Between 1939 and 1945, nearly 600,000 European civilians were killed by aerial bombardment. The assault from the skies represented a terrifying – and morally questionable – development in warfare, one that brought unprecedented levels of destruction in its wake, turning home fronts into battlefields.
The various aerial campaigns of the Second World War – chiefly the Blitz and the Allied bombing of German cities – have been treated in several disparate accounts. What has been lacking is a far-reaching, comparative account aimed at a general readership.
Richard Overy’s The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 fills this void admirably. One of the leading scholars of the Second World War era, Overy, the author of Why the Allies Won, Russia’s War and several other notable works, brings a complete mastery to the subject. Using a range of German, Russian and English archives and a vast array of secondary sources, Overy covers every aspect of the bombing campaigns – the technical and operational details of the missions, the political endgames that often dictated who and what got bombed, the emergence of strategic bombing as a military doctrine, the horrific cost to both victims on the ground and the aircrews trying to kill them. He ranges widely, also outlining civil defence protocols in Britain, Germany, Russia and Italy. This is a view of aerial warfare from the ground up.
Overy’s book delivers up many fresh and forgotten aspects of the bombing campaign. For example, Malta, whose port was vital to Britain, was attacked 3,303 times by Germany and Italy between 1940 and 1944; it became “the most bombed place on earth”. The Allied bombing of occupied France and Italy each caused more casualties than the Blitz: trying to free Europe from Nazi rule, the Allies bombed large portions of the continent to smithereens. And Overy devotes a chapter to the German air force’s campaign in Russia, a theatre of the European war that is more known for its titanic land battles.
Not all readers will find his mass of details and statistics easy going; but they are a measure of the cool, even clinical, dispassion Overy brings to a side of the Second World War that remains controversial. The Allied bombing campaigns over Germany and the fire-bombings of Hamburg in 1943 and Dresden in 1945 have provoked much emotional debate about Germans as victims. Some have suggested that Arthur Harris, the chief of the RAF Bomber Command from 1942-1945, is culpable of war crimes; Overy avoids such histrionic finger pointing, even if his verdicts on what bombing actually accomplished are damning.
Aerial attacks on civilians, Overy writes, “signified an acceptance, even by the victim populations, of shifting norms about the conduct of war; what had seemed unacceptable legally and morally in 1939 was rapidly transformed by the relative ethics of survival and defeat”.
“It is easy to deplore the losses and to condemn the strategy as immoral, even illegal – and a host of recent bombing accounts have done that – but current ethical concerns get no nearer to an understanding of how these things were possible, even applauded, and why so few voices were raised against the notion that the home front could legitimately be a target of attack. The contemporary ethical view of bombing was far from straightforward, often paradoxical … Issues that seemed black and white before the war and do again today were coloured in many shades of grey during the conflict.”
The author’s reach is far – his book has every claim to being a definitive benchmark for generations to come. His account of Allied bombing strategy is must-reading for any student of the Second World War. It is one of the toughest, but scrupulously documented, audits of how the Allies fought that I have ever read. Overy calmly dispenses with several myths about the Battle of Britain, when the German air force tried, and failed, to take out the RAF before a planned (but never attempted) invasion of England. Sentimental histories prate on about plucky little Britain taking on the Nazis. Rubbish: as Overy points out, Germany fatally underestimated RAF strength, which increased as the battle wore on, with British factories producing twice as many fighter aircraft between June and October 1940. “This was never the contest of the Few against the Many,” he quips dryly.
Overy’s account of the evolution of Bomber Command’s role is even more startling – and disturbing. Here, Churchill and the British come off as even more pitiless than Hitler. The British bombing offensive, Overy reminds us, began before the Blitz began, not after, as is commonly understood. For the British, “the argument for attacking Germany came to be based on pre-emptive retaliation. Even before war, the RAF had taken for granted that the German air force would be bound by no scruples and would be ‘ruthless and indiscriminate’ when the time came for a knockout blow”.
It was the British who began to bomb indiscriminately. (Overy suggests that “British cities might have been spared the full horrors of the winter of 1940-41”, had Bomber Command not began to press its long-range attacks in the summer of 1940.) Churchill was under enormous political pressure to show the people of occupied Europe that Britain meant business – after the fall of France and the retreat of Dunkirk, the RAF was virtually the only weapon Churchill possessed to strike back at Germany.
Overy details the escalation of bombing attacks from limited strikes to the all-out obliteration of German cities and towns. Overy quotes Sir Richard Peirse, Harris’s predecessor at Bomber Command, who admitted to a sympathetic audience in late 1941 that the air force had been attacking “the people themselves”. He offered this explanation “because”, he explained “for a long time, the government for excellent reasons has preferred the world to think that we still held some scruples and attacked only what the humanitarians are pleased to call military targets … I can assure you, Gentlemen, that we tolerate no scruples”.
Yet Bomber Command was limited in what it could accomplish. Targeting issues – no bombing force ever achieved a high level of accuracy – mechanical problems, German fighter attacks, anti-aircraft fire and weather all combined to limit what Bomber Command could achieve. Under Harris, Bomber Command solved some of these issues – the introduction of the Lancaster bomber in 1943 was a crucial development – and it ramped up its use of incendiaries against German industrial cities and working-class neighbourhoods. They were deployed to devastating effect in the raids on Hamburg in July 1943, which killed 37,000 people, “the single largest loss of civilian life in one city throughout the whole European war”. Winds, “acting like a giant bellows”, fuelled conflagrations that burnt at 800°C.
The historian shuns the charged rhetoric that swirls around Harris, but he still remains shocking in his callousness. He was convinced that strategic bombing would shorten the war and spare the United States and Britain a protracted land campaign; it did not. He was convinced that targeting German cities would break the morale of the people and destroy German’s war-making capacity; it did not.
In no instance was strategic bombing a war-winning game changer. It certainly brought misery, death and destruction to those – English, Italian, French, German, Polish – who had to endure it. “Bombs belonged to my life,” mused one German schoolgirl. But it was a futile pursuit. “Long-range bombing in the Second World War was a crude strategy,” Overy observes, “a wasteful use of resources, since most bombs did not hit the intended target, even when that target was the size of a city centre. Strategic bombing proved in the end to be inadequate in its own terms for carrying out its principal assignments and was morally compromised by deliberate escalation against civilian populations.”
Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.