Monday, February 29, 2016

The Bombing War - Richard Overy

I read another of Overy's books, Why the Allies Won, last summer. The Bombing War is, as the title suggests, concerned with the bombing campaigns during World War 2. Specifically the strategic bombing war, as opposed to the tactical. The difference being he uses the former to refer to when you do stuff like a bomb a munitions plant, versus the latter, attacking enemy troops or their lines of supply closer to the front. He's expanding on one of the chapters from the earlier book, which examined the Allies attempts to beat Germany by destroying their economy and will to fight by dropping a shitload of explosives and incendiaries on their homes.

Overy covers pretty much all examples of strategic bombing on either side in the European theater (I was surprised he ignores the Pacific Theater, considering the U.S. firebombed Japan like crazy, and before that, Japan had carried out a few bombing raids against Chinese cities). Typically he assess the aggressor's approach, how that shifts over time, how the people in charge came to decide on the idea of bombing the populace, and how they justified its continuation. Then he'll look at what steps each country took to prepare for having their cities bombed, how well or poorly those preparations fared, and try to assess how the populace reacted to it, who they were angry at, what they were focused on. Those were often the most interesting parts, because the bombing often did not produce the responses either side was expecting

That the various bombing campaigns largely failed to achieve the goals their supporters claimed was not a surprise. I've read too many books already about how horribly inaccurate high-altitude bombing was in World War 2. Overy notes that during some of Britain's earliest nighttime raids against germany, their attacks were so inaccurate the Germans could not figure out what the British were trying to attack. So they concluded these were random attacks carried out specifically to terrorize the German populace.

Of course, then the British decided to just roll with their inability to hit anything smaller than a city, and opted to just target entire cities and bomb them, figuring hey, it kills Germans, that's good enough. I mean, the Americans were pretty inaccurate as well, but were in theory at least trying to hit specific targets they thought might hamper the German war effort, like oil refineries and railway hubs.

There are times I think Overy includes too much information, and I started to get bogged down in numbers that probably could have been summarized to the same effect. That said, he set out to do a thorough look at those bombing campaigns, and he did it. I learned a lot from it, so no complaints there. It could be a frustrating book for me to read, because the whole attempt to defeat another country by this method seems like such a waste of time and lives, something acknowledged by many of the people making decisions during the war, yet they kept doing it. Because they figured they had to do something, essentially. Also, there's a section in the chapters on bombing Italy that discusses how worried the Allies were about destroying some of the valuable works of art there, or possibly pissing off Catholics by bombing the Pope with mis-aimed bombs. It's like, sure kill children and nuns, but don't damage that statue!

'The destruction of Hamburg in an uncontrollable firestorm on the night of 27-28 July 1943 is often presented as if it were an accident, the result of exceptional meteorological conditions and the failure of German defences, and not a product of deliberate intention. This is to misunderstand entirely the purpose of the city-bombing campaign, which was predicated from the start on causing as much general damage and loss of life as possible by means of large-scale fires. The firebombing of Hamburg was not exceptional. Not for nothing was its vulnerability rated 'outstanding', it was expected to burn well.'

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