‘I cannot describe to you what a curious note of brutality a bomb has,’ said one woman who lived through the initial German raids on London during the second world war. This woman’s ambivalent reaction to having a bomb rip through her bedroom typified the shocking reality of a different type of war to any that had ever been fought before.
For as Richard Overy makes eminently clear in his extraordinary and far-reaching history of Europe’s bombing war, this was the first time civilians actually became a part of the front line. The cause of this was the advent of aerial bombardment, which, Overy says, exposed ‘the democratic nature of total war, which insisted that all citizens had a part to play.’
The idea that bombing could demoralise a population and cause a government crisis had been a topic of hot discussion during the interwar years. In a lengthy preamble Overy, who has written numerous histories of the second world war, focuses on Bulgaria as a microcosm of the issues which defined the wider ‘strategic’ bombing war in Europe:
The bombing of Bulgaria was Churchill’s idea, and he remained the driving force behind the argument that air raids would provide a quick and relatively cheap way of forcing the country to change sides.
Fine in theory, but in practice things worked rather differently. The ‘political dividend’ Churchill sought to achieve in the early months of 1944 was offset by a high level of civilian casualties ‘which undermined the prestige of both the United States and Britain in the eyes of the Bulgarian people’. Overy notes that while bombing contributed to the collapse of any pro-German consensus and strengthened the hand of opposition political parties it did not result in a change of government until September 1944 when the Soviets introduced an administration dominated by the Bulgarian communist party.
Martialling his facts with dexterity Overy argues that bombing in Europe was never a war-winning strategy and invariably caused more harm than good. In what is the first full narrative of the bombing war in Europe Overy’s scope is incredibly broad and well-researched, also highly readable. He tackles not only the wider conflict with Germany but little-known bombing wars in France and Italy, which in both cases resulted in civilian casualties the equal of the Blitz.
He has also had access to ‘two new sources’ from the former Soviet archives, which include German air force documents covering the Blitz and others which throw new light on Germany’s bombings of Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad — an area which up until now has had very little coverage.
Overy traces the origins of the bombing war back to 10 May 1940, the same day that Germany began its attack on the West and Churchill replaced Chamberlain as British prime minister. ‘Chamberlain had always opposed the use of bombing against urban targets,’ writes Overy, ‘but Churchill had no conscientious or legal objections.’ Indeed, already as Minister of Munitions in 1917, Churchill had been in favour of an independent air force and a policy of long-range bombing against German industrial targets.
Up until Churchill’s appointment as prime minister both Germany and Britain had stuck to a pledge not to attack targets in each other’s cities where civilians were at risk. Overy dismisses the long-held belief ‘firmly rooted in the British public mind’ that Hitler initiated the trend for indiscriminate bombings. Instead, he says, the decision to take the gloves off was Churchill’s, ‘because of the crisis in the Battle of France, not because of German air raids [over Britain].’
Ethical restraints which had been imposed at the start of the war became slowly eroded as a result of Britain’s decision to initiate ‘unrestricted’ bombing of targets located in Germany’s urban areas. In a fascinating chapter entitled ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ Overy suggests that Britain’s Bomber Command developed its tactics for concentrated ‘area bombing’ and the wide use of incendiary bombs by observing the destruction Germany wrought on London during the Blitz.
The RAF altered its strategy of focusing on precise targets when it saw how effectively the German air force attacked clusters of targets in industrial and commercial areas. However, Overy says that under Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris’s stewardship Bomber Command took things a grisly step further by deliberately targeting German workers to reduce industrial output.
For much of the war, combined British, Commonwealth and American forces lacked the necessary technology to develop the long-range heavy bombers they needed to launch attacks on Germany’s main industrial hubs. The bombing war only really escalated in 1943 when Harris finally felt ready to launch three major offensives: the Ruhr-Rhineland in late spring and summer, Hamburg in July and Berlin in the autumn.
It was the second of these, codenamed ‘Operation Gomorrah’, that resulted in the single largest loss of civilian life in one city throughout the European war. Some 37,000 people died and over 60 per cent of Hamburg’s houses and apartments were destroyed by a blaze of incendiary bombs. Overy cites a German doctor who says he had to estimate the number of dead by measuring the ash left on the floor.
It was only near the end of the war, and the bombing of Dresden which killed approximately 25,000 people in a few hours, that there was any kind of outcry against Allied strategy, which incidentally had failed in any way to stem Germany’s production of armaments (there was a three-fold increase between 1941 and 1944). Yet after the war the British Bombing Survey Unit’s assessment was positively damning and criticised almost ‘all phases of Bomber Command’s activities except the final phase against oil and communications targets [in Germany].’
Though he is never quick to judge Overy does not disagree with postwar interpretations which saw ‘the final flourish of bombing against a weakened enemy, with overwhelming force, as merely punitive, neither necessary, nor, as a result, morally justified’. Looking desperately among the historical rubble for a positive response to a campaign which saw roughly 50 per cent of bomber pilots lose their lives during airborne sorties, Overy, suggests that
bombing was at its most significant as a political gambit in the earlier part of the war when the British government used the RAF as a means to win support among the occupied populations and from the US by showing that Britain was capable of fighting back.
It is small consolation for what the esteemed Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith described as ‘one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, miscalculation of the war.