Historians still argue over how much, if at all, strategic bombing contributed to defeating Hitler. This magisterial overview will not end the debate, but it skillfully illuminates all sides.
Demonstrating his exhaustive research, Overy (History/Univ. of Exeter; 1939: Countdown to War, 2011) begins the first chapter, “Bombing Bulgaria,” with a description of a destructive campaign that undermined the pro-German government, which managed to persist until the Soviet army arrived. Few readers will ignore the lesson. Throughout World War II, British Bomber command believed that it could devastate the war-making capacities of the Nazis. Within months, losses forced a switch to nighttime bombing, which made accuracy nearly impossible. Overy delivers an insightful analysis of how all nations reversed their abhorrence of killing civilians when it became unavoidable. The British were not taking revenge for the Blitz; their conversion had already occurred. The United States assumed its more heavily armed bombers (with lesser payloads) could defend themselves during the day and hit targets precisely. Both beliefs proved wrong, but America stuck to daylight bombing despite terrible losses. Both nations exaggerated the damage that their bombers caused, but good evidence exists that a major effort against Nazi oil production caused crippling shortages during 1944 and 1945. Overy provides an eye-opening and often distressing account of the bombing of Europe’s occupied nations, whose defenses were far less prepared than Germany’s. More bombs fell on France and Italy than England. “The moral response to bombing and being bombed was historically complex and sometimes surprising,” writes the author.
Readers looking for dramatic accounts of specific bombing missions should read a selection of books by British military historian Martin Middlebrook. For a far more expansive view that includes those on the receiving end, Overy is the choice.