By Toby Dickinson

Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945. London: Penguin, 2013. Illustrations. Maps. Bibliography. Notes. Index. xxvii + 852 pp.

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Between 1939 and 1945 over 600,000 civilians were killed across Europe in aerial attacks. Over a million more were injured. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, claims had been made in both fiction and theory as to the devastating consequences and strategic utility of bombing against an enemy’s ‘vital centres’ and the ‘will of the people’. While the human consequences were indeed devastating, there is room to question and doubt the strategic utility of the bombing campaigns waged by both sides in the European theatre in the Second World War.

In a work that revises and challenges our existing understanding and analysis of the bombing campaign of the Second World War – including Overy’s prior work on the subject – Richard Overy goes beyond the traditional study of the planning and execution of the Blitz and the Allied bomber offensive to provide fresh insights into this controversial topic.[1] In aiming to provide a narrative of the bombing war in Europe, Overy sought three new treatments of the subject (p. xxv); first, an account that covered the experience of the whole of Europe – Allied, Axis, occupied, and neutral. Second, Overy placed the bombing operations of both sides in their strategic military context alongside other operations and identified the essential supporting, rather than the decisive, character of these operations. Sweeping across Europe, Overy assessed the strategic bombing performance of the Luftwaffe over the UK and the USSR, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Army Air Force over Germany, Italy and Axis-occupied Europe. Third, he contrasted the experiences of both the bombers and the bombed, and it is Overy’s treatment of the subject of the bombed that makes this work original and essential.[2] Overy drew on local archives of bombed cities and reexamined existing archives. By using this ‘double narrative’ of what bombing campaigns were designed to achieve and the reality of their impact on populations, Overy has sought to provide a fresh look at the issues of the campaign’s effectiveness and ethical ambiguity. Indeed, the ethical dimensions of the bombing of German targets in occupied Europe was the subject of political debate in the UK, Overy noting that ‘the erosion of ethical restraints’ and the subsequent escalation of bombing efforts against German cities was ‘a simpler issue than the moral dilemma of causing civilian casualties’ in occupied Europe (p. 549).

c 4973
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial taken over Dresden, Germany, following the two devastating attacks on the city by aircraft of Bomber Command on the night of 13/14 February 1945. A large number of fires still burn fiercely in the vicinity of the central goods depot and marshalling yards south of the River Elbe. (Source: © IWM (C 4973))

Overy’s analysis is influenced by his adoption of a classical division of bombing actions into ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’, where ‘strategic’ is taken to mean bombing conducted at long range, against economic (or at least non-military) targets, and ‘tactical’ is taken to mean attacks against enemy airfields and interdiction of enemy ground forces. This taxonomy can obscure more than it reveals. If air action against an enemy’s airfields is ‘tactical’ in character as it was by the Allies in 1944-1945, then so were the attacks by the Luftwaffe against RAF airfields in the summer of 1940. Moreover, when discussing the events of 1940, Overy contended that the separation in time of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz into discrete activities is inaccurate and ascribes this narrative to, in part, the Battle of Britain being fought by Fighter Command, and ‘the Blitz by the civil defence forces, anti-aircraft units and small numbers of night fighters.’ While it may be legitimate to see the Battle of Britain and the Blitz as part of a common continuum – as the Luftwaffe did – Overy’s use of force elements and their command states to explain this difference between narratives is problematical. Anti-aircraft units were under the command of Fighter Command during both periods, as were night fighters. The Blitz was not fought by civil defence forces, because their role is not to fight, their role is to manage some of the consequences of some of the enemy’s actions (pp. 73-4). Further, it is legitimate for historians to regard the Battle of Britain and the Blitz as distinct: while the Luftwaffe regarded itself as having fought a single campaign against the UK from July 1940 to June 1941, it clearly has two distinct elements: ‘tactical’ operations against the RAF’s air defences to gain control of the air prior to an invasion, and ‘strategic’ operations against industrial and civilian targets.

A similar ambiguity between ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ operations exists in any analysis of the German bombing campaign on the Eastern Front. Overy noted that aerial attacks on Leningrad were part of the German siege of that city, rather than any independent ‘strategic’ action against industrial targets. More successful were attacks against Soviet lines of communication, in particular, railway infrastructure: stations and supply centres, rather than more easily repaired tracks and bridges (p. 207). Nonetheless, both Overy and several reviewers have noted that there were occasions where Allied or Axis’ bombing was bearing fruit: denying their enemy’s air defences, reducing the production and distribution of key materials. However, the effectiveness of these strikes were reduced as targets were switched: either because of poor intelligence analysis, as with the Luftwaffe’s move away from attacking the RAF’s airfields in 1940 to bombing British cities, or because bomber aircraft were reapportioned from industrial and military targets to political ones as with the switch in effort by RAF Bomber Command to target Berlin in the autumn of 1943.[3]

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 A luminous gas mask case on sale at Selfridge’s department store in London. These gas mask covers were on sale for 2/11. (Source: © IWM (D 76))

Overy also covered in great detail the civilian preparations for an experience of the bombing: the establishment of air raid warning systems, civil defence organisations, and individual preparations by citizens. He recorded systems of compensation for civilian loss of earnings, noting too that as early as December 1940 the German Government banned Jews from receiving compensation for loss of earnings (p. 422). Effective civil defence in Germany is contrasted with almost the total lack of preparation in Italy, which lacked an air defence network and – unlike the other totalitarian regimes fighting in the war – ‘failed to mobilize a large mass movement for voluntary civil defence’ (p. 517). It is new perspectives like these that have led to the book being described as: ‘the standard work on the bombing war…probably the most important book published on the history of the second world war this century.’[4]

In analysing the contribution of strategic bombing to combatant’s overall aims, Overy made it clear that whatever the desires or claims of bomber leaders from Wolfram von Richthofen to Arthur Harris, neither Allied nor Axis strategic bombing efforts were ever more than supporting. Overy noted J.K. Galbraith’s conclusion that the bombing campaign did not win the war, and that the bombing campaigns were all ‘relative failures in their own terms’ (p. 609). Overy also noted that strategic bombing was ‘in the end inadequate in its own terms for carrying out its principal assignment and was morally compromised by deliberate escalation against civilian populations’ (p. 633). This has led to at least one reviewer noting that this represents a shift from Overy’s previous works, which took a far more positive view of the strategic contribution of Allied bombing efforts.[5]

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 A locomotive and its tender, upended by an explosion during heavy raids by Bomber Command, is inspected by an RAF officer in the railway yards at Munster, Germany. (Source: © IWM (CL 2372))

Scored against their aims, the allied bombing efforts were indeed ‘relative failures’, but it is legitimate to ask whether they had utility as an instrument of strategy in delivering a net positive effect. Viewed through the lens of an indirect strategic approach, one cannot, as Gary Sheffield observed, ignore the fact that Germany was forced to apportion resources to the air defence of the home front that could otherwise have been used to other ends: ‘the Germans were forced to commit resources to home defence – anti-aircraft guns, aircraft, optical sights, manpower – that could not be put to other uses.’[6] It is also important to assess the bombing campaigns not against the fiction of H.G. Wells and others, nor the equally far-fetched prophecies of Giulio Douhet, but in the longue durée of strategic thinking. In an unacknowledged nod to Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that ‘the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive’, Overy noted that the failure of German and Axis bombing operations in the Battle of Britain, and against both the USSR and Malta ‘highlighted the extent to which the balance between air defence and air offence was moving in the defender’s favour’ (p. 626).[7] The same challenge faced the Allies in late 1943: if the Allied bombing campaign drew more resources away from the Eastern Front, at some point, those resources would threaten to impose unsustainable costs on the Allied bomber forces (p. 343). The response to this developing stalemate was an escalation of bombing effort.

In conclusion, commenting on the ‘balance sheet of bombing’, Overy noted that not even the known weaknesses of bomber capability and performance ‘prevented the escalation of all the major offensives’, and that (p. 628) ‘the issue of escalation is central to any judgement about the broader ethical implications of the bomber offensives.’ At its most destructive, the Allied bomber offensive perhaps came closer than any warfare before or since to Clausewitz’s description of war divorced from its political object: ‘a complete, untrammelled, absolute manifestation of violence.’[8]

Toby Dickinson served in the RAF from 2002-2018. He is currently a student on the War and Strategy MA programme at the University of Leeds.

Header Image: The personnel of No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron RAF assembled in front of, and on, an Avro Lancaster at Mepal, Cambridgeshire. (Source: © IWM (HU 94991))

[1] In America, Overy’s book has been published under the title, The Bombers and The Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe, 1940-1945 (2014). This version misses out significant elements of the early period covered in the UK edition of Overy’s book.

[2] On this theme, see: Tami Davis Biddle, ‘Book Review – The Bombing War: Europe, 1939–1945 by Richard Overy,’ War in History, 21:4 (2014), pp. 553-5.

[3] Adam Tooze, ‘To Break an Enemy’s Will,’ Wall Street Journal, 12 July 2014.

[4] Richard J. Evans, ‘The Bombing War: Europe 1939‑1945 by Richard Overy – Review,’ The Guardian, 27 September 2013.

[5] Biddle, ‘Book Review,’ pp. 553-5

[6] Gary Sheffield, ‘Death from the Skies,’ New Statesman, 142:5179 (2013), pp. 42-3.

[7] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 358.

[8] Ibid., p. 87.

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