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B-17 bombers in formation. 'The Bombing of Germany' on American Experience explores the evolution of tactics, the moral conundrums and internal battles of the bombing campaign against Germany in WWII. Courtesy the Mighty 8th Museum.

“The Bombing of Germany” is a new program from American Experience, premiering February 8 at 9:00 pm on PBS.

“The lessons we stand to learn from World War II are especially important today, as American troops enter the ninth year of fighting on two foreign fronts,” says American Experience executive producer Mark Samels regarding the timeliness of this program.

With all the recent television examinations of various aspects of World War II in Europe—using newsreel film, splashy graphics, talking heads and so on—why is this still a fresh look at a well-covered story? There are new wrinkles here, including some really fine color and black-and-white film from both Allied and Axis cameras. All first-hand accounts are taken from surviving veterans—military and civilian—of the bombings. But what stands out in “The Bombing of Germany” is the theme, which examines the moral dilemma resulting from the style and escalation of the aerial bombardment of Germany.

It was obvious to all that the advent of aircraft technology would create new levels of warfare in World War II, as aerial bombing would be employed for strategic and tactical purposes. Over the years since the war ended much attention has been placed on the horrific situation caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Launching the powerful destructive capability of atomic weapons was a shocking new strategy that ultimately—and quickly—led a most fanatical foe of the free world to surrender.

However, for over three years conventional aerial bombing strikes were carried out in Germany to achieve similar results. As 1945 dragged on, area or “carpet” bombing intensified to bring the war in Europe to a close so that the entire Allied effort could focus on defeating Japan.

The aerial bombardment of Germany resulted in over a half-million casualties. Copyright ullstein bild - The Granger Collection.While the effects of explosive and incendiary devices dropped on Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin did not have the dramatic—and long lasting—effects of Fat Boy and Little Man, the A-bombs that devastated two Japanese cities, they were just as deadly. More than half a million people were killed by the bombings in Germany. The city of Dresden was virtually obliterated. And yet Germany did not surrender solely on the basis of these terror bombings.

So how did things escalate to that point? As writer Donald L. Miller explains, “Wars are uncontrollable and no one knows how and why they get out of control but they do.”

When the war started, the film points out, neither Prime Minister Winston Churchill nor President Franklin D. Roosevelt desired bombing of civilian populations. A famous quote from Roosevelt made on the first day of war—”under no circumstances undertake bombardment from the air of civilian populations”—was a warning to warring nations and is typed out on the screen in the film. Though Germany bombed populations on the mainland from the outset, Adolph Hitler initially believed precision military bombing to be the only effective kind. The infamous bombing of London was started by one stray bomber, until Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels saw potential in continuing it, explains Jörg Friedrich in the film.

As the film traces aerial bombing in the European Theater from the beginning, the moral dilemma thrust upon military and political leaders is revealed to be like the classic knockdown of dominos. The British, ineffective in their daylight precision bombing and suffering heavy losses in aircraft and personnel from it, champion the idea of area bombing first. American air chiefs continue to apply precision bombing techniques after initial success at Rouen, France, until losses of unescorted bombers start to add up. Then, slowly, they start to buy into the British concept, though in combined operations the Americans continue to concentrate on military targets in daylight. The advent of the P-51 Mustang as a fighter escort greatly aids this effort.

All of this is illustrated clearly in timeline fashion in the film. On-camera appearances by British and American airmen, and German civilians caught in the hailstorm, give chilling testimony to the program’s still and moving images of air attacks and destruction on the ground. However American Experience programs, in my opinion, often use too many experts on screen. That is certainly the case here. The short sound bites from a variety of historians and writers dilute the thesis by overstatement. Historian Tami Davis Biddle is particularly ineffective as the first up, stating obvious facts. Her soothing voice and humanistic perspective work better later in the film when conclusions are drawn. On the other hand, historian Sir Max Hastings’ firm commentary commands attention, as does the engaging charm of European scholar Jörg Friedrich. Donald L. Miller, author of Masters of the Air, has an easy style that brings life to his comments.

This program makes one think a great deal about the high cost of war. It gets inside the heads of those who had to make the difficult decisions to sacrifice innocent life for victory. But as historian Conrad Crane reasons in the film, “the most unethical act in World War II for the Allies would have been allowing themselves to lose.” These concepts offer another example of why historical examinations, and especially the study of this war, set the tone for how mankind handles great crises now and in the future.

For more information about the program, visit the American Experience Website.

To learn more about the Allied bombing of Germany, click on the links below.

Wild Blue Yonder

Allied Aerial Destruction of Hamburg During World War II

Allied Air Power was Decisive Factor in Western Europe