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Sunday Book Review: The Bombing War


Richard Overy’s The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 catalogs the strategic bombing campaigns of the European theater of World War II.  Overy covers the two best-known campaigns– the Blitz and the Combined Bomber Offensive– in detail, but also examines the lesser known campaigns in the Mediterranean and on the Eastern Front. The East Asian campaigns, by Japan against China and the United States against Japan, lay outside the scope of this work. Two questions hovers over the book: First, who was responsible for the Bombing War, and could it have been prevented? Second, what was the overall effect of the Bombing War? The fairest answer to the first seems to be “The British and the Germans, mostly the former,” while the best answer to the latter would be “uncertain, but probably not all that much.”

Strategic bombing in Europe

Before detailing those answers, it’s worth describing the book’s contribution to our understanding of strategic bombing in the European Theater of Operations. Overy’s generally defines strategic bombing as bombing attacks directed against civilian targets, whether in pursuit of independent effect or as part of other military operations. Although he discusses many of the most important technical innovations, this is not, primarily, a book about aircraft. Overy gives detailed accounts not only of how military and civilian authorities undertook the campaigns, but also of how civilians managed to endure them. While the bulk of the book concentrates on the Blitz and the CBO (which can fairly be regarded as the two most important strategic bombing campaigns), it also examines strategic bombing in the other theaters.

Strategic bombing was not central to the Eastern Front, although both sides periodically engaged in some efforts.  The Soviets launched several attacks against German targets in the early part of the war, but inflicted little damage at the expense of most of their four engine bombers.  After this, the Russians concentrated overwhelmingly on tactical aviation in support of the Red Army.  For their part, the Germans engaged in some city-bombing campaigns, mostly notably against Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad.  Only in the last was the aerial bombardment sustained and extremely destructive.  German purpose in this bombing was most tactical and operational, intended to destroy infrastructure and soften up cities prior to German occupation.  Nevertheless, even this “tactical” bombing accounted for the deaths of some 50000 Soviet civilians over the course of the war. The Soviets considered developing their own strategic bombing arm toward the end of the war, but decided that this would needlessly duplicate Western Allied efforts.  Not incidentally, the Soviet also appropriated significant numbers of Western bombers following emergency landings in Soviet controlled territory.

The Mediterranean also saw its share of strategic bombing, with the focus of Allied efforts falling on Italy.  The Allies launched a pair of ill-fated attacks on Ploesti, minimally damaging the oil refineries there at tremendous cost in terms of aircraft, aircrew, and attention to the operational needs of the Italian and African campaigns.  The rest of Allied bombing concentrated on Italy itself, first across the peninsula and then, following the Italian surrender, against the northern industrial cities that remained under fascist control.  Airbases in Italy provided a useful alternative to those in the United Kingdom, as they generally enjoyed better weather than northern Europe.  Overy does suggest that several raids around the fall of Mussolini helped catalyze the Italian surrender, although given the strategic situation in the Mediterranean and the half-hearted Italian commitment to the war effort, it’s difficult to imagine that they accelerated the surrender by much.

Who was responsible, and why?

With respect to responsibility, Overy argues that the British decision to engage in (fairly desultory) strategic bombing raids after the fall of France played a significant role in German decision-making with respect to the Blitz.  The Luftwaffe was not equipped, either doctrinally or technologically, for an extended strategic bombing campaign.  The terror raids in the early campaigns had come directly for tactical and operational purposes, as the Luftwaffe regarded itself (beyond some exploration of other options in the late 1930s) as primarily a support arm for the Wehrmacht.  The RAF, on the other hand, viewed terror bombing as a war-winning strategy in an of itself.  The things that we call terror bombing prior to the Blitz were really very small compared to the firestorms of the latter part of World War II; the bombing of Guernica killed a few hundred civilians, Rotterdam 850, Warsaw perhaps 7000 or so.  Moreover, all were part of broader operational campaigns on the part of the Wehrmacht, rather than air operations intended to have independent decisive effect.

The Germans also had significant caveats regarding a strategic bombing campaign.  Some officers felt that such a campaign violated the laws of war, and other officers and civilians worried that the RAF was better prepared (with its nascent development of heavy bombers) to inflict serious damage on German cities in the long run.  Moreover, Overy argues that the Blitz was primarily targeted against British infrastructure, industry, and military targets; similar in form to the American precision bombing of the later years of the war, rather than the RAF night terror bombing. Of course, the Germans operated at a far lower level of sophistication than the Americans, with no four engine bombers or advanced bombsights.  The Germans also bombed primarily at night.

These distinctions were utterly lost on the British.  On the one hand, the British government had an interest in describing the Blitz as terror bombing, both as part of a general propaganda campaign against the enemy and to justify later British terror bombing.  On the other hand, German bombing accuracy was so inconsistent that the anti-industry, anti-infrastructure campaign was effectively indistinguishable from a terror campaign. In effect and perception, thus, the Blitz was a terror bombing campaign, one that killed about 45000 British civilians, and had a small effect on British war production (5% of total economic production).

This should hardly excuse the Germans; even if the RAF precipitated the Blitz, the Blitz far exceeded anything that the RAF had managed up to that point in the war. And we should also note that while many Germans during World War II had caveats about a great many things, Germans of the time were rather good at overcoming those caveats. Finally, air campaigns have a way of metastasizing beyond their initial parameters. Even lacking an early decision on the part of the Germans to undertake a long-term strategic campaign, the lack of success of Sea Lion and the continued resistance of the British likely would have turned some notional “counterforce Blitz” into the Blitz of history.

On the British side of the ledger, we have a night terror bombing campaign that was conceived early in the war and executed, without reference to any meaningful metrics of the success, for the duration of the conflict. In my view, Michael Walzer’s moment of “supreme emergency” (in which it was legitimate to attempt anything which might possibly work) runs from May 1940 until (at the very latest) December 1941, at which point it the United States has become engaged in the war and it has become apparent that the Soviet Union would survive the first of the Wehrmacht’s hammer blows.  Overy points out that there were off-ramps; Churchill was not particularly troubled by the moral aspects of the campaign, but was skeptical about the immense amounts of blood and treasure being fed into the machine. RAF commanders, including but not exclusively Arthur Harris, nevertheless continued to argue that sending four engine bombers to incinerate German civilians represented the most efficient use of British military resources.

Even if Churchill had said “no, too much,” it’s not obvious that the Americans could have been dissuaded.  Overy points out that the U.S. approach to strategic bombing was closer to the German than the British concepts, with a focus on daylight precision bombing against economic and logistical targets. Not coincidentally, American bombing would be, to the bombed, as indistinguishable from terror bombing as was the German. While the United States Army Air Force wasn’t completely unprepared for the tactically-oriented air campaigns of the Mediterranean, USAAF identity was bound up in the concept of strategic bombing for independent, decisive effect; this was seen not only as the most critical contribution that airpower could make, but also as the service’s ticket to independence.  Thus, even had the British decided to pursue a different strategy, it’s doubtful that they could have prevented the Americans from pressing the issue in 1943. Overy is not shy about pointing out that the two most democratic major participants in the Second World War also undertook the most murderous strategic bombing campaigns. It is hardly unreasonable to point out that the Axis powers, nevertheless, accounted for the vast majority of civilians deaths in the war, although the extent to which this justified the CBO should be in some dispute.

The impact of the Bombing War

With respect to the overall impact of the Bombing War, Overy’s answer can best be summarized as follows: the Bombing War destroyed Europe and the Luftwaffe, but not German industry or warmaking capacity.  This is a complicated answer, of course, but Overy supports it with strong data.  Both the Blitz and the CBO had some economic impact, the latter more than the former, but in neither case did this impact match either the expectations of or the investments made by the aggressors.  In both cases, the defenders were sufficiently able to reallocated economic factors away from civilian activities to continue the productivity of war industries, and to protect/coerce labor into maintaining effort. By 1945 German industry was surely suffering, but this was as much the result of the loss of access to resources and the direct peril posed by Allied armies as it was from the bombing. Put briefly, strategic bombing failed to have much more than a marginal effect on its economic targets.

The morale effect of the bombing was, according to Overy, more complex than is commonly understood.  The way in which people engaged in daily life surely changed because of the bombing, but not in the ways that were expected by the theorists and practitioners of strategic bombing.  Most notably, with the partial exception of Italy, strategic bombing never ruptured the relationship between civilians and politico-military elites sufficiently to bring about a surrender, or even a significant disruption in the warmaking effort. Indeed, Overy points out that Hamburg, the first target subjected to an Allied “firestorm,” was regarded at the time as a center of anti-Nazi, anti-Bolshevik, and largely anti-war sentiment within Germany. The firestorm generated by “Operation Gomorrah” killed 32000 German civilians over a six night period.

Overy also discusses the impact of the CBO on the Luftwaffe at some length. The CBO undermined German airpower both directly and indirectly, destroying German fighter strength while also denuding the tactical theaters of air support. It shifted significant German resources to air defense, reconstruction, and damage response. For Overy, this is the key contribution that the CBO made to Allied victory in World War II. The Wehrmacht, deprived of air support and even of air defense in the latter stages of war, was much easier to bring to the edge of defeat that it would have been without the CBO.  Although German armies conducted maneuver, flexible defense, and even offensive action under conditions of Allied air superiority, there is no question that the Wehrmacht was vastly more effective when it could count on the Luftwaffe.

Overy does not, however, dwell at any length on how alternative airpower approaches might have produced the same effects at considerably lower cost.  The offensive counter-air campaigns on the Eastern Front and in the Mediterranean also devastated German airpower, despite concentrating mostly on operational and tactical effect. Consequently, I struggle to believe that the most efficient way to defeat the Luftwaffe was to send extraordinarily expensive four-engine behemoths over Germany, with the purpose of incinerating German cities.  These behemoths surely attracted German interest, but in part because they represented a far easier, more juicy target than the tactical air forces waging war in France, in the Mediterranean, and on the Eastern Front. A concerted counter-air campaign, based on long range fighters, attack aircraft, and medium bombers might well have destroyed the Luftwaffe at nearly the same rate, and at considerably lower cost to the Allies and to the civilians of German-occupied Europe.  Heavy bombers could have been diverted to long-range interdiction and anti-submarine warfare. Indeed, Overy points out that among the largest components of the destruction of German airpower came through attacks by escorting Allied fighters against German airbases. Resources devoted to four engine bombers could have been shifted to other purposes, including additional tactical aircraft, transport aircraft, and non-air military uses.  Even with the expensive heavy bombers, all three of the major Allies dramatically outpaced German aircraft production, creating massive advantages on every front of the war by 1943.

What were those costs?  RAF Bomber Command lost nearly 55000 dead during the war, constituting a death rate of nearly 41 % of all Bomber Command aircrew.  The USAAF lost about 30000 dead across all the campaigns in the ETO. The costs in treasure are difficult to quantify, although some have tried; Richard Rhodes argues that research and production of the B-29 (which didn’t even see service in Europe) exceeded in cost the Manhattan Project, while John Fahey has detailed the catastrophic impact of the Combined Bomber Offensive on the British economy. The toll of Allied strategic bombing on Europe is difficult to calculate, but Overy gives estimates of 353000 civilian dead in Germany, with another 60000 or so in Italy and 75000 in the rest of Europe (mostly France), with virtually incalculable effects on civilian economic activity. Given all this, it’s hard for me to dissent from A.C. Grayling’s evaluation of the strategic bombing campaign:

Was area bombing necessary? No.

Was it proportionate? No.

Was it against the humanitarian principles that people have been striving to enunciate as a way of controlling and limiting war? Yes.

Was it against general moral standards of the kind recognized and agreed in Western civilization in the last five centuries, or even 2000 years? Yes.

Was it against what mature national laws provide in the way of outlawing murder, bodily harm, and destruction of property? Yes.

In short and in sum: Was area bombing wrong? Yes.

Very wrong? Yes.


My disagreement with Overy aside, there can be little doubt that this is an epic account, indispensible to students of the European Theater of World War II. Overy is a masterful historian, deeply knowledgeable about every aspect of his subject, and in command of the fundamental factors that brought the Bombing War about and that brought it to conclusion.  I wholeheartedly recommend, both for relative novices (who will learn much about the conflict), and for experts (who will find considerable value in the shading of Overy’s judgments on operational and strategic matters).

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  • oldster

    “…with no four engine bombers or advanced bombing sites….”

    I’m guessing you meant “bombsights,” e.g. like the Norden, rather than “sites” e.g. aerodromes.

    • Robert Farley

      Cheerfully corrected!

      • oldster

        Hip hip, hooray!

        Great post, by the way.

  • Robert Halford

    After reading both this review, and the book, I’m a little unclear on where precisely you and Overy have your disagreement. Is it his failure to explicitly argue that a directed counter-air campaign against the Luftwaffe would have produced equivalent results in terms of damage to the Luftwaffe, at far less cost and with far fewer civilian and US/UK military deaths. It’s true that Overy doesn’t explicitly treat this hypothetical in detail, but I thought it was pretty much implied as a conclusion; certainly there’s not an argument that the Bombing War as conducted by the US and UK was the only way to dismantle the Luftwaffe.

    I should note that I’m a novice in this area, so maybe the disagreement seems starker to those in the trenches on these issues.

    • Robert Farley

      Even describing it as a disagreement might be strong, since Overy doesn’t treat counterfactuals. I suppose, though, that I’d say that the CBO should be thought of as an actual impediment on Allied victory (through its exorbitant cost), which distinguishes me a bit from Overy, I think.

  • USAAF identity was bound up in the concept of strategic bombing for independent, decisive effect; this was seen not only as the most critical contribution that airpower could make, but also as the service’s ticket to independence.

    Maybe so, but that didn’t stop the already independent RAF from pursuing the same strategy.

  • Robert Halford

    Thanks, that makes sense. As, again, a novice on these issues, I thought that Overy’s book (though clearly written in the tones of descriptive history and not polemic) was an incredibly strong condemnation of US/UK strategic bombing strategy. I found it hard to view Harris, for example, as anything other than a butcher and a war criminal, as well as a fairly inept one, and was surprised at how incredibly weak the balance sheet is in favor of the US/UK bombings.

  • Robert Halford

    That was supposed to be a direct reply to RF in the comment above.

  • Michael Confoy

    The main reason that strategic bombing destroyed the Luftwaffe is that Hitler let it for political and perhaps economic reasons. The diversion of the Luftwaffe to attack the bombers was not because they were “big fat juicy targets” but because the SD was reporting the negative impact of the bombing on civilians up the chain to Hitler and Speer certainly saw a need to protect key industries. In the case of Ploesti, Hitler was fanatic about protecting, for good reasons, his oil supplies.

    There was a better plan for strategic bombing. Concentration on the oil industry and the transportation network when it occurred was highly effective on its impact on getting German forces to the front. Even this still meant high civilian casualties.

    As far as the morality, Sherman in the American Civil War demonstrated that war on the civilian infrastructure that was supporting the armies in the field was legitimate. The German people were willing supporters of Hitler, willing to be led on a war of extermination in the east (and understood that was what was happening), and knew what was happening to the Jews. Any sympathy except for innocents such as children is sadly misplaced.

    • a noter of such things

      I disagree with the word “legitimate” in your third paragraph. Sherman certainly showed it was effective, but that’s not really the same as legitimate. You need a bit more theoretical apparatus to show that, I think.

      • Hogan

        How many civilian deaths were caused by Sherman’s campaign?

        • Michael Confoy

          Unknown. There is an estimated 200K civilian deaths during the war unaccounted for.

          • Matt McKeon

            Sherman did not kill thousands of civilians. He didn’t kill hundreds of civilians. I doubt he killed tens of civilians. He destroyed public property: factories, railroads, supplies and stores. One of the great myths of the Civil War is terrible Sherman burning his way through Georgia.

            The difference between Sherman and strategic bombing is Sherman’s tactics didn’t result in thousands of civilian deaths, for one thing. It was even legitimate, according to the practices of the time.

            • Hogan

              And proportionality is a lot of what made it legitimate. Which doesn’t automatically transfer to every possible attack on civilian infrastructure.

        • jonny bakho

          The US Civil War was about slavery. Sherman mainly destroyed property. A lot of Sherman’s “property” destruction was “property” that left on its own two legs. Sherman drove home the pointlessness of fighting a war over slavery that was destroying slavery. As Sherman wrote, “Slavery is already dead in Tennessee. The moment a negro cannot be bought and sold, or when he can run off without danger of recapture, the question is settled. Conventions cannot revive Slavery.” Neither could the war revive slavery.

          The impact of Sherman is misunderstood. His destruction was not vast enough to eliminate the ability of the South to fight. It eliminated the viability of slavery, the South’s reason to fight.

          The German will to fight could only be broken with the occupation of their homeland and death of leaders who refused to end the war in a futile attempt to save their own necks. At the beginning of the war, bombing was too crude to cause enough damage to infrastructure.

          Advocates of bombing frequently overstate its impact. In the Iraq War we were served up cherry picked examples of precision bombing- the one in a thousand cases where it had the desired effect. It still is not as accurate or effective as advertised.

    • Davis X. Machina

      As far as the morality, Sherman in the American Civil War demonstrated that war on the civilian infrastructure that was supporting the armies in the field was legitimate.

      Legitimate, or effective?

      • Michael Confoy

        Both. Their men were at war. They lost their slaves and so had no means of supporting the armies with supplies or feeding their own families.

      • rea

        Actually he rather effectively argued that the campaign was consistent with the laws of war.

    • While I realize there were other differences, I find it notable that in WWI, the German government collapsed due to internal pressures and Germany sued for peace before the allies had managed to get more than a few miles into Germany. In WWII, Hitler managed to maintain control and Germany fought on until the fighting had actually reached Berlin. This suggests that the bombing campaign may have increased support for the Nazi government (by reinforcing the idea that Germany was in danger from brutal enemies, and therefore everybody needed to work together). Saying the German people deserved to be bombed for supporting a government that they might not have supported so enthusiastically if if weren’t for the bombing seems a little perverse.

      • Michael Confoy

        That assumption is far from the mark. Max Hastings in his book “Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945,” which is where most of my information is coming from, quotes extensively from the SD reports and documents why the Germans fought as long and hard as they did. Certainly the bombing did not impact the military’s morale to a significant amount, especially when compared to fear of the Russians. There were many factors and I am not going to bother to get his book and other studies out and document them, but you are wise to start with his book on the subject as he is the expert on the fighting capabilities of the Germans compared to the Allies.

        Yes, the strategic bombing could have been more wisely used against oil and the transportation system in the main. Never the less, as far as the ethics are concerned, only one question need be asked. Did it shorten the war against Germany? The answer is yes it did. Given the casualty rate in 1945, the frantic effort at last minute exterminations and the deaths occurring in the P.O.W. and concentration camps, I personally can shed no tears for the Germans.

        • MacCheerful

          But what is your basis for saying that putting all those resources into the CBO shortened the war? Farley and Overy’s conclusion was that to some unknown extent it was a diversion from winning the war. An error, not just a crime.

          • MacCheerful

            Ah, I think I see your point. If there are three choices 1) no CBO or any other air campaign, 2) CBO instead of some other air campaign or 3) A smarter air campaign than the CBO, choice #2 wins the war faster than choice #1. Probably true. But I doubt nothing would have been done with bombers if the CBO hadn’t been in place.

            • Michael Confoy

              Agree. Even Albert Speer admitted that it shortened the war when it came to delivery of oil (natural or synthetic) and diverting production to underground factories was not free. Additionally, getting troops to the front with their weapons and ammunition was slowed down greatly.

        • Not much bang for the buck. I don’t think it shortened the war very much for the amount of lives and resources expended.

          Max Hastings points out in Bomber Command that by the time Bomber Command had been developed into a force potentially capable of destroying Germany, the war was already being won on the ground.

    • oldster

      “Sherman in the American Civil War demonstrated that war on the civilian infrastructure that was supporting the armies in the field was legitimate.”

      What a bizarre thing to say.

      I love Uncle Billy dearly, second only to his boss Grant. And I think that every bit of economic damage that he did to GA and SC was amply deserved by the scum he inflicted it on. Indeed, I would very happily join Zombie Sherman in a march through South Carolina right now, every time I hear the fatuous neo-confederates in that state prattle on with their new nullificationist treason.

      However. It is just *ridiculous* to suppose that a general’s use of some tactic in warfare can thereby demonstrate the legitimacy of that tactic. It’s like saying, “well, Hitler’s use of ethnic cleansing in Poland demonstrated that genocide is legitimate.”

      I mean, what notion of “legitimate” could you possibly be using??

      • djw

        However. It is just *ridiculous* to suppose that a general’s use of some tactic in warfare can thereby demonstrate the legitimacy of that tactic. It’s like saying, “well, Hitler’s use of ethnic cleansing in Poland demonstrated that genocide is legitimate.”

        I mean, what notion of “legitimate” could you possibly be using?


      • Indeed, I would very happily join Zombie Sherman in a march through South Carolina right now

        Shambling through Georgia….

        • Well, this Sherman thing is a complete derailment, but it comes up all the time on this blog. Sherman did not target civilians. He didn’t kill non-combatants intentionally, and given the war technology of the time, there wasn’t much collateral damage in the Civil War. He did destroy civilian resources that were supporting the war effort. This was an absolutely essential part of winning the Civil War. The union armies were operating at the ends of long supply trains, in hostile territory, and as long as they left civilian assets alone, they could not force the rebel armies to fight. They could take territory, but unless they destroyed the Confederate armies they could not win. (The confederates didn’t need to destroy the Union armies – they just needed to keep their armies together and win enough battles to make the Union tired of the war and ready to go home.) If you believe that a war to free the slaves was legimate, then either you believe that Sherman’s tactics were legitimate our believe that Lincoln should have relied on Tinkerbell to win the war.

          • Agreed.

          • Ahuitzotl

            He’d already tried Tinkerbell McClellan with very indifferent results

            • BigHank53

              It turned out to be very difficult to get the Confederates to clap in time.

            • oldster

              Ah, but had he tried *Zombie* Tinkerbell?

              “If you clap your hands, then Tinkerbell will be undead!!”

    • Marek

      Whole third paragraph is appalling.

  • Ragout

    Farley’s main argument that strategic bombing was unnecessary seems to be: “A concerted counter-air campaign, based on long range fighters, attack aircraft, and medium bombers might well have destroyed the Luftwaffe at nearly the same rate, and at considerably lower cost to the Allies and to the civilians of German-occupied Europe.”

    However, if the US and UK hadn’t been bombing German cities, almost all of the Luftwaffe would have been in Russia, where almost all of the Germany army was. In Russia, the Luftwaffe would have been out of reach of US and UK planes. Bombing German airfields would have been pointless, because there would have been few German planes there.

    Tactical air campaigns may have been effective in the Mediterranean, but this was a sideshow, never contested by large German forces. Similarly, the tactical air war in France was only at the beginning and the end of the war, not in 1942 and 1943. Absent the CBO, the Russians could quite possibly have been defeated in those years.

    At best, I think Farley has a reasonable argument that, in hindsight, strategic bombing in Europe could have been ended after D-Day with little risk to the Allied War effort.

    • Michael Confoy

      That is incorrect. Bombing of the transportation network, oil producing areas and synthetic oil producing plants had a big impact on war operations and if that had been the main focus, would have been even more effective. The Germans were greatly impacted by lack of oil during the Battle of Bulge and their inability for the Luftwaffe to fly, especially the jets, late in the war.

      • Ragout

        I agree that in 1945, when the Allies had complete air superiority, they were able to effectively target German industrial facilities without killing lot of civilians. But this in no way suggests that they could have done so in earlier years of the war, when Allied aircraft losses were very high.

    • Nothing says we couldn’t have based tactical air forces in Russia.

      We were already doing “shuttle bombing” missions using Russian air bases.

      Trading 4-engine/10-man bombers one to one for German fighters (which was roughly the exchange ratio) is something only a country like the United States could afford to do, and even then not for very long.

      • Ragout

        If US or UK aircraft could have been based in Russia on a large scale, it would have been done, since the US was eager to do it (according to Wikipedia). One obvious problem is where would the fuel, munitions, and other supplies come from? Russia hardly had supplies to spare, until perhaps late in the war. Another was the difficulty of cooperating with the Russians. Wikipedia says that when shuttle bombing in Russia (“Operation Frantic”) was tried, late in the war, it was a “costly and resounding failure.”

        • ajay

          Nothing says we couldn’t have based tactical air forces in Russia.

          We barely managed to base a few squadrons there for a few days at a time, under heavy guard, for things like the Tirpitz raid. The idea that the Russians would have welcomed thousands of RAF and USAAF personnel to base themselves permanently in the USSR and operate alongside Russian troops is ludicrous. Remember that to the Soviet government we weren’t allies – we were enemies who just happened to be fighting on the same side as them for the moment.

  • A Different John

    Looking at the estimated relative casualties inflicted / incurred by the RAF and USAAF given in the penultimate paragraph, it’s less than a 6-1 ratio; I never would have guessed it was so low!

  • Robert Halford

    There’s a timing problem here, I think. The main effect of the CBO on the Luftwaffe happened, according to Overy, at the earliest, in January-June 1944, by which point the war on the eastern front was already well underway. Which isn’t to say that there wasn’t no diversion of resources whatsoever prior to that date — but even there, you only have a truly effective and frightening bombing offensive from Britain in the summer of 1943, with the bombing of Hamburg, etc. To really get to “the CBO (or UK efforts from bomber command) made the key contribution to the war effort by diverting planes from the Eastern Front,” you’d have to think that the diversionary effects provided in 1942 — when British bombing was almost completely ineffective — and 1943 were critical. But that doesn’t seem to have been the case. (Again, this is based only on a (pretty casual) reading of Overy, who doesn’t dwell on the issue in too much detail and doesn’t deal in hypothetical alternate air campaigns at all. I could be wrong).

    • Michael Confoy

      I don’t understand.

      • Robert Halford

        That comment was meant as a response to Ragout’s comment above, but I can’t seem to figure out how to respond to individual comments for some reason. My mistake. Overy is pretty clear that your point that a directed campaign against a very few industries (oil, synthetic oil, and transportation) was somewhat effective at causing problems, and infinitely more effective than the kind of strategic bombing favored by Harris is correct, although one had to be very careful in selecting which targeted industry to bomb (most industries could relocate and ramp up production again very very easily)

        • Robert Halford

          “causing problems” *for Germany* that is. But those kinds of strikes were such a tiny portion of the combined bomber offensive that it seems far more likely that it was primarily a net diversion of resources that prolonged the war, as opposed to shortening it.

          • Michael Confoy

            Agree. What I was saying too. The diversion of the Luftwaffe was mainly a response to area bombing and attacks on the oil production though they certainly seemed to react to American attacks on the ball-bearing industry.

    • Ragout

      I haven’t read Overy’s new book, but in “Why the Allies Won,” Overy emphasizes the huge diversion of anti-aircraft guns to the air war over Germany in 1943. These guns and their ammunition and crews would have been very valuable on the eastern front. He also seems to say that the diversion of German air strength away from Russia was well underway before January 1944.

      Also, I think my point remains that Farley’s counterfactual of an air campaign more narrowly targeted against German military assets couldn’t have worked. Almost all German military assets were out of reach in Russia until the CBO and then D-Day drew them back.

      While it’s true that the CBO didn’t achieve much in 1942, you have to walk before you can run. Also, German victory looked quite likely at least until early 1943, after Stalingrad. Since there wasn’t much else the US and UK could do to fight Germany in 1942, they were morally justified in starting the strategic bombing campaign. I think a similar argument holds at least until D-Day: German victory was quite possible and the CBO was the most effective available way for and US and UK to fight.

      Here’s the key passage from Overy’s earlier book.

      The bombing offensive was for most of its course a fighting contest between the two western bomber forces and the German defences. From the middle of 1943 the defeat of the German air force became a central objective. Until that date, German air power, deployed in the main as a tactical offensive arm, was critical factor in German success on land and sea. The bombing offensive caused German Military leaders to drain much needed air strength away from the main fighting fronts to protect the Reich, weakening German resistance in the Soviet Union and the Mediterranean. Though Stalin remained sceptical of Churchill’s claim that bombing somehow constituted a Second Front, the facts show that German air power declined steadily on the eastern front during 1943 and 1944, when over two-thirds of German fighters were sucked into the contest with the bombers. By the end of 1943 there were 55,000 anti-aircraft guns to combat the air offensive — including 75 percent of the famous 88-millimetre gun, which had doubled with such success as an anti-tank weapon on the eastern front. As the bombing war developed, the whole structure of the Luftwaffe was distorted. On the eastern front it was the bombers that had caused the damage to Soviet forces in 1941 and 1942. The shift to producing fighters reduced the German bombing threat over the battlefield. In 1942 over half the German combat aircraft produced were bombers; in 1944 the proportion was only 18 percent. The German air threat at the battle of Kursk and in the long retreat that followed visibly melted. By compelling Germany to divide its air forces there were reductions in effectiveness on all fronts, which could not be reversed even by the most strenuous production effort.

      • Anderson

        I’ve always thought the “diverted 88s” argument a stupid one. The Allies did not have to bomb *cities* to attract 88s, and regardless, I fail to see why it was preferable for British or American aircrew to die rather than Russians. Indeed, I had rather thought the western Allies planned on the reverse basis.

        • Ragout

          The allies had to bomb cities to attract 88s because in the early years of the war, bombing was very inaccurate. The majority of allied bombs did not come within 5 miles of their target, according the the post-war Strategic Bombing Survey. In other words, if the Allies tried to bomb a city the size of Washington, DC, they would usually miss. Bombing only became more accurate after German air defenses were destroyed late in the war.

          The German invasion of Russia was very close to being successful. The Russians needed all the help they could get.

          • “The German invasion of Russia was very close to being successful. ”

            … In 1941 maybe. Not after, ie not during the period we are discussing. (Question: after months of struggle & heavy casualties, Sixth Army takes Stalingrad. What then?)

            As for accuracy, if your only method of redirecting 88s deployment is to incinerate tens of thousands of men, women, and children, then reexamine your priorities. Leaving aside, as the Major notes, the retrospective nature of the 88s argument.

            • Ragout

              after months of struggle & heavy casualties, Sixth Army takes Stalingrad. What then?

              The Sixth Army easily seizes the Caucasus oil fields for Germany and denies them to Russia. That was Hitler’s main goal in invading Russia.

              I think if killing 100s of thousands of German civilians was the only way to win the war (or even if it appeared at the time to be probably needed), it was morally justified.

              • Matthew

                And the US, which has plenty of oil, ships more to Russia. And everyone assumes that the Germans were somehow going to capture those fields intact. The Russians would have wrecked them and it would take years to repair. Furthermore, if Germany “wins” in 1943 as you suggest, it glows in 1945. The US was set to produce 8 A bombs a month by October of 1945. The great thing about A bombs is that you can be 5 miles off target and still hit it.

                Germany didn’t almost win, they just managed to avoid losing for a lot longer than they should have been able to.

                We like the “Germany almost won” narrative because it makes the Allies seem like scrappy underdogs as opposed to the idiots who, despite 6-1 superiority in numbers, industry, and resources, got smacked around for 3 years due to rookie mistakes.

                • Barry

                  “And the US, which has plenty of oil, ships more to Russia.”

                  You are aware that this was rather difficult?

                • ajay

                  “And the US, which has plenty of oil, ships more to Russia.”

                  You are aware that this was rather difficult?

                  1942 was the year in which we actually stopped shipping anything at all to Russia, because we were losing so many ships doing it…

                  The great thing about A bombs is that you can be 5 miles off target and still hit it.

                  Not with a 1945 A-bomb you can’t. Set one of those off five miles away and all you’ll get will be a few broken windows – the overpressure is less than 0.25 psi.

                • Nathan of Perth

                  There is quite a gulf between what people think nukes can do and what they can actually do…

              • Matthew

                @ajay & Barry

                “The Pacific Route was a delivery route used during World War II to move goods, particularly Lend-Lease goods from the United States to the Soviet Union.

                This commenced in October 1941, though some goods had been moved prior to this under the “cash and carry” agreement. The route was affected by the start of hostilities between Japan and the US in December 1941, but was not interrupted as Japan and the Soviet Union maintained a strict neutrality towards each other for the duration of the conflict, changing only in August 1945. Due to this neutrality the goods could be moved only in Soviet-flagged ships, and, as they were inspected by the Japanese, could not include war materials. The route was therefore used to transport foods, raw materials and non-military goods such as lorries and other road vehicles, railway locomotives and rolling stock. It was also the most practical route for goods and materials produced in the US western states. During the conflict the Pacific Route saw a steady stream of goods moved from the west coast of the United States and overall accounted for some 50% of all Lend-lease goods to the Soviet Union”

                So yeah, Oil could be shipped just fine.

                • I cannot imagine how badly Japan’s ass was chapped by inspecting rivers of oil sent in Soviet ships from the U.S. whilst Japan was starving for oil.

              • The Sixth Army easily seizes the Caucasus oil fields for Germany and denies them to Russia.

                Couldn’t get there, couldn’t hold them if they did, and as noted below, Russia (unlike Germany) had other sources of oil.

                Stalingrad to Grozny, let alone Baku, would not have been a cakewalk.

        • At best it’s arguing that the USAAF and RAF did the right thing for the wrong reasons.

          Nobody in 8th Air Force or Bomber Command was saying “We need to do this because it will divert 88s from the Russian Front”.

          They believed that strategic bombing was sure to win the war all by itself. Even after D-Day they fought tooth and nail to keep bombers from being diverted to support ground operations.

      • While it’s true that the CBO didn’t achieve much in 1942

        Oh it achieved something all right. It achieved getting a whole bunch of aircrew killed for very little strategic benefit.

      • Robert Halford

        Note that the passage you quote from “Why the Allies Won” focuses primarily on very late 1943 and early 1944. The “Bombing War” book (going from memory here, but I read it pretty recently) is fairly clear that really significant damage to the Luftwaffe by American and British forces happened in the first half of 1944, and the really significant diversion of air resources away from the East only really started after the firebombing of Hamburg, in July 1943. So, around or after Kursk — when victory on the Eastern Front was by no means a sure thing, but well after the tide had turned against the Germans.

        Now, it would certainly be surprising if the diversion of airpower and anti-aircraft equipment away from the Eastern Front had *no* effect whatsoever on the war, and Overy is pretty clear that it probably did (although let’s also be realistic that this was not the stated aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive or its justification, at all).

        The real evaluative question is, given available options for the US and UK to deploy their resources in 1943 and early 1944, did spending an enormous amount of blood and treasure on strategic bombing make sense? The evidence seems pretty clear that given the extreme loss of men on the allied side, the extreme expense of the operation, and the really extreme lack of effect of anything *other* than harm to the Luftwaffe (which came about only incidentally, as an afterthought to the primary goal of strategic bombing) the answer is “no.” Even if you limit the question to “what kind of air war made sense” as Major Kong suggests, the allies might have done better to just deploy tactical aircraft in Russia. Or, if that didn’t work, to just send the Russians aircraft. Or, have a directed and tactical bombing campaign against transport, oil, and synthetic oil. Or done a host of other things with the money and men, which I’m sure some of you better versed in military strategy can think of.

        • Ragout

          The ineffective bombing campaign before Hamburg was necessary for there to be an effective bombing campaign after Hamburg. Building a huge organization to perform a novel mission in a few years is really hard, and the “practice” was necessary. The destruction of the Luftwaffe between Hamburg and D-Day was necessary for D-Day to succeed, and for the later bombing campaign against industrial targets to succeed. The US/UK couldn’t ship troops across the Channel or bomb accurately while the Germans had an effective air force.

          Basing bombers in Russia in 1942 and 1943 is a terrible idea (for example, due to supply limitations) and when it was tried under much better circumstances in 1944, it failed disastrously. Farley’s alternate proposals worked fine after the Luftwaffe was diverted to Germany and then destroyed but wouldn’t have worked before D-Day. More generally, US and UK commanders *wanted* to precisely target industry. Before D-Day (or maybe a few months before), they simply weren’t able to.

          Finally, Overy says in his earlier book that the resources devoted to the strategic bombing campaign weren’t all that big: 7% of UK war effort for example. I would add that 85,000 dead US/UK airmen is a big number, but still very small by WWII standards.

          • Robert Halford

            It’s worth reading the Overy bombing book, because it makes pretty clear that “The ineffective bombing campaign before Hamburg was necessary for there to be an effective bombing campaign after Hamburg” is wrong, unless by “effective” you mean “large numbers of German civilians killed for no very productive end.” Eventually, when the US got into the action, the strategy of having fighters pursue other German fighters, and targeting Luftwaffe planes directly, began to be used, but this was very much not the case until the beginning of 1944 and apparently Bomber Harris was against it. It certainly was not directly the firebombing of Hamburg that produced the (limited result, but pretty much the *only* arguable tangible benefit of the move towards strategic bombing) which was tying up German planes.

            It’s also very wrong, I think (although here Overy doesn’t go into much detail) to think that somehow the CBO was “necessary” for D-Day to succeed. In fact, D-Day and preparations for it put a temporary halt to the CBO, and there’s not much reason to think that destruction of the Luftwaffe *in the West* couldn’t have been achieved more directly, without the huge human and resource costs being put into bombing German civilians and cities.

            And the “basing bombers in Russia” thing kind of misses the point — that an attempt to launch strategic bombers from Russia in 1944 didn’t fare very well doesn’t really go to the broader issue of whether the allies would have been better off supporting the use of tactical rather than strategic bombing on all fronts, whether to win the Battle of Atlantic more quickly (which would have made an invasion possible more quickly, which in turn was what Stalin wanted, of course) or simply providing more material to the Russians for tactical air combat, or doing a host of other things with the resources.

            Again, it’s worth noting that apparently *no one* at the time thought that strategic bombing could be justified as simply a means to tie up some German air resources; if that had been the explicit goal, presumably a more direct strategy to achieve that end could have been worked out.

            • Ragout

              The thread’s probably over, but here’s a brief response.

              If you wanted an effective air force in 1944 to conduct an counter-air campaign, industry bombing, or anything at all, that air force had to be doing *something* from 1941-1943. To take one of many examples, in 1941 the UK sent bombers to attack German cities, but learned that the large majority of the time, the planes couldn’t find the cities. So they developed the navigation aids that were used effectively later in the war. The early failures were needed to learn the lessons that led to later success.

              Given that many Generals and technical experts were promising that city bombing would win the war by itself, “terror bombing” must have seemed like a pretty good use of the air force in 1941-1943.

  • Michael Confoy

    Just to be clear, I think “Bomber Harris” was wrong in his mission priorities and the U.S. went right along with it. The belief that then or ever a war such as this could be won by strategic bombing was nonsense. Area bombing was a waste. In reality, area bombing was not strategic, it was terror bombing. Bombing of the transportation network (which caused high civilian casualties in France by the way) and the oil industry was strategic bombing. However, I have no tears for the whirlwind the Germans brought upon themselves.

  • MacCheerful

    Does Overy have anything to say about the political necessities of bombing German cities to assuage Stalin for not attempting an invasion?

    • Michael Confoy

      That is a good point. There is validity to it. Stalin was partially satiated by it and enjoyed seeing the results when the Red Army got to Germany.

      • tomsk

        Out of interest, what are proponents of this argument saying Stalin was going to do if the Allies didn’t bomb German cities, ie if he didn’t believe they were pulling their weight? I mean, he was locked in a life-or-death struggle with Nazi Germany; he could hardly give up and go home in a sulk.

        • ajay

          what are proponents of this argument saying Stalin was going to do if the Allies didn’t bomb German cities

          Start ordering strikes and protests to undermine the war effort in Britain, like he did in 1939-41? There was a lot of sympathy for the Russians because they were killing Germans. If the Russians and their supporters in the UK started stating publicly that the UK wasn’t doing enough and was leaving the Soviet Union to die, it would be very politically damaging for the government. As it was, there was plenty of “Second Front Now!” graffiti going on – the Communists making the point that they had a lot of underground support ready to exert pressure.

          To anyone who says “Oh, but Stalin would never have undermined his allies like that!” – sure he wouldn’t.

          • tomsk

            Interesting – thanks for the explanation.

          • mjtp

            I don’t doubt Stalin would have been tempted to try something along those lines to pressure Churchill & Roosevelt, but I wonder how real a threat it would be. Surely most Brits by ’42-43 didn’t need much convincing that they were in an existential struggle.

            • mjtp

              I’d add that the real answer to tomsk’s question, at least in the minds of Churchill and Roosevelt, was: Sue for peace. In retrospect this may seem impossible, but it wouldn’t have made sense for the other Allies to assume so…

  • Zachary Smith

    From the Guernica bombing wiki:

    The bombing shattered the city’s defenders’ will to resist, allowing the rebel Nationalists to overrun it. This indirectly supported Douhet’s theory, which expected this result.

    This view was commonplace back in the Thirties. The term The bomber will always get through even has a wiki. Germany had a strategic bombing offensive in WW1 which, though ineffective in military terms, scared the bejeebers out of the civilians under the bombs. Many hundreds of Britons were killed by the Zeppelins and Gothas, and many millions were thoroughly frightened and stayed that way. As WW2 approached there was a program to move children out of the cities so their deaths wouldn’t be inevitable when the unstoppable bombers came.

    Hindsight is really nice, but you go to war with the weapons and doctrines you have, not the ones you’ll have 25 years later.

    The Americans really did believe their “Super” “Fortress” was unstoppable. Merely sending a few to the Philippines was supposed to make the Japanese wet their pants with fear.

    So when the war actually did arrive, the invincible bombers were generally a huge failure. When they started flying strictly at night, they could do essentially nothing except target large cities, for the CEP of the bombs falling in Germany was on the order of 5 miles.

    More and smaller machines? I’ve wondered myself why more Mosquito bombers weren’t built. Perhaps the plywood construction of these things meant they weren’t suitable for mass production by Rosie The Riveter. Germany had it relatively easy with the Blitz – medium bombers (which was all they had) were located just across the Channel in France. By contrast, the Allies had to fly a very long ways to reach worthwhile German targets.

    Then there were the strategic problems. Russia was having a very rough time early in the war. A ‘second front’ just wasn’t practical at the time, so what else could the Brits do? Better something than nothing, for Russia MUST NOT drop out of the war.

    The air campaign was badly managed, to be sure. Harris was a True Believer in terror bombing, and for most of the war none of his bosses had the backbone to stand up to him. When the terror bombing wasn’t working, the only alternative was to demand more bombers!

    My own conclusion: every shell fired at a bomber meant that artillery piece wasn’t in Russia or France firing the same shell at Allied troops. The fighter planes defending Germany weren’t available for work on other fronts.

    Badly run, but a net plus overall

    • Michael Confoy

      What could Britain have been doing besides building so many 4 engine bombers that made the British public feel so good? They could have been doing more to win the Battle of the Atlantic sooner than April of 1943. That is the main reason an invasion of France was never practical earlier than June, 1944.

      • Michael Confoy

        In fact, the RAF refused to use their 4 engine bombers for ASW patrols and the British ended up having us fly B-24’s for ASW patrols instead, which were highly successful.

        • Erik Lund

          “The RAF” did nothing of the sort. (Important clarification note: there was such a thing as “Coastal Command” and it was part of the RAF! You might mean “Bomber Command.”)

          More important than terminology is chronology. The Short Stirling made its first operational sortie in February of 1941, the Handley Page Halifax in March of 1941, and the Avro Lancaster a year later. The first LB-30s, converted to maritime reconnaissance standards as the Liberator GR Mk. 1 were operational with 120 Squadron RAF in June of 1941, flying from Aldergrove, Northern Ireland, and the brand new air base at Reykjavik from September of 1941.

          Thereafter, for various reasons, Coastal Command was unable to absorb even as many B-24s which became available, which was not very many. There was no particular demand for British four engined landplanes (I assume it would be pedantic to talk about the Sunderland), although in fact the first Handley Page Halifax GR types were operational before February 1943.

          • Zachary Smith

            My WW2 books are packed somewhere, but I believe Roosevelt had to order Admiral King to release a few B-24s for Atlantic patrol duty. From what I’ve read, the knucklehead King nearly lost the Battle of the Atlantic all by himself.

            • Erik Lund

              The accusation that Admiral King mishandled the Battle of the Atlantic actually arises from allocations of surface escorts during Operation Drumbeat, the German submarine offensive against American coastal waters in the spring of 1942.

              The Navy received its first B-24s when it was permitted to raise patrol wings of large, land-based aircraft in the fall of 1943. The aircraft then allocated included modified B-24Hs, but this was well after the crisis of the Battle of the Atlantic.

              • Robert Farley

                The USAAF was flying B-24s in support of the ASW mission well before the handing over to the Navy. This had little to do with the problems caused by Admiral King, but (just as with Coastal Command), the USAAF ASW mission was severely under-resourced because of the obsession with the CBO.

          • Robert Farley

            Much depends on how we interpret the terms “demand” and “for various reasons.” If, for example, we grant that Coastal Command was led by men who favored allocating resources to the Combined Bomber Offensive rather than to the protection of sea approaches, then it is true that the “demand” for heavier aircraft was low. If, instead, we approach the term “demand” by asking how useful the bombers would have been, then the “demand” was rather high.

            And this plays into the “for various reasons.” One of the reasons was the consistent opposition of Bomber Command (and the Eighth Air Force) toward diverting any resources from the CBO, even resources that were badly needed in other areas.

    • Um, there were allied “troops” manning those bombers. So every shell fired at a bomber was indeed fired at “allied troops”.

      Or are aircrew lives worth less than infantrymen?

      • Zachary Smith

        Some Luftwaffe analysts were dubious about the huge effort involved. It was very difficult to shoot down a bomber. One Luftwaffe study estimated it took over 3,300 88-mm shells to sucessfully shoot down a bomber. As a result, huge numbers of shells were expended in the effort–shells that were not directed at Allied armies closing in on the Reich.

        Dead is dead – it’s a matter of making those deaths count so much as possible. Lots of fine young men had their lives cut short in the air war. IMO their deaths counted for more than those of the American soldiers who died in stupid ground actions like the Hurtgen Forest.

        • Erik Lund

          While Robert Farley seems impervious to historiography, I suppose some good could come out of pointing out, once again, that since the publication of Tooze’s Wages of Destruction it has been abundantly clear that Bomber Command’s area bombing offensive against the Ruhr had a very heavy impact on German war production lasting until the spring of 1944.

          • Robert Farley

            Since Tooze’s central argument is that the Allies were badly outproducing the Germans even before the CBO, it hardly seems appropriate to cite him as arguing that area bombing of the Ruhr was decisive. I’ll grant that Tooze wants to make this argument, but it doesn’t follow from his priors. It’s also worth noting that Overy cites more recent literature on this point, which supports the traditional view regarding the mild economic impact of area bombing.

            • ajay

              Since Tooze’s central argument is that the Allies were badly outproducing the Germans even before the CBO, it hardly seems appropriate to cite him as arguing that area bombing of the Ruhr was decisive.

              He didn’t say “decisive”. He said “very heavy impact”.

              • Robert Farley

                Yes, but if you’re citing the central contribution of the CBO as an economic slowdown in *early 1944*, then it had better be decisive; by June, the Wehrmacht would be badly outnumbered on three different fronts, no matter how much material German industry could put in the hands of the ever dwindling number of defenders.

                • Erik Lund

                  By June of 1944, the Germans were indeed fighting on three fronts!

                  Because the invasion of Normandy succeeded. And Operation Bagration, and the Battle for Rome. Per the Farley thesis, the Allies achieved these three extraordinary victories while hitting themselves over the head with the Combined Bomber Offensive.

                  Meanwhile, German armaments production, which had been growing at a 5.5%/mo. rate from January of 1942, ceased to grow at all in May of 1943, and was still flat in June of 1944, where a straight line extrapolation of that growth would show a production index of 380 (baseline of 100). (Tooze, 600.)

                  We are not arguing that there is not a cause-and-effect relationship here. We are arguing about whether some counter-factual use of air power, not yet spelled out apart from some gestures in the direction of urban myths about VLR ASW, would have had an equivalent effect.

      • Ahuitzotl


  • oldster

    So would you say that Overy’s book is going to be seminal?

    • DocAmazing

      He’ll attest to that.

      • Hogan

        Well played.

  • Anderson

    Sounds like candy – tho maybe not as much fun as I’m having with Mombauer’s not-so-recent book on Helmuth von Moltke. Nobody interested in the inception of WW1 should miss it. (She’s working on “a comparative history of the First Battle of the Marne,” which ought to be good.)

  • Pingback: This Is Brad DeLong's Grasping Reality...: Anticipatory Monday DeLong Smackdown Watch: I Don't Want to Think What I Am Thinking. Can Anybody Help Me?()

  • Matthew

    Why this book leaves out the China and Pacific theater I can’t figure out.

    The China theater especially should have taught the Allies the limits of bombing campaigns.

    From mid 1938 onwards, China had essentially no airforce until the American entrance into the war. So for two years, a country that was weaker than Germany, less advanced than Germany, more fragmented than Germany, poorer than Germany, with more enemy occupied territory than Germany, and with less popular support than Germany, was at the mercy of the superior Japanese airforces who bombed Chongqing repeatedly in massive terror raids.

    China didn’t surrender despite total defeat in the air and near total defeat on the ground. So what the hell were Allies thinking they were going to accomplish in Germany.

    It’s like analyses of WW1 which say “the generals couldn’t have known” which conveniently leave out the Russo Japanese war which had everything that WW1 had besides tanks and poison gas.

    But authors leave it out because Japanese is hard and it wouldn’t be right to expect Western countries to learn anything from Japan.

    • Jaime Oria

      I’ve read here and there that what Western generals learned from Japan and their victory in the Russo-Japanese War was “Hey – the Japanese eventually won!” in spite of the massive casualties they suffered. The lesson learned: the ‘spirit of attack’ and ‘pressing on’ would ultimately prevail in the face of machine guns and modern artillery.

      • Matthew

        When I was in college, I was deep in the stacks and I randomly picked up a copy of “the Siege of Port Arthur” by David Henry James. It was the original 1905 edition with all of the maps and it was written by a British war correspondent.

        This is from his preface. “I attempted to emphasize clearly the fact that the modern construction of fortifications renders them shell proof against the fire of the heaviest known mobile cannons and that forts of modern construction must be impetuously but cautiously attacked. Their exterior defenses must be destroyed with dynamite and their moat (trench) defenses must be destroyed by laborous and skillful mining, before it is possible to cross their moats (trenches;) and only after this tedious process is it at all feasible to dislodge the enemy by the free use of bayonet.”

        This was trench warfare and he describes trench warfare. He describes the mistakes that the Japanese made in detail and he describes how they solved them. He also describes how incredibly costly it was in terms of casualties even in success.

        He writes this part later the preface, “Public opinion, as we understand it, does not exist in Japan. The commanders, though often unduly blamed for trivial reverses, are never questioned or condemned for the methods of their success. and that 203 meter hill cost 8,000 casualties, and the fort of Port Arthur 70,000, is held to magnify the achievements. It is all part of the national sacrifice, and what the military sacrifice amounts to is of secondary, if any, importance.”

        Notice the implicit “We Europeans would never be dumb enough to do this” in that paragraph. This is why I get mad when people say Europeans had no way of knowing it would be so devastating.

        They should have. They had detailed accounts of what happened when modern weapons met modern defenses and it was a bloodbath.

        • Jay C

          Notice the implicit “We Europeans would never be dumb enough to do this” in that paragraph.

          More like, I think “We Western Europeans would never be dumb enough…”

          IIRC, contemporary (Western European/American) analysis of (the non-Naval parts of) the Russo-Japanese war tended to focus less on its military/technological/tactical aspects, and more on its geopolitical Balance Of Power ones: (i.e. who got to chop up how much of China and when). It didn’t help, either, that the antagonists were both viewed highly prejudicially by Western analysts: the Japanese as exotical “Asiatic” fanatics from a backward, life-is-cheap culture; and the Russians as a sort of white, Christian version of the same. The tactics they used, either productive or not, were not taken notice of as much as they might have been.

    • Robert Farley

      It’s 700 pages, just on the ETO. Also, Overy’s academic expertise is on the air war in the ETO, a subject big enough to justify plenty o’ books.

      • Matthew

        It’s not that it should go into depth about the Asian campaigns, it’s that it should take a few pages to evaluate why the Allies did or didn’t use the lessons from the Japanese air campaigns.

        Imagine reading a book about the Japanese planning for Pearl Harbor that didn’t mention the British raid on Taranto. It wouldn’t have to go into great detail about it, but it would need to be mentioned.

        From your review, it seems like the author is writing about the “unprecedented” allied air offensive over Europe when there actually was a clear precedent. Whether or not the Allies used that precedent in their planning is a different story, but the author should mention that something similar had been underway by Japan for several years by the time the Allies planned the bombing of Germany.

  • Paul Klos

    A couple thoughts: First as it looks like a few people pointed out already I’m not sure an effort with medium bombers and fighters aimed at the German air force alone would have provoked the same massive resource allocation to Air defense (as noted above big guns wasting tons of ammunition that could have be killing Russian tanks)and also skew production towards interceptors.

    Also I think the cost to German industry is often unrated. Sure Germany dispersed production, repaired factories but it was denied the ability to make say the equivalent of Rouge plant or Willow run facility. Dispersed production caused serious quality problems with the XXI boats as I recall when they were pieced together.

    Does the Book consider the huge short term waste of money on the V programs that were certainly driven by the Hitler’s to counter the CBO in some way. In fact Hitler consistently drew resources away from the only place Germany could win or realistically not loose the war at – in the East to pointless effort in the West. The CBO and earlier bombing my not have impacted moral of the population in the way air power types said it would before the war, but it seem to influence the Leadership’s thinking into taking its eye(s) of the key fight.

    Also outside of the F4F what long range fighters did the US and UK have ready?

  • John

    There is some very subtle armchair general critique hiding itself here. The argument is that attacking german industry amounted to terror bombing because it was very ineffective. Much better would have been to attack transportation and oil industry targets and accept that the Ruskies could send enough pilots into the meatgrinder to keep air superiority in the east. To a military historian these are obvious. But the men who fought the war didn’t know these things were obvious or even likely.

    But how were the Americans supposed to know this in 1943? This analysis is based on research that wasn’t even started until after the war was over. No comparable bombing campaign had ever been attempted. It’s possible to figure stuff out as the information starts trickling up but they were operating in the fog of war, not the comfort of 70 years later.

    The paradigm driving the armchair general analysis is the WWII was fundamentally an economic war. But in 1943 that wasn’t obvious. In 1943 it seemed that WWII was a war of maneuver and sweeping strategic masterstroke. The opening chapters of the Barbarossa campaign certainly disappointed the insane Hitler but they were hardly reasons for unabashed cheer in the west. The germans had succeeded in dealing about a 3-1 loss ratio in terms of men and material on the Russians. The Stalingrad pocket was certainly good news but it seemed to just be an example of the Russians turning the tables and couldn’t be seen at the time as this being an economic war. How were the men of 43 to know that the Russians would be able to keep absorbing losses so brutal through ’43 and ’44 before achieving more parity finally around ’45? They couldn’t know. Even if in 2014 it seems likely that by ’43 Russia was secure the allies had every reason to be certain and engage in anything that would give support to the Russians.

    • Matthew

      But how were the Americans supposed to know this in 1943? This analysis is based on research that wasn’t even started until after the war was over. No comparable bombing campaign had ever been attempted. It’s possible to figure stuff out as the information starts trickling up but they were operating in the fog of war, not the comfort of 70 years later.

      I don’t know, maybe the failed terror bombing Japanese campaign against a far weaker and more defenseless China could have clued them in.

    • Robert Halford

      Overy’s pretty good about killing this critique. Most powers at the time did *not* think that strategic bombing was likely to be effective, and large portions of even the US and UK armed forces disagreed.

      Also the US air command *did* believe that it was primarily an economic war — that was the supposed justification for the bombing, which was supposed to be directed at economic targets. Those who thought that the war was primarily about “maneuver and sweeping strategic masterstroke” thought that strategic bombing was largely a waste of time and resources, and seem to have been more correct than not.

      • Robert Halford

        By “this critique” I mean John’s critique here.

  • Anonymous

    What Michael Confoy said about the oil industry & transportation infrastructure as a much better target set for the CBO is correct, and it’s difficult to understand why this never became evident to senior USAAF & RAF officers. Also, I agree than an intelligently-designed offensive counter-air campaign would have destroyed the Luftwaffe as completely as did the CBO, but this was not possible until the P-51 was introduced in early 1944. By that time the allied air forces had already invested in huge heavy bomber fleets; there was a great deal of institutional inertia that would have to be overcome. Not to say it couldn’t be done, but it was hardly likely. The shortcomings of the CBO really did not become evident until after the war. Few things in war work as well as they are supposed to.

    Also, your repeated use of the term “terror bombing” sounds far more propagandistic than analytical. Air Chief Marshal Harris stated his objectives clearly, and terror was not one of them. His goal was to displace and kill industrial workers, and over time he was more successful than many contemporary historians give him credit for. Certainly by early 1945 meaningful industrial activity in Germany was grinding toward an eventual halt.

  • Ralph Hitchens

    Apologies, I am “Anonymous,” having neglected to post my name. Although I often disagree with Robert Farley I am delighted to see his many posts relating to war and military technology. Of course as a retired Air Force officer there are some axes I don’t abide with grinding, but it’s good to see informed criticism & comment on military affairs in this group blog.

  • Another cost of the strategic bombing campaigns was the amount of manpower they consumed. Plus the Air forces tended to take individuals with higher aptitude scores. A smaller strategic air campaign could have fielded several more division with an average higher quality.

    The campaign in 1944-45 was hampered by a shortage of combat divisions. For example General Eisenhower had two divison in theater reserve at the beginning of the German Ardennes offensive, Much of the first two weeks of the offensive was robbing Peter to pay Paul to create the reserves to stop the offensive and counter attack.

    It is quite possible that transferring assets from the bombing campaign to the ground campaign and tactical air support would have been more beneficial.

    But 20/20 hindsight is always nice.

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