The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945, by Richard Overy, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 880 pages
After years of comparative neglect, the aerial conflict in the second world war has garnered considerable attention recently; its morality questioned by philosophers, its missions re-evaluated, its aircrews commemorated in bronze and Portland stone. Yet for all that, a comprehensive analysis of the various campaigns that made up the air war has been lacking. This deficit is addressed by Richard Overy’s excellent new book.
Overy, a prolific and prizewinning historian now teaching at Exeter university, returns to the subject in which he made his name to provide a thoroughgoing narrative analysis of strategic bombing; from the Blitz, via the German campaign against the USSR and the Allied bombing of Italy, through to the concept’s most “perfect” expression: the RAF’s raids on Germany between 1942 and 1945.
In addition, The Bombing War addresses some persistent myths, not least the inflated death tolls often claimed. Figures such as the 40,000 supposedly killed in German air raids on Stalingrad in August 1942, or the 20,000-40,000 in Warsaw in September 1939, were exaggerated by all sides in the interests of propaganda and are rightly revised.
More surprising, perhaps, is the contention that Britain’s bombing offensive was not conceived as a response to German depredations in the Blitz. Overy demonstrates that Winston Churchill adopted the tactic of bombing Germany in 1940 for his own strategic and political ends, justifying the decision as “pre-emptive retaliation” for expected German atrocities. In truth, writes Overy, the Luftwaffe had been consistently more accurate than its rivals and had, to that date, largely eschewed “terror bombing” civilians, preferring to concentrate on strategic and military targets.
Moreover, it is suggested that once Bomber Command got into its stride by 1943, it did so largely by copying German methods from the Blitz; prioritising the development of electronic navigational aids, concentrating on area bombing rather than single targets and making more extensive use of incendiaries. Along with the game-changing Avro Lancaster heavy bomber, these were the tactics that would take the air war to German cities to such devastating effect.
Such corrections and clarifications, however welcome to the historian, might make difficult reading for those of a more red-blooded, Churchillian persuasion, but Overy’s purpose is not to indulge in modish self-criticism. He does an excellent job of shifting the parameters of the discussion away from the ahistorical squabble about morality towards a more illuminating dissection of the tactic’s effectiveness. And, in this respect, his judgment is damning. By all measures, he says, aerial bombing failed to achieve its goals, either in the material effects on enemy economies or in the more nebulous field of undermining morale.
Indeed, Overy says, bombing was a “crude strategy”, a “blunt instrument” and a “wasteful use of resources”, which proved as much counterproductive as anything else, leading as it did to an increased dependence of the individual on the state and a greater degree of civilian mobilisation. The lazy assumption of senior RAF men that the German people would prove to be “lacking in moral fibre”, and so would be more easily unsettled by bombing than the British, quickly showed itself to be wide of the mark. German civilians, too, were no strangers to “keep calm and carry on”.
Overy is never less than an erudite and clear-eyed guide, whose research is impeccable and whose conclusions appear sensible and convincing even when they run against the established trends. Criticisms are few and minor. The book is very readable but lacks the leavening of anecdotal digressions and first-hand accounts that might have made it into a genuine page-turner. And though compelling, Overy’s arguments can appear a touch overneat. Few in Poland, for instance, would subscribe to the view that the Luftwaffe did not engage in “terror bombing” early in the war: a contention rather undermined by the example of the infamous “practice” raid on the undefended town of Frampol in September 1939.
But these are small quibbles. Considering the vastness of his subject, Overy has produced a text that is as well-paced and accessible as it is informative. His conclusions will doubtless ruffle a few feathers but he won’t mind that. More than merely sparking debate, he has set a new standard in the study of the air war.
Roger Moorhouse is author of ‘Berlin at War’ (Bodley Head)