Review: Richard Overy’s The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945

Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (London: Penguin, 2013).  

Richard Overy is one of the leading historians of World War II alive today, and while he has written on a number of topics associated with that conflict, the fighting in the air is his area of special expertise. While The Bombing War is not as comprehensive as some of his other works, such as the The Air War, 1939-1945 (1980), it is one of his most powerful books. For those interested in the topic of strategic bombing during World War II, The Bombing War is indispensable. It balances the meticulous research and broad vision that only an expert of Overy’s caliber can produce.

One of Overy’s purposes in writing The Bombing War is to provide “the first full narrative history of the bombing war in Europe” (xxiv). This narrative, he argues, is more complete than previous efforts because a) it covers all of Europe, b) it integrates bombing into the “broad strategic picture” (xxiv), and c) it links the narratives of those who did the bombing with those who were bombed. Overy’s other main objective consists of “re-examining the established narratives on the bombing war” which have been shaped, especially in the British and American cases, by official histories (xxv-xxvi). (The United States The Army Air Forces in World War II, which consisted of seven volumes, was published between 1948 and 1958, while Britain’s four-volume equivalent, The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, appeared in 1961). Overy has conducted this re-examination by studying the “private papers of individuals and institutions” as well as parts of the official record that “were originally closed to public scrutiny because they raised awkward questions” (xxvi). At 642 pages of small, densely printed text, The Bombing War is long (maybe overlong), but it never loses sight of two related theses. First, strategic bombing during the war never lived up to the hype of its proponents; there was a big discrepancy between promise and achievement. Second, strategic bombing, as practiced during the conflict, was a bludgeon that did not achieve enough to justify the enormous collateral damage that it inflicted on both lives and property.

Overy’s story begins with a discussion of World War I and the interwar period. Here, he focuses on two major developments that helped make strategic bombing possible during World War II. The massive mobilization of World War I as well as the rhetoric that followed afterwards led everyone to assume that the next war would be “total” and that civilians would naturally be targets in this conflict. This discourse meshed well with assumptions among airmen and statesmen that urban conurbations of the modern era were particularly susceptible to dislocation from aerial bombing. Based on little evidence, those who contemplated the course of air war in the future believed that industry was vulnerable to destruction and that civilians living in big cities would panic easily. These attitudes, however, did not make strategic bombing during World War II inevitable; Overy argues that it was only events during the war that made such a thing possible.

Among the many limits that prevented airmen from immediately and deliberately dropping bombs indiscriminately on civilians in 1939 was the fact that many air forces believed that their primary mission consisted of supporting the army in a ground-attack role. And indeed, Overy argues that two incidents widely seen as initiating “terror” bombing during the war—the Luftwaffe’s bombardments of Warsaw and Rotterdam—were not that at all. In both cases, he claims that German aircraft sought out enemy ground forces that happened to be ensconced in or near urban areas. These two attacks resulted in large numbers of civilians being killed. The air assault against Rotterdam proved especially tragic since German and Dutch forces were then negotiating the surrender of the city but could not get word to the Luftwaffe fast enough to halt the air attack.

The first real strategic bombing campaign took place over the skies of Britain between 1940 and 1941. Overall German strategy was muddled from the start, constantly shifting from one objective to the next. On the eve of the Battle of Britain, Hitler could not decide whether to encourage the British to enter negotiations, invade southern England and dictate a settlement, or use ships, submarines, and aircraft to impose a blockade on British ports. As Overy puts it, “Hitler opted for all three possibilities, and achieved none of them” (68). Whatever the case, all three required the Luftwaffe to play an important role and demanded a heavy commitment from Hitler’s airmen. Forces, however, were frittered away as “the German offensive hovered between trying to gain air superiority against the RAF, preparation for invasion, contributing to the blockade by sea of British trade, degrading Britain’s industrial war potential and vague expectations of a crisis afflicting the enemy’s morale” (611). The failure to fix on an appropriate target and destroy it (along with the inability to match ends with means) accounted in large part for the frustration of German aims. This frustration occurred in spite of Britain’s weaknesses in civil defense (which were not made good until the latter part of 1941) and huge deficiencies in the RAF’s night-fighting capacity.

Although, as Overy points out, each strategic bombing campaign of the war differed in a number of ways, the German attack on Britain was emblematic in that it was planned and launched on the fly; almost no research or preparation for such an effort had been performed during the pre-war period (which accounts for the strategic confusion). This problem would also plague Allied campaigns throughout the conflict. The German campaign was also important in that it stretched notions of what was considered permissible during the war. The British in particular subjected the German campaign to very close scrutiny. In some cases, RAF’s Bomber Command learned important lessons (e.g. dense concentrations of incendiaries mixed with high explosive bombs were particularly useful in destroying large parts of towns). In others, the British misconstrued with the Luftwaffe had been up to (e.g. they assumed Germans were engaged in mere terror bombing). In still others, the RAF totally missed the boat (e.g. the British ramped up their bombing of German cities in the hope of demoralizing civilians and dislocating the economy without pausing to think that the Germans had failed to do the very same thing in the very same way).

With these observations in mind, it should come as no surprise that Overy is extremely critical of Bomber Command’s own effort against Germany and occupied Europe. Initially, the RAF’s campaign was too piecemeal, light, inaccurate, and scattered to have much effect. Starting in late 1941, however, the British more or less decided on the area bombing of German cities in an attempt to demoralize, dehouse, and decimate German civilians (which is what they thought the Germans had attempted to do to them). Although Britain’s political and military leadership always felt ambivalent about this decision, the appointment of Sir Arthur Harris as the head of Bomber Command in February 1942 gave the force an aggressive and intractable advocate who was fully committed to the air war against German civilians to the exclusion of all else. Nonetheless, progress was stymied by a number of shortcomings. There was a lack of appropriate, heavy four-engined bombers (as late as 1942, the number of Avro Lancasters was limited). The British were also plagued by “the slow development of target-finding and marking, [and] the dilatory development of effective electronic aids, marker bombs and bombsights.”  And then there was “the inability to relate means and ends more rationally to maximize effectiveness and cope with enemy defenses”—a problem that had also hampered the Germans (300). Despite its ineffectiveness, Bomber Command was allowed to persist in its campaign which swallowed a very large proportion of available British resources (about 7% of total British man-hours during the conflict)—no small victory for Harris and his subordinates who sought to safeguard their bailiwick.

The entry of the United States into the war did not change the British situation a great deal. The Americans made clear that they would not divert bombers from their factories to supply the British. Not surprisingly, considering the many demands placed on the United States, it took the Americans some time to organize, equip, and train a large bomber force that could exercise any influence in the European theater. The Allies made much fuss about a “combined offensive” and “round-the-clock” bombing (Americans during the day, British at night), which seemed to suggest that their bombers acted in concert. The truth of the matter was that their campaigns operated merely in parallel and did not reinforce each other at all. The Americans did not think much of bombing cities for the sake of depressing German morale. They were more interested in employing daytime precision attacks and destroying specific targets that would slow down German production (although Overy admits that when visibility was limited, American blind bombing was just as indiscriminate as anything Bomber Command did). Overy intimates that although American forces experienced difficulty in finding the bottlenecks that could bring the German economy to a halt, they expressed a much more thoughtful and sophisticated approach to bombing than Harris ever did. Bomber Command continued its nocturnal attempt to destroy city after city in the hope that the cumulative destruction would eventually end the war somehow.

In the end, Overy argues, Allied strategic bombing did not end the war, but it did influence the manner in which Germany was defeated. In early 1944, American forces finally made a commitment to using the bombing campaign as a means of destroying the Luftwaffe in the skies over Germany. The delay in reaching this decision was not determined by technology; it was also a matter of placing commanders in the European theater who shared that vision. By that date, Carl Spaatz (commander of US strategic air forces), Jimmy Doolittle (Eighth Air Force), and William Kepner (VIII Fighter Command) occupied the key American positions in Europe and agreed that it was necessary to combine “the indirect assault on air force production and supplies through bombing with the calculated attrition of the German fighter force through air-to-air combat and fighter sweeps over German soil” (361). Initially spearheaded by P-47s with drop tanks (the P-51s came later), fighter loosely accompanying American bombers sought out German aircraft, leading to huge air battles with massive casualties on both sides. It was a campaign of attrition for which the Germans were ill-suited. Two major developments occurred as a result. First, the Germans redistributed resources—personnel, fighter aircraft, and anti-aircraft guns—to the homeland on a large scale to counter this threat. These were resources that could not be deployed on other fronts to support German ground forces (including anti-aircraft weapons which could double as anti-tank guns). Second, having forced the Germans to concentrate their aircraft in Germany, the Americans proceeded to destroy the Luftwaffe, shooting down enormous numbers of planes and killing their pilots. By mid-year, the Americans had achieved air supremacy over France and Germany. And then strategic bombing lurched forward on a much larger scale than ever before; three-quarters of the total tonnage of bombs dropped on Germany fell between September 1944 and May 1945. The Allies persisted in heavy bombing largely because they were worried that the Germans might suddenly produce new weapons that could turn the tide (the V-weapons as well as the Messerschmidt Me 262 jet fighter certainly gave them reason to think this way). They also hoped that more bombing could bring the war to a swifter end—the British thinking that obliterating more cities would tip Germany over the edge while the Americans believed that the destruction of oil and transportation targets would undermine the German war effort. Still, German productivity reached its height in the last three months of 1944, when bombing was extraordinarily heavy. Allied victory eventually came at an extremely high cost to victor and vanquished, but the impact of bombing was only one of several factors that defeated the Axis powers.

Many readers familiar with the topic will have seen parts of this narrative before, but Overy presents a version of the story that is very much his own in which a number of key arguments, great and small, are modified. Overy’s book is particularly interesting when it comes to discussing civil defense and the impact of the war on civilians, something that most histories of strategic bombing do not study in a systematic way. The Bombing War stresses the degree to which different circumstances obtained in different countries. For instance, civil defense in Britain was characterized by friction between the voluntarist tradition of a free society and the centralizing tendency of the state. In Germany and the Soviet Union, however, the party saw civil defense mainly as a means of political and social mobilization. Whatever the case, the experience of civil defense was similar to that of the bomber forces in that its preparations were incomplete upon the war’s outbreak; capacity and sophistication generally grew as the war continued. It is hard to make generalizations about bombing’s impact on the various peoples of Europe, though, as every country was different. Overy points out that a good case could be made that bombing helped topple Mussolini in 1943, but he proceeds to argue that the collapse of the Fascist regime had more to do with its overall inability to cope with the various stresses of modern war. In cases where the state or party was more or less equal to the challenges of fulfilling civilians’ needs (e.g. Britain and Germany), heavy bombing generally did not enhance or undermine the population’s will to resist. If anything, it made civilians more reliant on the authorities which reduced the potential for dissent. The picture Overy paints of civilian populations under sustained air attacks is one of anxiety, exhaustion, and deprivation. Moreover, these populations were highly mobile as they left destroyed urban areas in search of shelter, food, and working utilities. It is not surprising that people in such a position would turn to the state for succor.

Conquered territories, particularly in western Europe, found themselves in a unique position. Generally hostile to the German occupation, they initially supported the Allied bombing of military targets. The RAF hoped that a campaign in these regions would damage German military installations (e.g. submarine pens) and slow down production in factories that had worked on German contracts. Later, in preparation for the cross-Channel invasion, the Allies sought to destroy most of northern France’s transportation infrastructure (and once troops had landed in Normandy, heavy bombers were used for ground support). In these regions, the British always saw bombing as a propaganda act that could demoralize collaborators and give resistance a boost. Unfortunately, once the RAF began bombing France and the Low Countries without restriction in February 1942, opinion in these countries turned against the British initiative. Just as they were in Germany, Allied bombings tended to be inaccurate and destructive, resulting in many civilian casualties (almost 60,000 French civilians were killed by Allied bombs). In the conclusion of his chapter on the bombing of occupied Europe, Overy notes, “Bombing was a blunt instrument as the Allies knew full well, but is bluntness was more evident and more awkward when the bombs fell outside Germany” (606).

Not surprisingly, Overy concludes that strategic bombing as practiced during World War II was a crude, wasteful, and illegal strategy. Moreover, it was a failure on its own terms. It sought to win the war singlehandedly by destroying the enemy economy, demoralizing the enemy population, and deracinating the enemy’s political system. In all of these areas, the impact of bombing was limited. Strategic bombing’s main contribution to Allied victory—the destruction of the Luftwaffe—was almost incidental. The obsession with the “weight and scale” of attacks, rather than accuracy, paved the way for post-war nuclear arsenals that sought to do the same thing but on a much larger scale. This approach to strategic bombing would prove a dead-end; precision-guided munitions, Overy argues, were the “way forward” (613). We can be thankful, then, that “profound changes in available weapons, the transformation of geopolitical reality and post-war ethical sensibilities have all combined to make the bombing war between 1939 and 1945 a unique phenomenon in modern European history, not possible earlier and not reproducible since” (633).

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Hugh Dubrulle

NOTE: This essay reviews the Penguin UK version of Overy’s book, not the Penguin USA edition (entitled The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe 1940-1945). The latter was heavily edited and is much shorter than the former. The reviewer recommends that you purchase the British version.

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One comment

  1. For an appraisal from a moral philosophy perspective see A C Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities. The terror bombing campaign of German population centers was a war crime per the definitions of such at Nuremberg after the war.

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