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The effectiveness of the bombing

LAURENCE REES: The effectiveness of the Allied bombing campaign is hotly disputed. To what extent did it make any difference?

TAMI BIDDLE: This has been so hard fought, in part because the expectations from bombardment prior to the war were so elevated which makes the whole debate very difficult to untangle. The airmen themselves were part of the problem, they genuinely believed that airplanes were going to change the nature of warfare in a very dramatic way, and they were ahead of themselves in part because of the technologies and in part because they underestimated the robustness and the adaptability of human populations in warfare. But I think what you can say is that the bombers had a couple of important achievements. One was that by doing the force on force battle and by winning air superiority over the Luftwaffe it gave the ground armies a tremendous advantage, which they would not otherwise have had, and the casualties would have been far, far higher. It would have looked more like the Western Front in World War One if we had not been able to win the kind of air superiority that we won prior to Normandy, and then continue to fight for it.

The fact that we were able to denude oil supplies meant that Panzer Lehr were not able to fight against British and American ground troops as effectively as they would have had they had plentiful supplies of oil. Aircraft that were denied jet fuel or denied fuel of any sort were not able to train or to fly against American bombers or fighter pilots. So in lots of ways this made D Day possible and it made what happened after D Day a lot easier for the ground armies. I think it also did probably help the Russians on the Eastern Front because the Germans had to pull resources back from the Eastern Front and they had to take guns that would have been used as anti-tank guns on the Eastern Front and point them upward at Anglo-American bombers. So you had a real trade-off there in terms of resources that would have been used for offensive purposes on the Eastern Front that were brought back into Germany and used for defensive purposes, giving a big boost to the Red Army that I don’t think they ever entirely appreciated fully. Churchill was probably right about that. As well as this, at some key moments this bomber offensive, as inefficient as it was, did really keep a lid on German industrial expansion, and one of those key moments was during the Battle of The Ruhr in the early summer of 1943.

Speer was gearing up for a great industrial expansion and a real push to drive his war economy up to another level and Harris and Bomber Command came in and waged a very concentrated attack on the Ruhr cities and pretty much upended Speer’s plan for that expansion at a pretty critical moment in time. This is 1943 and a lot is hanging in the balance just at that moment. The Battle of Kursk is going to take place in July so a lot of that stuff that Speer would have taken advantage of in the spring would have been on the Eastern Front had Bomber Command not attacked the Ruhr at that moment in time. So I think there were some real contributions that have probably been overlooked by historians, and historians are reacting to the great claims of, oh, gosh, the bombers will win the war on their own, and there were a couple of airmen that believed that, Harris being the leader amongst them. I think Spaatz to some degree also believed that airplanes could probably win the war on their own if given the time and the resources to do it. So the whole debate was coloured by what had come before, which was this big battle over the role of airplanes in the future of warfare. Many people believed these claims to be the exaggerations of the airmen who were trying to defend their institutions (nearly independent institutions in the case of the RAF or in the case of the American Airforce, not yet independent from the army but very desirous of becoming independent of the army) and so they were really trying to push their case in hyperbolic terms. So the debate was conditioned by that.

I think now that we can sort of sit back many years later and say, well, what did it really do? We’ve got fantastic economic historians like Adam Tooze going into the records and seeing on the German side what it did and, in fact, it had a pretty crucial effect at some moments and it did some really important things that I think have been underestimated. I always start whenever I give a talk about strategic bombing with pictures of the Western Front and I start with pictures of Passchendaele. And I say this is the model that everybody wanted to get away from. The Anglo-Americans who had no desire, or no real pressure, to build large standing armies were not going to build them. They’re expensive, they’re socially disruptive, potentially politically destabilizing.  You just don’t want to have them unless you’re a continental power where your enemy can come over your border any day. You’re not going to have them if you’ve got another alternative. So the Americans and the British always relied on navies, and when airplanes became available they relied on airplanes and navies in combination. They really didn’t want to do the large army thing prior to World War Two. And I think they saw airplanes as a way of being able to fight a war effectively without the kind of horrific casualties that you might have to take if you fought the war primarily relying on an army. So from that starting place I just don’t think it was realistic to say, what were the alternatives? Having a large standing army to meet the Wehrmacht on its own terms would have been politically highly unpopular and probably impossible. Certainly it would have been in the US.

In Britian, once Germany had taken so many of the resources of so much of Europe by 1942 you can’t imagine how to fight them with simply an army. So, at some level, Britain and America naturally fall back on heavy reliance on airplanes. And how you could have gotten to a different place in terms of fighting the war a different way is hard to fathom. You could have done it differently in the sense of perhaps building an airforce that would have been more short range where you could have gained air superiority over a limited area, done an amphibious assault and then fought your way forward with shorter range attack aircraft that would have won pieces of real estate moving across. That would have been a different approach than using these long range strategic bombers. But I think the Americans and the Brits were going to use airplanes in this war in the way that they had relied on ships in the past.

So at that level you sort of have to say what was politically realistic going into the fight? And what was politically realistic was a heavy reliance on navies and airplanes. There are a million things that could have been done differently if we’d gone in with a more clear eyed idea of how hard it was going to be so we could have made the adjustments a little bit faster which would have improved things. But at some level the problems of war can only be uncovered by war itself, in that you never know quite how difficult something’s going to be or quite how complex it’s going to be until you’re in it, which is why you have to have some flexibility in your planning.

I think we’ve professionalized since World War Two in a way that we had not done in the inter-war years.  In those years the military was still a bit of a, nice, part-time occupation for a gentleman. It’s been so professionalized now in ways that it wasn’t back then, and I think people do spend much more time trying to plan out, and you can still get blind-sighted. We saw how unprepared we were for aspects of the war in Iraq. Our sophisticated 21st Century army - the best army in the world as we’d like to claim - was blind-sighted in all kinds of ways. Again, another one of the great dilemmas and tragedies of warfare: you can’t really predict how it’s going to come out.