Charles Portal

Charles Portal

Charles Portal was born in Hungerford on 21st May 1893. Educated at Christ Church, Oxford, he joined the British Army in August 1914. He was quickly promoted to corporal in the motorcycle section of the Royal Engineers and was sent to the Western Front in France. In December 1914 he was given command of all riders in the 1st Corps Headquarters Signals Company.

Portal transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1915 and initially qualified as an observer before becoming a flying officer. By the end of the First World War he had won the Military Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross and had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. During the war he flew more than 900 operational sorties for tactical reconnaissance, artillery fire direction, and night bombing.

Portal remained in the recently created Royal Air Force and in 1927 took over the No 7 Squadron. Over the next few years he developed techniques to improve bombing accuracy.

In February, 1934, Portal was appointed commander of British forces in Aden. While there he tried to demonstrate how the threat of air power could control hostile tribesman. While in Aden he was promoted to air commodore (January 1935). After joining the staff Imperial Defence College he became and Air Vice Marshal (July 1937).

Portal was appointed as Director of Organization at the Air Ministry and with the threat of war he was given the responsibility of establishing 30 new air bases in Britain. In February 1939 he joined the Air Council and on the outbreak of the Second World War was promoted to the rank of air marshal.

In April, 1940, Portal became the head of Bomber Command and on 25th August ordered bombing attacks on Berlin and other German cities. Although this did little material damage it had have the effect of encouraging Hermann Goering to switch his Luftwaffe attack from British airfields, factories and docks to urban areas. This helped the RAF survive the Battle of Britain but helped cause the Blitz.

Winston Churchill was very impressed with Portal's performance as head of Bomber Command and described him as "the accepted star of the Air Force". He was knighted in July 1940 and three months later was promoted to the rank of air chief marshal and appointed as chief of the air staff.

Air Vice Marshal John Portal
Air Vice Marshal John Portal

With the new head of Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, he developed the policy of area bombing (known in Germany as terror bombing) where entire cities and towns were targeted. Portal and Harris argued that the main objectives of night-time blanket bombing of urban areas was to undermine the morale of the civilian population and attacks were launched on Hamburg, Nuremberg, Cologne, Dresden and other German cities. This air campaign killed an estimated 600,000 civilians and destroyed or seriously damaged some six million homes. It was a highly dangerous strategy and during the war Bomber Command had 57,143 men killed.

As a member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, Portal had a significant influence on Allied strategy and other important matters of military policy. Winston Churchill valued Portal advice but in March, 1945, he gave instructions to bring an end to area bombing. As he explained: "It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land."

Portal was created a baron in August, 1945 and the following year was raised to viscount. After the war he was Controller of Atomic Energy (1946-51) and president of the MCC (1958-59). In 1960 Portal was elected Chairman of the British Aircraft Corporation. Charles Portal, who declined the offer of writing his memoirs, died on 22nd April 1971.

Primary Sources

(1) Winston Churchill, letter to Charles Portal in a reply to a report on the need to use more terror bombing attacks on Nazi Germany (27th September, 1941)

It is very disputable whether bombing by itself will be a decisive factor in the present war. On the contrary, all that we have learnt since the war began shows that its effects, both physical and moral, are greatly exaggerated. There is no doubt that British people have been stimulated and strengthened by the attack made upon them so far. Secondly, it seems very likely that the ground defences and night-fighters will overtake the air attack. Thirdly, in calculating the number of bombers necessary to achieve hypothetical and indefinite tasks, it should be noted that only a quarter of our bombs hit the targets. Consequently an increase of bombing to 100 per cent would in fact raise our bombing force to four times its strength. The most we can say is that it will be a heavy and I trust a seriously increasing annoyance.

(2) John Slessor summarized the the views of Charles Portal on how Nazi Germany would be beaten (30th September, 1942)

"A" was to build up the resources necessary to get a decision by invasion before German industry and economic power had been broken;

"B" was to shatter German resistance by air and then put in the Army;

"C" was a compromise under which we tried to build up simultaneously strong land and air forces on a scale unrelated to any particular task, without any clear intention of attaining a definite object by a definite time.

For his part, he favoured course "B", for which he thought a combined heavy bomber force rising to a peak of between four and six thousand might be necessary.

(3) On 3rd November, 1942, Charles Portal produced a report on developing a strategy to defeat Nazi Germany.

It is difficult to estimate the moral consequences of a scale of bombardment which would far transcend anything within human experience. But I have no doubt whatever that against a background of growing casualties, increasing privations and dying hopes it would be profound indeed.

I am convinced that an Anglo-American bomber force based in the United Kingdom and building up to a peak of 4,000-6,000 heavy bombers by 1944 would be capable of reducing the German war potential well below the level at which an Anglo-American invasion of the Continent would become practicable. Indeed, I see every reason to hope that this result would be achieved well before the combined force had built up to peak strength.