Magazine article The Spectator

Ashes to Ashes

Magazine article The Spectator

Ashes to Ashes

Article excerpt

The Bombing War:

Europe 1939-1945 by Richard Overy, Allen Lane, �30, pp. 821, ISBN 9780713995619, Spectator Bookshop � 23.95, Tel: Tel: 08430 600033 'I cannot describe to you what a curious note of brutality a bomb has,' said one woman who lived through the initial German raids on London during the second world war. This woman's ambivalent reaction to having a bomb rip through her bedroom typified the shocking reality of a different type of war to any that had ever been fought before.

For as Richard Overy makes eminently clear in his extraordinary and far-reaching history of Europe's bombing war, this was the first time civilians actually became a part of the front line. The cause of this was the advent of aerial bombardment, which, Overy says, exposed 'the democratic nature of total war, which insisted that all citizens had a part to play.'

The idea that bombing could demoralise a population and cause a government crisis had been a topic of hot discussion during the interwar years. In a lengthy preamble Overy, who has written numerous histories of the second world war, focuses on Bulgaria as a microcosm of the issues which defined the wider 'strategic' bombing war in Europe:

The bombing of Bulgaria was Churchill's idea, and he remained the driving force behind the argument that air raids would provide a quick and relatively cheap way of forcing the country to change sides.

Fine in theory, but in practice things worked rather differently. The 'political dividend' Churchill sought to achieve in the early months of 1944 was offset by a high level of civilian casualties 'which undermined the prestige of both the United States and Britain in the eyes of the Bulgarian people'. Overy notes that while bombing contributed to the collapse of any pro-German consensus and strengthened the hand of opposition political parties it did not result in a change of government until September 1944 when the Soviets introduced an administration dominated by the Bulgarian communist party.

Martialling his facts with dexterity Overy argues that bombing in Europe was never a war-winning strategy and invariably caused more harm than good. In what is the first full narrative of the bombing war in Europe Overy's scope is incredibly broad and well-researched, also highly readable. He tackles not only the wider conflict with Germany but little-known bombing wars in France and Italy, which in both cases resulted in civilian casualties the equal of the Blitz.

He has also had access to 'two new sources' from the former Soviet archives, which include German air force documents covering the Blitz and others which throw new light on Germany's bombings of Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad - an area which up until now has had very little coverage.

Overy traces the origins of the bombing war back to 10 May 1940, the same day that Germany began its attack on the West and Churchill replaced Chamberlain as British prime minister. 'Chamberlain had always opposed the use of bombing against urban targets,' writes Overy, 'but Churchill had no conscientious or legal objections.'

Indeed, already as Minister of Munitions in 1917, Churchill had been in favour of an independent air force and a policy of longrange bombing against German industrial targets.

Up until Churchill's appointment as prime minister both Germany and Britain had stuck to a pledge not to attack targets in each other's cities where civilians were at risk. …

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