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The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945 Paperback – 5 Jun 2014
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Magnificent ... must now be regarded as the standard work on the bombing war ... It is probably the most important book published on the history of he second world war this century (Richard J Evans Guardian)
Monumental ... this is a major contribution to one of the most controversial aspects of the Second World War ... full of new detail and perspectives ... hugely impressive (James Holland Literary Review)
This tremendous book does what the war it describes signally failed to do. With a well-thought-out strategy and precision, it delivers maximum force on its objectives ... The result is a masterpiece of the historian's art (The Times)
What distinguishes Mr Overy's account of the bombing war from lesser efforts is the wealth of narrative detail and analytical rigour that he brings to bear (Economist)
Excellent ... Overy is never less than an erudite and clear-eyed guide whose research is impeccable and whose conclusions appear sensible and convincing even when they run against the established trends (Financial Times)
It is unlikely that a work of this scale, scope and merit will be surpassed (Times Higher Education)
Hard to surpass. If you want to know how bombing worked, what it did and what it meant, this is the book to read (Times Literary Supplement)
My book of the year ... A staggering amount of research ... provides a sober and realistic assessment of [the bombings'] impact on the warring nations and on the civilians who bore the brunt of its impact ... It's hard to imagine a more thorough account: a masterpiece (Richard J Evans New Statesman BOOKS OF THE YEAR)
A much needed breath of fresh air ... Overy argues his point with the confidence of someone who knows he is master of his subject: his rich and varied approach, coupled with exhaustive research, makes this probably the best history of bombing of the past 20 years (Keith Lowe Telegraph)
A superbly detailed account of a terrifying aspect of the Second World War (Simon Heffer New Statesman BOOKS OF THE YEAR)
An extraordinary and far-reaching history ... the first full narrative of the bombing war in Europe ... Overy's scope is incredibly broad and well-researched, also highly readable (Spectator)
This is a tough, hardheaded and meticulous work of military history ... It is worth reading (Dan Jones Telegraph BOOKS OF THE YEAR)
Overy's history explains and explores strategy, tactics, technology and results in one seamless story that shatters myths and establishes truths (Nigel Jones Sunday Telegraph)
Utterly fascinating ... What is most surprising in Overy's book is its remarkable contemporary relevance (Edward Luttwak London Review of Books)
The first full narrative of the bombing war in Europe (Commander Barney White-Spunner Country Life)
About the Author
Richard Overy is the author of a series of remarkable books on the Second World War and the wider disasters of the twentieth century. The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia won both the Wolfson Prize for History and the Hessell-Tiltman Prize. He is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. Penguin publishes 1939: Countdown to War, The Morbid Age, Russia's War, Interrogations, The Battle of Britain and The Dictators. He lives in London.
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As usual, ideal for historians in general, World War Two or specialists in air power.
Overy says answers to these questions have generated much heat but have relied on a shallow base of evidence. He gives the first full account of the bombing war in Europe 1939 to 1945 (not just in the UK and Germany). His research is impeccable and he is able, as a result of detailed evidence, to come up with a fresh picture.
Bombing in Europe, he says, was never a war-winning strategy and the other services knew it. British Bomber Command wanted to prove its worth as an independent force, but lacking the technology for accurate bombing fell to area-bombing of cities in the belief that given sufficient damage to structures and people Germany would surrender without the need for an army invasion. This aim failed.
Overy also explores how the concept of 'total war' gradually gave acceptance to the deliberate large-scale killing of civilians who were now seen as in the 'front line'.
As a young child I can recall sitting in an Anderson shelter at night hearing the drone of bombers overhead which (it turned out) were on their way to bomb Coventry. We saw the sky lit up with fires. Later, I can recall how the BBC radio news reported the launching of RAF '1000-bomber' raids, with a degree of satisfaction it seemed to me. My young friend's brother was killed - he was a rear gunner in a Lancaster.
This book has allowed me to see the bombing war in a balanced light. Bombing aside, if you have any interest in the Second World War you must read this.
The weight of this evaluation applies above all to Britain. Bomber Command under Arthur Harris placed more faith in strategic bombing than anyone else and dropped more bombs. American strategists were never quite as convinced or as enthusiastic. Germany used air power mainly in support of ground warfare, most obviously in the Blitzkrieg of 1939-40. After 1943 its aerial resources were committed to defence.
Overy surveys the whole of the European theatre. The war in the east is not discussed. There is a sentence or two only on Hiroshima/Nagasaki.
Original sources are used in the many languages in which the author is fluent. His statistical summaries will probably be the last word – no new material is likely to appear. They detail how many bombs fell, where they fell, who dropped them and what their effect was. Casualty figures were often inflated – the initial toll from Dresden of 200,000 has long been revised to 25,000. Nonetheless, 600,000 died throughout the continent. In Germany 350,000 were killed; in the bigger German cities half of all property was destroyed or severely damaged. Attention is also paid at great length to civil defence, to resisting and recovering from air attack.
Some of his findings might make difficult reading. As many Italians died as Britons, and rather more French people – most of them from Allied attacks. 10,000 died in Holland, most after D-day at the hands of their liberators.
Overy is keen not to judge by today's standards [whatever they might be]. However, even at the time, the illegality of much bombing was admitted, as was its questionable morality. He makes it plain that attacks on German cities aimed to hit industry by killing its workforce and destroying their homes. This was accepted by all sides, to a degree, as an inevitable part of total war, when the stakes were believed to be so high.
His analysis is dispassionate to a point – that point being not that war is terrible – though of course it is – but that all this destruction from the air was futile, a waste of resources. A very important issue raised is that in defending against air attack civil defence necessarily tied in millions of ordinary people. It had been expected before 1939 that society would fracture and governments collapse. Paradoxically, it seems the exact opposite happened – resisting the bomber pulled the community together.
Throughout the preferred term is Germany or German, rather than Nazi except when specifically referring to the NSDAP. Ian Kershaw chooses otherwise and has set out his reasons for this. Overy does imply an equivalence of sides that may not sit well with many readers. Occasionally a particular sentence or a phrase bothered me – “For almost 3 months northern France was a battlefield. Like the German attack on France in 1940, or the Soviet Union in 1941, it proved just as difficult for the advancing Allied armies and air forces to avoid heavy damage to the towns, cities and civilians in their path”.
Some have found this book controversial, revising accepted understanding of World War 2. It is important then to emphasise that his arguments are not new. In fact these were very much the conclusions drawn at the time – particularly the substantial United States Bombing Survey of 1946.
An epilogue takes up the post-war world. The current conflict in Syria came after the book was completed – but there too bombing, precise or imprecise, seems to have the same destructive power and limited effect or perhaps unlimited effect.
A challenging read , “the indispensable source of knowledge on this important subject” [Richard Evans].
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