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Area bombing

LAURENCE REES: How should we feel about the whole question of 'area bombing' by RAF Bomber Command? That is to say the deliberate targeting of civilian areas.

RICHARD OVERY: Well, I think this is a very difficult question and there are two separate questions, of course. One is why this had happened, which is an historical question: what are the circumstances that lead them towards area bombing? And why do they continue it for as long as they do? And to those questions we need to have proper historical answers, in other words we don’t throw our hands up in the air and say how terrible it all is, we say, well, let’s understand what it was they thought they were doing. And I think historians have not done that enough.

LAURENCE REES: Well, Bomber Command did it because - essentially - they weren’t good enough to do anything else at the time.

RICHARD OVERY: No, well, technically they faced all kinds of problems. They could have made different choices in the 1930s about what they were going to focus on and they might have produced a much more effective bomber force by the 1940s which would have been able to do what it was they said they wanted to do. They didn’t produce it, of course. So we can speculate historically about what they might or might not have done. Actually passing a moral judgement on it: was it the right thing to do? This seems to me to be a rather different question; it’s a question that we are projecting backwards.

LAURENCE REES: Not neccessarily. Some Americans at the time saw area bombing as going out and massacring women and children. This was in comparison to their own attempts at precision bombing.  So therefore there was a sense even at the time that this was not acceptable.

RICHARD OVERY: Yes, and there was a lot of critical pacifist opinion too about this. I think Churchill’s post-Dresden reigning back, asking: are we beasts and so on should not be exaggerated. Churchill had supported this all the way through and knew perfectly well we were killing very large numbers of people. Why I say the moral issue is separate is not because I think that we should say that it wasn’t a war crime or it was a war crime, it’s just that you’re asking a historian to do a different kind of thing. You’re asking me to go back and make a moral judgement about this, not asking me to say why it was that they did it. Now, clearly, in moral terms it was indefensible, the whole strategy is indefensible and from the summer of 1941 they do make the decision to de-house. They call it de-housing because nobody would write a directive that says we want to kill very large numbers of Germans. Harris doesn’t have that problem. He writes an airborne leaflet later in 1943 in which he says: what we’re doing is killing you. He knows that what he’s doing is killing large numbers of people. Of course it was de-housing workers around factories and the idea was that you were not attacking all people and de-housing everybody, you were just attacking the people in industrial cities. Harris had a list of them and he ticked them off one by one as they obliterated them.

But deliberately targeting houses and amenities which were civilian in character was clearly insupportable by any conception of international law or the rules of warfare, and Chamberlain had always made it clear right the way through to the point at which he left office in 1940 that that was unacceptable.

LAURENCE REES: Well, there is a sense in which it might be considered morally defensible. If a nation state is threatened with its own destruction, can't it be 'moral' to do whatever is necessary to preserve the nation state, because ultimately we believe our system is better than theirs?

RICHARD OVERY: Well, I don’t think that is a defensible moral position and I’m talking once again as a moral philosopher, I’m not talking as an historian. It’s clearly not defensible because although you can dress it up as the idea of total war, total war is a war between whole societies, so therefore everybody is a target. There was lots of self-serving discussion about this in the 1930s and during the war, about the nature of war having changed, but in fact the nature of war had not changed and it was quite clear from all the agreed rules for the conduct of warfare that undertaking operations which deliberately targeted women, children, non-combatants and so on was not acceptable. What you needed to do was to find a way of fighting regular warfare better. The Russians do, they bomb a hundred kilometres behind the front line. But they don’t bomb German cities. Now, of course, there is a strong sense in the 1930s in Britain that all this total war rhetoric, apocalyptic literature and so on, is trying to create an atmosphere in which you do think in morally relative terms and destroying the enemy is a top priority. But there were other ways in which you could have conducted British attitudes during the war. There were other things you could have done with your air power which the British don’t think about.

You could have focused much earlier on on producing high speed, high performance dive bombing aircraft with the capacity to destroy like the Mosquito, destroy very small targets. The Mosquito had lots of advantages, it could hardly be detected by radar, it could fly very high and so on, and you could have done that. You could have strengthened your conventional armed forces on land and produced a much more effective fighter bomber at a much earlier stage, and therefore not had to rely on heavy bombing because your land campaigns were so hopeless. The problem with the British is that they’d been defeated in Singapore, Greece, Crete, and they were on the point of being defeated in Egypt. They’d been expelled from the continent and there is, it seems to me, a moral expediency then. You say we can’t do this, therefore what can we do? Well, we can bomb their cities. And since this is total war and total war is a fascist invention then we’ll bomb their cities.

LAURENCE REES: But why did we end up with the ability - via bombers - to do the very thing that we were simultaneously saying was against   international law and would therefore be deeply morally questionable?

RICHARD OVERY: It’s a very interesting question. Why do the Americans focus on producing the B17 and Roosevelt gives it the go-ahead? Roosevelt seems to have very few scruples about bombing, he recommends it all the time. I think that these are questions we don’t actually have a full answer to yet and it’s one of the areas I think historians have tended to skirt round. The two democratic states, both of which had leaders, Roosevelt and Chamberlain, who took initiatives throughout the 1930s to try and outlaw bombing as a form of warfare, end up sanctioning the development of heavy bombers that can only be used for one thing; attacking other people’s cities. For Chamberlain, of course, the idea was that the bomber really would only attack blast furnaces, and if you had to unleash it that’s what it would be doing. The B17 was also designed so that it can hit a submarine pen or whatever it is.

LAURENCE REES: But, in reality, morality in a war like this is considered something of a luxury. The truth is we would have done whatever was necessary for own preservation.

RICHARD OVERY: Yes. Well, Churchill throws his weight behind bombing. And it does seem to me he doesn’t think very heavily about what it actually means to the populations on which his bombs are raining. There seems to be a strong rhetorical streak to Churchill’s view of let’s take it to the Germans and it’s interesting that right at the end of the war after the news at Dresden and so on he begins to say: have we actually done something wrong? And it’s quite extraordinary. He doesn’t really think about this sufficiently. But imagine for a moment Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff sanctioning when British troops arrived at the first German city. Saying, well, now you can shoot 40,000 of the inhabitants, line them up against a wall. Shell them till they’re dead. This would have been the most atrocious war crime, like the rape of Nanking and so on.

But dropping 4,000 tons of bombs from the air and incinerating 40,000 people doesn’t seem to provoke the same kind of soul searching. And I think that that is, again, something historians need to answer a lot more: why was air power regarded both functionally and morally in different terms from the way in which you’d expect somebody to behave at ground level?

LAURENCE REES: And what’s interesting is that I know that many of the Nazi concentration camp commanders and guards - people like Hoess at Auschwitz - subsequently say things like 'I faced exactly the same decisions as a pilot dropping bombs on Hamburg'. And this is a problem for us, isn’t it, to try and unpack all this?

RICHARD OVERY: That’s an interesting example you use, because I was thinking of the fact that if ghettos had been bombed from the air to eliminate them, I’m not confident we wouldn’t think of it differently from the way we think about people being lined up, stripped and put into gas chambers. And I think we need to explore this culturally and psychologically in quite a number of different ways because people do treat attacks from the air differently from the way they treat the behaviour of people on the ground, and I think if they hadn’t they would not be have been able to sanction, the British and Americans, the fire bombing of Japan or the area bombing of Germany. There’s a psychological and a moral sleight of hand that goes on.

LAURENCE REES: But, of course, one essential difference between British bombing policy and the extermination of the Jews, is that what the British were trying to do with bombing was to bring the war to a swift conclusion. As soon as the Germans surrender, the bombing stops. Whereas the destruction of the Jews would not have stopped instantly if the Allies had given up. If the Nazis had won it would have gone on and on.

RICHARD OVERY: Yes. Of course it is different and I’m not kind of saying it’s the same as the Holocaust at all. Because the difference is not just that cities are defended but the difference is that Germany has the opportunity to say, we give up. Of course we know they’re not going to give up, and as the British and the Americans know, they were not going to give up.

They can all leave the city or Hitler can put his hands up and say, alright, that’s enough, but, these are not realistic options. We might say that these were options or choices that they have, but they’re not very realistic options. What’s more difficult to explain, perhaps in terms of bombing, is the willingness, for example, to carry on bombing Italian cities in 1943-45 and causing around about 60,000 deaths, the same as the Blitz, or French cities, causing again about 60 or 70,000 deaths.

Now, here again one might talk about more expediency, strategic necessity and so on, but you don’t find much evidence, except in the French case, of Western powers losing much sleep over this, yet these are issues that you need to think very hard about. In fact, in the end Churchill and De Gaulle start trading numbers asking, you know, what will you accept? Will you accept 20,000? Will you accept 10,000? It’s quite absurd: how many Frenchmen do you want us to kill? And it seems to me that they have a very blunt instrument. It’s the only instrument they have and so what they want to do is to beat the enemy to death and if that means killing a lot of other people at the same time then that seems to be an unfortunate by-product.  And I think as historians what we need to answer is this question of why was there so little soul searching or thinking either about the consequences of the bombing or how else we might do it?

LAURENCE REES: And why wasn’t there?

RICHARD OVERY: Well, I think partly because of the mindset of total war. And I think that if you look at the planning and discussions among air officers in the 1930s there’s an extraordinary change that takes place in democratic societies, and I think it’s because they are democratic societies that think in terms of mass society of the people. And the people have become the target, the people are vulnerable, the people might give up. The British and Americans don’t have a large or very good army and you get round this and you attack the society. The idea that society crumbles and the front line gives up. I think that that was always a delusion.