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Book Reviews

Fire and Fury – The Allied Bombing of Germany 1942-45

by Randall Hansen

Toronto: Random House of Canada Ltd., 2008
+ 353 pages, $34.95
ISBN 978-0-385-66403-5

Reviewed by Major M.T. ‘Skip’ Fawcett

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Book CoverThe Allied strategic bombing campaign was perhaps one of the most contentious strategies utilized to defeat Nazi Germany during the Second World War, the most controversial aspect of which was RAF Bomber Command’s tactic of area bombardment. In his new book, Fire and Fury, The Allied Bombing of Germany 1942-45, author Randall Hansen adds to the debate surrounding the campaign by providing an unconventional examination of this issue. Fire and Fury purports to be a holistic look at the Allied bombing strategy, with a view to providing insight into questions Hansen poses in the preface to the book: ‘How can we judge the role that bombing played in the Allied victory?’, and ‘What role does morality play in the execution and evaluation of war?’ If you are an ethical crusader who derides Sir Arthur Harris’s role in Bomber Command, this book is definitely for you. If you are a Harris apologist, proceed no further as Fire and Fury will only infuriate you. For more neutral readers, Hansen – although more than a tad one-sided in his argument – presents a very well-written, well-documented, eminently readable, and engaging story of the Allied strategic bombing campaign.

Fire and Fury recounts the events of the campaign from its inception in early 1942 through to the end of the war. Specifically, Hansen describes in detail the various operations and raids that comprised the overall campaign, including: Operation Millennium (the thousand aircraft raid on Cologne); the Battle of the Ruhr; the Battle of Berlin; the raids on Hamburg, Düsseldorf, and Schweinfurt; and the 1943 ‘Dambuster’ raid on the Ruhr dams. Hansen also expands upon the roles and actions of both RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force, and appraises the political and military discussions and debates that took place regarding the bombing campaign. The author’s use of first-hand accounts, combined with historical documentation, augment the unfolding story of the campaign and make for a compelling exposé. Despite his emphasis upon creating a rich narrative, Hansen never loses sight of his primary theme, which is to suggest that the RAF’s area bombing strategy was unprincipled and tragically flawed.

In the opening chapter of Fire and Fury, entitled: ‘The day Hamburg died,’ Hansen describes in graphic detail the destruction of Hamburg on 27 July 1943. Incorporating the personal accounts of civilian survivors, Hansen paints a horrific and terrifying picture of the death and destruction that the Allied bombing rained upon civilian property and the men, women, and children of Hamburg. The RAF’s area bombing tactic, which called for a combination of high explosive and incendiary bombs, created, in Hansen’s words, a feuersturm (firestorm) that spared no one – while leaving acres of ruined buildings and heaps of charred corpses. Subsequent chapters entitled ‘Burn, Germany, Burn,’ ‘Killing the Boche,’ ‘Oil and baby killing,’ and ‘A crescendo of destruction’ leave the reader in no doubt as to where Hansen stands with respect to the effects of the campaign. Throughout these chapters, as well as throughout the balance of his book, Hansen intersperses his discussion of the personalities and flow of events that comprise the Allied strategic bombing campaign with vivid details of the resultant death and destruction.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of RAF Bomber Command, is a focal point of the book. Hansen definitively casts Harris as being ultimately responsible for the terrible losses suffered by German civilians and RAF bomber crews. He argues throughout Fire and Fury that Harris held firm to his belief that the war could be won by the bomber alone, despite evidence to the contrary, as well as the advent of technology that would allow for precision bombing. Harris’s stubbornness, Hansen writes, resulted in the needless deaths of over 55,000 Bomber Command airmen and between 300,000 and 600,000 civilians.

One of the major arguments Hansen makes against Harris and the area bombing tactic, as demonstrated by his graphic descriptions of civilian deaths and death tolls, is that directly targeting civilians is immoral and fundamentally wrong. Hansen underlines this argument by proposing that the United States chose to pursue precision bombing, rather than the British tactic of area bombing, because, in Hansen’s words, the targeting of civilians was against the American people’s values. He explains away occasions of American non-precision bombing – for example, when they blind-bombed through clouds, as they did against Berlin – by countering that the American intent was to target military and industrial targets rather than civilians. Despite his contention that civilian casualties resulting from American non-precision raids were an acceptable consequence of war because civilians were not directly targeted by the bombing, Hansen argues that the opposite holds true with respect to Allied area bombing because the intent to target civilians made the Allied tactic morally wrong.

Hansen’s examination of the area bombing campaign leads him to believe that this strategy failed to break German civilian morale, and, more importantly, that area bombing failed to dramatically reduce German wartime production. Hansen utilizes post-war data and first-hand accounts to support his case against the Allied strategic bombing campaign, and he quotes Albert Speer, Germany’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, extensively in order to demonstrate the failure of the area bombing tactic to significantly impact German war production. Conversely, Hansen utilizes Speer’s comments to shore up his belief in the effectiveness of the precision bombing campaign conducted by the Americans. In the course of arguing that Allied bombing tactics did not impact German war production, Hansen proposes that the increased production resulting from Germany’s diversion of resources to air defence was negated by the Allied resources expended to prosecute the area bombing and that, therefore, the area bombing campaign had no net effect upon the course of the war. The author concludes his argument against Allied area bombing by stating that “...area bombing not only failed to win the war, it probably prolonged it.”

Hansen’s condemnation of area bombing as having had no net impact on the war is followed by an examination of the tactics and technological aspects of precision bombing vice area bombing. Hansen acknowledges that in the early days of the bomber offensive, the RAF possessed neither the types of bombers nor the required bomb sights and navigational technology to conduct precision bombing. He argues that by early 1943, scientific advancements had significantly improved the technology required for precision bombing, and he describes in detail the ‘Dambuster Raid’ of May 1943 to prove his point. This raid utilized advanced technology to deliver a precision strike against heavily defended targets, leading Hansen to propose that, by this point in the war, technology was available that would have allowed the RAF to “...hit the target with a precision measured in inches.” The implication is that the RAF did possess the aircraft and associated technology to hit a specific and, in the case of the Ruhr dams, a militarily significant target, and it could have ceased area bombing in favour of more precise tactics. According to Hansen, despite available precision bombing technology, Harris chose not to adopt precision bombing, but instead chose to continue to target cities and their civilian populations.

Hansen makes a further argument that the prioritization of bombing targets was also an issue throughout the war. Although Allied priorities changed to some extent as the war progressed, German installations for the production of fighter aircraft, ball bearings, and oil, as well as transportation facilities, remained at the top of their list of strategic targets. Hansen details the case for targeting militarily significant ‘panacea’ targets by describing at great length the various bombing campaigns against production facilities involving Luftwaffe fighter aircraft, oil, and ball bearings. And he specifically highlights the raids against the Schweinfurt ball bearings factories in August 1943, as well as raids conducted against transportation targets. Hansen also details Harris’s well-documented objections to striking these so-called ‘panacea’ targets, and asserts that “...Harris made no secret of his contempt for oil and his support for bombing cities.” In describing this aspect of the bombing campaign, Hansen surmises that Harris simply reinterpreted Allied strategic directives to suit his own purposes, and was not held to account by RAF leadership for his actions. Hansen further proposes that Harris’s failure to support the campaign to bomb ‘panacea’ targets meant that resources were wasted upon area bombing when they could have been used more effectively for precision bombing. Precision bombing, Hansen maintains, if used earlier in the war, could have shortened the conflict and ultimately saved lives.

In the conclusion to Fire and Fury, Hansen sums up his various arguments against Harris’s strategy and area bombardment. Although he implies that civilian deaths caused by Allied area bombings could have been morally justified if they had led directly to the defeat of Nazi Germany, Hansen believes that the area bombing of cities had little effect on the outcome of the war, and that Harris failed to appreciate this. He concludes that “...after flattening dozens of cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, Harris should be held to account and not simply forgiven for making a ‘bad call.’”

Fire and Fury is yet another entry on the growing list of publications about the Allied strategic bombing campaign against Germany. Hansen tells an excellent story. Unfortunately, his narrative is shaped primarily by his predisposition to proving Harris’s guilt. As to the question of the role of bombing and its morality, Fire and Fury continues to stoke the fire of debate.

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Major Fawcett, a highly experienced air weapons controller, is a staff officer for Officer Professional Development at the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston.

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