‘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.