The Holocaust Historiography Project


Death From On High

  • BOMBER COMMAND: THE MYTHS AND REALITY OF THE STRATEGIC BOMBING OFFENSIVE 1939-45 by Max Hastings. New York, The Dial Press/James Wade, 1979. 469 pp with Notes, Appendices, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index. ISBN: 0-8037-0154-X.

reviewed by Charles Lutton

One of the most controversial campaigns of the Second World War was the bombing offensive against Germany. British, and to a lesser extent American, air commanders believed that Germany could be defeated by bombing alone. Max Hastings, a distinguished British war correspondent, has written a masterful history of the British Bomber Command, based upon recently released official records, unpublished letters, diaries and manuscripts, and interviews of former aircrew, senior officers and government officials.

After the First World War, air power captured the imagination of military theorists, such as Giulio Douhet in Italy, Billy Mitchell in the United States, and Hugh Trenchard in Britain. Only the British, under the leadership of Trenchard, fully accepted the notion that there was virtually no limit to the independent use of bomber aircraft in future wars, which could be used to blast any any opponent into submission. From the outset of its existence, the Royal Air Force was fashioned to conduct strategic area terror bombing. (note 1)

A corollary of the Trenchard Bomber Doctrine was that defense was useless because, as Stanley Baldwin reminded Parliament in 1932, “the bomber will always get through.” Although the British devoted few funds to research and development for the RAF during the inter-war period, the government was shocked when the C-in-C of Bomber Command, Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, informed his superiors in July 1939 that their front-line bombers had been made obsolete by the development of monoplane fighters armed with cannons and machineguns. British bombers lacked speed, adequate defensive armament, bombs large enough to sufficiently damage targets, and navigation equipment to enable planes to locate targets hundreds of miles away. After the outbreak of hostilities it was discovered that British bombers tended to burn easily when attacked by enemy aircraft.

During the war the bomber offensive went through three phases. The first, from 1939 to early 1940, was characterized by ineffective attacks against military targets. Daylight sorties were found to be almost suicidal when intercepted by German fighters, while Bomber Command was incapable of locating targets at night. Hastings cites the experience of the 10th Bomber Squadron, based in Yorkshire, which mistook the Thames estuary for the Rhine and bombed an RAF station at Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire, doing little damage. As the author explains, “again and again at this period, Germany would be genuinely unaware that Bomber Command had been attempting to attack a specific target or even a specific region. There was merely a litter of explosives on farms, homes, lakes, forests and — occasionally — on factories and installations from end to end of the Reich.”

In June 1940, after the fall of France, the bomber offensive entered its second phase. Rejecting out of hand any suggestions for a negotiated peace settlement, Churchill felt there was little else to do besides bomb Germany. A year later, the Cabinet Secretary, D.M. Butt, presented a critique of the effectiveness of Bomber Command against targets in France and Germany. He reported that less than one-third of the attacks came within five miles of the aiming point and only ten per cent of the bombs fell within the target area. A.V. Hill, one of the founding fathers of British radar and a Member of Parliament, informed his colleagues that great resources were being squandered on Bomber Command and “the idea of bombing a well-defended enemy into submission or seriously affecting his morale — of even doing substantial damage to him — is an illusion. We know that most of the bombs we drop hit nothing of importance.”

Despite the fact that the Butt Report had clearly exposed the bankruptcy of Trenchard’s strategic bombing theory, in late 1941 the British decided to expand the bomber offensive by ordering attacks against urban areas in Germany, since the

RAF was incapable of hitting military targets with precision. The authors of the official British history, Sir Charles Webster and Dr. Noble Frankland, have argued that by late 1941 there were only two choices left to Churchill, area bombing or no bombing at all.

Hastings rejects that specious assertion and points out alternatives, a third choice being “to persist in the face of whatever difficulties, in attempting to hit precision targets” and a “fourth and more realistic alternative: faced by the fact that Britain’s bombers were incapable of a precision campaign, there was no compulsion upon the Government to authorize the huge bomber programme that was now to be undertaken. Aircraft could have been transferred to the Battle of the Atlantic and the Middle and Far East where they were so urgently needed, and many British strategists would have wholeheartedly defended the decision to move them… There were alternatives to the area campaign, albeit at great cost to the amour propre of the RAF.”

In any event, the bomber offensive entered its third phase. On 14 February 1942, the Air Ministry issued a directive authorizing unrestricted area bombing. Churchill’s repulsive scientific adviser, Lord Cherwell, provided the final rationalization for the campaign, by claiming that the “dehousing” of the German workers and their families would doubtlessly “break the spirit of the people.” The Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, reminded his Deputy on 15 February, “Ref. the new bombing directive: I suppose it is clear that the aiming-points are to be built-up areas, not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories … This must be made quite clear if it is not already understood.” Sir Arthur Harris, a fanatical proponent of area bombing, was appointed the new head of Bomber Command.

The first target of the new phase was the old North German town of Lübeck. It was not a place of any military or industrial importance to the Germans and so was lightly defended. But Harris had been “searching for an area target that they could find, strike, and utterly destroy.” Lübeck was thus chosen, says Hastings, because “above all it was an old, closely-packed medieval town that would burn far better than the spacious avenues of any modern metropolis …

Lübeck, then, did not attract attention because it was important, but became important because it could be burned.”

Aided by the new navigation device Gee, Bomber Command “browned” (the RAF euphemism for burning a town) Lfibeck on 28 March 1942 and a month later gave the same treatment to another medieval town, Rostock. The bombers tried out what became the standard pattern for attacking a city: flares were dropped to mark the target, then 4,000 pound high-explosive “cookies” were used to blast open doors and windows, accompanied by incendiaries to create huge fires. Characteristically, whatever industry was located in Lübeck and Rostock was back at near full production within days, since factories were located on the outskirts of cities, or in the suburbs, far from the town centers, which were the aiming points of Bomber Command raids.

The author reminds his readers of the great public relations impact of many Bomber Command operations, such as the thousand-plane raids Harris launched, starting with the attack on Cologne on 30 May 1942. There was no military reason why over 1,000 RAF bombers had to be sent, but it did capture the imagination of the British public. As Hastings remarks, “the Prime Minister, with his great sense of theatre, was won over immediately. Only the Admiralty, in the midst of the Battle of the Atlantic, were exasperated by such gimmicky enterprises as they struggled to fight their convoys through.”

At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, the Allies decided to delay the cross-Channel invasion of Western Europe until the Spring of 1944. Harris and General Carl Spaatz, commander of the 8th U.S. Army Air Force in Europe, believed they could defeat Germany without a land invasion by air attacks. (note 2) Bomber Command increased the tempo and destructive power of its attacks on German cities throughout 1943 and early 1944.

It was also at Casablanca where the Allies declared their policy of “Unconditional Surrender,” which nullified any effect bomber raids might have had in undermining German morale and bringing the war to an end. Britain’s flak defence chief, General Sir Frederick Pile, told B.H. Liddell Hart that,

“Winston is pinning all his faith to the bombing offensive now. The devastation it causes suits his temperament, and he would be disappointed at a less destructive ending to the war.” 3

Bomber Command was not short of informed critics. Within policy circles the service departments and scientists attacked Harris’s operations on strategic and practical grounds. It has been estimated that one-third of Britain’s industrial capacity was committed to Bomber Command, along with the best of their high technology. Because of the vast resources consumed by Bomber Command, the British had to import vast quantities of war material (such as tanks, trucks, landing craft, etc.} from the United States. In human terms, 7,448 Bomber Command aircrew had died between September 1939 and February 1942. From the time Harris took charge of the expanded bombing operations until the end of the war, an additional 56,000 commissioned officers and NCOs lost their lives, more officers than the British lost during World War I.

Civilian opponents of Bomber Command comprised an articulate, though tiny, minority. One group, The Bombing Restriction Committee, distributed leaflets headlined “STOP BOMBING CIVILIANS.” George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, was probably denied elevation to the Archbishopric of Canterbury bemuse of his opposition to area bombing. Hastings goes on to discuss the opposition by Britain’s leading military theorists, J.F.C. Fuller and B.H. Liddell Hart, but emphasizes that these distinguished critics had no impact upon policy. (note 4)

Hastings skillfully assembles a wide-range of material in his chapter examining conditions within Germany from 1940-1944. Like Burton Klein and Alan Milward, the author dispells the myth that Hitler had armed Germany to the teeth with a centrally-directed totalitarian economy.5 Hitler had rearmed the Wehrmacht in breadth, not depth, and unlike the Allies, sought to employ the minimum possible resources to achieve a given objective. Germany did not begin full economic mobilization until 1943, and at the end of that year six million workers were still employed in consumer industries.

Because of the slack that existed in the German economy, Arms Minister Albert Speer was able to vastly increase military production, despite the mounting ferocity of bomber attacks in 1943 and 1944. “The morale of the German people remained unbroken to the end,” Hastings points out, even though Bomber Command “destroyed centuries of construction and culture.”

The author also provides a good analysis of the problems faced by German home defense forces. The Lufiwaffe was commanded by the incompetent Hermann Göring and a coherent strategy to combat Allied bombing raids was never devised. Only a relatively modest portion of the Luftwaffe’s resources were earmarked for night-fighters and home defense in general. Hitler did not authorize a freeze on costly bomber production and a concentration on fighters until June 1944. It is likely that even a slightly larger investment in home defense forces could have brought the bomber offensive to an abrupt halt by the end of 1943.

Bomber Command launched a massive series of assaults against the Ruhr, Hamburg, and Berlin during 1943 and early 1944. Thousands of acres were burned and hundreds of thousands of Germans were killed. The RAF lost over 4,100 bombers. Yet German arms production increased. Harris nevertheless claimed on 7 December 1943, that he could bring about a German collapse by I April 1944.

The first real breakthrough in the bomber offensive occurred in the Spring of 1944, when U.S. long-range Mustang fighters became available in large numbers. Mustangs escorted USAAF bombers on daylight raids against synthetic oil plants, the Achilles Heel of the German war economy.The cream of the Luftwaffe’s experienced fighter pilots were lost in the war of attrition waged by the Americans. From June through August 1944, the total percentage of U.S. bombing efforts against oil targets never exceeded 17 per cent of their total bombs dropped, but the results were a catastrophe for the Germans. By the late summer of 1944, little fuel was available to power the thousands of tanks and planes (including jet fighters and bombers) Speer’s factories were producing.

Harris had been forced to suspend his area attacks in April 1944 and Bomber Command had directed its efforts to providing tactical support for the invasion of France. In July, the British called for a renewed “all-out attack by every means at our disposal on German civilian morale.” Attacks on oil plants were dismissed by Harris as “merely the latest in the long line of 'panacea targets' with which so many knaves and fools sought to divert him from the task. of destroying Germany.”

Spaatz ordered additional attacks on Germany’s oil plants and transportation network in September 1944. Bomber Command stepped up its devastation of German cities. Hastings devotes a revealing chapter to describe the destruction of Darmstadt on the night of 11/12 September, which was typical of the sort of targets remaining to the British by that date. Darmstadt was another classic representative of German culture which produced less than two-tenths of one percent of Germany’s total production and an infinitesimal amount of its war production. A minimum of ten per cent of Darmstadt’s population died as a result of the firestorm that was created and a Russian POW camp was totally destroyed. Over-all, industries located in the area lost about two weeks production.

Between January and May 1945, Harris very reluctantly allowed 26 per cent of Bomber Command’s attacks to be directed against Germany’s remaining oil facilities, while he continued to concentrate his resources on area bombing. On 13/14 February, Dresden was torched. Interestingly, this touched off the first general wave of negative reaction against area bombing. An Associated Press dispatch reported that the “Allied air chiefs” had begun “deliberate terror bombing of German population centers …” General Marshall claimed, falsely, that Dresden had been bombed at the request of the Soviets. Churchill, who with Portal had ordered the attack, tried to cover his involvement and on 28 March 1945, drafted a memo to the Chiefs of Staff in which he criticized the destruction of Dresden and called “for more precise concentration upon military objectives, such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.” Hastings composes a remarkable portrait of Churchill and spares nothing in exposing the crucial role played in the terror bombing by that great mountebank.

Max Hastings' Bomber Command is an important contribution to our understanding of World War II. As he notes in his final chapter assessing the work of the strategic bomber offensive, the two positive achievements were made by the Americans: the defeat of the Luftwaffe by Mustang fighters, and the campaign to destroy Germany’s synthetic oil industry. But, he concludes, “the cost of the bomber offensive in life, treasure and moral superiority over the enemy tragically outstripped the results that it achieved.”


  1. For an overview contrasting the development of air power in Britain and Germany in the inter-war period, see Williamson Murray, “British and German Air Doctrine Between the Wars,” Air University Review (March-April 1980) pp 39-57.
  2. On the American contribution to the bombing offensive in the European theater, see Thomas Coffey, Decision Over Sch weinfurt, New York, McKay, 1977.
  3. Britain’s outstanding military theorists, Maj. Gen. J. F. C. Fuller and Capt. B. H. Liddell Hart both recognized the futility of the “Unconditional Surrender” policy. See Liddell Hart, The Second World War, New York, Putnams, 1972, and Fuller, The Conduct of War, 1789-1961, New York, Minerva Press, 1961. Fuller pointed out that Churchill was at first enthusiastic about “unconditional surrender” but changed his mind and in a cable to his Foreign Secretary dated 9 August 1943 advised, “Merely harping on 'unconditional surrender' with no prospect of mercy… may well lead to no surrender at all,” Fuller, The Conduct of War, p 287.
  4. For a useful discussion of the opposition to area bombing in Britain and the United States, see James J. Martin’s essay, “The Bombing and Negotiated Peace Questions-in 1944,” Revisionist Viewpoints, Colorado Springs, Ralph Myles Publisher, 1971.
  5. See Burton Klein, Germany’s Economic Preparations for War, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1959, and Alan Milward, The German Economy at War, London, London University, 1965. Hastings cites Milward, but not Klein’s classic study.

Bibliographic information
Author: Lutton, Charles
Title: Death from on High (review of Bomber Command)
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: Fall 1980
Issue: Volume 1 number 3
Location: Page 247
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: “Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.