The Bombers and the Bombed

Richard Overy's exhaustively researched, well written, and definitive new book undertakes a complete review of the Allied air war in Europe.

The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945, by Richard Overy, Viking Adult, 592 pp.

In November 1932, the once and future British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin famously told Parliament, “I think it is well for the man in the street to realize that no power of earth can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through.” He then added a sentence that is less well remembered: “The only defense is offense, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourself.” 

By highlighting what bombers might do to civilian populations, Baldwin was actually pleading for disarmament. He had no way of knowing that his comments perfectly anticipated the strategy behind the heavy bombing of Europe by the Allied Air Forces during World War II.    

Ever since the war ended, professional historians and armchair generals have debated the impact and morality of that air campaign.  Richard Overy is one of a small number of British historians who have studied the Second World War in depth and whose efforts have fundamentally shaped the way we view the conflict almost 70 years after it ended. In his magnificent new book, The Bombers and the Bombed, he undertakes a complete review of the Allied air war in Europe.  Three things make this volume particularly noteworthy. First, it covers the whole of Europe; including the rarely discussed bombing raids on France, Italy, and the Low Countries. Second, it connects the bombing campaign with the broader strategic goals of the Allied war effort. And finally, it devotes as much attention to the victims of the bombing as it does to those flying the planes.    

The Allied air campaign began early in the war and, from the beginning targeted civilian communities. One of the first decisions of Churchill’s war cabinet after he took office in May 1940 was to permit “unrestricted air warfare” – a decision made before Hitler unleashed the Luftwaffe on London. But the early raids were small and ineffective, with only modest damage reported. “Taking the gloves off," writes Overy, "revealed not a clenched fist but a limp hand.” Unfortunately, it did send a signal to the Germans that bombing civilian areas was permitted. 

The size of the Allied raids increased over time and later missions involved as many as 1,000 heavy bombers. Incendiary bombs were used to start fires and high explosive bombs knocked down buildings and created a draft that fed the fires. In several cases, this combination started a fire storm that proved especially deadly. As many as 40,000 people died in a 1943 raid on Hamburg – but nobody knows for sure because some of the victims were burnt so completely that doctors had to estimate the number of dead “by measuring the ash left on the floor." The February 1945 raid on Dresden may have killed 25,000.   

Overy makes clear that the British were always much more willing to hit cities and civilian targets than the Americans because the Chief of Bomber Command Arthur Harris had no reservations about using “area bombing” to kill as many people as possible. Americans favored “precision bombing” of military and economic sites but they dropped their bombs from high altitudes and accuracy suffered. As a result, their payloads often landed in residential areas. 

The death toll was staggering. Roughly 600,000 German civilians died. Allied pilots and their crews also paid a heavy price. In total, about 80,000 Allied airmen died while bombing Europe – 55,000 from British Bomber Command and 25,000 from the American Eighth Air Force – a higher toll than the number of deaths suffered by the US Navy and US Marines combined.    

Despite the great promises made by its proponents, it’s not clear how much the bombing accomplished. The studies conducted immediately after the war concluded that it did little to shorten the conflict – a finding that Overy generally supports. He argues that the biggest benefits of the air campaign were “defeating the German Air Force and emasculating oil supply and transport,” all of which greatly helped Allied ground troops as they advanced across France and Germany. But it certainly did not break the morale of German citizens as had been expected. To the contrary, Overy concludes that bombing probably increased support for the Nazi regime rather than undermining it. 

"The Bombers and the Bombed" is exhaustively researched, well written, and definitive. This welcome volume will be of interest to any reader who wants a detailed overview of the Allied bombing campaign. But there is one significant disappointment. Unlike the version of the book published in Great Britain (called "The Bombing War"), the American edition deletes several chapters, including those that that analyzed the German bombing of London. Since much of the Allied thinking about the bombing was extrapolated from the British experience under the Blitz, the absence of these chapters handicaps American readers. It’s like watching a play without seeing the first act – you can easily follow the plot but have the feeling that you probably missed something important.   

Ultimately, Stanley Baldwin was both right and wrong. Most of the bombers did get through and the death and destruction they left in their wake was breathtaking. However, the losses of planes and men were nearly prohibitive and, in the end, the bombing did not prove decisive. It was a critical part of the broader Allied strategy, of course. But the belief that air power alone could subdue a determined foe proved completely wrong.

Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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