The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945, by Richard Overy

Jill Stephenson praises a study of terror from the skies

September 19, 2013

Popular perceptions of the effects of bombing during the Second World War continue to be influenced by the inflated figure cited by David Irving for the casualties of the bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Eventually Irving adjusted his figures downward, from anything up to 250,000 dead (Joseph Goebbels’ figure) to between 50,000 and 100,000. Current estimates stand at around 25,000, but that did not deter a Sinn Féin spokesman from claiming recently that the Royal Air Force had killed 135,000 people in Dresden. The inflation of bombing victims’ numbers is both a reflection and a legacy of the terror that bombing struck in the hearts and minds of civilians.

Richard Overy’s comprehensive study of bombing in the European theatres brings together episodes that have mostly been studied separately – especially the bombing of German and British cities – if at all. He has benefited from the work of others, notably Claudia Baldoli on Italy and Andrew Knapp on France, contributors to his Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project on this subject. But Overy has also undertaken a mammoth amount of archival research in various countries to produce this dense and detailed account of military strategy, bombing campaigns and the experience of those under the bombs. It is unlikely that a work of this scale, scope and merit will be surpassed, certainly not in the near future.

His concern is not merely with the balance sheet, although he provides a great many figures. He analyses numbers of aircraft, sorties and payloads, and measures them against the figures for dead and injured. This leads him to conclude that, for example, the standard figure given for deaths from bombing in Stalingrad on 23 August 1942, 40,000, does not, “like the exaggerated death toll at Rotterdam…stand up to scrutiny…No pre-atomic bombing succeeded anywhere in killing at least 10 per cent of the population in a single day of bombing”. Nevertheless, a figure of 18,474 killed on one night in July 1943 in Hamburg, around half the total for Operation Gomorrah, was staggering in its severity. The total death toll from bombing in the USSR was around 51,000, compared with 60,595 in Britain, 53,601 in France, 1,350 in Bulgaria, 307 in Denmark and 353,000 in Germany, among other countries. The German bombing of the USSR, unlike British and German bombing of each other’s territory, was mostly undertaken in support of ground operations.

One of Overy’s major preoccupations is with the morality of bombing civilians. At the start of the war, all sides agreed that the intentional bombing of civilians was illegal and that bombing should be confined to military targets. But desperate straits on the Western Front in spring 1940 (rather than the German bombing of Rotterdam) led the British to abandon this policy in favour of bombing targets in Germany for a military purpose even where civilians would undoubtedly be in the firing line. Both Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee were strongly in favour of this approach. For Overy, one of the many myths of the Second World War was that the Germans were the first to bomb civilians: in his view, the British got their retaliation in first.

So what about Warsaw? “The air campaign in Poland”, says Overy, “was a model of the operational air warfare elaborated before 1939, with air forces closely supporting the land campaign.” Raids on power supply centres were carried out, which “inevitably involved civilian casualties”. Perhaps one’s view of whether that amounted to a violation of the agreement not to bomb civilians depends on whether one regards gas and electricity supply “installations located close to residential zones” as “a military target”. Besides, Overy mentions later that “American reports at the start of the war highlighted the ruthless destruction of Polish towns from the air”. As for Rotterdam, its bombing “imposed heavy civilian casualties because the Dutch army chose to defend the area rather than declare it an ‘open city’ or surrender”. It is true that many of the casualties in both cases were caused by artillery fire, but bombing caused others. And why, in any case, should Germans have been bombarding either city? This was clearly aggression against civilians. It may be that small and incompetent British raids on Germany in 1940 provoked Hitler into unleashing the Blitz, from which the RAF learned many lessons for its later campaigns. But it was German bombing of British civilians that led to Bomber Command allowing pilots ever-wider discretion about bombing areas where there were civilians. This would soon extend to all-out area bombing, meeting Stalin’s demand that homes as well as factories be destroyed.

For Overy, the outstanding characteristic of Bomber Command into 1942 was its ineffectiveness. Policy was misguided and poorly executed, ambition outpaced technical capability and there was no overall plan. For every two Germans killed by bombing in 1942, a bomber was lost. Claims were made about the destruction of cities when most bombs had demonstrably fallen off-target. Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command, himself later admitted that the bombing offensive proper had started only in March 1943, after a build-up of crew, planes and infrastructure and the acquisition of effective navigation aids. The US Eighth Air Force was not much better, although it was in some respects technically superior. The two commands remained separate, whatever the American mission statement said: as Overy puts it, “Like any marriage of convenience, the partners had separate beds”. The Americans were perplexed by the British aim of trying to obliterate cities, seeing the bombing campaign rather as a means to facilitate the invasion of Europe by land forces.

Overy’s conclusion is that the US Air Force was much more successful than Bomber Command in bombing targets that led directly to German defeat – air bases, and, above all, oil reserves and communications systems. Almost to the end, German industrial production continued at a remarkable rate, partly because of a policy of dispersal and partly because of the use of slave labour, and also partly because bombing caused relatively little industrial damage and that damage was quickly made good. German civil defence was large-scale and well organised. By contrast, in the USSR, as in Britain, preparations for civil defence were at their most advanced after the main weight of bombing had ceased. In Italy, however, there was little effective preparation, with the result that bombing, especially from 1942, caused a crisis in both material and morale terms. Bombing may have been only one reason for disillusionment with Mussolini’s regime, but it certainly induced the government of Pietro Badoglio to sue for peace.

Bombing failed on all sides to reduce war production significantly. Its main effect was to destroy buildings and kill civilians. Thus civilians became part of a collective community whose norms were strictly enforced, for example, against looting and to maintain the blackout. On the whole, discipline in shelters was maintained. The anticipated collapse of morale and an ensuing breakdown of civil order did not occur, except perhaps in the case of Italy. Bombing’s main contribution lay in diverting personnel from industry and the forces into air-raid defence.

This masterpiece is the culmination of Overy’s oeuvre, which has included The Air War: 1939-1945, War and Economy in the Third Reich, Russia’s War: Blood Upon the Snow and Goering: The ‘Iron Man’, among others. It is a work of meticulous research, forensic detective work and historical erudition.

The author

Richard Overy, professor of history at the University of Exeter, was “born in Westminster but raised mostly in Somerset”. However, the West Hampstead resident adds, “London is in my blood and I’m happy to have settled there since the early 1990s. I like most things about London - noise, mess, bustle, anonymity and a stone’s throw from the centre of things.”

He recalls: “I realise now that I was an unusual child, interested from an early age in a whole range of things from Egyptology to bird-watching. I found school difficult because most people were not like that. In my tiny Somerset village, ‘intellectual’ is not a word I would have heard or have understood.

“I went to Cambridge as one of the first two students ever to go from my small rural grammar school. My mother’s brother and father had gone there and she was keen for me to follow in their footsteps. She was keen for me to be a clergyman too, and a bishop would have made her happy - but Cambridge quickly turned me into a lifelong atheist.”

Before moving to Exeter in 2004, Overy held posts at the University of Cambridge and King’s College London. “Overseas universities have tried to entice me,” he says, “but I’ve never been at the right stage to say yes and have no great ambition to be somewhere else.”

A prolific author, he has written many acclaimed works focusing on the Second World War and the Cold War. He observes: “I don’t have any particular reason for writing about the present day, but I am committed to writing contemporary history because this does clearly have a resonance with current issues and attitudes. I might one day write a book about the future.”

His 2009 book The Morbid Age, which was lauded by Eric Hobsbawm for its “learning, lucidity and wit”, examined the years between the First and Second World War. Of parallels between that era and ours, Overy says: “In some senses this is another ‘Morbid Age’, when popular discourse talks about looming crises, the end of resources, the endless war on terror, fear of economic insecurity etc. Anxiety tends to sell copy more successfully than self-satisfaction, but the truth is that we are richer and more secure than the West has ever been. Losing that is what creates morbid fears.”

Asked if his eminence as a scholar has made it easier to be outspoken and to espouse controversial positions without fearing repercussions, he observes: “There should never be a price to pay for speaking your mind. Historians in particular have, in my view, an obligation to deflate established myths and to challenge current policies. I have been outspoken throughout my career, but this can comfortably be reconciled with historical scholarship. I don’t bring an ideological agenda to my history.”

On the differences between the many tribes of historians, Overy’s view is that “some kinds of people are more fun than others. Historians reflect this general truth. Writing about war, genocide, bombing and state terror could make you a gloomy soul, but it doesn’t necessarily follow.”

Asked about his pastimes, he says simply, “My childhood interest in archaeology has been sustained. I collect artifacts from all the world’s major civilizations. They can all be housed in one large glass cabinet. Five thousand years of human history in a few dozen objects.”

Karen Shook

The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945

By Richard Overy
Allen Lane, 880pp, £30.00 and £17.99
ISBN 9780713995619 and 97801419824 (e-book)
Published 26 September 2013

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Reader's comments (1)

Far from "fabricating" a figure, Irving cited the exact figure given him in 1961 by the German official charged by the city in 1945 with establishing the deathroll. Overy does not mention that Mr Irving has since found in government archives a decoded message dated March 24, 1945, in which the mayor quotes figures wholly compatible with that deathtoll

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