The Bombers and The Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945

By Richard Overy


On the night of 27th July 1943, 729 RAF Bomber Command aircraft dropped 2,386 tons of bombs on the German city of Hamburg. The city’s shipbuilding industry meant that it was frequently a bombing target, but that night the majority of the bombs fell on working class districts and this was a raid unlike any previous one. It was an utterly devastating night for Hamburg, and it remains a truly shocking moment in one of the most controversial wartime campaigns.

The concentration of incendiaries dropped on Hamburg that night created numerous fires that merged together into a roaring inferno. In the words of Hamburg’s police president, what followed was a “hurricane of fire… against which all human resistance seemed vain”. The inferno created a pillar of hot air and debris that rose to a height of more than two miles above the city. The fire drew in oxygen with such force that hurricane-force strength winds were created, sucking human bodies into the flames where they were swiftly incinerated. With temperatures in excess of 800°C, everything combustible was destroyed, and oxygen was sucked out of thousands of basement shelters, leaving the inhabitants to die slowly of carbon monoxide poisoning. That night alone, an estimated 18,474 people died, and an area of more than twelve square miles was burnt out.

The Hamburg firestorm was just one night in a series of raids on the city spread over ten days and known as Operation Gomorrah. As Richard Overy recounts in The Bombers and The Bombed, it marked a turning point in Bomber Command’s fortunes. Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, commander in chief of Bomber Command wrote that the bombing war was now “on the verge of a final show-down”. While that overstated the power of bombing, over the next two years German cities were subjected to a relentless bombing campaign that left great swathes of German’s urban landscape destroyed and an estimated 350,000 German civilians dead. There would be two further firestorms, most notoriously in Dresden in February 1945. Even by the end of the war, the bombing campaign was highly controversial. Winston Churchill made virtually no mention of Bomber Command’s contribution in his victory speech on VE Day and a planned campaign medal for members of Bomber Command was never struck.

Yet, just a few years earlier, Churchill had been an unstinting supporter of Bomber Command. In July 1940 he wrote that there was one thing that would bring Hitler down “and that is an absolutely, devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland”. Here Churchill was following the belief that developed in the interwar years that bombing would be central to any future war, and that bombing would be capable of a sudden decisive blow by demoralising a population and causing a government crisis. The reality in the early years of World War II was very different. Bomber Command was unable to deliver anything like a knock-out blow to the enemy. Most of its aircraft were incapable of reaching beyond the fringes of western Germany and technical limitations meant that crews faced very real difficulties in reaching, finding and hitting a target. Consequently, the early bombing campaign was characterised by widespread inaccuracy, and aspirations of precision bombing sites of military significance had to be abandoned. Practical objectives overtook the philosophical debate around the morality of bombing cities, and justifications were formulated for targeting the civilian population.

Both RAF Bomber Command, and the US Air Force once the Americans joined the war, found themselves under continual pressure. The bombing campaign was expensive and achieving negligible results. They were saved by need for the Western Allies to be doing something. At a time of Nazi dominance of Europe, and long before a land invasion could be mounted, bombing was the one offensive option available to the Allies. This was crucial for maintaining public morale, and for relations between the Allies. When Russia joined the Allies in 1941, Churchill could promise the Soviets little other than bombing, although Stalin was pushing Britain to open a second front. In August 1942, Churchill had a famously acrimonious meeting with Stalin who rejected every explanation provided by Churchill for the Western powers’ decision to abandon plans for a cross-Channel invasion in 1942. Stalin was only placated when Churchill explained the plans for an Anglo-American bomber offensive.

The Bombers and The Bombed is an authoritative history not only of Bomber Command, but the broader Western Allies’ air war. As new aircraft, better navigation devices and target marking techniques were introduced, the bombing campaign was transformed. Overy writes extensively of the co-operation between the RAF and the US Air Force that was at the centre of this, but it was often an uneasy alliance. Indeed, he argues that as the Allies pursued different strategies, “in the end the defeat of the German Air Force was an American achievement”. He is clearly sceptical of the strategic benefits of much of the bombing campaign. German industry proved remarkably resilient in the face of aerial attack, and bombing failed to significantly undermine German morale; in fact the bombing made the German population more, rather than less, dependent on the Nazi state.

Overy’s book is based on extensive archival research, although it’s hard to see how this substantially changes what we already know from the extensive literature on the bombing campaign. The most interesting parts of the book cover less well known aspects such as how German society responded to aerial attack. Years of remorseless bombardment were a profound challenge to German civilian life. Thousands were left homeless, many fleeing their cities as refugees. One diarist witnessed “a half-crazed woman” as she tried to escape Hamburg in the aftermath of Operation Gomorrah. Her battered suitcase dropped open to reveal clothes, a toy, and the shrivelled, carbonized body of a child. Evacuation from cities had been slow before Operation Gomorrah, but now the German population was shocked into accepting it. In all, a quarter of the pre-war population left Berlin. Nevertheless, German society and the German war effort were able to withstand the challenge of bombing remarkably well. Even in Hamburg, the impact of Operation Gomorrah was less crippling on the city’s economy than hoped. An estimated 37,000 died, 900,000 evacuated the city and 61 percent of the city’s housing was destroyed or damaged. Yet the port was estimated to be operating at 70 percent of its capacity again by the end of August, and by November the city was back to 80 percent of its pre-raid output.

The bombing war extended far beyond the damage inflicted on British and German cities. Italy was bombed for only a month less than Germany during the war. As many Italians were killed in bombing as died in the Blitz in Britain, and more tons were dropped on Rome than all the British cities combined. It was widely assumed that Italian morale under Fascism would be more brittle than German society under Hitler, and Italian air defence and civil defence preparations left the country ill-prepared for aerial bombardment. Rome’s exceptional symbolic status meant that there was initial reluctance to bomb the city, but the city was finally bombed in July 1943. While it was certainly not the sole cause, the bombing of Rome certainly seems to have played a significant role in the collapse of Mussolini’s regime a few days later.

The moral dilemma of bombing was even more problematic when it came to targets that fell within occupied areas of Europe as the civilian casualties were among potentially friendly communities held hostage by German military success. Around 30 percent of the bombs dropped by American and British bomber forces fell on the occupied territories of western and northern Europe. Here the populations welcomed bombing, although disillusionment increased as the war went on and civilian casualties rose. The use of heavy bombers to support the ground campaign that followed D-Day left large areas of northern France devastated. The village of Aunay-sur-Odon, bombed to hinder the passage of German tanks, was literally erased from the map with a single church spire surviving in what was now a level landscape.

Seventy years after these events, the controversy around the bombing campaign continues. Overy acknowledges the moral question, but doesn’t seek to pass judgement. His analysis of the strategic and economic impact of bombing suggests though that he is rather sceptical of its value to the Allied war effort. This is a top-down history of the campaign, with a strong focus on policy and statistical analysis. The bomber crews, like the victims of the bombing, rarely emerge as individuals from the data. Those crews deserve for their reputation not to be caught up in the moral debate, or the questions around how much bombing really achieved for the Allies’ strategic objectives. They signed up for military service for the same reasons as their contemporaries in military service elsewhere, and they sustained terrible losses.

Bomber Command sacrificed more than 55,000 air crew, a loss rate of 41 per cent, and the US Army Air Forces also endured substantial losses. Bombing operations were highly complex, employing some of the war’s most sophisticated equipment. Training could do little to prepare the crews for combat conditions as they faced the constant fear of night fighters and antiaircraft fire in conditions of extreme cold and numbing tiredness in operations lasting eight or nine hours. Intense fear was the emotion most commonly remembered by crew members, mostly aged between eighteen and twenty-five. Most of the survivors suffered some form of fear-induced anxiety which would affect them for the rest of their lives. Many had survived horrific experiences, and seen their comrades killed in front of them. A memorial to the dead of Bomber Command was only finally erected in London in 2012.

In The Bomber and The Bombed, Richard Overy has presented a heavyweight history of the Allies’ bombing war. His analysis of the campaign is substantial, although significant sections have been omitted from the original UK version of the book, published as The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 by Allen Lane in 2013. As the debates around the bombing campaign continue, this is a comprehensive insight into an offensive that left more than half a million civilians dead and changed Europe forever.

Richard Overy’s book is is available to buy from Amazon: The Bombers and The Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945.

© The History Vault

About James Taylor

James Taylor is a writer and television producer. He is the co-author of the bestselling books Spitfire Ace and Bomber Crew and has worked on historical documentaries including The Wildest Dream, Munich: Mossad’s Revenge, Secrets of Egypt and Carthage: The Roman Empire. Through his company Altogether Media (www.altogethermedia.co.uk), he brings together co-production and distribution partners for factual television and media projects.

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