Explosive Look at the Right Targets; the Bomber War - Arthur Harris and the Allied Bomber Offensive 1939-1945. by Robin Neillands (John Murray, Pounds 25). Reviewed by Terry Grimley

Article excerpt

Byline: Terry Grimley

Having written a defence of Britain's First World War generals, Robin Neillands has found another military reputation in need of refurbishment in Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris.

The figure most closely identified with the RAF's controversial 'area' bombing of German cities, 'Bomber' Harris has become the chief focus of a view which regards the killing of German civilians as a war crime and tends to equate the bombing of Dresden with Auschwitz.

This view is not entirely a product of peacetime hindsight. A small but persistent number of critics, including the Bishop of Chichester and the Labour MP Richard Stokes, questioned the bombing while it was taking place.

The United States Air Force was also anxious to maintain some moral distance from the British in maintaining its tradition of daylight precision bombing, although the relative nature of the term 'precision' in 1939-45 is demonstrated by the fact that one raid on railway marshalling yards caused 25,000 civilian deaths.

Later in the war, the Americans briefly adopted an indiscriminate policy of sending crewless obsolescent aircraft, packed with explosives, to run out of fuel over Germany: President Kennedy's elder brother was killed on one of these missions.

Neillands' argument is that the reality is more complex than critics take it to be. The moral picture is grubby rather than black and white and he argues that the identification of Harris as ogre-in-chief is not supported by evidence that the principle of area bombing of industrial cities was accepted before he arrived in office.

True, Harris fought to stick to this policy when under pressure to shift attention to bombing oil supplies. However, a factor which perhaps should be borne in mind was the doubtful accuracy of attacks on small targets: exercises in 1939 revealed that 40 per cent of pilots could not even find British cities in broad daylight.

The narrative traces the evolving bombing campaign over Germany carried out by both the RAF and US Eighth Air Force throughout the war. The narrative is illuminated by many eyewitness accounts of raids from British and American crew members and, to a lesser extent, German fighter pilots and civilians.

These accounts make the book an exciting read but a depressing one. …