Magazine article America in WWII

The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe 1940-1945

Magazine article America in WWII

The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe 1940-1945

Article excerpt

The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945

by Richard Overy, Viking, 592 pages, $36

Richard Overy's latest book is a rich study of the fitful development of strategic bombing during World War II and its impact on Europe's long-suffering civilians. His telling in The Bombers and the Bombed captures unexpected, exciting complexity on both sides. Even longtime students of the air war will find much to appreciate in this well-reasoned, surprising, interpretive account of air strategy and its impact.

Overy traces the evolution of American and British strategy from faltering uncertainty and squandered efforts through the smooth city-busting of 1945. From 1939 through 1942, the British Bomber Command tallied results so dismal that German records didn't even include some raids. The book presents many causes for these early dismal results--weak aerial reconnaissance, the limitations of period aircraft, inadequate training, poorly-performing explosives, and inadequate navigation resources. Over time, however, the Allies refined their technology and tactics, as residents of the repeatedly bombed city of Hamburg would have attested.

Overy's interpretation of the February 1945 bombing of Dresden, Germany, and its political and social aftermath suggests that much Allied urban bombing in the spring of 1945 was purely punitive, doing little more than making the rubble bounce. Interviews with German leaders immediately after Berlin's surrender revealed a consensus that the Allied aerial campaign's key targets had been oil, transportation, and air bases. The relentless area bombing of cities was never mentioned. The much-ballyhooed impact of "dehousing" and worker absenteeism on wartime production was actually modest at best.

In retrospect, there seems to be a sense of inevitability in the air war's progress. But Overy successfully evokes the uncertainty of the campaigns at the time, especially in his recounting of early non-starter proposals, such as firebombing German forests in the wan hope that animals fleeing from the burning woods would eat crops on surrounding farmlands.

On the ground, the people of England rightfully get credit for withstanding the Blitz in 1940. Yet the residents of Berlin and other German cities were no less indefatigable, over a much longer period. Overy analyzes how civil defense groups were organized and how protection for citizens was aggressively achieved--they were required by law to seek shelter during raids. …

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