#BookReview – The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945

#BookReview – The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945

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.

Smashing the Axis: How the Allied Air Forces Supported the Purpose behind Operation HUSKY

Smashing the Axis: How the Allied Air Forces Supported the Purpose behind Operation HUSKY

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

In June 1943 a staff officer with 1st Canadian Infantry Division examined planning documents for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. The operation to begin the Allied assault on Festung Europa’s soft underbelly was just weeks away. During his preparations, the officer came across an air staff memorandum. It read:

Owing to the small size of Malta which limits the number of fighter squadrons which can be based there, and the distance from the beaches, it will not be possible to maintain standing patrols over the assault areas except for the first few hours after the battle starts.

The large number of Air Forces taking part in the operation […] will be employed in bombing and “sweeping” enemy airfields and communications in order to gain air supremacy and prevent Axis aircraft from interfering with our assault forces. It is probable, therefore, that few friendly aircraft will be seen by our forces on the beaches after the first few hours and the reason for this should be carefully explained to assaulting troops […] it should be made clear that, although few Allied aircraft are visible immediately over their heads, considerable air forces are, in fact, operating continually in support of them.[1]

The Canadian division was entering combat for the first time. However, it was to fight as part of British Eighth Army, famous for its victory at El Alamein under Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery. Years of fighting the Germans and Italians in the desert had allowed the Royal Air Force (RAF) to hone its support for land campaigns. Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw and Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham put into practice an air support doctrine that privileged concentration of force.[2] The priority for an air force supporting the army (or navy) was to secure air superiority. The second was to disrupt the enemy movement of reinforcements and supplies behind the lines. Close air support of ground troops in combat with the enemy was third, much to many army commanders’ dismay.

3 - Italy roads and airfields (rails) FINAL
Italy’s Aerodromes and Railways (Source: Dr Mike Bechthold)

Many (but not all) British Army commanders felt that this order was incorrect. Instead, they desired control of their own air force in support of ground operations and an air umbrella that would protect their advancing forces. The British Army had tried this approach and failed in the Western Desert. During the attempt to relieve Tobruk in Operation BATTLEAXE the British Army demanded that the RAF establish an air umbrella over the battlefield. Under Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, the RAF caved to the British Army’s requests, even though they believed this to be a highly inefficient use of resources. This decision ultimately contributed to BATTLEAXE’s failure.[3]

From then on, the RAF in the Mediterranean guarded against the tendency of army commanders to request for what senior airmen called ‘penny packets,’ smaller groups of aircraft assigned to a ground commander. They also endeavoured to convince their army counterparts that the RAF’s optimal use in support of ground forces was as long-range artillery. This explains why the Air Staff memorandum included in planning documents issued to the assault forces. Aircraft should be concentrated against Axis airfields, ports, transportation networks, or shipping beyond the reach of land or sea forces to stop or limit the enemy’s ability to interfere with the land operation. During Operation HUSKY, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, commander of all Allied air forces, used his air forces effectively according to the priorities set out above.

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This photograph provides an excellent visualisation of concentrated targets in Naples, Italy. Numbers 1 to 5, 7, and 8 indicate wrecked or damaged vessels at the docks, while numbers 6 and 9 indicate a grain elevator and airframe works respectively. The railway yard is immediately above the airframe works (Source: US Air Force photo 27493 AC)

I have discussed the air superiority and close air support functions in previous posts. The remainder of this article will focus on the role of interdiction strikes in support of the army and its purpose in Sicily.

Why were the Allies landing in Sicily? At the Casablanca Conference in early 1943 superior British staff work and arguments led to the decision to invade Sicily once the Allies secured North Africa. General George C. Marshall, America’s top soldier, argued for Operation ROUNDUP, a cross-Channel invasion from the United Kingdom in spring 1943. He felt that this was the best way to ease pressure on the Soviets in the east. Marshall’s British counterpart, General Sir Alan Brooke, had a different assessment. There were 42 German divisions in France, more than enough to contain whatever force the Anglo-Americans could get across the Channel in 1943.[4] The Eastern Front would benefit little from Marshall’s plan. However, what if the Allies knocked Italy out of the war in 1943? The Italians had some 54 divisions, 2,000 aircraft, and the still-formidable Italian navy.[5] If Italy surrendered, it was logical to expect that the Germans would replace these losses with their forces. Nazi Germany had already shown a willingness to send forces to the Mediterranean in a crisis. They had done it in the Balkans and the Western Desert in 1941 and Tunisia in late 1942. Forces defending southern Europe could not support operations on the Eastern Front. Nor could they stand watch on or behind the Atlantic Wall waiting for the inevitable cross-Channel invasion. This was the plan the Allied air forces supported.

As news filtered in about the success of Allied landings in Sicily (under temporary air umbrellas established by fighters based in Malta, Gozo, Pantelleria, and even Tunisia), Tedder was already looking ahead to future operations in support of the Allied strategy. He wrote to his superiors in London:

Should the next week’s operations go well, I have been considering possibility of staging really heavy blows at, say, three vital centres in Italy. The whole of the Liberator force on Naples before it has to stand off to train for Tidalwave, the whole B.17 force on Rome, and if possible Harris’s Lanchester force on another shuttle service attack on suitable targets in N. Italy. All attacks simultaneous. Feel moral effect of such operations might be vital, especially if attack by shuttle service included [sic].[6]

With the landing force firmly ensconced in Sicily, Tedder unleashed his strategic bombers in another round of attacks. He hoped that Italy – tired of three years of war, having suffered massive casualties at Stalingrad and Tunis, and with Allied forces on their doorstep – was ripe for capitulation. Allied bombers in North Africa targeted Naples and Rome in particular. Both were significant as transport hubs, but Rome had the added prestige of being an Axis capital.

The Allied air forces had already paralysed the Sicilian railway system; now their focus shifted to the mainland. Naples was southern Italy’s most important railway junction. From 15 to 18 July 1943 the city suffered bombardments from United States Army Air Force B-17s, B-25s, and B-26s by day and RAF Wellingtons by night. Some RAF Boston light bombers even acted as pathfinders for a force of American B-25s, operating at night. The raids targeted the city’s marshalling yards, war industries, and nearby aerodromes.[7] According to a report by Solly Zuckerman’s Bombing Survey Unit using evidence assembled after the Allies took the city in October, ‘Naples was wiped out as a railway centre after the July attacks.’[8]

On 19 July the skies darkened over Rome as a combined force of nearly 600 medium and heavy bombers struck railway yards, war industry, and aerodromes within or near the city. Realizing the enormous political ramifications of this raid, the American aircrews were thoroughly briefed. They were to avoid targeting the Vatican, and the raid was preceded by dropping leaflets to warn the local population of the pending attack. Despite these and other efforts to prevent civilian casualties the bombers still killed between 1,700 and 2,000 people.[9] The raids effected a 200-mile gap in the railway system from Rome to Naples for 48 hours and contributed to the wider campaign of paralysing the Italian railway system by destroying rolling stock, locomotives, and their repair facilities. The trains were no longer running on time in Italy.[10]

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Wrecked rolling stock at the Littorio Rail Yards near Rome, Italy (Source: US Air Force photo B-62176 AC)

More importantly, the raid on Rome helped to drive the Italians out of the war. At the time of the raid, Benito Mussolini was meeting Adolf Hitler at Feltre in northern Italy. Mussolini’s task for this meeting was to secure his country’s removal from the war. He failed as an irate Hitler shouted him down, complaining about the failure of the Italians to provide adequate bases for the Luftwaffe and the resulting heavy losses the Germans had suffered defending Sicily.[11] Mussolini returned to Rome when he heard about the raid and less than a week later King Victor Emmanuel III replaced him with Marshal Pietro Badoglio. The new government set about contacting the Allies to sign a separate armistice, which they did on 3 September 1943.

Popular accounts feature Hitler’s response in the form of the operation to rescue Mussolini. What is more critical is Operation Achse. This was a plan for German forces to disarm Italian forces in Italy, the Balkans, and southern France in the event of an Italian defection or surrender. In addition to the four German divisions fighting in Sicily, a further ten were already on their way to Italy or had just arrived.[12] The German force in Italy would grow to nearly 25 divisions at the time of the invasion of Normandy.[13] Even without counting the German forces arrayed in southern France and against Tito’s Partisans in the Balkans, the Allied strategy set out at Casablanca had worked.

The Allied aims for Operation HUSKY were to open the central Mediterranean to Allied shipping, topple Italian fascism, force the Nazi high command to defend southern Europe on its own, and secure bases from which to continue the war in Italy. The American, British, and Canadian armies fighting in Sicily played their role in this mission with the support of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force, capturing the island by 17 August 1943. However, so too did the Strategic Air Force. Their raids on mainland Italian railway transport made Axis resupply efforts difficult and forced the enemy to use other less efficient methods to move their forces and supplies. This approach would later become the basis for the Transport Plan in support of Operation OVERLORD in 1944.[14] These same raids brought pressure on the Italian state to shed Fascism and change sides in the war. In this way, the strategic mission of the Allied soldiers and the Allied airmen (even those flying missions hundreds of miles away from the front) were one in the same.

Author’s note: As an aside, while the Allied air forces managed to paralyse the Sicilian and southern Italian railway systems in mid-1943, they were also unable to stop the Axis evacuation of Sicily in August. Should air commanders be held to account for failing to prevent the successful Axis evacuations across the Strait? I will save this topic for a future post, but you can always read Eagles over Husky to examine my answer.

Alexander Fitzgerald-Black is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He has a Master of Arts in Military History from the University of New Brunswick and is a Master of Arts in Public History candidate at the University of Western Ontario. Alex’s first book, Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943, was published in early 2018. His research interests include air power in the Second World War, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean, and Canadian military history. He operates a blog at alexfitzblack.wordpress.com and can be reached on Twitter @AlexFitzBlack.

Header Image: Armourers are fuzing a 4,000-lb HC ‘Cookie’ bomb at Kairouan West, Tunisia, before loading it into a Vickers Wellington MkX of No. 205 Group RAF, during preparations for a night bombing raid on Salerno, Italy, before Operation AVALANCHE in September 1943. Another airman carries winches aft of the bomb-bay to manoeuvre the bomb underneath the aircraft. (Source: © IWM (CNA 4071))

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[1] Library and Archives Canada, R112-104-3 Kardex System, Vol. 10868, War Diaries Canadian Planning Staff Files, March to June 1943, Air Staff Memorandum.

[2] For a new interpretation that gives Collishaw proper credit for these developments, see: Mike Bechthold, Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), p. 4.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mike Peters, Glider Pilots in Sicily (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2012), p. 3.

[5] Douglas Porch, The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II (New York, NY: Farrar, Straux and Giroux, 2004), p. 417.

[6] The National Archives (TNA), Kew, UK, AIR 20/3372, Cypher telegram from Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder to Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, 10 July 1943. There had been earlier shuttle runs using Avro Manchester and Lancaster bomber aircraft. These runs were deemed logistically unsound and Bomber Command settled for attacking the industrial cities of northern Italy from bases in the United Kingdom.

[7] TNA, AIR 23/6325, Northwest African Air Force operation ‘Husky’ report, Part A: The Invasion and Conquest of Sicily, pp. 9-10.

[8] The Solly Zuckerman Archive, University of East Anglia, Bombing Survey Unit/6/7, Air Attacks on Raid and Road Communications, Appendix II, Part 3.1: Naples pp.98-99.

[9] Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (London: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 524.

[10] Alexander Fitzgerald-Black, Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943 (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2018) pp. 112-6.

[11] Albert N. Garland & Howard McGraw Smyth, The United States Army in World War II: The Mediterranean Theater of Operations: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1965) p. 243.

[12] List compiled from Ibid., P. 248 and 293, and Helmut Heiber & David M. Glantz (eds.), Hitler and His Generals: Military Conferences 1942-1945 (New York, NY: Enigma Books, 2004).

[13] Porch, The Path to Victory, p.656.

[14] Stephen Bourque, Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), p. 152.