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Document: The Butt Report (1941) January 3, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

My book manuscript, Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940-1960 is now under contract with the MIT Press.  I will be revising and formatting the manuscript through mid-February, so expect to continue hearing little from me until then. I do, however, want to start trying some new experiments with this blog, one of which is to make certain unpublished government documents more widely available.

Today’s document is the so-called “Butt Report” found at The National Archives of the UK, Public Record Office, AIR 14/1218.  Issued in August 1941, the report detailed, on the basis of photographic evidence, the extreme inability of RAF bomber crews to locate, let alone strike, targets in the dark. This investigation was ordered by Winston Churchill’s friend and adviser, Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann, and was undertaken by his assistant, David Bensusan-Butt.  The Butt Report is well known, having played a role in shaping subsequent debate over the aims of British bombing policy in view of technical limitations.  However, I do not believe it has previously been made available in full (or nearly in full, as the last page appears to be missing).

The rules of the National Archives of the UK state that facsimile copies of its records may not be distributed without permission and the payment of a large fee. Transcriptions, however, may be distributed freely. Upon learning this, shortly after publishing this post, I quickly removed the photographic reproduction I had originally made available here. However, in December 2014 I found time to transcribe the report, adhering as closely as possible to the format of the original. Here it is:

Butt report transcription (TNA AIR 14/1218)



1. Lee J Rickard (@LeeJRickard) - January 4, 2014

Fascinating. This reminds one of the effort that went into merely documenting the problem – a hard thing for most of our computer-based generations to appreciate. I’m old enough to remember typing, but soon that will be a faint memory. Just another reason for the importance of looking at the original documents, and perhaps a reason to NOT reprocess the photographs!

Will Thomas - January 4, 2014

Thanks Lee – one thing I find useful about going to the original document is that it gives you a better sense of just what kind of a heuristic (if you will) apparatus was available at the time. A lot of secondary reports will tell you what this or that report concluded, without telling you much about how it got there. In this case, you can tell that that apparatus was not yet very sophisticated, although they did at least have a photo interpretation crew working. What’s most interesting to me here, is how modestly Butt assesses his own skills, as well as his recommendations for a more permanent statistical operation. (It so happened that Bomber Command was just setting up an operations research section when the Butt report was issued.)

2. David Lewis - April 12, 2015

Thanks Will ! I am doing my dissertation on effects of the Anglo-American Bombing campaign & could not find the Butt report anywhere else online. Deciding a war strategy based on data from only 28 targets seems incredible… Many Thanks. Dave.

Will Thomas - April 14, 2015

Glad it is of help, Dave. At that point in the war, most of the arguments for and against area bombing were apparently based, at most, on back-of-the-envelope calculations. The Butt Report was considered unusually systematic. Somebody should write on the development of the planning and analysis apparatuses of the various air forces over the course of the war.

Anton - July 8, 2015

David. Hi my name is Anton and I am developing my thesis about targeting in WWII.. any chance to contact you? thanks.

3. (W)Archives: Aerial Bombardment and Hitting the Broad Side of a Barn - April 17, 2015

[…] fifty years ago but has only recently become readily accessible (in transcribed form) through “Ether Wave Propaganda,” a blog site devoted to the “history and historiography of […]

4. Mr R - March 18, 2017

As noted in other comments this is a fascinating document that shows the methodology as well as the conclusion – the way we were all taught at school!

Is there not a typo in the original report or perhaps your transcription with the date of the period being analysised being 2 June to 25 July?

Although both the Summary (immediately after the covering letter) and the Statistical Analysis both refer to June and July, your para 1 under ‘A Statistical Analysis’ refers to ‘650 photographs taken during night bombing operations between 2 JULY and 25 July. (My capitals for emphasis);

The same para goes on: ‘They relate to 28 targets, 48 nights, and 100 separate raids.’

Although there are more that 48 nights between 2 June and 25 July this would fit better as the no attacks may have been recorded on the other days because of weather conditions.

Will Thomas - March 19, 2017

You have an excellent eye! The error is in the transcription. It should read “2nd June”. I will replace the file with a corrected version.

Mr R - March 23, 2017

Thank you Will for your speedy reply and clarification – goes to bear out the comment on the covering letter about the report being badly typed! While on the subject of the annotations Peter Hinchliffe attributes the ‘I don’t think at this rate…’ remark to Air Chief Marshall Sir Richard Peirse, Commander in Chief Bomber Command. He was removed from the post in January 1942 and replaced by Air Chief Marshall Harris the following month.

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