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4.0 out of 5 stars more than a plane - a comprehensive survey and analysis of the British strategic bombing offensive, 22 Feb 2010
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This review is from: Lancaster: The Second World War's Greatest Bomber (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 7 Jun 2010 12:16:27 BDT
K. N. Crosby says:
I think you underestimate the increased accuracy that Gee and Oboe gave Bomber Command and which allowed it to make unprecedentedly accurate attacks beginning with the Battle of the Ruhr in early 1943. It also seems to me that you assume too much about USAAF 'precision bombing' when at least 25% was deliberate area bombing and some of the rest was by default. Why would Harris be insubordinate? Because the politicals and his superior officers allowed it. He was their proxy and it won't do to scapegoat him for their cynicism. Isn't it odd that he could say that Germans didn't have the luxury of morale and then apparently set out to break it?

Posted on 15 Sep 2010 18:21:17 BDT
Last edited by the author on 15 Sep 2010 18:23:07 BDT
I generally like and agree with this review of the book, but would emphasise a little more that criticism of Churchill (whom you call "duplicitous") and other leaders, so easy in hindsight, should take account of the facts that at the time they were doubtless receiving all kinds of contradictory information and pleas, could not always know which of the information they received was accurate, and in the midst of the biggest war in history had so many momentous problems to cope wih at once. They also had to be practical politicians (whether of the Parliamentary kind or just the 'office politics' of service headquarters) with all the compromises that involves, if they were to remain in a position to get anything done. Saints and philosophers would not have been much use at the top.

Posted on 16 Nov 2011 13:46:47 GMT
HuddyBolly says:
One of the most depressing aspects of any discussion of the 'bomber war', is the way in which RAF Bomber Command and it's leader Arthur Harris are portrayed, and vilified, as the sole practitioners of 'area bombing' in the allied strategic bombing offensive over Europe.

US propagandists; both at the time, and ever since, have buried their heads in the sand and successfully hidden the true results of the so called 'precision' bombing attempted by the USAAF.
Claims of fantastic accuracy were still being attributed to the Norden bombsight long after it was proven to be no match for the atrocious weather conditions that all too frequently blighted the daylight raids of the USAAF, in the same way that darkness blighted accuracy by night for RAF Bomber Command.
Ultimately; as with the RAF which bombed at night by radar, the USAAF habitually resorted to daylight bombing through cloud by radar; and produced precisely the same result. Area obliteration.

When however, the RAF did concentrate on precision attacks on small targets, it was often superb, and achieved results that the USAAF was never able to match; not that it ever really tried to. After all, why bother when the British were taking all the blame for the civilian death toll!

As the point I am making relates to the perceived iniquity of area bombing, vis a vis the RAF and the USAAF; it is worth looking at the methods subsequently used by US General Curtis Le-May in the bombing of Japan.
No pretentions there about such niceties as precision bombing.
American intentions were clearly to obliterate the country; and massive area fire-bombing was the method they unapologetically used.
That, and two atomic bombs.
But then; in American eyes the Japanese weren't 'like us'; and, they had attacked America first!
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