Bombing Nazi Germany:  The Graphic History of the Allied Air Campaign That Defeated Hitler in World War II

By Wayne Vansant. 104 pp. Zenith, 2013. $19.99.

For decades, air operations in World War II didn’t draw the attention lavished on land and naval actions. That changed over the last few years, and a profusion of worthy works on the bomber offensive, the German economy, and the Luftwaffe’s defenses have appeared. Now, thanks to Vietnam veteran and former Marvel Comics artist Wayne Vansant, airpower studies have turned a new corner. Vansant has created a visual narrative of the bombing war that is highly original, striking, engaging, and accessible. It is an outstanding achievement.

Bombing Nazi Germany is concise, but never dumbed down. In fact, it is remarkable how much information this graphic history packs into barely 100 pages. Vansant opens with the vital backstory: a look at strategic bombing’s origins in World War I, the air power visions of Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell, and the early years of World War II. He then examines all the major strategy debates: day versus night bombing, oil versus transportation targets, the efficacy of “city busting.” His ultimate verdict on the Allied air offensive is balanced and nuanced: while it did not defeat the Third Reich alone, it did grievous damage to German industry and transportation, and paved the way for Allied success on the Continent by eliminating the Luftwaffe.

The book offers a broad perspective on what that success meant. Vansant does not, for instance, skirt the air war’s ugly costs. He addresses Albert Speer’s use of slave labor to boost German fighter production as well as the enormous loss of civilian life in firebombed cities (though he does repeat the long-discredited figure of 135,000 dead at Dresden—one of his few errors). An epilogue details the later careers of the major protagonists, and an appendix describes the most significant Allied and German aircraft.

Yet this powerful work’s emotional heart clearly lies in its depictions of air combat. All the major events and turning points are here: the night Battle of Berlin, the Hamburg and Dresden firestorms, Ploesti, Big Week. The calamitous October 14, 1943, Schweinfurt raid is especially well depicted—Vansant’s six pages of illustrations deliver the impact of dozens of pages of prose. It also serves up vignettes of several Medal of Honor aerial missions, most involving young airmen, many of whom received the distinction posthumously. As to their motivation, P-51 pilot James Howard probably spoke for them all when he noted simply, “I seen my duty and I done it.” One small quibble with the otherwise balanced treatment: Vansant might have included a story of an RAF Bomber Command Victoria Cross recipient—especially since there were nearly two dozen.

Any good graphic history has to be visually striking, and Vansant’s graphics more than fill the bill. They are not merely “re-draws” of iconic photographs; they are original works of art. Vansant captures the diversity of aircraft types used in waging and defending against the bomber offensive—and they are accurately rendered and sport correct markings. The personalities are particularly well depicted; few readers will fail to recognize Curtis LeMay’s fierce, scowling visage or Adolf Galland’s dashing profile. In addition, Vansant has a keen artist’s eye for capturing the “look” of bomber crews—their cheerful demeanor before the first mission, the tense faces in the briefings, the rituals before takeoff, and the terrors of combat. And he shows things the camera could not, from split-second moments of aerial dueling to the terror-stricken faces of doomed German civilians in an air raid shelter.

Bombing Nazi Germany is so well done—visually stunning, historically accurate, emotionally gripping—that it is bound to lure younger readers and keep them turning the pages. But no air war buff of any age should leave it unexplored.

 

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.