lofty operations room, with its massive wall-boards of station, squadron and aircraft hieroglyphics, were, first, the normal ops. room staff, carrying on quietly with their duties; second, the senior representatives of all the major departments of the air staff; and third, the select few who gathered at Harris's desk. These were normally restricted to Saundby, "Sam" Elworthy (Group Captain ops.), Dudley Saward and an intelligence officer. One other man—Spence— would join the group as Harris sat down. As befitted the trusted seer, Spence had his office immediately opposite the operations room and he had formed the habit of slipping in unobserved behind Harris. Now, as Harris settled in his chair, with Saundby standing on his right, Spence came forward with the latest synoptic charts and spread them on the desk in front of Harris.
Spence had been in his office since seven o'clock, collecting and collating weather information and discussing the overall picture by phone with the group meteorological officers to produce an agreed forecast. Now, as he unfolded his charts, he began his droning spiel. The weather over Germany, he said, was still unfavourable, dominated by large amounts of thundery cloud. The situation was blackest in the north-west, but was improving towards the south, where the cloud would disperse to smaller amounts during the night. "There's a fifty-fifty chance," said Spence, "that the cloud in the Cologne area will clear by midnight."
"What about the bases?"
"The bases on the whole will be clear. A few stations may be unfit through fog but the general picture is good."
It was the first sign the whole week of any sort of improvement in the weather. Thundery conditions were persisting, and Hamburg was still under a blanket of cloud; whatever lingering partiality Harris may have had for Hamburg as the target was finally doused. But there was a chance, it seemed, for Cologne. An even chance, if Spence was right.
The winds which brought good weather over the bases generally tended to produce cloud over Germany. It was a recurring penalty, a pattern to which Harris was accustomed, but one which seemed to work continually in the enemy's favour. On the whole, as Harris knew well enough, bad weather over the home bases was the greatest threat—not so much of failure as of catastrophe. If he waited one more night—until the last possible moment, in fact, since the moon would then be on the wane—hoping for an improvement over Germany, he might lose the good weather over the bases. To attempt to land this huge force in adverse weather was to court disaster— it was absolutely essential to have a large number of bases free from low cloud and fog. Against this, if the target was cloud-covered the raid would be abortive. The enemy would be forewarned and the plan would be discredited.
The only alternative open to Harris, assuming that he regarded tonight as in all probability his last chance of despatching the force under the existing full moon—as in fact he did—was to wait another month for the next full moon. The time spent in assembling the force and keeping it idle night after night waiting for better weather would have been wasted. The tremendous fillip that the rumours of a big raid had already given to the entire Command would dissolve into reaction, leaving behind it frustration and bitterness. Indeed a dispersal back to normal might look very much like—and could possibly be—a failure of nerve on the part of the commander. And worse even than this, a month's delay would give time for the implementing of those political decisions which threatened to break up the force. Either way, tonight looked like being the last chance for Bomber Command.
All sound in the operations room seemed to be turned off, presenting a silent picture as Harris pondered. He pulled a carton of "Camel" cigarettes from his patch pocket, flipped his middle finger expertly under it and drew out the protruding cartridge of tobacco. No one moved to light it for him—the ritual was too well established. He took a lighter from his other side pocket, lit the cigarette, then took a blunt, stubby cigarette-holder from his breast pocket and pressed the cigarette into it, finally fixing it firmly between his teeth. Then he leaned forward again, flattened the chart with his palm, and ran his fingers over the Low Countries and across the German frontier, stopping at a city on the Middle Rhine. Dudley Saward, peering anxiously over his shoulder, noticed that his index finger was bent back at the joint, the pressure on it driving the blood from the top of the finger-nail, leaving a half-circle of white.
Harris glanced up at Saundby and met his gaze momentarily. To the others, both men's faces looked expressionless. Their exact thoughts at that moment cannot, perhaps, be recaptured. But both men were students of military and naval history, and both recognised the decisive influence of the weather on all military and naval adventures. Both knew what happens when armadas fail.
Harris stabbed impatiently with his forefinger at the chart.
"Thousand Plan tonight. Target Cologne"
He rose from his seat, the cluster of specialist officers drew back and Tomlinson gave him his hat. Once again there was a ceremonial about every gesture. Then, without a word or a glance at anyone, he strode with bowed head from the operations room and out into the fresh air of summer.
It was, as Harris himself wrote afterwards, not perhaps the greatest gamble that a commander in the field has had to take in war. But it was a very considerable risk.
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