Richard J. Overy, The Air War, 1930-1945. Potomac Edition. Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2005. Appendices. Tables. Photographs. Notes. Bibliographic Note. Bibliography. Index. vii + 267 pp.
Reviewed by Ryan Clauser
Few historical works have altered the course of a field of study in the way Richard Overy’s The Air War, 1939-1945 did when it was first published in 1980. When the book was published initially, air power history, as a field of academic study, was in its infancy and had been mainly regarded as the ‘Cinderella’ of military history (p. 240). However, Overy’s work transformed the historiography of air power history with his comparative study of the most important air forces of the Second World War.
The importance of Overy’s The Air War is hard to overstate, especially as the book has been reprinted twice in 1987 and 2005. In the most recent edition, that under reviewe here, Overy, now an Honorary Professor at the University of Exeter in the UK, provided the reader with new additions in the form of new statistical figures, updated research, and notes from the author. These new additions illustrate Overy’s dedication to his work and has helped keep The Air War an essential source for historians and remains one of the premier air power history texts. Since the publication of the first edition of The Air War, Overy has continued to write extensively about air power history and the history of the Second World War, including works such as Why the Allies Won (1995), The Battle of Britain: Myth and the Reality (2001), Interrogations: The Nazi Elite in the Allied Hands, 1945 (2001), The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (2013) and most recently Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War, 1931-1945 (2021). Potomac Books published the latest edition of The Air War as part of their Cornerstones of Military History collection.
Overy starts his work by proclaiming that ‘this is not a ‘blood and guts’ book about the air war’ (p. xiii), but rather a study that aims to compare and contrast the air forces of the warring nations along with their preparations, strategies, leadership, economics, and development. The Air War sought to provide a greater overview and understanding of the discrepancies between Allied and Axis air forces and fully explain air power’s role throughout the war.
The Air War begins with an overview of each combatant nation’s preparations for war and their overall use of air power. Overy wrote that air power theory and doctrine had matured in the years leading up to and throughout the Second World War. These new ideas stated that air power could be used in many ways, such as: protecting naval power, close air support, strategic bombing, and air defence. For example, naval aviation was invaluable for Japan as the Imperial Japanese Navy used it to develop carrier strike forces. The development of Japanese naval air power sought to offset the advantages that western navies, such as the United States and Great Britain, held over Japan. However, for other Axis nations, naval air power was non-existent as Germany and Italy saw no merit in committing resources to build aircraft carriers. Instead, Germany and Italy subscribed to the theory that air power was best suited for a role in supporting their armies. However, the Allies crafted their air power doctrine more holistically to encompass all aspects of military aviation, including naval support, support of armies, strategic bombing, and aerial defence, all of which played critical roles in the Allied air war.
Overy breaks down the Second World War by year and the theatre of operation beginning with the early War in Europe spanning from 1939 to 1941. This section discusses Germany’s and the Axis’ initial success with close air support and air interdiction. However, Germany’s victories were quickly halted following the fall of France and the beginning of the Battle of Britain. Left as the only attacking force capable of striking the United Kingdom from occupied France, the Luftwaffe found itself in a role for which it was wholly unprepared. In contrast, the British utilised a far more general strategy to successfully defend their nation and launch a strategic bombing campaign of their own. Overy stated that, ‘the German rejection of a more general air strategy coincided with shifts in the war itself that made such a strategy more rather than less necessary’ (p. 37). While the air war was still an essential facet of the Second World War in its first two years, it had yet to fully mature on the battlefield.
For the rest of the war in Europe, 1941 to 1945, Overy explains how the allies’ general air strategy put them at a far more significant advantage in the air war compared to their Axis counterparts. As described by Overy, this generalist strategy allowed the allies to combine the many facets of air power, including aerial defence, ground and naval support, and strategic bombing, into one encompassing approach to the war in the air. This perspective also helped mature the Allies use of air power throughout the war. Further, the economics of the air war is also stressed. As Overy pointed out, the United States alone had seen a steady increase in aircraft production every year since 1942, and by 1944 they were outproducing Germany at a rate of nearly three to one in aircraft. Additionally, the Americans suffered less than half the losses of the Germans in the air throughout the war. These factors combined led the allies to victory in the air war and the war in general.
The war in the Pacific was strategically a much different conflict than the one in Europe. Japan’s approach to air power was to use it mainly as a supporting arm of its navy to create a multi-faceted naval strike force. Japan used their war with China to hone this strategy and their aviation technology. This early period of war for Japan allowed them to create a superior fighter aircraft in the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and allowed them to hold the upper hand for a time in their war against the United States and Great Britain following the attack on Pearl Harbor. As the war in the Pacific persisted, the Allies again found multiple roles for airpower and again committed to a generalist strategy in the east. Continuously, like the war in Europe, economics played an essential role in the Pacific, as even by 1941, Japan had begun realising that their economy was in short supply of the raw materials needed to fight a war. This hampered the Japanese war effort and nearly crippled its ability to produce aircraft. By the end of the war, Japan’s aircraft industry could barely replace what was being lost in combat, while the Americans kept producing increasingly better aircraft at staggeringly higher rates. Again, Overy emphasises that the Allied generalist strategies and superior economies were able to win the air war in the east.
While strategy and economics are at the heart of Overy’s work, he also delved into other aspects of the air war, including leadership, training, organisation, science, and research of each nation’s air force, all of which played a crucial role in the air war at large. Each of these additional factors was eventually influenced at some juncture in the war by the strategy and economics of each nation and how they chose to operate their air forces. Nonetheless, each of these additional factors played a significant role in the air war of the Second World War.
Throughout the course of Overy’s research, he relied heavily on official documents, public records, and memoirs of pilots, military commanders, and government officials. Overy was also fortunate to have access to various German records housed with the Imperial War Museum in London while researching the book in the 1970s. That said, while access to some sources was abundant, others, specifically those dealing with the Soviet Air Force, were scant at best and were limited to what the Soviet government saw fit to publish. Another issue in researching this project was the state of air power scholarship, which was in its infancy. Due to this, Overy was forced to depend on more general studies of aircraft, economics, and World War II for secondary sources. A problem that the publication of the book itself began to rectify. Overy also admits that he utilised fictional and popular publications to get a well-rounded perspective of the air war but did not include these works among his cited sources.
In this new edition, Overy has added a new preface in which he claims to have changed very little of his original text, but instead focused his edits on updating the charts and statistics. These illustrations show how economics influenced the air war and exhibit the discrepancies in how Allied and Axis powers produced aircraft. Also, in this newest edition, Overy included a valuable bibliographic note in which he evaluated the development of the historiography of air power and provided the authors and titles of works that have extrapolated further on the ideas laid out in the original Air War text such as tactics and leaderships and economics. Notably, among these works are Richard Davis’s Carl A. Spaatz and the Air War in Europe (1992), John Gooch’s collection of essays Airpower: Theory and Practice (1995), and John Buckley’s Air Power in the Age of Total War (1999). This section was not meant for Overy to vaunt his own influence on the field, but rather to provide readers with a greater historiographic picture of Second World War air power scholarship and show how the field has grown since 1980.
To describe The Air War as notable would be an understatement, as Overy took on the monumental task of comparing and contrasting the primary air forces of the Axis and Allied powers of the Second World War. Even from the outset of this book Overy admitted that he only spent paragraphs on what could be volumes worth of work, yet he was still somehow able to distil mass amounts of information and statistics into only 211 pages of content. From these pages, Overy concluded that the allies were able to gain the upper hand and win the air war largely because of their generalist strategic approach and superior economies. In totality, Overy’s The Air War is still among the preeminent air power works and should continue to be heralded for ushering air power history into the mainstream of academic study.
Ryan Clauser is an Adjunct Professor of History at DeSales University. He received his MA from East Stroudsburg University where he wrote his master’s thesis on restored airworthy Second World War aircraft as important pieces of historical memory that should be preserved as living monuments. He specialises in air power history and memory of the Second World War.
Header image: The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was the long range strategic bomber used be the United Sates to bomb Japan. It was the largest aircraft to have a significant operational role in the war, and remains the only aircraft in history to have ever used a nuclear weapon in combat. (Source: Wikimedia)