The University Bookman


Summer 2016

The Limits (and Misuse) of Air Power

book cover imageThe Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940–1945.
By Richard Overy.
New York: Viking, 2013.
Paperback, 592 pages, $18.

Robert Huddleston

In 1938, as war clouds gathered, America's commander in chief, President Franklin Roosevelt met in November with an ad hoc group to formulate plans for increasing the country's military capabilities. The Commander in Chief took the lead in the discussion and made it clear that he believed that most of the military appropriation should go to increasing the air capabilities with a much smaller amount devoted to land and naval forces. Mr. Roosevelt “believed that a heavy striking force of aircraft would form a deterrent ground forces would not.” None at the table disagreed, except General George C. Marshall.

The President nevertheless had the good judgment to name Marshall as Army Chief of Staff in 1939, and did not deny him the ground forces and support needed. But he remained confident in the ascendency of air power. In May of 1941 Roosevelt ordered the production of five hundred bombers a month. In August, according to his confidant, Harry Hopkins “the President expressed the belief that bombing was the only means of achieving victory.”

Now flash-forward to the early stages of the Cold War. In 1945, in his final report to the President, General Henry “Hap” Arnold stressed the importance of strategic air power capable of applying “overwhelming force, against any enemy.” The result of Arnold's report was the Strategic Air Command headed by General Curtis Lemay, a World War II “Bomber Baron.”

Strategic air warfare—striking at the very heart of an enemy to destroy both the ability to wage war as well as the will of the populace to support the conflict—fell far short in World War II of what was promised. In the wake of that conflict the Army Air Forces conducted an extensive survey of the strategic bombing campaign and concluded that massive air bombardment of population centers “to destroy both the ability and the will of an enemy to continue the conflict” had failed. Unfortunately for humanity, America's air power leaders (and to a lesser extent, their British counterpart) were so committed to the doctrine of strategic bombing that they were blind to its failure. Air power was essential in modern warfare, the survey concluded, but could not, as President Roosevelt once believed, be the only means of achieving victory.

The American bomber commanders, however, could not bring themselves to reorder their thinking. Even more disturbing, this failed World War II doctrine continued in both Korean and Vietnam conflicts—and failed.

No historian has focused on strategic air warfare in as much detail as Richard Overy. The Bombers and the Bombed covers much the same ground as his earlier Why the Allies Won (1995). It is in his coverage of the “Bombed” that Overy breaks new ground in describing the experiences of those on the receiving end of the Allied campaign. Most Germans bombed, as with the British in the Blitz, managed to “stay calm and carried on,” some even taking satisfaction in “surviving hell on earth.” While Overy describes a host of reasons why German civilians coped with being bombed, this says it best: “The effect of bombing was not, in the end, as the Allies hoped, to drive a wedge between people and regime, but the opposite, to increase dependence on the state and the [Nazi] party, and to prompt willing participation by civilians in structures designed for their own defense with a remarkable degree of social discipline.”

The Bombers and the Bombed is a valuable contribution to the historical record of the Second World War. And considering the uninformed current talk of “carpet-bombing” countries in the Middle East it should be mandatory reading at military academies in both Britain and the U.S.  

Robert Huddleston is a combat veteran of the European air war and an occasional book critic.

Posted: July 31, 2016

Did you see this one?

What Is All This?
Russell Kirk
Volume 47, Number 3–4 (Fall 2010)

All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendency over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.

Russell Kirk


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