Home / Robert Farley / Sunday Book Review: The Bombing War

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).

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Linkedin
This div height required for enabling the sticky sidebar
Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views :