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The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45 
by Richard Overy.
Allen Lane, 852 pp., £30, September 2013, 978 0 7139 9561 9
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The scenes of terror which took place in the firestorm area are indescribable. Children were torn away from their parents’ hands by the force of the hurricane and whirled into the fire. People who thought they had escaped fell down, overcome by the devouring force of the heat and died in an instant … The sick and infirm had to be left behind by the rescuers as they themselves were in danger of burning … And these days were followed by more nights of more horror, yet more smoke and soot, heat and dust and more death and destruction … Posterity can only bow its head in honour of the fate of these innocents, sacrificed by the murderous lust of a sadistic enemy.

This extract is from the report of the police president of Hamburg on the suitably named Operation Gomorrah, which took place in late July and early August 1943 and caused the first deliberately ignited firestorm. It is part of a longer passage printed in Appendix 30 of the official British history of the bombing of Germany by Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, and demonstrates their relentless objectivity (all the more remarkable in a book published in 1961, only 16 years after the end of hostilities).

My extract from the extract is enough to make plain the sheer horror of the air war waged by the British, Canadians and Americans against German cities. Americans come last chronologically, and also in intent, for as Richard Overy explains succinctly and well, the US saw the bombing of cities as a last resort and not the very first aim, as it was for Bomber Command.

However, from Appendix 2 of the Hamburg police president’s report, which isn’t reproduced in the official British history, we discover that, at least in the case of Operation Gomorrah, the bombing did directly weaken the German war effort: along with 1310 residential buildings fully destroyed and 3248 severely damaged (the ‘de-housing’ wanted by Bomber Command, although its net effect on German fighting strength was indeterminate), 582 industrial plants, 484 transport installations and 112 military installations were also severely damaged. Set against this, was the cost of delivering to Hamburg 9000 tons of munitions: 6610 high-explosive bombs, 152 aerial mines, 219,281 stick firebombs, 4157 phosphorus firebombs (by this time Bomber Command had learned that German cities were more easily burned than smashed), and 3428 other munitions. In all, 3095 sorties were flown by Lancaster, Halifax, Stirling and Wellington bombers, 86 of which were lost along with hundreds of their crew members. That, incidentally, was a very low rate of loss compared with previous and later air attacks, but the success of Operation Gomorrah had also required another kind of sacrifice: the so-called ‘Window’ – metallised strips that were dropped en masse so as to neutralise German radar – could never again be used with the huge advantage of surprise.

As for the police president’s evocation of the innocents murdered by the sadistic enemy – insistently echoed in Jörg Friedrich’s bestseller The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-45 and in many other publications, sermons and perorations, which began in Britain itself while the war was still going on – we find in Appendix 2 that 1769 people were killed by Operation Gomorrah. That is a misprint, or just conceivably a deliberate underestimate (Overy has 18,474 for the firestorm raid of 27 July alone), but even that number seems quite low when one considers the vast effort expended in the attack. It is certainly unimpressive compared with what the police president’s own men achieved: Hamburg’s reserve police battalion 101, manned by ‘ordinary’ policemen, never numbered more than five hundred and its members were armed only with pistols and bolt-action rifles. Even so, it had killed 38,000 Jews by November 1943, when it took the lead in the Erntefest (‘harvest festival’) operation in the Lublin district, in which another 42,000 Jews were killed.

This disparity in death rates was a constant till the very last major attack on a German city, the bombing of Pforzheim on 23 February 1945, ten nights after the bombing of Dresden (which Churchill had condemned). In this attack 83 per cent of the urban area was destroyed, 17,600 people were killed, according to the official estimate: certainly an enormous number, but still far below the daily average killed one way or another by the Germans in the last years of the war.

A firm focus on numbers and on the passage of time confers perspective, an element missing in Overy’s book, for all its substantial merits. Its surveys of German strategic bombing leading up to the Blitz, of the much less well-known bombing of Soviet cities, of Italy’s aerial war and the bombing of its fire-resistant brick-and-stone – but almost entirely unprotected – cities, and of the problematic Allied bombing of targets in Occupied Europe, are carefully considered as well as carefully written, and contain significant new material, at least for English-speaking readers.

Perspective is lacking, however, in Overy’s discussion of the report of the US Strategic Bombing Survey. It’s true that the survey found there had been an increase in German production of major weapons despite ever heavier bombing, but so what? What counts in war isn’t the intended effect but the actual effect. Regardless of production levels, the bombing inflicted endless opportunity costs on the German war effort, some of which Overy recognises: the diversion of huge quantities of steel and cement, construction labour and equipment from the expansion of weapons plants, war infrastructure and fortifications to protect factories and warehouses against bombing, build bunkers and shelters, dig tunnels and erect decentralised plants, which put more stress on the overburdened transport system. But Overy misses the peculiar asymmetries that made the bombing even more costly for the Germans. He notes for example the strategic diversion of airpower to domestic defence, but fails to add that while the Luftwaffe’s aircraft were suited to close support and interdiction, they were less good at interception. He notes the diversion of artillery and ammunition production from field to anti-aircraft artillery, but not that this had a disproportionate cost in battlefield strength, because the German army tried to make up for all its other deficiencies with its artillery, and especially the 88 mm high-velocity guns, whose presence or absence routinely determined the outcome. The decision to direct scarce electronic skills and resources towards air defence and airborne radar was particularly costly because the Germans had developed high-precision guided weapons decades before they came into common use, and could have produced them in deadly numbers, instead of a few prototypes, one of which sank the Italian battleship Roma in September 1943, as it was on its way to surrender to the Allies in Malta.

The Strategic Bombing Survey mostly missed these colossal opportunity costs, inflicted on the Germans at very modest cost to the Allies: Bomber Command absorbed 7 per cent of the British war effort in terms of man-hours according to data accepted by Overy, and the air war resulted in the deaths of 55,463 aircrew. This is a terrifyingly high proportion – 41 per cent – of Bomber Command’s total aircrew but fewer than 15 per cent of the total number of British and colonial war deaths. As important, or perhaps much more important, was the ‘opportunity benefit’ (noted by Overy) of being able to present strategic bombardment as the primary British contribution to the Allied war effort, thereby deflecting demands for a greater commitment on land, where the Soviet and German armies were grinding each other down.

Overy’s version of the bombing offensive also flattens the campaign’s sharp ups and downs in anticipation of its eventual strength, thereby understating the drastic reversals induced by the paradoxical logic of strategy itself, as one side reacted belatedly to the success of the other. Persuaded at the start of the war that German fighter squadrons, though trained and armed for battlefield use, could also assure Germany’s air defence, and even prevent any bombs at all from falling on German cities, the chiefs of the Luftwaffe discovered that they were wrong as early as the summer of 1940. That was when Bomber Command started to bomb at night, inaccurately but with virtual impunity: Luftwaffe fighters had no effective way of finding and attacking British bombers in the dark, even if they had been detected by long-range radar. Only the small bomb-loads (and the inaccuracy) of British raids prevented serious damage to German cities. Accordingly, Bomber Command became convinced that with enough trained aircrew and enough bombers irreparable damage could be inflicted on Germany, ensuring victory without need of armies or navies.

On 25 September 1941, at the high point of optimism about the efficacy of bombing, Charles Portal, chief of the air staff, offered Churchill a fully calculated plan for a straightforward progression to victory by bombardment alone: 43 selected German industrial centres with some fifteen million inhabitants were to be heavily bombed six times in succession, in order to exhaust their capacity for recovery. Tonnages for the 258 strikes were carefully calculated on the basis of pre-bombing ‘activity indices’ rather than crude area measures, generating a requirement for four thousand operational four-engined bombers, allowing for attrition. All war production for the army and navy would have to stop of course, but once the aircraft and crews were ready, Bomber Command would break Germany in six months. It was all calculated in the perfectly unstrategic manner of an engineer bridging an unresisting river, with everything worked out down to decimal points – except for the enemy’s reaction.

In rejecting Portal’s plan, Churchill started by noting that the effects of bombing, ‘both physical and moral, are greatly exaggerated’, then went on to forecast the German reaction to the bombing already underway, correctly predicting that ‘the ground defences and night fighters will overtake the air attack.’ But Churchill’s chief objection was fundamental: even if British bombing could somehow prevail, the Germans would decentralise their war industries rather than passively await their cumulative destruction. In closing, Churchill warned against the treachery of calculations that cannot include the great unknown variable of the enemy’s reaction. If Churchill had written nothing else, this memo alone would prove his strategic talent, and his fortitude, for in September 1941 there were no better plans than Portal’s: the US was not at war and might never be, the Red Army was collapsing, a unilateral British landing in France or even Italy seemed impossible. Only bombing offered a chance of victory, yet Churchill would not be tempted.

As it happens, in the following year the Portal plan was overtaken as Germany reacted to the successes of Bomber Command: more and better tracking radar, new searchlight barriers, the first night fighters with radar, and more anti-aircraft guns, all of which inflicted greater losses than Bomber Command could withstand. Content with its strengthening air defences, the Luftwaffe was entirely unprepared for Britain’s reaction: the deployment of the first ever electronic countermeasures against German radar and air-defence communications. The result was a very sharp rise in the effectiveness of night bombing by the summer of 1943, culminating in Operation Gomorrah. Confident in its new strength, in November 1943 Bomber Command set out to destroy Berlin as Hamburg had been destroyed, planning then to destroy more cities until the Germans surrendered. But when it attacked Berlin, Bomber Command discovered that Germany had reacted to its summer victories with vastly improved passive defences (as recommended in a lengthy appendix to the police president’s report). Higher-frequency radar mostly immune to jamming was installed in night fighters; radar-less daytime fighter pilots were trained to use the illumination of the flames below them when deployed on air-raid nights; more and better ground radar was developed; interceptors were vectored by means of ‘running commentaries’ from ground controllers, to foil jamming.

The result was that German air defences were so effective that only the diversion of Allied bombing to prepare for D-Day masked British defeat in the so-called Battle of Berlin. Even though by then Germany was plainly losing the war – or perhaps because of that – Bomber Command’s morale was broken, or at least breaking: many crews turned back with mysterious technical problems, others dropped their bombs before reaching the inner core of air defences, others still dropped half their bomb-loads into the sea to gain height and speed before tangling with German fighters. It was only in the last months of the war that Bomber Command regained the capacity to destroy German cities as Hamburg had been destroyed. The fate of Dresden and Pforzheim derived more from the intense frustrations of 1944 than from the diminishing exigencies of 1945.

Overy’s account of the ignominious defeat of Italian airpower is utterly fascinating, especially in current circumstances, because – permit me a brief diversion – it was a result of the same pathologies that today condemn the Italian economy to relentless decline under the euro, that most un-Italian of currencies, which Italy’s ruling elite is obliged to hang onto whatever the cost, in order ‘to be able to look Germans in the eye’, as one of that elite recently confessed to me. In other words, Italy should accept impoverishment because the ruling elite has to pretend that it is far more efficient industrially than it is or could be. In the process, the peculiar but very real talents that continued to raise real standards of living for decades after 1945 must be nullified in the hopeless attempt to compete with the Germans exclusively on German terms. The nation of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati must compete only with Volkswagen.*

It was the same with Italian airpower until Mussolini felt compelled to look the Germans, or at least one Austro-German, in the eye. It was not only in Giulio Douhet’s globally influential theory of strategic bombing (as set out in Il dominio dell’aria) that Italian airpower led the way: Italian airmen flying Italian-made aircraft pioneered aerial bombing in Libya in 1911; they collected the Schneider Trophy several times before the British Supermarine company began its winning streak; in 1925 Francesco de Pinedo flew an Italian-made seaplane from Italy to Australia, Japan and back to Italy; in 1928 Umberto Nobile piloted the airship Italia on a polar expedition. These individual exploits were outdone in 1930 when 12 Italian long-range flying boats reached Rio de Janeiro, and even more decisively in 1933, when the aviation minister, Italo Balbo, led 24 longer-range and almost comfortable flying boats on a round-trip from Rome to the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago (where Balbo Drive still remains), opening the way for intercontinental passenger flights. Italian aircraft proved more than competitive in Spain against Soviet biplanes, and its designers and engineers were so advanced that by 1940 the Caproni company had developed a jet-propelled aircraft (though powered by motor-compression). These achievements were enough to make Italy a leading exporter of both civil and military aircraft before 1939, further reinforcing its talents in engine and airframe design and production, though on the small scale of those years: Isotta Fraschini, Savoia-Marchetti, Caproni were truly great names, just as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati still are, even if they could not emulate Junker, Heinkel or Messerschmitt in numbers, or Avro, Bristol or De Havilland.

Instead of accepting Italian aviation talents for what they were – artisanal rather than mass-produced, with individualist ace-pilots rather than mass-trained war pilots – Mussolini just had to compete with the Germans. The disasters started as soon as German-style air fighting started, with the arrival of the Corpo Aereo Italiano at Ursel in occupied Belgium in late September 1940, to participate in the bombing of Britain. The pilots immediately featured in triumphant posters, speeches and documentaries but Overy recounts that of 180 aircraft in all, seven were lost in flight to Ursel (because of unMediterranean weather), and another 36 in combat or in accidents. The planes delivered a grand total of 64 tons of bombs over ten weeks – less than a mission load for a single British bomber squadron. No wonder the Italian air force could not defeat beleaguered and almost undefended Malta – which is less than a hundred miles from Sicily – preferring instead to drop insignificant tonnages in highly publicised operations against much more distant Gibraltar (23.4 tons), Alexandria, which harboured the British fleet (113.7 tons), Tel Aviv (66.9 tons), Cyprus (75.8 tons) and even Bahrain some three thousand kilometres beyond Malta (2.1 tons). These were all stunts, not real operations of war, but because of consistently unrealistic plans, utterly irresponsible command decisions and absurd priorities, 2293 Italian pilots were dead, invalided out or prisoners of war by the autumn of 1942, while only 1920 new pilots qualified in 1940-43 – and all for naught, since Italy could neither attack by air nor defend itself from air attack.

Radar, searchlights, anti-aircraft guns and night fighters: all were in short supply and incompetently used. Civil defence preparations relentlessly favoured form over substance as is still the Italian habit. In spite of very strict blackout regulations and years of theatrical drills, when RAF bombers arrived over Turin on the night of 10 June 1940, the city was entirely illuminated; later, in October 1940, Overy tells us, even the headquarter building at the Ciampino air base was bright with lights, its commandant’s explanation being that the windows were very large and no large curtains had been issued. Ciampino was duly bombed, as, more famously, was the abbey of Monte Cassino on 15 February 1944, one of the many consequences of Mussolini’s consignment of Italy’s interests to German care.

What is most surprising in Overy’s book is its remarkable contemporary relevance. One continuity, clearly, is German industrial superiority over all other European nations, a superiority greatly understated by the competitive advantage of the German economy as a whole, diminished though it is by the relative weakness of its service sector, sans French tourism, sans British finance. Its 1939-45 equivalent was the tactical superiority of the German army: until the very end, any German infantry unit with an anti-tank gun or two could easily defeat any remotely comparable force. To survive the war, it was important to avoid such combat, and that was the aim of Bomber Command, as Overy explains very well. Another continuity is Britain’s ability to punch above its weight, if necessary by putting on a show regardless of substantive results, as Bomber Command did much of the time. That too has its modern counterpart in the British engagement in Iraq and in Afghanistan, though admittedly, tactical futility hardly matters when it is preceded by strategic futility. Only in regard to the aerial destruction of cities is Overy’s subject entirely without contemporary relevance. If there ever were a political sanction for that, the deed would not depend on months of vast and strenuous effort by thousands of aircrew, but only on the minutes required for proper launch procedures.

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