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

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle