Book Review: The Bombers and the Bombed

By Richard Overy

Richard  Overy is a British historian who has published extensively on the history of World War II and the Third Reich, in particular he has been writing about aerial warfare during World War II for well over 30 years,. His initial work, The Air War, published in 1980, was advertised as the first general history of aerial conflict from 1939 to 1945 to appear in English. Now a professor at the University of Exeter, in his current book, Overy aims to create the first narrative history covering the full aerial assault launched by all Allied powers against targets across the continent of Europe, including occupied countries and Axis satellites. Rather than relying on the official histories, Overy has gone back to the original documents – in Britain, Germany, Russia, Italy and France – many of which were not available when the official histories were written. And rather than concentrate on Germany or Britain, he looks at attitudes towards bombing throughout Europe.

RRP: £19.99
Publisher: Viking
Publication Date: Feb 2014
ISBN: 978-0670025152
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His fresh approach is apparent right from the opening. He starts the book not with Germany or Britain or even Poland, but with the bombing of Bulgaria. His message is clear: bombing was not solely a German phenomenon, it was a fact of life for almost every country on the Continent. Nearly a third of the bombs that the Allied air forces dropped on Europe fell not on Germany but on countries they were supposed to be liberating. Furthermore the author repeatedly and critically calls into question the value of all such large-scale bombing. When conducted in support of an army, it can often cause more harm than good: the devastation of Caen or the Nazi bombing of Stalingrad, for example, the latter creating the perfect environment for urban guerrilla warfare.

'The Bombers and the Bombed' is both refreshing and litigious in its lambasting of the common mythology of the famous bombing campaigns of the Second World War. Overy argues the economic effects of bombing were hugely exaggerated on all sides: German production was dented but not destroyed, largely due to the relocation and dispersal of arms factories to safer areas.
He goes on to point out that bombing was surprisingly inefficient, poor visibility, the sudden deterioration of weather conditions, malfunctioning equipment, outdated and slow-moving aircraft, pilot inexperience or crew exhaustion, and enemy action varying from anti-aircraft batteries to night-fighters or the jamming of navigation beams, all reduced the effectiveness of the bomber fleets. Aircraft regularly crashed, ran out of fuel or suffered engine failure with astonishing frequency. In its raids on Britain from January to June 1941, for example, 216 German bombers were lost and 190 damaged; 282 of these were as a result of flying accidents!

Moreover, bombing was appallingly inaccurate. Bombers had to fly high to avoid anti-aircraft fire from the ground, so even if the weather was clear, they were often unable to locate their targets effectively. In 1944, during the controversial bomb attacks on the Italian monastery of Monte Cassino, used by the Germans as a military and communication base, the headquarters of general Oliver Leese, three miles from the abbey, was destroyed, as was the French corps headquarters 12 miles away.

His bibliography provide an excellent source for readers who want to pursue further the many facets of the complex air offensives that Overy covers. Ultimately, this book offers much for both novices and experts to contemplate. I seriously hope that in the wake of this outstanding re-evaluation of a topic, that appears overanalysed on the surface, forces historians to revise many of their long-accepted facts and figures when approaching this subject.