March 06, 2014


The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe, 1940-1945. By Richard Overy. Viking. $36.

     Perpetual fascination with the war that ended almost 70 years ago has led historians and scholars to continue to produce dense, detailed books about nearly every aspect of World War II. It could be argued that fictional books about the war, such as Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, tell modern readers, the vast majority of whom were not born when the war ended, at least as much about the ethos of the war as extended factual accounts. There is nevertheless a sure place among war scholars and those who remain fascinated by the conflict for works such as The Bombers and the Bombed, a 562-page summation and dissection – including 125 pages of notes, bibliography and index – of the bombing campaign carried out by the Allies against Germany and its occupied territories in Europe.

     This is not a book to be read casually, because its exhaustive level of detail can be daunting to wade through, and the style of Richard Overy, a professor of history at the University of Exeter, favors lengthy sentences and arguments parsed so carefully that they must often be read and re-read before a reader can be sure to have absorbed them. Just one typical example: “American officers had in many cases been drafted into the air force from business and professional backgrounds, which prepared them for the vocabulary and categories typical of modern managerial practice. The formal procedure laid down in July 1943 reflected that culture: a conference of key personnel at four in the afternoon before the operation at which the prospective weather determined the target to be attacked; target folders checked; fighter escort informed; calculation of type and weight of bombs and number of aircraft; notification of assigned combat groups; finally, determination of axis of attack, rendezvous point, route out, initial point (near the target run-in), altitudes, aiming point, rally point (just outside the target area), and route back.”

     Readers unwilling to put up with page after page of this precision plodding may want to skim The Bombers and the Bombed to examine some of the ethical dilemmas posed by the air war in Europe – issues that continue to resonate today. The notion of “precision bombing” is itself imprecise, bombs and bombers never having become accurate enough during the war to avert very high civilian casualties. The extent to which civilians were deliberately targeted rather than becoming collateral damage is still a matter of dispute, but the fact is that, one way or the other, the Allied bombers killed bystanders by the many, many thousands. Some of the instances of extreme bombing have become well-known, such as the firestorm destruction of Dresden in the war’s waning days – actually just one of several firestorms that obliterated large portions of German cities. After the war, Dresden’s Frauenkirche was deliberately left in ruins, as were prominent churches in Hamburg and Berlin, as memorials to civilian suffering beneath the bombs – with the Frauenkirche finally being rebuilt early this century in an attempt, decades after the war, at reconciliation.

     Overy’s book should give 21st-century readers some idea of just why reconciliation was needed, and why it took so long to come – if indeed it has. Many of the work’s most interesting and moving passages, and its most telling photographs, show civil defense efforts in Germany during and after bombing raids. Overy points out that nine million Germans eventually were evacuated from bombed cities – an astonishing number. Photos of the Hamburg firestorm of 1943 and of the circus elephants and concentration-camp inmates required to help clean up afterwards drive home, with an emotional punch that Overy’s highly detailed and scholarly text lacks, just how desperate matters were on the ground because of the Allied bombs.

     One view is that the raids were intended to cause desperation in order to force the unconditional surrender that eventually was offered in 1945. Certainly air power was decisive in World War II: it was the nuclear bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with the enormous number that fell in Europe, that ended the war. The Bombers and the Bombed is much more than a paean to air power, however. By including stories about the ground-level effects of the massive European bombing campaigns alongside detailed information on the campaigns themselves, by showing (among other things) a propaganda poster in which President Roosevelt smiles jauntily as bombs destroy Italy, Overy contrasts the “wide popular endorsement of the bombing campaign” with the realities of what the cost of the campaign was, both militarily and among civilians on the ground. Certainly postwar euphoria led to a belief that bombing was the long-sought solution to the difficulties of pursuing modern war – a belief given the lie in Vietnam. But the postwar response to the Allied bombing campaign in Europe is beyond the scope of The Bombers and the Bombed. What readers who want a great deal of detail about the intricacies of modern warfare will find here is an extremely carefully researched, well-balanced portrayal and explanation of a prime component of the Allied victory of 1945 – and its cost to all involved, both during the war and afterwards.

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