Wreaking havoc from the skies over Europe

A damning account of the terrible civilian toll and military ineffectiveness of second World War bombing in Europe will trigger debate

De Havilland Mosquito aircraft of RAF Bomber Command, in 1943. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

De Havilland Mosquito aircraft of RAF Bomber Command, in 1943. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Sat, Nov 9, 2013, 01:00


Book Title:
The Bombing War


Richard Overy

Allen Lane

Guideline Price:

Of the numerous gruesome features of the second World War, few are as firmly anchored in the collective memory of Europeans as the bombing terror associated with the London Blitz, the Luftwaffe attacks on Rotterdam and Warsaw, or the militarily pointless destruction of Dresden.

More than the conventional battles that took place in western Europe in 1940 and then again after July 1944, the deliberate bombing of entire enemy cities captures the inhumane logic of a total war that ultimately killed more than 60 million people, most of them civilians. Systematic carpet-bombing deliberately blurred the lines between combatants and noncombatants and made everyone, irrespective of age and gender, a potential target.

Even if the casualty figures caused by bombing in the second World War have long been exaggerated – a process that started during the war when each side accused the other of unforgivable atrocities – there is no point in denying the lethal nature of aerial bombing: between 1939 and 1945 about 500,000 European civilians were killed by bombs and more than a million were seriously injured. In Germany alone, where bombing raids peaked in the final two years of the war, about 353,000 people died as a result of systematic aerial bombing by the Allies.

The material damage was also horrific. By 1945, large parts of continental Europe’s cities had been razed through the calculated use of incendiaries. Despite the havoc wrought by unrestricted aerial bombing in all nations at war, the topic has received remarkably little comparative treatment by historians. There have been some excellent recent studies on specific aspects of the bombing war, such as Jörg Friedrich’s The Fire or Max Hastings’s Bomber Command, but their focus is confined to the best-known case study: the bombing of Germany.

A more ambitious, international history of the bombing war is the new book by Richard Overy, whose previous works have received much critical acclaim. The Bombing War illustrates why he is widely considered to be one of the leading historians of the second World War.

Comparable to the Blitz
One of the distinguishing features (and greatest strengths) of the book is that it covers the whole of Europe, not only the familiar cases of Germany and Britain. It also includes excellent chapters on the bombing campaigns in eastern Europe and in France and Italy. Both France and Italy experienced (predominantly Allied) bombing that resulted in casualties comparable to those during the Blitz on Britain, the eight-month period during which 40,000 people died and about a million homes were destroyed in London.

What also distinguishes Overy’s account of the bombing war from previous studies is the book’s ambition to bring together different perspectives, including the voices of those who planned the bombing war, those who carried it out and those on whom the bombs fell.

That the second World War should become the bombing war par excellence in modern history was anything but clear from the outset. Before 1939 all leading politicians agreed that in the event of a military confrontation between European states, the intentional bombing of civilians would be illegal and the bombing should be confined to military targets. So how did a situation arise in which this internationally accepted norm was thrown overboard? When, why and how did it ever become acceptable to bomb civilian dwellings with incendiaries?

One of the most surprising arguments in Overy’s book is that Britain’s bombing offensive was not, as is often assumed, a response to the Nazis’ aerial attacks on Rotterdam or London. Overy demonstrates that Britain’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill, adopted the tactic of bombing Germany in 1940 because he lacked strategic alternatives. After the quick collapse of the Western Front in 1940 and the hasty evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, London’s options for engaging the Nazis militarily were very limited. With few other means at his disposal, Churchill decided to devote a huge amount of resources – about 40 per cent of the armed forces’ military budget – to a systematic bombing campaign against German cities.

Churchill justified this decision as “pre-emptive retaliation” for expected German atrocities. Overy dismisses this justification and argues that, up to this point, the Luftwaffe had been consistently more accurate than its rivals in hitting strategic and military targets rather than civilians. Overy is not attempting to exonerate the Nazis, but he is making a point that will stir some debate in the UK: the British were the first to systematically bomb civilians.

A second key argument of the book is that bombing did not pay. The masterminds of the bombing campaigns always claimed that “area bombing” would ultimately win the war by destroying the enemy’s military capacities and by undermining the morale of the home front. Overy, however, suggests that bombing “was never a war-winning strategy and the other services knew that, whatever air force leaders liked to think”. By making that important point, Overy shifts the discussion away from the long-dominant debate about the morality of bombing and towards the central question of the tactic’s effectiveness.

Key objectives
For Overy it is evident that Bomber Command in particular failed to achieve any of its key objectives. In 1941 only one in 10 Royal Air Force bombers got even close to its target. For every two Germans killed by bombing in 1942, one bomber was lost. Almost to the very end of the war, German industrial production continued to grow at a remarkable rate. Despite the destruction of large parts of German urban infrastructures, the Nazi authorities were able to find shelter for people who had lost their homes, to repair damaged industrial plants or to shift them to more secure areas.

The German home front did not collapse either. If anything, the civilian population, bombed out of their homes by British and American pilots, became more susceptible to Nazi propaganda slogans suggesting that the Allies were planning to kill all Germans in the event of defeat. The indiscriminate bombing of the final stages of the war, coupled with rumours about mass atrocities committed by the advancing Red Army in the east, made such claims appear plausible and helps to explain why the German army continued to fight long after a military victory was feasible.

Overy’s damning account of the ineffectiveness and horrible nature of the bombing war in Europe will trigger some interesting debates in all former combatant states, notably in Britain, where Arthur “Bomber” Harris was honoured with a statue on the Strand less than 20 years ago, despite strong international criticism. Even more recently, in 2012, Queen Elizabeth II opened a Bomber Command memorial in Green Park – an odd decision given that, according to Overy’s findings, Harris and his men failed to achieve any key military objectives. The only thing they succeeded in was the pointless killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Overy’s critical account of the strategic value of the bombing war is to be highly recommended to anyone with an interest in military history. His book sets a new standard for the study of aerial warfare, a standard that is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon.