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Book Review
The Bombers & the Bombed
The Bombers & the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945
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by: Bill Cross [ BILL_C ]

Originally published on:

Even before World War Two was over, controversy was already swirling around the strategic bombing campaigns of the US and the UK over Europe. Flight crews objected to targeting civilians, and morale was dodgy as the war ground on and the destruction of Germany's cities intensified. Astonishingly, a number of top air commanders continued to believe that bombing by itself would win the war and make a ground invasion unnecessary. Despite the failure of the Blitz to bring Britain to the peace table, Allied commanders continued to fantasize that the bombing would force Germany to quit the war and/or drive its citizens into open revolt against the Nazis.

Both then and now, two nagging questions dogged the generals who had formulated the high-level bombing of Germany's factories, industrial plant, cities, and yes, civilians:

1.) Was it immoral to target civilians and destroy cities?

2.) Did strategic bombing have any meaningful contribution to shortening the war?

The controversy hasn't abated in the nearly 70 years since World War Two's end. And the debate, like that about the US decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, is often framed around national identity: Brits especially are defensive about the role and performance of RAF's Bomber Command, believing their use of nighttime, area bombing of cities gets less credit for bringing an end to the Third Reich. This is partly because Hollywood and posterity have both given a greater glamor to the US Eighth Air Force's "precision" daylight bombing of factories and other "military" targets.

Richard Overy's new book tackles both questions (morality and efficacy) directly. It looks at all aspects of the strategic bomber campaign, and offers a clear and sober overview of the strategy and its performance. While not a typical modeling reference work, anyone who is interested in the Air War over Europe should read it.

the review
Overy is professor of history at the UK's University of Exeter, so he has no nationalistic axes to grind. His writing isn't perhaps the most artistic I've encountered among historians, yet his prose is clear and he tackles the hard questions:

1.) What were the results of Britain's nighttime bombing campaign vs. those by the US bombing during daylight? The British switched from daylight precision bombing to nighttime area bombing after initial losses on raids against German targets proved unsustainable. Results were middling at best; part of this dismal performance was due to the generally poor performance and limited load capacity of Britain's early bombers like the Handley Page or the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley. While we modelers may love these old planes, they were obsolescent even before the war started. The situation didn't change for the better until the arrival of the big four-engine behemoths in large numbers like the Avro Lancaster late in 1943.

Worse, the RAF lacked anything even approaching the American Norden bombsite. RAF crews often could not place their bombs within even three miles of the target (incredibly, the minimum standard applied in the early war). Part of the problem, though, was due to the limitations of early RAF bomber doctrine: pilots were allowed to find their own way to and from the target, rather than flying in formation. This resulted in a chaotic and often disorganized attack where some aircraft were driven off by fighters or flak before engaging.

Yet if hitting a particular factory or other target was nearly impossible, some in Bomber Command (and even Churchill himself) were more than happy simply to kill or maim German workers and other civilians. Air Marshall Arthur "Bomber" Harris, BC's irascible chief, has become something of a favorite bogey man for historians because of a naked relish for killing "the Hun." Blood lust aside, most Allied leaders were convinced fewer workers promised reduced armaments production. And curiously, despite their own refusal to yield to the Blitz, British leaders believed (or more accurately, devoutly hoped) Germans would rise up and replace Hitler if enough of them were killed or made homeless.

This relish for what Overy concedes was little better than terrorism is in part understandable, given Germany's pounding of the UK, though the Luftwaffe's targets were still largely military in nature (e.g., the London docks). Harris on the other hand was unapologetic, both during the war and afterwards, in his desire to lay waste to Germany's cities, something he never got around to explaining during or after the war. Morality aside, the author asks pointedly whether area bombing did anything but kill innocent civilians? For backing Adolf Hitler, it seemed no Germans was innocent any longer. The US is in no position to criticize Britain's moral position: Was it racism or expedience that blunted any US scruples about burning Japan's wood & paper cities to the ground?

The second, even more important question is:

2.) Did either the RAF or the Eighth Air Force achieve any meaningful reduction of Germany's ability to wage war? The US boasted that its daylight "precision" bombing was purely military. Yet Overy points out that Europe's frequent lousy weather often made precision targeting impossible. As the war raged on, aircrews were instructed to deliver their bombs somewhere. And even the choice of targets began to shift as 1943 turned into 1944 and after: railroad "marshaling yards" were legitimate military targets, yet were most often located in the middle of dense urban areas. And even with the vaunted Norden bombsite, US crews more often missed their targets than hit them.

The bombing campaign certainly disrupted Germany's economy, social fabric, transportation network and oil production capacity. However, the Allies constantly over-estimated the benefits of strategic bombing and the amount of resilience in Germany's economy. For example, it has long been known that fighter production actually increased during the same period as bombing intensified. Partly this was due to the skill Germany had in relocating its wartime industrial base to locations outside its major cities.

Partly, however, the weakness of the strategic campaign was human shortsightedness. Arthur Harris was convinced that city bombing would force Germany to her knees, and he consistently refused to listen to other points of view. It required Eisenhower's threat to resign as overall Allied commander in order to reallocate Bomber Command raids to transportation and oil targets prior to the invasion of Normandy. Harris believed such attacks a waste of time.

Following the end of the war, both the RAF and US Air Force did extensive analyses of strategic bombing. The results are damning for the RAF in general: even Germany's military leaders believed that city bombing in most cases had little direct effect on the Nazis' ability to fight, and that only precision daylight bombing of complex, capital-intensive targets like oil production and rail transport eventually crippled Germany's military.

This might sound like a rebuke of the brave lads who flew for RAF's Bomber Command, but nothing could be further from the truth. It actually is a rebuke of the blinkered leaders like Harris who let personal animosity, a prickly personality and an almost messianic commitment to waging mass warfare send tens of thousands of aircrew to their deaths, as well as killing nearly 300,000 civilians.

Any book stretching to 436 pages is a challenge to review in a short space like this. I have focused mostly on the bombing campaign over Germany, ignoring the book's section on Italy (which was steadily bombed throughout the war). The debates within the book are important and have implications beyond just the Second World War: countries continue to see strategic bombing as a central tool in waging war (think Serbia in the 1990s or Israel in Gaza). With so little attention given to the results of strategic bombing (instead of the myth), it's good to turn a bright light on this aspect of the conflict.

Please remember, when contacting retailers or manufacturers, to mention that you saw their products highlighted here - on AEROSCALE.
Highs: A detailed and thorough examination of the key questions whether Allied bombing worked or not. Some photos included, but they won't be helpful to modelers.
Lows: The prose is a bit dense in spots, and the author skips around to follow his thesis rather than a strict timeline.
Verdict: A must read for anyone who is interested in the Air War in Europe from 1940 to 1945. This is not a modeling book but an important look at how bombers were employed during the War.
  Scale: 1:1
  Mfg. ID: ISBN 978-0-670-02515-2
  Related Link: 
  PUBLISHED: Aug 03, 2014

About Bill Cross (bill_c)

Self-proclaimed rivet counter who gleefully builds tanks, planes and has three subs in the stash.

Copyright ©2020 text by Bill Cross [ BILL_C ]. All rights reserved.


Bill, very interesting comments and I have enjoyed reading them and thinking about it all. Reading Speer and a broad range of books on the German side of WWII it is very clear the disruption by bombing and daylight attacks (transport in particular)to oil, specialist production such as the ball bearings and then the aircraft and other factories combined with attacks on the transport network created an environment where production was very expensive in resources. In particular manpower. And this directly impacted on training and provision of skilled soldiers and airmen at the front line. Sure production output was very high in 44 & 45 despite the bombing, but at what opportunity cost to the Germans? And oil was always in short supply after 1939 and this impacted training and transport and missions from then onwards.
AUG 05, 2014 - 09:50 PM
Thanks, Carl, nothing makes a reviewer's day quite like an appreciative reader. One of the unintended results of this was a greater input of slave labor in the factories. The Allies could not have known that, but it did impact the lives of the wretches the Nazis were torturing in camps. All true. Overy doesn't dispute that the bombing extracted a price of the Nazis, but he holds accountable the proponents of strategic bombing in general and area bombing in particular. His results would indicate that both wildly overstated their successes while brushing the human cost (on both sides) under the carpet. We must keep in mind all the air crews lost by both the RAF and USAAF when calculating the risk/reward analysis of strategic bombing. And Overy is not the only historian to question the value of strategic bombing. Donald Miller attacks the dogma of the Allied air commanders and their belief that bombing would avoid the need to invade Europe in his superb book Masters of the Air (soon to come to the small screen on HBO as the third installment of their "Band of Brothers"/"The Pacific" series).
AUG 06, 2014 - 02:28 AM
Very clearly this was an outcome. Absolutely this was the case. And also the case for across the board during the conflict. The review of proved result for action was very poorly done (for example victory claims fro fighter pilots) or deliberately avoided for most aspects of the conflict. Even tho this was a well recognised tool/process certainly within British and USA circles.
AUG 06, 2014 - 09:22 PM
My personal answers to those questions: To todays standards (and mine as far as relevant) it is immoral It did help a little bit to end the war a bit sooner at a very high cost The answer on the effectiveness of the bombing campaign may not be available in discussions on what happened in world war two, but in what happened afterwards. In every main conflict there is growing emphasis on precision bombing eliminating key war infrastructure, and direct hits on enemy military personnel and equipment. This may have something to do with raising moral standards (although doubtfully) but it is more likely that someone figured out that hitting a soldier, or his equipment, is more effective than angering him by killing his mother.
AUG 07, 2014 - 04:25 AM
Hi Bill, I don't entirely agree with either of their views, I don't suppose many would. I only posted the link to show that there are other ways and measures we can use to look at this controversial subject and inevitably the conclusions drawn may differ. I confess to not being one of Overy's biggest fans, for reasons that have no place here, but I certainly respect his views. I'm in the middle of reading 'Bombing States and Peoples in Western Europe' to which he has made a significant and worthwhile contribution. It's not easy reading, Hastings or Beevor it is not, but worth the effort Cheers Steve
AUG 09, 2014 - 11:41 PM
Thanks, Steve. I don't expect the controversies to be settled, at least not this close to the events. We're still arguing about the Great War a century later (was the British General Staff totally incompetent or not?). Now that the US is bombing the ISIS fighters in Iraq (and before that, was thinking about bombing Syria), we need to ask these tough questions. Cruise missiles and drones have minimized the loss of life when projecting air power over hostile environments, but at some point US pilots will be KIA or captured. And as the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza prove, killing civilians remains highly inflammatory (I don't even want to touch the moral questions as too complex for this space). So strategically it can be asked: is Israel achieving its goals through air strikes?
AUG 11, 2014 - 04:57 AM
In connection with this discussion, someone on another forum posted this hour-long YouTube film of Bomber Command getting ready for a nighttime raid.
AUG 15, 2014 - 03:20 AM
I had full access to a member of bomber command in the form of my wife’s uncle. He was a navigator and flight engineer on Stirling’s and Lancaster’s during the war. I can tell you that he had no regrets at all about his part in bombing cities and industrial areas. His opinion was simple in that Germany was the enemy and the more Germans their efforts killed the less there were to continue the fight. On my part I feel it is lunacy to compare what was done during WW2 with the current day and the politically correct opinions we are supposed to have.
AUG 15, 2014 - 03:44 AM
Darren, I agree that we can't compare the morality of our own day with that of WW2, but we definitely need to examine the "learnings" that came out of that war. As Overy points out in his introduction, we are still relying on bombing to effect tactical and strategic military & geopolitical goals. It's not surprising that historians don't agree about the events or results of that or any war, as our access to information changes over time. With the dying off of the WW2 vets, we're seeing a flood of memoirs, letters and photos coming to light that were kept private for 70+ years. And governments are slowly declassifying documents and statistics they have kept under lock & key for generations (your government is particularly fond of state secrets, but most bureaucracies by nature try to insulate themselves from criticism and scandal).
AUG 19, 2014 - 05:58 AM

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