Once more to Dresden

The Bomber War: Arthur Harris and the allied bomber offensive 1939-1945

Robin Neillands<em> John M

If only Bomber Harris had stopped before Dresden, then Robin Neillands's attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the man who led the British air attack on Germany during the Second World War would have been far easier. The RAF raids on Dresden, on the night of 13 February 1945, did most to hurt Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris in the public mind. The criticism began the morning after those raids and has never stopped. Today, he is accused of causing the deaths of at least 35,000 women and children (some estimates say 135,000) while having achieved nothing.

Neillands, a distinguished military historian, is only partly successful in his chosen task. But in his timing, at least, he can't be faulted: the central debates are still blazing. The Kosovo conflict raised again the question as to whether Harris was right in his belief that air power alone can win a war. The Ministry of Defence recently sent the Cabinet a new report on the old, wistful theme that new weapons should soon make it possible to remove forces from the front line and to fight a war without casualties. This faith in technology is apparently shared by the new Bush administration, committed as it is to a system of missile defence.

Harris was 50 when, in February 1942, he took control of RAF Bomber Command, a position he held until the end of the war. From the start, he made no secret of his doctrine: "There are a lot of people who say that bombing cannot win the war. My reply to that is that it has never been tried . . . and we shall see." His motivation was shared by many - the memory of the casualties of the Somme. As a tactic for winning resources and keeping the air force out of the control of both the army and the navy, it proved successful. However, although Neillands suggests that with more resources Harris might have triumphed, the doctrine remained unproven. Instead, in an attempt to clinch victory, Harris exchanged the principle of bombing only military targets for the "area bombing" of cities, with the inevitable civilian casualties.

If there is one point on which Neillands is overwhelmingly successful, it is in explaining the motivation for that change of course. It is easy for armchair generals these days to forget the obstacles faced by the crews. Navigation equipment was still so poor that a survey in August 1941 found that only one in three bombs was dropped in an area of 75 square miles around the target. Neillands is particularly good on the US Eighth Air Force's commitment to an impossible policy of "precision bombing" by day, a tactic that worked well over the cloudless plains of the US but brought heavy losses for little gain over the Continent. As Neillands dryly notes: "Today's technology may be more advanced, but it was notable that the laser-guided bombs failed to hit their targets in Serbia or Kosovo if cloud intervened, and many missions had to be called off because the weather was unfavourable; five decades after the ending of the Second World War, one can only wonder when weapons scientists are going to notice that European skies are frequently cloudy."

Although the RAF officially set the rate of "acceptable losses" at 4 per cent, on some attacks the level was a third. During the war, 51 per cent, or 55,000, of Bomber Command air crew were killed; the US Eighth Air Force lost 26,000. One of The Bomber War's greatest strengths is the many deeply moving personal accounts, included at length, from the British and American crews who flew out, night after night, into a swarm of German fighters, of struggling out of the escape hatches of their burning aircraft.

Neillands tries, with some justice, to argue that the Dresden raid was planned and ordered by Harris's superiors, but there is no doubt that he supported it. Neillands suggests that Harris, exhausted after three years, had offered in a coded way to resign, and that this should have been accepted. "It would hardly have affected the outcome of the war, but it would have been a kindness to Harris." It would have saved his health and public reputation.

Harris's belief in the sufficiency of air power remains unproven. Neillands appears to be among those who hold that the Kosovo war was won from the air. However, it took the threat of a ground war, and signs that the Russians were withdrawing their tacit support, to force Slobodan Milosevic to back down. Hiroshima and Nagasaki together remain the only example, but one that many would regard as a special case - one that says more about nuclear strikes than about air power itself.

Yet since Harris's day, the willingness of democratic governments to risk military casualties has diminished. In the US, it is close to zero; Britain and France remain the significant exceptions. Until the technologists' dream of bloodless war fought with crewless planes and missiles at a distance becomes real, governments will find themselves hoping against historical evidence - hoping that Harris was right and that air power alone will win. As in Kosovo, they will find that they are wrong, and the burden will fall on those countries willing to risk lives.

Bronwen Maddox is the foreign editor of the Times