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.

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

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.