500,000 killed in Allied bombing raids

Richard Overy
The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945
By Jörg Friedrich (Columbia University Press 532pp £21.95)
Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943
By Keith Lowe (Viking 489pp £25)

'Are we beasts?' asked Winston Churchill one night in 1943 after watching a film of the bomb damage done to Germany. The question was probably rhetorical: Churchill had authorised the bombing campaign from its puny beginnings in 1940 to the massive Combined Offensive launched with the American air forces in the last two years of war. His language was always intemperate and flowery - 'extermination', 'annihilation' and so on. Did he mean it? Did the British military machine set out deliberately in the Second World War on a path to the genocide of the German people?

This issue lies at the heart of Jörg Friedrich's searing account of the bombing of around 150 German cities between 1940 and 1945. In Germany his book sold half-a-million copies. He is the first German historian to expose in remorseless, almost unreadable detail just what the millions of tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs did to Germany's people and its cultural heritage. Most British readers will be familiar with Dresden, which has come to symbolise the awful horror of a ruthless total war. What they will not know is the fate of a host of other small cities - Kassel, Paderborn, Aachen, Swinemünde, and many more - which were all but obliterated by the bombing, or of the many large cities such as Cologne or Essen which experienced more than 250 raids each, so many that at the end the bombers were simply turning ruins into ruins.

Friedrich never quite says that this campaign was genocidal, but his language, too, is immoderate and reproachful. These are massacres, the cellars in which ordinary Germans were roasted to death become 'crematoria', and the bomber crews are exterminating the enemy, not simply destroying his will to resist. He places blame for this squarely on Winston Churchill, whose 'bloody will', as he calls it, drove on the campaign, and whose occasional second thoughts were always suppressed in favour of doing more of the same until the famous point just after Dresden when he finally, and far too late, told Bomber Command not to bomb just for the sake of pure terror. He finds reasons for Churchill's attitude: Britain's ineffectual war effort could do little else for three years after expulsion from France in 1940; the radicalisation of bombing policy reflected the limitations of the air weapon; the necessity of showing Stalin that Britain meant business compelled a raising of the stakes of horror for the political effect it might have. But killing as many German civilians as possible in ways that became progressively more grotesque was Britain's strategy from 1940 to the last attacks in April 1945.

This is a point of view that will probably not go down well with the British public and this is all to the good. For too long the obsession with the Second World War has sustained cosy myths about the Blitz spirit. Schoolchildren are invited to share the Blitz experience or imagine themselves as wistful evacuees. Friedrich's book should explode this domesticated bombing culture once and for all. Bombing was horrific above everything that civilians had to endure from warfare; Friedrich's book is a raw account of how it was under the bombs for five years. The more remarkable thing is just how the German population endured it without the 'collapse of morale' that the Allied planners sought. Friedrich has little explanation of how or why; his intention is to restore a lost narrative of the war and to remind the British public that it was their grandparents' generation who did this.

Friedrich does not, however, tell it just as it was, and this is a pity. The central claims in the book scarcely stand up to historical scrutiny. It was not just Bomber Command that was responsible for the estimated 450,000 dead; the US air forces soon abandoned any pretence that they could bomb with precision, and two-thirds of their bombs were dropped blind through cloud and smog. A staggering 87 per cent of all bombs missed their target. American planes also killed tens of thousands of civilians. Nor was Bomber Command ever ordered exclusively to murder the German population. The directive for 'area attacks' of 14 February 1942 contained a long appendix, not mentioned by Friedrich, which listed more precise military and economic target systems, while limiting attacks on cities to those with large industrial areas and extensive workers' housing. For much of the last year of war, Bomber Command was ordered to attack transport, oil and other military targets linked with the war on land as it rolled across the German homeland in 1945. Of course all these attacks, British and American, resulted in massive civilian casualty and the destruction of city centres, but it is important to get the history right before trying to argue that Bomber Command alone undertook deliberate and sustained campaigns to annihilate the civil population. In any assessment of crime, motive must be properly established.

The bomber was a terribly blunt instrument in the Second World War. Even with smart bombs in today's wars, civilians suffer all the time. Recognising that, the British and Americans ought to have abandoned the attack on the home front since it clearly violated the agreed rules of engagement in war, even if it did not formally violate international law. Neville Chamberlain in September 1939 ordered Bomber Command to avoid any attacks that ran the risk of killing a single civilian; Churchill, his successor early in May 1940, ordered bombing to begin at once. Friedrich is right to see Churchill as the driving force behind the campaign, and to recognise that his ruthless bellicosity might even have embraced gas or germ warfare if there had been sufficient threat from the enemy. The important thing to learn from this is just why the two major democracies engaged in the end in forms of total war that abandoned altogether the moral high ground they had tried to occupy in the 1930s. Even Truman, no flamboyant warrior like Churchill, authorised the dropping of the atomic bombs. This is a question Friedrich makes little attempt to answer beyond asserting that killing civilians was Britain's soft option.

There was something almost biblical about the bombing campaign, with its vocabulary of retribution and destruction. It is therefore not so surprising that the plan to destroy Hamburg in 1943 was code-named Operation Gomorrah, Harris's version of 'Shock and Awe'. Keith Lowe's Inferno tells a story that is well-known in outline, if less familiar in the detail. He has searched German sources well and, like Friedrich, focuses on the story on the ground. His tone is matter-of-fact rather than literary, but the history is scrupulous. Hamburg endured the first firestorm, losing perhaps 45,000 people. This had not been planned, but a combination of bomb density and meteorological conditions made it possible. Hamburg had been an Anglophile city, with strong liberal and, more recently, social-democrat and communist politics. Yet the working-class, anti-Nazi districts were the ones to be destroyed. Lowe's account is sensitive to all the paradoxes of the bombing war and in a no-nonsense conclusion he reminds readers that at least the bombing finally knocked militarism out of the German people. A point of view, perhaps, but not one that Friedrich would much care for.

There is no doubt that The Fire will create a stir. Reading it more than sixty years after the event, it seems hard to believe that the countries of the Western world battered each other's cities and killed in excess of 650,000 people to save their particular versions of civilisation. The real merit of both these books may be the realisation once and for all among those Western democratic publics that bombing should be confined to history.