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Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942–1945

By Randall Hansen. 368 pp. NAL Caliber, 2009. $25.95.

Many decades after the Axis defeat, the war’s strategic bombing campaigns still have the power to polarize. The 1994 dispute over the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit and the more recent debate over the portrayal of the British area-bombing offensive at the Canadian War Museum demonstrate that the controversy rages on. So we should pay attention to this powerful, beautifully written reexamination of a contentious topic.

Randall Hansen has tackled an ambitious task: to describe the American and British strategic bombing campaigns against Germany; to capture the human cost of the offensive; and to provide an assessment of the bombing’s effectiveness, consequences, and morality. His account of the tension between Bomber Command chief Arthur Harris and his superiors is thoroughly researched, and new descriptions of the raids from the civilian perspective are heartrending. He is on less sure ground in his discussion of the German response: an overreliance on Albert Speer’s memoirs is no substitute for the analysis required to reach a convincing verdict on the bomber offensive. That aside, Hansen succeeds in weaving a compelling narrative.

Yet this fine book is marred by an extreme thesis: that Britain’s “city busting” campaign achieved nothing, or at least nothing that could not have been accomplished by the American daylight precision bombing campaign. In making this claim, Hansen largely ignores recent sophisticated work on the German war economy, including Adam Tooze’s The Wages of Destruction, which shows that Harris’s 1943 attacks on the Ruhr “stopped Speer’s armaments miracle in its tracks.” While the British were wrecking the Ruhr, the American daylight offensive was barely gaining momentum. The bomber offensive caused a massive diversion of German resources—and through 1943, the Germans viewed the British offensive as the greater threat. Both campaigns compelled Germany to fight the type of war for which it was least prepared.

It may well be that Harris’s offensive, in the words of another historian, stretched the “limits of what is permissible, even in the best of causes.” Yet to dismiss it as a costly, misguided, and immoral failure assumes a certainty that, even 64 years after the last bomb fell on Germany, we do not possess.


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here