by Max Hastings
Rereading Bomber Command makes it easy to understand why the book was so enthusiastically received by buffs when first published in 1979. Max Hastings writes with a sure hand, and the depth of his research was groundbreaking at the time. He was among the first to declare that the British (and later American) bombing campaigns might have achieved their objective of winning World War II in 1942 and 1943—if they had had the equipment. He also notes, sadly, that when they finally did have the equipment in 1944, the Soviet army had for the most part already decided the war.
Hastings structured his book brilliantly. Intimate and sometimes heartbreaking stories of individual RAF squadrons alternate with sections exploring the conflict’s rapidly changing nature. Having interviewed hundreds of veterans, Hastings reveals their personalities and their experiences through character portrayals rather than first-person recollections in Stephen Ambrose fashion. He portrays the war’s effect on the German populace with the same vigor with which he describes the stress of battle on British aircrews.
Hastings emphasizes how wrong both German and British leadership was at almost every point in the war. Britain started with an ingenuous Hugh Trenchard–inspired belief that its tiny, obsolescent bomber force could have great effect upon German morale. A few abortive operations quickly made it evident that the RAF’s aircraft were too few and too small to conduct daylight operations. Germany’s great 1940 victories in Europe meant the only way Britain could wage war was by a bombing campaign. Step by step, this led to the commitment of the majority of British manufacturing and training resources to the creation of the huge Bomber Command. Under Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber Command’s ever-growing fleet of four-engine bombers laid waste to German cities, but always without decisive results.
Then, in a final shameful irony, the bombing of Dresden made Bomber Command a political hot potato. Hastings recognizes that Harris, once Winston Chur chill’s champion, had become the scapegoat of that campaign, writing, “Alone he stood on the parapet of his trench, facing the slings and arrows of posterity with the same unflinching defiance with which he had received those of his critics and his enemies throughout the bomber offensive.”
Any reader will be moved by Hastings’ portrayal of the youthful RAF crews, many of them teenagers, who sallied forth nightly over Germany, with the odds of their completing a bombing tour stacked against them. He notes that many survivors would later be haunted by visions not so much of the danger they had faced, but of the horror they had inflicted. What’s more, Hastings shows how German leaders did no better. Geared from the start to support panzer divisions, the Luftwaffe also began the war with too few aircraft of the wrong sort to conduct—or combat—a bombing campaign. Germany initially failed to perceive the importance of radar, and fell behind the British technically in the vicious art of night fighting. As German cities were ravaged and hundreds of thousands were killed, the Luftwaffe leadership became despised by the populace.
The true nitpicker can go through Bomber Command and find some errors, but for the most part it remains as useful today as it was when written. It should be on every collector’s bookshelf.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.