The ultimate history of the Allied bombing campaigns in World War II
Technology shapes the nature of all wars, and the Second World War hinged on a most unpredictable weapon: the bomb. Day and night, Britain and the United States unleashed massive fleets of bombers to kill and terrorize occupied Europe, destroying its cities. The grisly consequences call into question how “moral” a war the Allies fought.
The Bombers and the Bombed radically overhauls our understanding of World War II. It pairs the story of the civilian front line in the Allied air war alongside the political context that shaped their strategic bombing campaigns, examining the responses to bombing and being bombed with renewed clarity.
The first book to examine seriously not only the well-known attacks on Dresden and Hamburg but also the significance of the firebombing on other fronts, including Italy, where the crisis was far more severe than anything experienced in Germany, this is Richard Overy’s finest work yet. It is a rich reminder of the terrible military, technological, and ethical issues that relentlessly drove all the war’s participants into an abyss.
What has long been needed is a sober, dispassionate, fully-sourced exploration of what the bombing campaign comprised, how it developed in the course of a long conflict and what it achieved. Richard Overy…has written precisely such a book, a detailed, meticulous analysis that is all the more powerful for eschewing the hysteria that has colored this subject for too long…Overy's writing is temperate, but his judgments are devastating, and through it all runs a vein of quiet anger at the sheer profligacy, in squandered blood and treasure, of waging war this way.
WWII scholar Overy (The Twilight Years) brings his expertise in aerial operations to this first comprehensive analysis of the Allied strategic bombing offensive in Europe. He addresses the subject from three interrelated perspectives: the planning and execution of the air campaign; the Axis responses; and the oft-overlooked experiences of those under Axis occupation who were “bombed into freedom.” Overy acknowledges that until mid-1944, an air offensive was the Western Allies’ only feasible way of attacking Germany directly, yet the raids’ limited success initially led some to question whether “bombing by itself” could be decisive in the war. Insistence that it “would shorten the war,” combined with the belief that daylight precision bombardment would “completely... dislocate German industry and communications,” led to an attrition campaign against the world’s most sophisticated defenses. It produced marginal results until the Americans concentrated on the aircraft industry, and on oil production and delivery. Overy’s model analysis of “German Society under the Bombs” reveals how the Reich’s economy and morale withstood the bomber offensive, though elsewhere in Germany’s New Order, as military considerations obscured political ones, bombing became “more vigorous and less discriminate.” Postwar reconstruction correspondingly resembled “recovery from a natural disaster”—which the bomber offensive closely resembled. Agent: Gill Coleridge; Rogers, Coleridge & White (U.K.). (Mar.)
Overy, a University of Exeter history professor who specializes in World War II, here offers up some controversy. Documenting the extent to which Britain and the United States bombed German-occupied Europe, he asks us to ponder the morality of the Allies' "moral war."
Historians still argue over how much, if at all, strategic bombing contributed to defeating Hitler. This magisterial overview will not end the debate, but it skillfully illuminates all sides. Demonstrating his exhaustive research, Overy (History/Univ. of Exeter; 1939: Countdown to War, 2011) begins the first chapter, "Bombing Bulgaria," with a description of a destructive campaign that undermined the pro-German government, which managed to persist until the Soviet army arrived. Few readers will ignore the lesson. Throughout World War II, British Bomber command believed that it could devastate the war-making capacities of the Nazis. Within months, losses forced a switch to nighttime bombing, which made accuracy nearly impossible. Overy delivers an insightful analysis of how all nations reversed their abhorrence of killing civilians when it became unavoidable. The British were not taking revenge for the Blitz; their conversion had already occurred. The United States assumed its more heavily armed bombers (with lesser payloads) could defend themselves during the day and hit targets precisely. Both beliefs proved wrong, but America stuck to daylight bombing despite terrible losses. Both nations exaggerated the damage that their bombers caused, but good evidence exists that a major effort against Nazi oil production caused crippling shortages during 1944 and 1945. Overy provides an eye-opening and often distressing account of the bombing of Europe's occupied nations, whose defenses were far less prepared than Germany's. More bombs fell on France and Italy than England. "The moral response to bombing and being bombed was historically complex and sometimes surprising," writes the author. Readers looking for dramatic accounts of specific bombing missions should read a selection of books by British military historian Martin Middlebrook. For a far more expansive view that includes those on the receiving end, Overy is the choice.
Richard Overy is a professor of history at the University of Exeter. A leading expert in World War II history, he has written more than twenty books, including Why the Allies Won, and The Twilight Years.