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Saturday, June 07, 2014

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch review of Bomber Command by Max Hastings

Whether the intense bombing of Germany was crucial in advancing the allied cause and preventing wholesale slaughter as in World War I remains a controversial topic, still unresolved. The fact remains that many hundreds of thousands of Germans were killed in firestorm raids, whose sole intent, admitted by the British, was to demoralize the enemy. But at what cost. The British lost more officers to aircraft casualties than they had in all of WW I and the pitiful survival rate of a bomber crew was matched only by German U-boat crews. Was this decisive? Or merely catastrophic as Sir Henry Tizard feared already in 1942.

As early as 1920 J.F.C. Fuller, who later became an opponent of using the bomber as a strategic weapon, foresaw "Fleets of aeroplanes will attack the enemy's great industrial and governing centres. All these attacks will be made against the civil population in order to compel it to accept the will of the attacker." Despite the intense debate before the war on the value of attacking enemy cities (and publicly there was a great fear of being attacked from the air given the casualty projections of bomber attacks on English cities) the English bomber command, even two years into the war, was unable to find German cities at night in 1941, let alone bomb them. All of their preparations had been based on totally unrealistic training and false assumptions on the value of self-defending bomber formations.

Prior to the start of the war, there was no understanding of how best to destroy structures using explosives. The high command had preferred using-ten 200 lb. bombs instead of one 2000 lb bomb because at least that way there was a slight chance of hitting the target. Despite their public positions, everyone knew that in reality, bombing was about destroying morale, not buildings.

Attacks on civilians had been verboten for fear of German reprisals. They were even afraid to bomb anything that could be construed as private property. So at the beginning of the war, attacks had been limited to naval targets, objectives they were ill-equipped for, especially since they were directed to fly above 10,000 feet in order to avoid was was ill-conceived to be the principle danger: flak. In reality, it was German fighters who caused substantial damage, but in typical higher rank myopia, the losses were blamed on crew who did not keep tight enough formation. This, in spite of not providing self-sealing fuel tanks (a bullet hit often turned leaking fuel into an inferno) and rear turrets that failed to traverse more than eighty degrees (for fear of shooting their own tails off. Flying above 10,000 feet made the grease in the turrets so cold, thee turrets often failed to rotate, anyway.

The only thing that saved Britain was probably that a decision had been made by the German High Command to invest in light bombers which could be used to support ground troops during the Blitzkrieg. They had more and better planes, but the British emphasized larger strategic bombers although planes like the Blenheim were incredible flying coffins, especially since all the resources had gone toward self-defended bombers rather than any money toward fighter escorts. The Blenheims were sent out in droves. They were shot down by the dozens, often none in a mission returned. The average lifespan of a crew was barely a couple of weeks.

Mistakes were common. One crew that flew through a severe magnetic storm discovered to its horror after their return that they had mistaken the Thames estuary for that of the Rhine and had bombed “with unusual precision, one their own airfields. They were only marginally consoled to learn they had caused little damage, command staff learning more about the failures of their stick of bombs.

Flying one of the early bombers was appallingly difficult. “The flew layered in silk, wool, and leather, yet still their sandwiches and coffee froze solid as they ate and drank, vital systems jammed, limbs seized, wings iced-up for lack of de-icing gear.” "Amidst the hustle of aircrew pulling on flying clothes and seizing maps and equipment, they drew flying rations of sandwiches and chocolate to be returned intact if the exercise was for any reason uncompleted." This is the kind of detail that really brings home what it was like. The idea the crews would have to return sandwiches taken on a mission is so ludicrous as to be beyond Catch-22.

All for little in the way of results and at terrible cost. Reports of results went beyond hyperbole. Air Command noted after a comparison between aircrew reports and photographic results later, that, “the operation does not confirm that as a general rule, the average crews of our heavy bombers can identify targets at night, even under the best conditions, nor does it prove that the average crew can bomb industrial targets at night.” Nevertheless, communiques, completely untruthful, were issued reporting glowing successes.

Some very poignant material in this book. Clearly, Hasting empathizes with the little guy, the ones doing all the fighting and dying. He quotes a letter in its entirety from John Bufton to his girlfriend talking about his fatalism, his inability to plan with the only focus being on keeping his machine running and trying to get enough sleep. He talks about what she should do if he is killed, knowing what the odds are, "go and have a perm...and carry on," and why they shouldn't get married. He died a month later.

Hastings concludes that German industry was astonishingly resilient (their production of tanks almost doubled between 1943 and 1944) but that it was the defeat of the Luftwaffe, especially after the introduction of the Mustang P-51 and the attacks on German oilfields that made a greater difference. Ultimately, it came very late in the war. “It is gratifying to airmen, but historically irrelevant, that they would have destroyed the German economy granted another few months of hostilities. Many of their greatest feats of precision bombing such as the sinking of the Tirpitz -- which would have been a vital strategic achievement in 1941, 1942, even 1943--had become no more than marvelous circus-tricks by the time they were achieved in 1944 and 1945. The pace of the war had overtaken them [on the ground.]”

Hastings added numerous charts and tables showing German war production compared to British throughout the war, as well as some excellent line drawings of the various aircraft involved. It’s an excellent book, filled with with pertinent anecdotes, that deserves to be widely read as a caveat against hubris and arrogance.

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