In popular mythology the air war conducted by the Allies over Europe from 1940 to the end of World War II in 1945 is seen as an almost unequivocal triumph of science, technology and machinery. There were occasional glitches, most embarrassingly the unwarranted and pointless destruction of the beautiful and historic city of Dresden, but for nearly three-quarters of a century the air campaign has been celebrated as pivotal to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Britain honors the men of its Royal Air Force, and the United States honors those of its Army Air Forces, as heroes of the first rank, immortalizing them in books, songs, films and works of art.

That many of those who waged the air war were indeed heroic is beyond question, but the campaign itself is more of a mixed bag than only a handful of historians has acknowledged. Yet as we gain distance from and perspective on World War II, we are beginning to understand it is a complicated story with few instances of pure black and white, but many shades of gray. In recent years there have been invaluable studies of matters previously unknown, ignored or swept under the rug, such as the widespread violence done to German women by the Soviet army and, to a lesser extent, by American and other Allied soldiers as well; the equally widespread phenomenon of combat fatigue and its various effects on soldiers in all armies; the great wave of ethnic violence that swept through Europe at the end of the war and continues in some places to this day.

Now comes Richard Overy, one of the most accomplished and respected historians of the war, a professor at the University of Exeter and writer and editor of more than 30 books, to shed new light on the bombing campaign. As in all his previous books, he is sympathetic to ordinary soldiers and those at higher levels who determined their fates, but he is also, now as before, never blinded by the vast mythology in which World War II is steeped. He begins with an account of a brief bombing campaign that was conducted against Bulgaria in 1944, one that “revealed in microcosm the many issues that defined the wider bombing defenses during the Second World War,” to wit:

“It was a classic example of what has come to be called ‘strategic bombing.’ The definition of strategic bombing is neither neat nor precise. The term itself originated in the First World War . . . [and] was used by British and American airmen to distinguish the strategy of attacking and wearing down the enemy home front and economy from the strategy of directly assaulting the enemy’s armed forces. . . . For the unfortunate populations in the way of the bombing . . . there was never much point in trying to work out whether they had been bombed strategically or not, for the destructive effects on the ground were to all intents and purposes the same: high levels of death and serious injury, the widespread destruction of the urban landscape, the reduction of essential services, and the arbitrary loss of cultural treasures.”

As the war got underway, first the British leadership and soon enough the American became entranced with the notion that “bombing alone might unhinge the enemy war effort, undermine popular war willingness, and perhaps even force the politicians to sue for peace before the need to undertake dangerous, large-scale, and potentially costly amphibious operations.” Bombing seemed to offer an easy and relatively painless way out of a protracted and costly military effort. As the war began, the British operated under rules that “had made it illegal to attack targets in which civilians might be ‘negligently’ killed,” but “the ethical restraints imposed at the start of the war were eroded step by step as a result of the decision [in 1940] to initiate ‘unrestricted’ bombing of targets in urban areas.”

‘The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945’ by Richard Overy (Viking )

Little more than a year later, a ranking British officer told a “sympathetic audience” that “for almost a year his force had been attacking ‘the people themselves’ intentionally” and went on: “I mention this because, for a long time, the Government for excellent reasons has preferred the world to think that we still held some scruples and attacked only what the humanitarians are pleased to call Military Targets. . . . I can assure you, Gentlemen, that we tolerate no scruples.”

Thus the war against Hitler’s army eventually became a war against German civilians as well, and in time against civilians of other countries that his army had seized, most notably “the occupied territories of western and northern Europe — France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark” — an air war that “cost at least 70,000-75,000 lives, most of them among peoples sympathetic to the Allied cause.” The military advantages gained by this indiscriminate and punitive strategy are difficult to ascertain, not least because the problems confronted by the bombardiers were serious and remained the same throughout the conflict: “weather conditions, bombing accuracy, the balance between defensive and offensive tactics, operational organization, and force morale.”

The bombing campaign continued throughout the war, but it peaked “from September 1944 to May 1945,” during which American and British air forces “dropped three-quarters of the wartime bomb total against a deteriorating German defense; approximately half of all German deaths from bombing occurred over the same period.” This was known as “the Battle of Germany,” and the Allies won it, Overy concludes, largely because superior American leadership carved out a strategy “combining the indirect assault on air force production and supplies through bombing with the calculated attrition of the German fighter force through air-to-air combat and fighter sweeps over German soil.”

An American fighter was crucial in the second part of this strategy: the P-51 Mustang, which “entered service in early December 1943 with drop tanks that could take it 475 miles into Germany,” though Overy is quick to add that “the sturdy and less glamorous P-47 Thunderbolt bore the brunt of the first months of the Battle of Germany.” As a boy in the late 1940s, I made models of those and other American and British planes, and hung them from the ceiling of my room in tribute to those who flew them; in this I was at one with millions, though none of us really understood the war in which their pilots had so valiantly fought.

Overy does not advance a moralistic argument against the bombing, though he is fully aware that the strategy entails serious moral questions that the Allied leadership (and the German as well, viz: the Blitz) winked at or fudged. Instead the question he raises is a practical one: Was aerial bombing — “strategic bombing” — worth the cost, not merely in civilian lives but in those of pilots and support crews, where the attrition rate was unusually high, and in the cost of researching and manufacturing a vast, modern aerial force? Obviously there can be no conclusive answer, and to this day powerful forces inside governments around the world argue for the ostensibly sanitary strategy of bombing — these days, by drones — as opposed to ground warfare employing human troops, but we have good reason to believe that at least in World War II, the bombing campaign cost more than it earned.

There will be debate over the bombing campaign in Europe for years to come, just as there has been since the full extent of its devastation began to be revealed. In the future, though, that debate will have to take into account the facts and the arguments marshaled by Overy in “The Bombers and the Bombed,” which immediately becomes an essential part of the literature of World War II. The conclusions it reaches about “strategic bombing” will have to be reckoned with by any nation that takes it upon itself to bomb another into submission, if not oblivion, and anyone who takes those conclusions seriously will be hard-pressed to argue the efficacy of that strategy.


Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940-1945

By Richard Overy

Viking. 562 pp. $36