I was saddened to see the controversy associated with the Second World War’s Allied Combined Bomber Offensive against the Axis powers revisited in the Remembrance Day edition of the Citizen (“Remembrance and history”).Particularly upsetting was the attack on the Canadian War Museum (CWM) for last year’s courageous and proper decision to modify its Bomber Command display, the original wording of which the authors described as “perfectly reasonable,” and “indeed right.”
While I respect the rights of the authors to air their views, it seems this trio of mere observers of history believe they should be the final arbiters of it. I cannot allow their claims to go unchallenged.
The CWM is a fine institution doing noble work. However, the original panel in question, titled An Enduring Controversy, was neither “reasonable” nor “right.” In fact, through oversimplification of a very complex subject, it demonstrated very little historical awareness of what actually occurred during this campaign, and it grossly distorted and trivialized the real contributions to victory of the bomber offensive. The veterans and others, saddened and angered by the presentation, feared that it would become their enduring legacy. In short, the display was in dire need of corrections, and the museum, to its credit, had the grace to make right the initial shortcomings.
The Allied area-bombing policy was technologically driven. Today, when precision guided munitions can surgically gut specific rooms in buildings without “rattling the china” in others, it is difficult to understand that these technological capabilities simply did not exist at the time.
Britain in 1940 and beyond, alone and with its back against the wall in Europe, had very limited options available to carry the fight to a monstrous enemy. An effective blockade was out of the question, and Britain both lacked a strong continental army and was loath to re-visit the horrors of mass armies in locked confrontational stalemate, as had occurred along the Western Front during the 1914-1918 war.
Thus, it adopted an overall offensive “guerrilla” strategy that entailed taking the fight to the Axis powers on their peripheries until the Allies had the strength to mount a full-scale invasion of northwest Europe. For much of the war, the only viable option was attack from the air, and technological limitations would preclude this being done with precision accuracy for much of the campaign. Further, the European weather also made accuracy impossible, as the Americans would also soon discover. From late-1944 onwards, both the British and the Americans were area bombing.
Approximately 80 per cent of all U.S. missions during the last quarter of 1944 were characterized by some employment of blind bombing devices. Renowned British historian Richard Overy adds: “The U.S. air forces soon abandoned any pretense that they could bomb with precision, and two-thirds of their bombs were dropped blind through cloud and smog. A staggering 87 per cent of all bombs missed their targets.”
Far from being ineffective, the combined efforts of the Anglo-American allies destroyed virtually all of Germany’s coke, ferroalloy, and synthetic rubber industries, 95 per cent of fuel, hard coal, and rubber capacity, 90 per cent of its steel capacity, and many elements of precision manufacturing. The bombing forced a huge tie-down of both manpower and materiel to honour the threat. It also forced a costly and inefficient decentralization of industry that sorely taxed transportation, strategic material, and manpower resources already stretched to the limit.
While war production did increase until the closing months of the war, this only occurred after a “24/7” Total War policy was declared after the German defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943, and it was borne largely on the backs of millions of slave labourers. The mind boggles at what the Germans would have been able to accomplish, had they not been impeded by the bombings.
Concerning the morality of area bombing, the Allies had been provided with ample demonstrations of this strategy by various totalitarian states prior to commencement of the bomber offensive, including by the Japanese against the Chinese coastal ports, the fascists against Barcelona and Guernica in Spain in 1937, and the indiscriminate area bombing of Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, and other British cities during the opening months of the Second World War.
The frequently advanced argument that the Second World War was “Hitler’s war,” and that 70 million Germans wanted no part of it, was not much in evidence when Nazi legions were having their way with most of Eurasia during the first three years of combat. Nor is the argument of any consolation to the ghosts of the many millions who were systematically exterminated in the death camps and elsewhere. Lost in much of the debate is the fact that Nazism was a thoroughly evil and repulsive force bent upon world domination, enslavement, and mass genocide. It needed to be stopped quickly, and by whatever best means were believed available at the time.
The bombing campaign took the offensive to the enemy when no other form of significant offensive action was viable. It opened an aerial “second front” to help take the pressure off the beleaguered Soviet allies. It forced the Germans to commit massive amounts of manpower and materiel just to address the bombing threat. It dealt telling blows to the Reich’s industrial and economic infrastructure. Finally, it paved the way, through assisting in the destruction of enemy air defences, oil, and transportation networks, for a successful invasion of northwest Europe through Normandy in 1944.
Article by Lieutenant-Colonel (ret’d) David L. Bashow, an associate professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada. His latest book is No Prouder Place: Canadians and the Bomber Command experience 1939-1945.
Published in the Ottawa Citizen on 12 November 2008.
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The Military Leadership Handbook was published by Dundurn Press and Canadian Defence Academy Press in cooperation with the Department of National Defence, and Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2008. Colonel Bernd Horn is the deputy commander of Canadian Special Operations Force Command and the former director of the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute. He is also an adjunct professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada. Dr. Robert W. Walker is an associate professor at the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute and is engaged in research on leadership, leader capacities, and leader development strategies.