Review of Richard Overy's “The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945”

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Robert Huddleston is a combat veteran of the European air war and an occasional book critic.

In 1938, as war clouds gathered, America's commander in chief, President Franklin Roosevelt met in November of that year with an ad hoc group to formulate plans for increasing the country's military capabilities. Among the civilian and military leaders were the Secretaries of the Treasury, Assistant Secretary of War (filling in for the Secretary), and a close confident of the President, Harry Hopkins. Among the military were Army Chief of Staff General Marlin Craig and General H. H. “Hap”Arnold, of the Army Air Corps. And, at a lounge off to the side, was the deputy chief of the army staff.

The Commander in Chief took the lead in the discussion and made it clear that he believed that most of the military appropriations should go to increasing the air capabilities with a much smaller amount devoted to land and naval forces. Mr. Roosevelt “believed that a heavy striking force of aircraft would form a deterrent ground forces would not.” None at the table disagreed. Then the President turned to the general off to the side:

“George,” this was the first and last time he thus addressed General George C. Marshall, “don't you think so?”

“I am sorry, Mr. President, but I don't agree with that at all.”

The President had the good judgment to name Marshall as Army Chief of Staff in 1939 then backed him in creating large ground forces vital to achieving victory in the Second World War.

President Roosevelt did not deny General Marshall the ground forces and support needed, but he remained confident in the ascendency of air power. In May of 1941 he ordered the production of five hundred bombers a month. In August, according to his confidant, Harry Hopkins, “the President expressed the belief that bombing was the only means of achieving victory.” Add to this the view of a public impressed by air force propaganda such as the book Victory through Air Power, the Disney film with the same name based on the book.

Now flash-forward to the early stages of the Cold War. In 1945, in his final report to the President, Five-Star Army Air Forces General “Hap”Arnold stressed the importance of strategic air power capable of applying “overwhelming force, against any enemy.” The result of Arnold's report was the Strategic Air Command headed by General Curtis Lemay, a Would War II Bomber Baron. “I welcome the assignment,” declared General LeMay, and “have no regrets about wartime bombing. . . . Enemy cities were pulverized or fried to a crisp. It was something they asked for and what they deserved.”

Strategic air warfare—striking at the very heart of an enemy to destroy both the ability to wage war as well as the will of the populace to support the conflict—fell far-short in World War II of what was promised. In the wake of that conflict the Army Air Forces conducted an extensive survey of the strategic bombing campaign and concluded that massive air bombardment of population centers “to destroy both the ability and the will of an enemy to continue the conflict” had failed. Unfortunately for humanity, America's air power leaders (and to a lessor extent, their British counterpart) were so committed to the doctrine of strategic bombing that they were blind to its failure. Air power was essential in modern warfare, the survey concluded, but could not, as President Roosevelt once believed, be the only means of achieving victory.

The American bomber commanders, however, could not bring themselves to reorder their thinking. Even more disturbing, this failed World War II doctrine continued in both Korean and Viet Nam conflicts—and failed.

No historian has focused on strategic air warfare in as much detail as Richard Overy, the author of the 1995 book, While the Allies Won. Readers well informed about the Allied strategic bombing campaign will find little new in “The Bombers” coverage of The Bombers and the Bombed. Numerous military historians reached the same conclusion as Overy: Through a highly organized dispersal of production facilities, a reduction of consumer goods, and bringing more women into the labor force, “bombing critically affected the German productive economy only during the last months of the war.”That said, Overy's detailed assessment of the Allied bombing campaign is a credit to the historian's craft.

It is in his coverage of the “Bombed” that Overy breaks new ground in describing the experiences of those on the receiving end of the Allied campaign. Most Germans bombed, as with the British and the Blitz, managed to “stay calm and carried on,” some even taking satisfaction in “surviving hell on earth.” High praise goes to Third Reich officials, civilian and military, that quickly provided compassion and material aid to victims, to bring back into service those very necessary requirements to “carrying on”: medical care, food, shelter, utilities, water, and transportation. While Overy describes a host of reasons why German civilians coped with being bombed this says it best: “The effect of bombing was not, in the end, as the Allies hoped, to drive a wedge between people and regime, but the opposite, to increase dependence on the state and the [Nazi] party, and to prompt willing participation by civilians in structures designed for their own defense with a remarkable degree of social discipline.”

The Bombers and the Bombed is a valuable contribution to the historical record of the Second World War. And considering the uninformed current talk of “carpet-bombing” it should be mandatory reading at military academies in both Britain and the U.S.



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