The title of Leo McKinstry's book, "Lancaster: The Second World War's Greatest Bomber", is quite deceptive. It is not really a narrow nuts & bolts history of another warplane. Instead McKinstry has provided a comprehensive survey and analysis of the role, effectiveness and morality of the British strategic bombing offensive against the Reich. The development and use of the Lancaster bomber is the leitmotif providing central continuity for the account, just as it was the central component of the offensive.
As well as considering past official reports and research as well as the earliest accounts of the bombing such as David Irvings 1960's work, McKinstry has made clear use of new research, especially into the effectiveness of the strategy in 1944-45. In doing so he provides a valuable and very readable campaign history making good use of the now rich seam of witness accounts and memoirs collected from the survivors of the bombing as well as RAF crews to illustrate aspects of the unfolding story (although at times, just as with any good student of history, he also provides information to qualify and place in context several of these insertions).
The key thread may be the Lancaster, but the figure who is most dominant in the account is not Chadwick, the Lancaster's designer, but Sir Arthur Harris, Commander in Chief of bomber command from 1942 onwards. He is behind the policy of area bombing, focusing on the means of production (ie the civilian population), rather than the precision bombing of key strategic targets such as oil stores and arms factories, believing that the destruction and collapse of morale created could bring victory on its own. With the deliberate bombing of civilian areas in raids with up to 1000 bombers officially called "dehousing", this shows that spin is nothing new. Whilst it is possible to argue that Harris's policy was most justifiable in 1942-3 when Britain had no other way of returning the fight to Germany and of taking pressure off the Red Army in the east, McKinstry shows clearly the flaws in Harris's stubborn refusal to amend this policy in 1944-45 when precision bombing of military targets alone, he believes, could have shortened the war by several months. The US daylight raids had taken this approach in 1944 (as had the RAF in assistance of the D Day landings) and it was later shown to be more effective than the RAF night attacks on cities such as Berlin and Dresden. What is surprising from the book is how little Harris's superiors did to force him to change policy when they were clearly unhappy with it. It is clear Harris bullied them, they themselves were too weak. (Churchill however, appears duplicitous, especially over Dresden, presented here as a means of the UK hoping to use the attack to seek favour/respect with Stalin at Yalta.).
The victims of this inability to manage the C in C were obviously the civilians who continued to die in the ever increasing raids (By 1945 the US is also into area bombing), but also the bomber crews themselves. The irony is that Harris saw the bomber offensive as a way to ensure victory without the horrors of another Western Front, yet by sending his men out night after night to bomb heavily defended targets he ensured their casualty rates were the highest of any of the western theatres of war (over 50,000 killed out of a total of 125,000 aircrew, a 44% death rate, a further 8,000 were wounded in action and nearly 10,000 taken prisoner).
Towards the end of the book I began to feel that too much was being devoted to the context, too little on the final (postwar) years of the Lancaster, yet it was soon clear the end of the war was the end of the Lancaster. It's sole purpose was to bomb Germany. It was not well suited to conversion to the Japanese theatre, yet the atomic bombs stopped the conversion being done. However those atomic bombs also meant that huge bomber fleets were now redundant. More depressingly perhaps, their threat for the future rested completely on Harris's belief in the significance of indiscriminate area bombing. Dehousing indeed.