by Randall Hansen
New York: Penguin/New American Library, 2010. Pp xiii, 352.
Illus., photos, notes, biblio., index. $15.00 paper. ISBN: 978-0-4512-3008-9
The Allied bomber offensive against Nazi Germany remains one of the most controversial campaigns of the Second World War. It certainly was one of the most costly. By May of 1945, two million tons of bombs had fallen on Germany. Over half a million German civilians had died, and 80,000 Allied airmen had perished as well. Was the bombing strategically or morally justified?
In Fire and Fury, Prof.
(Toronto), a specialist in multiculturalism who has investigated the question of German civilian losses in the war and worked to counter Holocaust Denial, examines the American and British approaches to strategic bombing, and finds that the two nations used very different methods, which produced very different results. He also argues that American and British bomber generals proceeded with very different intentions, and that, in moral terms, intentions matter.
In general, the British preferred to conduct area raids against urban targets at night, aimed at causing wide scale devastation of German cities. The Americans preferred daylight “precision” raids aimed at targets of military and economic significance. These generalizations had exceptions. The RAF was capable of brilliant precision, and proved this in the raids on the Ruhr dams. The American precision raids could inflict massive collateral damage and casualties on German cities. On a few occasions, the Americans resorted to area bombing, with horrific results.
Hansen argues that American precision bombing came close to bringing the Germans to their knees. Attacks against oil and ball bearing production especially were very damaging to the German war effort. But such attacks were too often carried out without fighter escort, resulting in heavy losses of men and planes. Even when successful, the attacks were not properly followed up. The American raid on Schweinfurt, for example, resulted in a temporary 38 percent drop in German ball bearing production, but no second wave of attacks was launched. Hansen argues that the RAF should have gone in after the Americans. Whether the Americans themselves could have undertaken a second wave of attacks given the severe losses they sustained is a question Hansen does not explore.
By contrast, Hansen calls British area bombing a “a strategic and moral failure”. He regards it as a waste of resources, which did noting to advance the Allied war effort. He also explains that much of the area bombing, led by Britain’s Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of Bomber Command, often was carried out against the wishes of Harris’ superiors. Harris was driven, thorough, capable, and at times wooden headed. The Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, had difficulty controlling him and frequently could not do so. Harris dismissed attempts to strike oil, ball bearings, and other precision targets as “panaceas”, despite Portal’s repeated urging to target them.
Hansen admits that the Americans killed a great many civilians, even when they were not trying to do so. Precision bombing then meant something very different from what it means today. It was impossible, with the bombsights and radar available, to strike a factory in the heart of a city without causing heavy collateral damage and loss of life. This was especially true as the weather worsened in late 1944. Targets sometimes could not be seen through cloud cover, and anything like precision was impossible to achieve. The Americans, however, mostly tried for precision, and sometimes the results could be impressive.
Ironically, the greatest effect of the American bombing could sometimes be the losses inflicted on the defending Luftwaffe fighters. At times these could be devastating, and contributed to the success of the D-Day invasion.
Fire and Fury
gives a fascinating and detailed look at the strategic debates that shaped the air war over the continent, and the personalities involved. Hansen successfully makes the case that American bombing mostly did greater damage to the German war effort. He mostly makes his case that the American bomber generals proceeded with more humane intentions than their British counterparts, at least most of the time, though some may feel that Hansen lets the Americans off too lightly for Dresden.
In the end, Fire and Fury probably raises more questions than it answers. Could the American air commanders have crippled the German war effort if they had been allowed to fight the war the way they wanted? Could the D-Day landings have succeeded without the damage the bombers did to the German rail network, and the losses inflicted on the Luftwaffe? Could attacks on oil, if carried out early enough and consistently enough, have been a greater help to the Overlord invasion than the transport attacks that SHAEF insisted on? Such questions are tantalizing, and perhaps unanswerable. But in Fire and Fury Randall Hansen has given us a highly readable one volume treatment of a large and complex campaign, and a serious exploration of the strategic and moral issues involved, and brings to mind what Polybius said more than two millennia ago, “Good men of good character are often forced to do bad things in war.”
Burke G Sheppard
, who holds a degree in history from Wake Forest University, is an avid military history buff, and a veteran wargamer, who entered the hobby in the days when Avalon Hill had a monopoly on board wargaming.