Death from the skies

Today, our apocalyptic visions are of terrorism and climate change, not the bomber or nuclear missile. In this respect, Europeans inhabit a rather different mental landscape from the one where they lived 70, 50 or even as recently as 30 years ago.

The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945
Richard Overy
Allen Lane, 880pp, £30

Churchill’s Bomb: a Hidden History of Science, War and Politics
Graham Farmelo
Faber & Faber, 576pp, £25

Things to Come, a British film released in 1936, epitomised a prevalent fear of the interwar years: that the next great conflict would bring terror bombing and that the death and destruction rained down from the skies would cause civilisation to collapse. A central theme of Richard Overy’s magisterial book The Bombing War is that the most extreme fears were not realised.

Although the Second World War was the most bloody and ruinous conflict in history, much of the damage was caused in the old-fashioned way – by soldiers on the ground. About 51,000 people were killed by the Axis bombing of the Soviet Union but this was a small proportion of the approximately 27 million (no one will ever know the precise number) killed in the Nazi-Soviet war. The Luftwaffe were usually deployed in support of ground forces. Soviet cities were bombed but the German high command never launched a thoroughgoing strategic air campaign against them.

The British and Americans did wage a prolonged campaign against enemy cities, intended to destroy the German state’s ability to wage war. Some leaders, such as Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, believed that this could make conventional operations obsolete. Yet the view that bombing could make D-Day unnecessary proved to be hopelessly optimistic. The Anglo-American bombing campaign, like the German attacks on Britain in 1940-41, caused considerable damage and death but failed to achieve its objectives. Air power was simply ineffective.

Sometimes, mass attacks by bombers could deliver an awesome level of crude, destructive power. Such was the case with the attacks by the RAF and USAAF on Hamburg in July 1943. On that occasion, everything went right. For the first time, the Allies used “window” – strips of metallic foil – to jam German radar. The hot, dry weather was perfect to create a firestorm. About 18,500 people were killed by the RAF on the night of 27-28 July, of some 37,000 overall.

For every Hamburg, however, there were numerous raids, costly in aircraft and aircrew, that failed to produce such results. The only way that Harris’s strategic vision could have been realised was if the Allied air forces had had the ability to destroy German cities at regular and short intervals. It takes nothing away from the courage of the Allied aircrew to state that this was simply beyond the technological capabilities of air forces in the prenuclear age. As Overy argues, the US approach of attacking economic targets, especially communication networks and oil storage, ultimately proved more rewarding than Harris’s attempts at city-busting. Even so, the Allies greatly underestimated the resilience of the German economy, just as they had made that mistake about German society.

One of the most important positives from the Allies’ huge investment in bombers (which included the industries to build them and the infrastructure to keep them in the air) was indirect: the Germans were forced to commit resources to home defence – antiaircraft guns, aircraft, optical sights, manpower – that could not be put to other uses.

“Without bombing,” Overy soberly concludes, “the German war effort would have been as free to optimise the use of resources and conduct the military war effort as was the United States.” The Allied (and particularly the British) air strategy may have been wasteful and wrong-headed – and perhaps immoral – but it did contribute to winning the war.

Between 1940 and 1944 bombing helped to make Churchill’s preferred strategy a reality: avoiding the large-scale commitment of British ground troops (and thus minimising the risk of casualties on the scale of 1914-18); fighting on the peripheries; and, after June 1941, relying on the Red Army to eviscerate the Wehrmacht. However unproductive it may have been, Bomber Command struck night after night at the heart of Germany, and in the absence of a conventional second front this allowed Churchill to look Stalin in the eye. The apocalyptic interwar fears of the destructive powers of bombing may have been exaggerated but their influence shaped a pillar of wartime Allied strategy.

Overy’s authoritative book, the product of many years of archival research, is undoubtedly one of the most important on the Second World War to appear in recent times. He ranges widely over the subject, discussing among other things the little-known campaign against Mussolini’s Italy. Looking at the bombed as well as the bomber, Overy takes a sharply revisionist view of the Blitz. His eye-opening conclusion is that more Britons died than was necessary because many refused to take shelter during raids, which was in part a consequence of official ineptitude in shelter provision.

In 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb and the interwar fear of the bomber was reborn in a more terrible form. Over 20 years earlier, Churchill had dimly glimpsed the future of warfare. In an article entitled “Shall we all commit suicide?” he wrote of a tiny bomb that harnessed “a secret power . . . to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke”.

To compound the misery, Churchill foresaw that politicians would prove incapable of coping with these new weapons and in a blood-curdling passage speculated on what would happen should “a base, degenerate, immoral race” possess “some new deathdealing or terror-working process” and be “ruthless in its employment”. Churchill had been assisted in his work by “the Prof”, Frederick Lindemann, a much-loathed Oxford academic scientist. Lindemann became Churchill’s principal scientific adviser. That did not matter much during the years in opposition but after Churchill got the keys to No 10, Lindemann, later ennobled as Lord Cherwell, mattered a great deal.

The Churchill/Lindemann relationship is at the heart of Graham Farmelo’s Churchill’s Bomb. Churchill had a lively but untrained mind and an early scientific mentor was H G Wells, whose writings included the novel on which Things to Come was based. Wells was superseded by Lindemann, who typically regarded his rival as “second-rate”.

Farmelo makes a persuasive and erudite case that Lindemann had a malign influence on Churchill’s attitudes towards the atomic bomb. He insulated Churchill, who treated the “British nuclear project” like “a private fiefdom”, from alternative counsel and gave misleading advice. Lindemann’s overoptimistic view of what Britain could achieve alone fed into Churchill’s rejection of FDR’s wartime proposal of co-operation in what was to become the Manhattan Project. The result was that, in the nuclear stakes, Britain was left standing while the US raced ahead.

Britain’s bomb, begun under the postwar Attlee government, was developed at a time when the US had barred any foreign powers from collaboration in the nuclear field. In short, Churchill had fulfilled his prediction about politicians’ incapability to cope when given dreadful new weapons by scientists. Farmelo’s gripping and readable study shines a bright light on a relatively unfamiliar aspect of the career of the best-known Briton of the 20th century.

Both Overy’s and Farmelo’s books tacitly underline how threats have changed over the years. Today, our apocalyptic visions are of terrorism and climate change, not the bomber or nuclear missile. In this respect, Europeans inhabit a rather different mental landscape from the one where they lived 70, 50 or even as recently as 30 years ago.

Bombs away: British RAF men in 1940. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge