Letters to the editor

Bombers Over Germany

Benjamin Schwarz’s review of A. C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities (June Atlantic) didn’t address the reason the British switched over to nighttime area bombing in the first place. Early in the war, the Royal Air Force attempted precision daylight bombing of legitimate targets such as military depots and armaments factories. The Luftwaffe’s day fighters slaughtered the pathetically under-armed RAF bombers. To save the lives of the aircrews, Bomber Command had no choice but to switch to night operations.

However, although night’s concealing cloak gave the bomber crews a better chance of surviving a given mission, it did nothing for their ability to hit a target. They had trouble finding the target, much less bombing it: there are cases on record where villages of no military significance fifty miles from the target were bombed in error, setting fires on the ground, following which the entire bomber stream dropped its payload on the hapless village because the bombers’ crews thought the fires had to be the target.

Given these two factors—quite aside from Arthur “Bomber” Harris’s deeply held belief that by bombing the dwellings of the German workforce he could break Germany’s morale—it was almost inevitable that the RAF would bomb wide areas instead of pinpoint targets. For Grayling and Schwarz to ignore the technical factors involved in this decision is irresponsible. Why attribute to deliberate malice—though there was enough of that in Harris’s bombing policy—what can be explained by simple necessity?

Roy Jaruk
Patterson, N.Y.

Benjamin Schwarz replies:

Mr. Jaruk’s arguments are chronologically confused. Certainly, early in the war the RAF lacked the tools and the doctrine to undertake precision bombing against German targets. But at that point it was unable to carry out an area-bombing offensive as well. Area bombing wasn’t a strategy to which the RAF turned because it couldn’t bomb precisely. Rather, it was a strategy—really a theory, embraced for honest if somewhat erroneous reasons—for which it had to develop a capability. Mr. Jaruk suggests that area bombing damaged civilian targets almost incidentally. Nothing of the sort. The theory of area bombing, “an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers … upon the Nazi homeland,” as Churchill put it, was predicated on massacring or threatening to massacre civilians.

Area bombing only began in earnest in mid-1943, after the British and the Americans decided at the January Casablanca conference to launch an all-out “combined bomber offensive” (largely to appease their Soviet allies, who were clamoring for an offensive in the West), and when Bomber Command at last had the resources and the equipment (a large fleet of heavy bombers and sophisticated navigational aids) to bomb on the scale that the theory of area bombing demanded. Grayling’s indictment of area bombing begins at this date, not, as Mr. Jaruk would have it, “[e]arly in the war.” Further undermining Mr. Jaruk’s “simple necessity” argument is the fact that at this point, when the RAF began its intense area-bombing efforts, the U.S. Army Air Force began its intense daylight precision-bombing campaign against Germany. Moreover, in the period from the autumn of 1943 to the spring of 1944, the USAAF’s newly deployed long-range fighters effectively demolished the Luftwaffe’s fighter force. This meant that during the strategic bombing offensive that began in September 1944 (from late winter 1944 until the fall, Allied bombing efforts concentrated almost exclusively on tactical support of the Normandy invasion), the skies above the Reich were essentially free of the German fighter menace that Mr. Jaruk maintains impelled Bomber Command’s area-bombing strategy in the first place. Still, the RAF’s area bombing continued for another seven months, until the last days of the war—even as the USAAF’s precision-bombing efforts were demolishing Germany’s transport systems, its armaments industry, and, most important, its oil facilities. This was the period in which Bomber Command’s forces inflicted by far their heaviest damage on German civilians (72 percent of Allied bombs dropped on Germany throughout the war were dropped after July 1944), and this is the period—again, a period when the threat of German fighters had been eliminated, and when precision bombing would have been relatively easy—on which Grayling concentrates his indictment.

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