The Myths and Realities of the Strategic Bombing Offensive 1939-1945
Among the strongest images of World War II is that of waves of Allied bombers "striking at the heart" of Germany, reducing German cities to rubble and destroying the German will to fight. But of late the issue of the effectiveness of strategic bombing has become a contested one in Britain, and journalist Hastings' contribution to the debate is a crippling blow to the carefully constructed myth of bomber warfare. Deftly interweaving stories of individual bomber groups with the machinations of strategy-making and the development of aircraft technology, Hastings gives a complete--and striking--picture of the Bomber Command at every level. He argues that the myth of bomber effectiveness was set before the outbreak of war; and despite the disastrous early bombing raids, with their high losses and missed targets, the myth died hard. He emphasizes the technological and strategic primitiveness that prevailed at that stage--the most pitiful example being the inability of the Wellington bombers to defend themselves against attack from the side, since their machine-gun turrets could rotate only 80 degrees. At first, the British had such confidence in their "precision bombing" that they made elaborate efforts to avoid civilian targets; but in 1942, with the ineffectiveness of their raids beginning to show, they switched to a policy of area bombing. The justification rested on three pillars: retribution for the German bombing of British cities, the crippling of the German production capacity, and the destruction of German morale. As Hastings notes, the moral implications of the choice were never discussed; and to the above list he adds a critical fourth element--by going over whole-hog to this policy, the British could prolong the opening of the "Second Front" and keep their losses to the 50,000 airmen killed. Hastings argues that strategic bombing did not significantly shorten the war, since it was ineffective until the tide had already turned. But the center of the book is the airmen themselves, who were offered up for slaughter--the chances of any of them lasting a month were slim--and who were transformed during the war from high-living adventurers to highly-trained technocrats. He manages, tersely, to convey something of the horror they experienced over Germany. A successful book in every way; thoughtfully analytic and emotionally gripping at the same time.