Monday, March 19, 2018

Randall Hansen - Fire & Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany 1942-1945

In the excitement of the release of a book called Fire and Fury about Donald Trump's Whitehouse tenure, Randall Hansen's 2009 book of the same title became a surprise bestseller again as confused readers clicked the wrong online ordering button and purchased a book about the firebombing of Germany cities in World War Two. I wasn't confused like this, but having read a newspaper article about the book I hunted it down out of interest for the subject.

It was a worthwhile, if occasionally haunting, exercise. The reality of the Allied bombing campaign against Germany was not pleasant and Hansen uses eyewitness accounts to recount the reality of the mass bombing raids on cities like Hamburg and Dresden. He also tells the story of the smaller towns and cities that were systematically flattened by British Bomber Command, often long after any strategic justification had disappeared.

Hansen contrasts the approaches of Britain's Bomber Command with the US's Eighth Air-force. He argues that the approach of the latter was a strategic success, hampering Germany's ability to wage war and undermining her industry. His authorities for this are many, but include Albert Speer who was clear that repeated attacks on key industries such as ball bearing manufacture and oil, significantly undermined Nazi Germany. Bomber Command on the other hand had a strategy of blanket bombing and destroying whole cities. This arose out of a pre-war doctrinal belief that such bombings would utterly demoralise the population, kill civilian workers and stop Germany's ability to wage war. It also came out of a practical problem - Bomber Command was the only force capable of striking Germany after Dunkirk, and at repeatedly proved itself, in the early years of the war, inept at striking precision targets.

However what becomes clear is that despite mounting evidence that this strategy was having no impact upon Germany's war aims, Bomber Command's Arthur Harris pursued this strategy in the face of mounting criticism from his own military superiors. At times it seems that Harris misled the public and his commanders and liberally interpreted his orders to continue with his strategy of mass murder.

Harris may not have had all the hard facts to hand, but intelligence was available that proved his strategy a failure. Despite this, supporters of Harris continue to argue that his bombing of civilian cities was a success and a necessity. Let's quote Hansen on this.
On by one, the cities of the Ruhr were turned into ash and rubble The effects of these raids on production were minimal. Although two hundred thousand tons of bombs would fall on Germany in 1943... its wartime production increased dramatically... During the Battle of the Ruhr, the country faced nothing approaching a labour shortage. There were 1.4 million workers still employed in household service... By the end of 1943, the Reich still had six million Germans employed in consumer industries. The result was the overproduction of consumer goods. From October 1942 to October 1943, Germany produced 120,000 typewriters, 200,000 domestic radios, 150,000 electric blankets, 3600 refrigerators, ...512,000 pairs of riding boots...According to the official British historians... the Battle of the Ruhr - during which fifty-eight thousand tons of bombs had been poured on Germany - cost the area between one and one and a half months' loss of output. The price for Bomber Command in men and matériel was enormous.
In fact Speer made it clear that when Bomber Command did hit industrially crucial targets, such as oil depots or the famous dams, they failed to follow up on their attacks and cripple the targets. The result was, we should be utterly clear, a militarily failure that could have shortened the war, and the loss of thousands of servicemen and the deaths and injury of tens of thousands of civilians.

By contrast, despite limitations imposed on them by weather, and enemy action, the US strategy of targeting key parts of the German war machines had a considerable impact. What is unbelievable to me, from reading Hansen's book, is that Harris was allowed to get away with minimal criticism. His superior officers failed to challenge him in any meaningful way, particularly when he clearly interpreted orders in such a way as to continue to hit cities at a time when official strategy was to prioritise the final destruction of the oil industry. Hansen concludes, "After flattening dozens of cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians Harris should be held to account and not simply be forgive for making a 'bad call'... Churchill could have stopped area bombing and he did not; indeed, near the ed of the war, he urged it on.

Hansen is no bleeding heart liberal. He sees Harris' failure not as a war crime, but as a strategic error that was continued because Harris was unable to break from a strategy that was a "moral and strategic failure" and his high-command did not want to challenge him.  He concludes:
We cannot shy away from this conclusion out of fear of giving succour to the far right or of offending the Royal Air Force or Royal Canadian Air Force aircrew. On the contrary the freedom to write and speak the truth is what the aircrew were fighting for.
While I disagree with this exact conclusion - I think the war was fought for the imperial interests of Britain and the US, one can agree that those who celebrate the defeat of Fascism cannot hide the fact that Britain pursued strategies that failed to limit civilian deaths nor speed the end of the war.

Two further things need to be added. One is that Hansen notes in detail the failure of both the US and the British to use their air-power to limit the Holocaust. There's a heart-rending account from an Auschwitz survivor who saw Allied bombers flying over and prayed for them to bomb the camp to stop the mass murder. Hansen notes how much the Allies knew about the mass murder and concludes that while they may not have stopped the majority of the Holocaust, they could have in the latter years made a real difference. They ignored the targets in favour of area and precision bombing of military targets. That they did not try is a stain on the memory of the Allied forces.

Finally, one missing part is in Hansen's conclusion. If the US strategy of precision bombing was so effective, why did they do the opposite in Japan. The firebombing of Tokyo and the atom bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were precisely what they condemned Bomber Command for in Europe. I suspect that some of the difference in approach reflects a racist view of the Japanese, something that Ian W. Toll has shown was prevalent among US military strategy in the Pacific Arena.

Randall Hansen's book is an important contribution to discussions of military history and World War Two. It is impossible to read it, in my view, and believe that Arthur Harris was not a war criminal, though others may disagree. However everyone who reads this can only conclude that the strategy of mass bombing of cities was an utter failure that probably prolonged the war.

Related Reviews

Taylor - Dresden
Moorhouse - Berlin at War

Gluckstein - Fighting on All Fronts
Heartfield - An Unpatriotic History of the Second World War
Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Kershaw - The End
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried

No comments: