Strategic bombing, 1939-45
A costly, brutal failure
A damning verdict on the bombing campaign in Europe during the second world war
The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. By Richard Overy. Allen Lane; 852 pages; £30. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
What is still surprising, in retrospect, is how successful combatant air forces were in commanding valuable resources while their achievements were so hard to quantify. It was understandable that the British, with no other means of striking back at Germany in the early stages of the war, were prepared to devote such a huge effort to making bombing a success. However, the 40% of the armed forces’ direct military budget that was consumed by the proponents of air power during the war, together with the diversion of skilled technical and scientific manpower that went with it, looks like poor value for money now…
Mr Overy’s final verdict…is damning. He argues that “strategic bombing proved in the end to be inadequate in its own terms for carrying out its principle assignments and was morally compromised by deliberate escalation against civilian populations.” Nor has it left any real legacy. It was rapidly rendered redundant by the overwhelming but (since 1945 at least) unusable destructive power of nuclear weapons. More recently, bombing has come full circle. Precision-guided munitions now allow Western air forces to hit military targets while leaving even nearby civilians often largely unscathed—the precise opposite of what prevailed during the second world war.
One must understand though that when the British in 1940-41 made the decisions to devote so many resources to aerial bombardment it was the only way open to them to try and hit back hard at Germany (and until June 1941 they were without a large ally). So at the time it made sense; and later was too late efficiently to redirect all those industrial and human resources committed to attacking German cities.
Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds