This is a fascinating and well written book on the combined bomber offensive, that is, British and American strategic bomber operations against Nazi Germany.
Join me for a brief look a thoughtful and well researched study.
This subject is not exactly underserved. There are so many books on this subject it may be one of the best documented events of human history. So it was a little surprising to me to find a history with only 300 pages of text could offer a good amount of depth and detail. The writer is a Canadian who compares and contrasts the British and American operations. He also spends time with the German response and the view from the receiving end. Much of the latter part is not for weak stomachs.
It is amazing to follow the growth of Bomber Command from a few planes that were so poor at finding nocturnal targets that the Germans often guessed wrong as to what their targets had even been; to a massive and powerful force that could raze cities at will. Eighth Air Force follows a similar, yet different path as it attempts to battle its way to well defended targets in broad daylight. One assertion by the author is that the combined bomber campaign was truly two completely different things as commanders often made very little effort to co-ordinate with each other.
I also appreciated the balanced perspective of overall effectiveness. I’ve seen writers try to extol these bomber operations as war winning in and of themselves; or dismiss them as extravagantly expensive but ultimately useless. Not surprisingly the truth is somewhere in the middle. Bomber operations incurred massive costs on the Nazi empire, from direct bomb damage to the expense and man power diverted to defense and recovery. It influenced every aspect of the Allied and Nazi war efforts. But ultimately it couldn’t decide the war.
Mr. Hansen does not dwell on moralizing, but morals and moral responses absolutely play a part in how operations unfold. We get a lesson in how wartime circumstances led to British leadership being willing to target civilian homes and what the effectiveness and consequences of such things were. As an American it is tempting to gloat over some of the writer’s conclusions, but many readers may be less comfortable with distinctions between “targeted dehousing” and “collateral damage”. And of course the rapid growth in navigating and targeting technologies affected targeting choices as well.
The most completely successful aspect of the Bomber Offensive was the 8th Air Force campaign to destroy the Luftwaffe. The story begins in early 1944 with the idea that bombers targeting high priority targets always brought the Luftwaffe out in force. So if the bombers were treated as a sort of high value bait, the fighters could count on good hunting. The most dramatic moment coming when General Doolittle, commanding Officer of the Eighth Air Force, visited his fighter commander William Kepner. He observed a prominent poster that declared “the primary job of the fighter is to protect the bomber”. He ordered “take that damn thing down, the primary mission of the fighter is the destruction of German Fighters”. This was about the time Mustangs were equipping more Groups. It basically cut fighters loose from the bomber stream and left them free to pursue the Luftwaffe across the whole continent.
The second biggest success was the Oil Campaign. This began in earnest at about the same time, and was also mostly a US operation; 8th and 15th Air Force flew almost half their missions against oil in the last year of the war, while Bomber Command committed another 15% of their missions. Fuel shortages of all sorts crippled every aspect of German industry and military.
The next most effective aspect was the Transportation campaign. This was done, to some extent, by all strategic and tactical air forces. Isolating German units on the battlefield while restricting supply and communications gave the allies an overwhelming edge.
No surprise, when looking at these conclusions, that the book’s harshest criticisms are leveled at Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command. He had played a big role in rebuilding a demoralized force that was taking heavy casualties for little effect. But he developed a fanatical zeal for destroying German cities and persisted in this long after true precision bombardment became viable. Most damning is his own commander, Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff was completely won over to precision bombardment after seeing the effect of American bombing from late 1943. In spite of Portal’s constant attempts to convince Harris to target more specific industries (mainly oil) Bomber Command continued to fly area bombing missions to the end of the war. This is even more tragic in light of how brilliantly effective British bombers proved to be on those occasions when they did aim more discretely.
I had the vague feeling there may have been some anti-British sentiment at play here, in much the way American academics are often shamelessly anti-American. But I would add, these conclusions are consistent with much of what I’ve read.
Overall a fascinating and well written book. It lacks some of the operational detail of more massive volumes, but is packed with analysis and explanation.