British historian Richard Overy's book The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe, 1940-1945 is the most comprehensive study yet of the bombing campaign that left many of Europe's great cities in ruin by 1945. The book is neatly divided between the Anglo-American perspective of how the bombing program evolved and was executed and the story of the German victims and the efforts to defend against the aerial attacks. Overy also breaks new ground in writing about how the bombing campaign we extended beyond Germany to Italy and Bulgaria, and - most controversially - to German-occupied countries: France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark,
The rationale for "strategic bombing" was that “bombing alone might unhinge the enemy war effort, undermine popular war willingness, and perhaps even force the politicians to sue for peace before the need to undertake dangerous, large-scale, and potentially costly amphibious operations.” But in practice this did not work out this way. For the campaign was largely a failure for the first two years of the operation. Overy writes about how the initial bombing attacks caused negligible damage of Germany's manufacturing infrastructure but did result in very high casualties of the bomber crews and the loss of aircraft. Overy points out that in the beginning of the air war it was illegal to target areas where civilians could be negligently killed, but as the war went on " the ethical restraints imposed at the start of the war were eroded step by step as a result of the decision [in 1940] to initiate ‘unrestricted’ bombing of targets in urban areas.”
The turning point in the air war was when the RAF decided to deploy incendiary instead of explosive bombs. The British High Command was impressed when the Luftwaffe set the City of London on fire with 100,000 incendiary bombs during the December 29, 1940 raid. While the Germans dropped 57,000 tons of high explosives and incendiaries on Britain, at a conservative estimate, Bomber Command and the U.S. 8th Air Force alone dropped over 1.6 million tons on Germany. The "success" of the new strategy with incendiaries was demonstrated in Operation Gomorrah when in July of 1943 British and American planes bombed Hamburg for a full week, creating a giant firestorm that killed 42,600 civilians and wounded 37,000 and virtually destroying most of the city. Overy writes about the plight of civilians as they try to survive the firebombing and cope with loss of shelter. The best book about that aspect of the air war is still Jörg Friedrich's Der Brand (2002).
So did "strategic bombing" meet the objective of hastening the end of the war. The verdict, Overy writes, is mixed, and controversial even today. To be sure, the bombing forced Germany to divert resources from the Eastern Front to construct air defenses in every German city. Also, the Americans were especially effective in decimating the Luftwaffe and destroying Germany's synthetic fuel plants. By 1945 Allied air power was supreme and Germany lacked virtually all defense capabilities against the bombers. On the other hand, if the intent was to destroy and disrupt Germany's industrial output, the results were less than satisfactory: while the inner cities were destroyed, manufacturing infrastructure - even for armaments - was largely intact when the war ended in 1945.
One other major failure of the "strategic bombing": the idea was that the constant bombing would demoralize the German civilian population so much so that they would turn against the Nazi regime in revolt. But, as Overy writes, just the opposite occurred:
"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 party ad to prompt willing participation by civilians in structures designed for their own defense with a remarkable degree of social discipline. The experience of being bombed did indeed create widespread anxiety, demoralization, social conflict, and limited political criticism, but it was balanced in the end by the capacity of the dictatorship to exploit racial policy unscrupulously to its advantage (redistributing Jewish apartments and furnishings, using camp and foreign labor to clear up debris, etc.), while ensuring that minimum levels of social provision, flexible propaganda, administrative competence, and targeted coercion would prevent anything like collapse."
One interesting point that Overy mentions only in passing: the German civilian population harbored very little animosity against the British and American bombers who were causing so much death and destruction all around them. They were far more fearful of the Russian Red Army troops advancing from the east. Why this stoicism among the civilians towards the bombing? This is the question explored by W.E Sebald in his last book Luftkrieg und Literatur (see my review) and by the historians Frank Bajohr and Dieter Pohl in their book Massenmord und schlechtes Gewissen (see my review).