BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Sombre appraisal of the 'good war'
, September 27, 2014
THE BOMBING WAR:
by Richard Overy
Paperback: 880 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
“As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes…. If one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil” — George Orwell, The Lion And The Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941).
George Orwell wrote this passage during the so-called “Blitz”, the German Luftwaffe’s campaign against Britain, which ran from mid-1940 to mid-1941, and it contains references to a number of the issues covered in this book.
They include the thrusting of civilian populations into the front-line of battle; the illusion that bombing could be accurate (“succeeds … well-placed”); and the ethical responsibility of bomber forces and the governments which used them.
The bombing of military and civilian targets occurred during World War I, but on nothing like the scale of World War II.
Between the wars, it was used by Britain to subdue fractious members of the Empire; by Italy in its attempt to colonise Ethiopia; and by Italy and Germany in the Spanish Civil War, most notably at Guernica.
Military theorists, such as Italian army general and father of strategic air power Giulio Douhet, forecast that future wars would be won and lost by fleets of bombers, which would not only destroy their enemies’ economies, but ignite uncontrollable panic, producing breakdown in national morale.
These projected scenarios proved false; but interwar politician Stanley Baldwin was right when he predicted, “The bomber will always get through.”
It did, despite bad weather, mechanical and navigational difficulties, radar, searchlights, anti-aircraft guns and night-fighters — and despite, too, attempts at international legislation such as the 1923 Hague Rules of Air Warfare, which prohibited the bombing of civilians.
Economic and technical obstacles prevented massive area bombing prior to World War II, and scientific advances (such as nuclear weapons and jet aircraft) meant that it was unnecessary and impracticable after World War II.
Overy’s book, therefore, deals with a unique historical phenomenon impossible before or since the period 1939-45.
As military aviation developed after World War I, one of the first decisions to be made was whether an air force should be used tactically or strategically, i.e., whether it was to be complementary to land and naval offensives, under the control of generals and admirals, or whether it was to have a distinctive identity and separate role.
Of World War II’s main protagonists, the USSR opted for the tactical alternative, while Britain, the United States and Germany opted for the second, though retaining a substantial tactical element in co-operation with their armies and navies.
Overy describes the military tensions and rivalries, involving both political and military leaders, which accompanied the policy decision-making over the role of bomber forces.
He also shows the way in which Britain was finally forced to put aside rarefied questions of RAF autonomy, or even which economic and military targets to concentrate upon, and simply bomb for the sake of bombing, in order to show her own population and her allies (particularly Stalin) that she was doing something — anything! — to hit back at Nazism before the launching of the Second Front.
The two big questions for historians regarding the World War II bombing campaigns are, first, whether they worked and, secondly, whether they were ethically justifiable.
As regards the first, Overy makes clear that practically none of the hopes and predictions of bombing’s efficacy were realised.
While huge numbers of lives were lost, populations neither descended into hysterical chaos nor demanded that their governments surrender; and, while enormous material damage was inflicted, economies were not destroyed or rendered inoperable.
In fact, Germany’s economy grew in many important areas until the second half of 1944, when it began to succumb to the United States Air Force’s massive offensive, with its special emphasis on oil facilities.
The great problem was accuracy — or rather lack of accuracy! — in both navigation and bomb-aiming.
Existing technology meant that vast fleets of heavy bombers, such as British Lancasters and American B17 Superfortresses, could carry and drop tons of high explosive, but that only a minute proportion of it landed anywhere near its intended destination.
No air force started out with the intention of deliberately carpet-bombing civilian areas, but Overy makes the point that the bombers’ inability to find and hit specific military and economic targets, meant that cities were bombed, faute de mieux, because they were too big to miss.
This leads to the second big question, that of the moral dilemma raised by bombing.
Overy traces the process by which indiscriminate bombing of enemy populations was rationalised in two ways: by treating them as workers, and therefore part of the war economy, and therefore a legitimate target; and by arguing that Nazism was such an overwhelming evil that any lesser evil could be used in combating it.
And lest “rationalised” suggests that Overy merely describes a theoretical discussion of the issues, it should be said that he omits no concrete facts in illustrating episodes such as the 1943 thousand-bomber raid on Hamburg, which incinerated its victims in the resultant firestorm.
His treatment of World War II bombing is comprehensive in a number of respects.
While it understandably concentrates on the German bombing of Britain, and the British and American bombing of Germany, it also covers other theatres.
These include the German bombing of Poland, Holland and the USSR; Allied bombing of occupied Europe from France to Rumania; Allied bombing of Italy; and the fascinating story of Malta (“the most bombed place on earth”), where a devoutly Roman Catholic population, ruled by a devoutly evangelical British governor, won a collective George Cross for their gallantry.
Secondly, it is comprehensive in examining both the bombers and the bombed.
As well as detailed accounts of the training, aircraft and experiences of bombing crews, there are equally detailed explanations of the civil defence organisations set up in anticipation of mass casualties.
This was total war, because bombing meant there was no safe home front immune from hostilities, so civilians were incorporated en masse into sky-watching, bomb disposal, search teams, first aid, blackout enforcement, bomb shelter supervision, and fire-fighting.
The one precaution which proved unnecessary was protection from gas attacks and treatment of its aftermath, because, despite widespread pre-war fears, no combatant nation finished up using bombs containing gas.
Clearly, Overy set out to be informative, not controversial, and has succeeded brilliantly, but some of his comments contradict generally accepted positions.
For example, he reminds us that the pilots of Fighter Command, the heroes of the Battle of Britain, were not in fact the “few”, as famously designated by Churchill (“Never in the field of human conflict…”), but outnumbered German fighter forces in both pilots and aircraft.
He also points out that legitimate military reasons existed for bombing Dresden in 1945, an operation often condemned as wanton destruction.
For most readers of News Weekly, interest in World War II bombing focuses on the British experience, and at the centre of British participation in World War II bombing is the great challenge of how to reconcile the apparent pointlessness and immorality of carpet-bombing civilians, with the heroic sacrifices made by British bomber crews.
No collective monument to the memory of Bomber Command’s dead was erected after the war until a statue of its leader, Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, was unveiled in 1992, despite the fact that, statistically, membership of a British bomber crew was second only to membership of a German U-boat crew as the most dangerous job in World War II.
According to the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.”
Overy’s book reminds us that we can, we must, recognise the grave moral defects of Britain’s World War II bombing campaign, while simultaneously honouring the memory of all those young members of Bomber Command (including many Australians) who died believing that they were fighting Nazism in the only way then currently available.
Most of us have heroic, tragic or romantic images of World War II bombers and their crews, derived from films and books, floating around in our heads.
Overy’s meticulously researched and organised history enables us to better fit them into the big picture.
Bill James is a Melbourne-based writer