The Bombers and the Bombed (Richard Overy)

For those of you who just can’t get enough of World War II, this book, detailing the Allied bombing campaigns in Europe during that conflict, offers some fascinating new insights.

In the early years of the war, most of the bombing was directed against cities.  This was partly because the director of the British Air Force, Al Harris, was a passionate believer in the ability of aerial bombardment to destroy the morale of the enemy.  It was also because, in the early years of the war,  cities were easier for the planes to find, particularly at night.  Targeting ability approved greatly during the war, but it wasn’t until the middle of 1943, when the Luftwaffe had been degraded, that daytime bombardment and more precise targeting was possible.

The second and to my mind even more interesting part of the book concerns the response of the enemy civilian populations to aerial bombardment.  Germany established a civil defense system early in the war, which mobilized a huge number of people (as many as 200K), and, unusually for Nazi Germany, involved a lot of women in responsible roles.  Because of the active civil defense system, bombed factories and other sites were quickly repaired.  Lasting damage was only possible when the firestorms caused by the bombing were so widespread  that the emergency services were overwhelmed, a feat which the Allies were only able to accomplish a few times (Hamburg in 1943, Dresden in 1945).  The Germans also frustrated the air war by decentralizing their production facilities and moving many of them underground – tactics that would be used to similar good effect by the North Vietnamese a few decades later.  During 1943, despite the bombings, German manufacturing production actually went up.  The author believes that the more precise bombing of oil fields and rail junctions, spearheaded by the Americans in the later years of the war, did far more damage than the terror bombing of cities championed by the British.

In Italy, though, it was another story.  The Italians never expected to be bombed, and were totally unprepared.  When the Allies began bombing Italian cities in earnest in 1943, Italian factory workers often decamped for the hills, and the Mussolini government, already unpopular, quickly fell.  City bombing had so quickly destroyed civilian morale that the successor government, which had originally intended to fight on, quickly surrendered.  Bombing continued in the German occupied cities of northern Italy until the end of the war, although American targeting systems had improved to the point where large landmarks, like the Tower of Pisa, were spared.

Last week, an unexplored bomb was found in the middle of Bolzano, in the foothills of the Dolomites, prompting a mass evacuation – news articles discreetly did not mention that the bomb was probably one of ours.

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