Fire and Fury by Randall Hansen

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.

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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16 Responses to Fire and Fury by Randall Hansen

  1. Pierre Lagacé says:

    I think Rod Smith in his memoirs talked about Bomber Harris.
    I will look it up and get back to you.

    • atcDave says:

      Max Hastings really wrote the definitive history of Bomber Command. But that is massive by comparison to this.

      • Pierre Lagacé says:

        Rod Smith wrote a 10 page rebuttal to the CBC President after the documentary Death by Moonlight was aired.
        Impressive rebuttal!

        Link to Wikipedia

        Excerpt of the article

        Death by Moonlight: Bomber Command first aired on January 19, 1992. Canadian veterans’ groups and some prominent historians immediately claimed the episode inaccurately depicted the role of the Bomber Command. Historian Jack Granatstein, in his book, Who Killed Canadian History? also severely criticized The Valour and the Horror.[3] Although accepting that night bombing had initially been ineffective, ultimately leading to a campaign against German cities, the critics noted the more than 600,000 German civilians, mostly old men, women and children were collateral damage, not part of a deliberate campaign.[2]

        The The Valour and the Horror series became the subject of an inquiry by the Senate of Canada, with the sub-committee that reviewed the veteran’s claims, concluding, “… that the criticisms levelled at ‘The Valour and the Horror’ are, for the most part, legitimate. Simply put, although the filmmakers have a right to their point of view, they have failed to present that point of view with any degree of accuracy or fairness.”[4]

    • atcDave says:

      Obviously a far more involved review of this book. I think the summation is perfect, a well told history of events that is somewhat undermined by the writer’s anti-Harris agenda.

      This book may work best for readers who already have some knowledge of the events, but aren’t wholly committed Harris apologists.

  2. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Conclusion of the author

    Fire and Fury is yet another entry on the growing list of publications about the Allied strategic bombing campaign against Germany. Hansen tells an excellent story. Unfortunately, his narrative is shaped primarily by his predisposition to proving Harris’s guilt. As to the question of the role of bombing and its morality, Fire and Fury continues to stoke the fire of debate.

    • atcDave says:

      I would pretty completely agree with that assessment. Harris does bear some guilt for his conduct of operations, but the writer here does belabor the point.
      Through early 1943 area bombing was the only obvious and effective way of engaging and hurting Germany. But from late 1943 to the end of the war precision bombing proved more effective, Portal and others recognized this and made some effort to sway Harris and change his method of operation. HOWEVER, it is only with hindsight that we can know with certainty that Harris was mistaken in his pursuit of area bombing. And given how much common sentiment was behind Harris (he started in the aftermath of the Blitz, and Germany continued to target London with V2 attacks to the end) few contemporaries would make a big thing of how he pursued his mission. It is only post-War academics who would make a big deal of it.

  3. jfwknifton says:

    What you’ve written seems a pretty fair summary to me. A couple of related ideas are worth mentioning, though. I think there was a great desire on the part of the RAF to quite simply flatten the Germans. One aspect of this was that by 1945, the British had spent ten years and well over a million casualties fighting two wars against the Germans. Both wars were started by the Germans. The Germans had used their aircraft and later, rockets to kill British civilians indiscriminately by the tens of thousands. The USA was never bombed and this does make a difference. A lot of Bomber Harris was about payback. That’s why Harris’ men adorned him so much, I would think.
    Secondly, after two world wars were started by the Germans, there was a desire to flatten them this time good and proper, so that they would never be able to start a war again. The “bomb them back to the Stone Age” argument.
    As I said, suffering huge military casualties and the bombing and killing of your civilians does affect your military thinking. Just think how the Germans were treated by the French in the French zone after the war and how the Soviets treated the Germans whenever they had the chance. The serving soldier or airman never forgot what the Germans had done to his relatives back in their hometown.

    • atcDave says:

      I absolutely understand that. I’m not terribly interested in Harris’ “moral” failings, I think that argument is a non-starter, largely for the reasons you mention. It is more interesting to me the empirical reasons why his strategy was, shall we say, not the best available in the last two years of the war.
      The attitudes of the British populace towards the Germans is somewhat similar to American attitudes towards the Japanese. Many modern writers try to use moral equivalency arguments or dwell on “racism”; while they ignore a decade of Japanese excesses and abuses in China (rape of Nanking), “mistaken” attacks on American patrol units (Panay incident), starting hostilities with surprise attacks with no declaration of war and mass abuses of civilian populations and captured soldiers. So yeah, American conduct toward the Japanese was several degrees more merciless than against theGermans. I completely understand and accept that difference in tone.
      That the British would take a more harsh line against the Germans than the Americans did, does not surprise me.

      I regret that the issue has become so central to this discussion. The book I reviewed is truly a well written analysis of the Combined Bomber Offensive. I only mentioned the bias because a die hard Harris apologist may be more troubled by it than I was (I noticed it, but did not find it very distracting). And the dispute between Harris and Portal is fascinating, not least because Portal had been an area bombing advocate early on. He later tried to convince Harris to broaden the campaign, but never ORDERED any changes.

  4. atcDave says:

    One thing I would expect to draw some commentary was the change in fighter strategy. Those familiar with the movie “Red Tails” may recall what a big thing was made of the 332nd Fighter Group being tasked with close escort for the bombers. This is historically correct, while ignoring the tidbit that 8th Air Force also tasked two groups with close escort. This was a deliberate change that occurred after the bulk of escorts were cut loose to pursue and destroy. It became apparent that bomber crews were not happy seeing their escorts go tearing off after the Luftwaffe. So even if this was a conscious decision on the part of planners, it was felt the impact on morale was dire and nominal close escort needed to be retained.

  5. The fighter aspect is interesting. When Goring ordered his fighters to stay with the bombers thus chaining their tactics and restricting their movements, the pilots were not happy. “The fighter is a hunter.” And how true that is.

  6. Ernie Davis says:

    Very interesting discussion. I want to chime in on the fighter aspect and what I see as a change in thinking. In some other thread at some point we discussed that this was the first time the air was a major theater in a war. To me it seems that it took some time for the planners of the air aspect to start to see the airspace over Germany as it’s own theater and battle-space that could be captured regardless of the ground battle-space. It seems to me this was a change of thinking that lead the planners to realize that the best way to protect the bombers (outside flak of course) was to have them essentially flying through friendly territory, like trucks delivering ammo to units closer to the front. Once they started seeing the air as “their territory” thinking, strategy, and tactics changed dramatically in the air and on the ground.

    • atcDave says:

      Very well put about establishing territory. I think a more combined view of the aerial campaign was the major American contribution. The British kept Bomber and Fighter commands separate to the end of the war, one was viewed as primarily offensive the other was defensive. While the Army Air Force grouped fighters and bombers together in a strategic, offensive organization. I think the organizational difference was part of what led to a different view of operations.
      Of course some of that difference also comes from a difference of circumstance, the British needed to remain ready to defend the Homefront to the end of the war, US planners could look at most of the defensive responsibilities as being British.

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