A FEW MONTHS AGO, I saw Fury with one part of my family, and then accompanied my teenage daughters to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. Having been immersed at that time in Richard Overy’s The Bombers and the Bombed, both films resonated with me in different ways, offering a perspective on the age of air power seventy years after the last devastating air raids in Europe in the spring of 1945.
Fury is a conventional historical tale about the Second World War, specifically the end of that war on the ground in Germany. In the film, the war in the air mostly exists at a distance. At one point, the very small band of brothers in a tank spot Allied bombers flying overhead, and their leader cheers them on. At another point, one of the crew points to the rising dark clouds of smoke from a burning city. We see refugees presumably fleeing such destruction, and, in one set piece, we see how the air war could within minutes devastate civilian lives and homes. A young GI is having a sexual encounter with a young German woman in a top-floor flat when the American planes attack, and the next moment, he is digging through the rubble to find her body. We see little else of the terror that air raids were meant to inflict on civilians. Nor do we get any sense that there was a vast apparatus whose purpose was to enable populations at home to endure aerial attacks akin to the military infrastructure that enabled such attacks to take place.
To get a sense of that terror, you would need to watch the men, women, and children of The Hunger Games’s District 13 under aerial attack, to see them scrambling for safety as sirens wail, huddling in the dark while watching the plaster crack as the bombs pound them relentlessly from the air. Even Katniss Everdeen, the heroic protagonist, needs her sister to “talk about something” to distract her from the sounds and shaking of the air raid at its most intense. What is so terrible about the raid is that the best those targeted can do is endure and survive. No civilian on the ground or in the bunker can fight back. And this has been the case since the dawn of aerial warfare a hundred years ago.
A First World War British recruiting poster produced after the initial 1915 zeppelin raids against that homeland proclaimed: “It is far better to face the bullets than to be killed at home by a bomb.” Part of the rationale behind that slogan lay in the possibility of doing something, rather than sitting and waiting to see if one’s luck held. The key role for “the bombed” is passive; hence the French referred to the policies and structures designed to safeguard civilians as “défense passive” — passive defense. From the outset, what became known in Britain (and elsewhere in the English-speaking world) as “civil defense” was as much about managing civilian fears and maintaining morale as about practical measures to withstand physical damage.
The authorities were right to worry. Writing in her diary in September 1938, about the dry run of British civil defense measures during the Munich Crisis, Vivienne Hall captured the type of anxiety that civil defense was trying to eradicate:
God, how I hate this business of fighting for life against something we can't understand or can't even see! A vast and efficient defence organisation is moving — books are delivered to everyone on the simplest forms of self-protection against gas, incendiary bombs, splinters, fire, water, the pathetic preparations of thousands of ants against the unknown horror of an aerial boot poised above our heads!
In many ways Hall’s fears confirm the entire premise behind air power as articulated by its main 20th-century theorist, Giulio Douhet, of its unrelenting capacity to demoralize enemy civilians, using them to force their government to sue for peace. In practice, air power has never yielded that result. Yet the history of modern, industrialized warfare is inseparable from the rise of the bomber and the experience of being bombed.
Given that we are the inheritors of the 20th-century modes of warfare that rely on air power, from the zeppelins to the bombers to the drones, it is startling that we have waited this long for a history that places the stories of those doing the bombing alongside those victimized by such attacks. Already the author of a number of key works on the Second World War, including a fine military account of the air war, Richard Overy offers an important contribution to our understanding of just what the air war meant for those few orchestrating, as well those many living through, its most widespread uses.
That said, the most important contribution of the book is as a study of the bombers and of the rationale behind area attacks or strategic bombing by the Allies. Overy is not interested, for the most part, in what the actual bombers — the pilots and air crews — felt about their experiences. For that, one would need to turn to such works as Martin Francis’s eloquent and sensitive study of the men of the Royal Air Force in The Flyer. While Overy draws on an impressive range of sources from across the participant states in the air wars, his book includes relatively few voices from the bombed. However, as an overview of what the Americans and British both intended and accomplished with the air war against Germany, one would be hard-pressed to find a better account.
Overy begins with the largely unknown story of the bombing of Bulgaria during the Second World War, an irony given the also little-known fact that the modern aerial bomb was invented there. Bulgaria offers a useful touchstone for the study, because it was a case where attacks fulfilled primarily political (rather than military) aims. As Overy repeatedly shows, the acceptance of aerial warfare during the Second World War hinged on a belief that modern total war was fought between peoples, not merely armies. As such, both the bombers and the bombed blamed modern war itself, “as if it enjoyed some kind of existence independent of the particular air fleets inflicting the damage,” rather than decrying the enemy for its barbarism. In this sense, the understanding of air power changed from its initial uses in the First World War, in part because of interwar preparations and the escalation in scale during the Second World War.
Much of Overy’s study analyzes why area bombing did not work; why it failed to disrupt civilian populations sufficiently to end the will to wage war, and how — despite evidence to this effect — Allied air command, representing liberal states, continued to allow devastation largely aimed at civilians. Part of this was triggered by the sense of quid pro quo that bombing elicited from its earliest uses; for Britain by early 1941, “the Blitz had finally eroded any serious concern about the morality of bombing the civilians of a state whose air force had killed almost 30,000 British civilians in four months.” Perhaps as significant, regardless of its military effectiveness, “the percentages in favour of bombing German civilians expressed in British opinion polls rose from less than half in 1940 to almost two-thirds by 1944, a reflection of popular anxiety to end the war quickly and a growing familiarity with bombing as a central pillar of Allied strategy.” In other words, public and official belief in the ability of bombing campaigns to hasten the war’s end led to a firmer commitment to engage in the practice regardless of lack of evidence showing it was working and of the moral implications of raids such as the February 13–14 one on Dresden that “killed approximately 25,000 people in a few hours.” This and the other raids on eastern Germany cities were intended to hasten Allied victory, undertaken with full knowledge that “these were cities filled with civilian refugees from further east, whose destruction was likely to cause not just dislocation but high casualties as well.” In the war’s aftermath, both German and Allied experts concurred that the air war was never “critical” for victory. Thus, substantive chapters reveal in detail the policies and practices that governed the air war over Germany, and while Overy carefully evaluates why these endured, he does so without casting judgment on the motives of the bombers.
Subsequent chapters take up the experiences of the bombed themselves, with case studies of the better-known German and lesser-known Italian home fronts under fire. In many ways, the most complicated and interesting case presented here for thinking through the bombing war is that of attacks on the German occupied territories of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway. It is here where almost 30 percent of the tonnage of Allied bombs fell. Bombing campaigns intensified in these regions, especially in France between 1942–1944. And while the Germans tried to elicit sympathy by denouncing Allied air raids as a “war on civilians,” the French resistance “took the view that those killed in Allied bombings were in some sense not victims, but combatants in a war for the liberation […] of the nation.” This was in keeping with the rhetoric of modern, total war where civilians going about their daily lives could also be construed as combatants. Above all, the continued belief that aerial bombing would shorten the war and ultimately save more lives led to a continued willingness by the bombers to accept large-scale civilian casualties.
This is a significant contribution to an ongoing debate up through the age of drones about the purposes of bombing from the air and its intended and unintended consequences. Overy’s measured assessment stands in stark contrast to other interventions in this field such as the powerful collection of essays Bombing Civilians, which begins, “In plain language, ‘strategic bombing’ of civilians is an act of terrorism.” The ethical debates over the targeting of civilians from the sky have abated but little despite concerted efforts to prevent “collateral damage,” that euphemism for noncombatant death and injury. As Overy concludes: “the experience of the bombing war helped to shape the Cold War confrontation of mutual destruction or mutual deterrence,” and war-making states have been building on this legacy ever since. Overy’s purpose is narrative rather than engaging directly with the moral questions raised about bombing as such. By showing how air power was understood at the time on both ends of the bomb, he succeeds admirably in helping understand the context for further ethical debates up to the present.
Air power was meant to be efficacious; in practice, it was anything but. In the half-century and more since the end of this devastating war, societies have done much to remember the combatant dead, but only slowly have the civilian victims of the air war been added to war memorials that dot Europe. Perhaps no more fitting tribute could be made to them than ongoing attempts to understand the rise and legacy of air power. Overy’s book contributes to this by shedding further light on a past that continues to haunt the present.
Susan R. Grayzel is Professor of History at the University of Mississippi.