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The Bomber War

The Bomber War – Arthur Harris and the Allied Bomber Offensive 1939-1945, by Robin Neillands, 464 pp.

This book is noteworthy in that it discusses both the RAF and the USAAF campaigns in roughly equal detail. Neillands sets out in his book to defend Arthur Harris, the Commander in Chief of Bomber Command, against revisionist criticisms of his campaign. Harris was committed to a policy of area bombing of German cities. However he did not invent this policy, which was sanctioned from higher up the command structure, and was regarded at the time with general approval both by the authorities and the general population.

There was a theory of the time about strategic bombing, which meant bombing of a country intended to bring about its surrender principally by the use of air power. (This is distinct from tactical bombing, which is the use of aircraft to attack targets on the battlefield in front of advancing armies.)  Tactical bombing had long been known to work, but until somebody tried it, nobody knew what merit strategic bombing might have.

The RAF and USAAF tried strategic bombing of Germany, and until mid-war their efforts were ineffective. Aircraft could not find the targets, they could not bomb accurately, and even if they did, the tonnage of bombs dropped was insufficient.  These lessons were learnt at great cost.  Meanwhile the Germans had three years of learning how to defeat bomber attacks.

The USAAF had a distinctive bombing philosophy, which was that precision attacks would be made against military-industrial targets, not civilian populations, and that these raids would be made in daylight by fleets of self-defending bombers. This sounds fine and noble, but unfortunately when tried overseas, it didn’t work.  The USAAF 8th Air Force had good planes in the B-17 and B-24, and a very accurate visual gunsight, the Norden, but in the cloudy and smoke-laden European skies, they couldn’t find their targets, couldn’t see the aiming points, and were shot out of the skies by flak and by swarms of day fighters armed with 20mm cannon.  Losses were contained, not stopped, by the late introduction of long-range escort fighters, notably the P-51. Bombing was aided by electronic aids based on British inventions, but regardless of what might be claimed, blind bombing by a fleet of USAAF planes was little different in practice from British area bombing. If the primary target could not be found, USAAF crews, like the RAF, would drop their bombs on a secondary target, or failing that, anywhere on German soil. Let’s not forget that when the USAAF had to attack the Japanese military-industrial targets they immediately resorted to area bombing, and one fire-raid on Tokyo alone killed over 80,000 Japanese civilians.

Dresden was just one of many German cities attacked late in the war, with the twin aim of attacking communications and war production factories, and of discouraging further resistance. At the time, Dresden was considered a legitimate military target, and the British raid on 13/14 Feb 1945 was sanctioned at the highest level.  The USAAF was also involved, and they attacked Dresden three times over the same period. Nor was it the first time that Dresden had been bombed. Only in the following days, when news of the appalling loss of life reached Allied and neutral countries, was the raid seen as a moral problem.  During the furore in the following days and weeks, the USAAF did nothing to advertise their involvement (and who can blame them) while Churchill, who had sanctioned the raid, wrote a memo intended to distance himself from “acts of terror”.  The Russians, who had requested air support, denied that they had known Dresden was to be attacked – this from a regime not noted for its high regard for human life.

The exact death toll at Dresden seems to be unknown, because of the influx of refugees (tending to prove, incidentally, that it was a communications hub), but many other raids on Germany killed large numbers. Notably, a USAAF raid on Berlin on 3 February 1945, aimed at transportation, killed 25,000 people according to German reports.

None of this makes pleasant reading. There are also suggestions that the bombing was much less effective than claimed, and that German industrial production was little affected by the bombing.  It is true that bombing was inaccurate, and that industrial production maintained at high levels. On the other hand, most people on seeing photographs showing square miles of totally wrecked German cities would conclude that only an idiot would assert that this had no effect on industrial production.

The strategic difficulty in hitting production lies in the fact that the German facilities were not working flat- out, and that damage could be repaired. So if the Allies attack an industry and wreck three-quarters of it, production can immediately be restored to 50% by introducing double shifts, and after 25% repairs, production is back to 100%. Simples!

It is impossible to ascertain exactly what effect the bombing had, but one can conclude that it was significant.  It is more instructive to enquire what the outcome would have been if Germany had not been bombed at all. And it’s sobering: thousands more dual-purpose 88mm guns available for German armies (at one time German forces in North Africa had only a few dozen of them), thousands more men available to fight outside Germany, thousands more fighter planes and fighter pilots available for tactical attacks (doubling the available air forces), and millions more shells.  On the industrial front, time and capacity to develop and deploy jet fighters, pilot-less cruise missiles (V1) and rockets (V2), advanced U-boats, sundry ingenious hi-tech weapons, and four-engined strategic bombers, and fuel them. Let it not be forgotten that the Germans had radar, long-range rockets and jet fighters, and guided anti-ship bombs, and if they had not been hampered by bombing damage and lack of fuel, they could have made much more and earlier use of these to deadly effect before the Allies had them.

In such a scenario, the war might have lasted longer. And how would it have ended? In stalemate? or with German cities devastated by American atom bombs?

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