The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945

Richard Overy

Allen Lane 2013
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
Covering the European theatre in the Second World War, The Bombing War restricts itself to strategic bombing, not treating the use of air power in support of army or navy operations, but extends widely within that remit. So it covers the planning and execution and subsequent evaluation of both offensive and defensive campaigns, including civil defence systems.

Some details of individual air raids and of the specifications of planes and so forth do appear, but mostly only where of broader significance: raids of symbolic or destructive importance, radar and targeting innovations, extensions to escort fighter range, and so forth. Command structures and their changes are treated in detail, along with the role played by key individuals within them, but Overy never lapses into biography. And the effects of bombing on popular morale and attempts to evaluate that response are a central concern, but the experience of being bombed is really only touched on (as are the psychological stresses faced by bomber crews).

As well as the three major campaigns — the German attack on Britain from 1940 to 1941, the British bombing of Germany from 1939 to 1942, and the combined Allied offensive from 1943 to 1945 — The Bombing War also covers several smaller, much less well-studied campaigns. Those include: German attacks against Soviet cities and the Soviet responses, though "the air war on the Eastern front remained for almost all its course a tactical one", with air power deployed in support of ground operations; Italian bombing and the attack on Malta; the bombing of Italy itself, as a German ally and then under occupation; Allied attacks on occupied Europe more broadly; and the bombing of German ally Bulgaria. (The restriction to Europe seems a little artificial, since American bombing in the Pacific theatre surely can't have been disconnected from bombing in Europe, even if Japanese use of air power in China and elsewhere was largely independent.)

An opening chapter surveys popular, political and military ideas about bombing before 1940, exploring the extent to which they envisaged an independent strategic role for air power and contributed to later acceptance of attacks on cities. Only Britain and the United States (and the latter only unofficially, among elements of the air force) really had the idea of an "independent strategic air offensive as the decisive means to undermine the enemy war effort". Other air forces were more focused on operational support of land warfare.

Overy follows the Germans in treating the Battle of Britain and the Blitz as one campaign. One notable feature is that, until the later "Baedeker raids" in 1942, there was no attempt at terror bombing: after attacks were shifted from airfields and the aircraft industry, the new goal was strategic support of the war on shipping and it was poor delivery that resulted in working class suburbs near docks being struck. "The German air offensive was, however, a classic example of a strategy pursued before its time"; its most significant effect was in "a large net diversion of resources" within the British war economy. A separate chapter "British Society and the Blitz" covers civil defence preparations, the provision of shelters, evacuations, damage limitation, and concerns about and attempts to evaluate and maintain civilian morale.

It lacked the resources to implement it, but the British air force started the war with a strategic bombing mandate. Even before the Blitz, it had been decided to target German morale by attacking city areas in order to kill people and destroy houses; this was reinforced by the experience of German bombing. Early raids were ineffective and costly, however, and Bomber Command was slow to learn from its mistakes, or to improve targeting technologies; there was an "inability to relate means and ends more rationally to maximise effectiveness and cope with enemy defences". Major bombing raids were stopped in early 1942 and not resumed for almost a year.

The United States Eighth Air Force learned from British experience and had, after a slow build up, vastly more resources, some of which went into planning. Raids were driven by economic goals and aimed at "linchpins" such as ball-bearing production or more general oil and transport targets, though in practice they were "often little distinguishable from area raiding". A period of attrition was followed by a successful campaign to neutralise German fighters and establish air superiority over Germany. This allowed much greater targeting freedom, but Bomber Command persisted in night raids on urban targets, most controversially in the attack on Dresden in February 1945.

Overy's account of "German Society under the Bombs" covers both civil defence measures and the struggle to maintain economic output, from pre-war planning and early raids, through the "great catastrophes" of 1942-1943, notably the devastating raids on Hamburg in July 1943, to the really intensive bombing towards the end of the war. "The effect of bombing was not, in the end, as the Allies hoped, to drive a wedge between people and regime, but the opposite, to increase dependence on the state and the Party and to prompt willing participation by civilians in structures designed for their own defence with a remarkable degree of social discipline."

The air forces involved tried hard to evaluate their own performance, both during the campaigns and, for the victors, in the aftermath of the war. Overy's own conclusion, in a final chapter on "The Balance Sheet of Bombing", is that all three major strategic bombing campaigns were failures, even in their own terms; across Europe, strategic bombing also killed some half a million civilians. An epilogue looks at the influence of the Second World War experience on post-war policy.

October 2014

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%T The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945
%A Overy, Richard
%I Allen Lane
%D 2013
%O hardcover, bibliography, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780713995619
%P 852pp