Fredric Smoler reviews Donald L. Miller’s Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany (Simon & Schuster, 688 pages, $35):
Did it work? It is now fashionable to assert, with very selective use of partial evidence, that strategic bombing was and will always be a failure, an assertion that gains a little force from the way bombing’s enthusiasts tend to overstate their case. After the horrors of World War I, strategic bombing’s enthusiasts claimed that their method of making war would be swift and decisive. Some of them also thought it would be relatively humane, some that it would win wars without land forces being involved at all. Most thought that we could bomb with pinpoint precision by daylight, without fighter escorts, and at relatively trivial cost in American lives. None of this turned out to be true. Strategic bombing was nonetheless for a long time the only way the Western Allies could make war on Adolf Hitler, and in the long run it was a devastatingly effective weapon, one that made a decisive contribution to destroying the Third Reich, and the intensity of arguments to the contrary seem directly proportional to ignorance of modern scholarship on the war. Miller knows this, and he is illuminating about the much-misquoted and seldom-read Strategic Bombing Survey conducted after the war.
The judgment of modern specialist historians, which Miller agrees with, is that strategic bombing worked, although not in the way intended, which is to say either alone or by destroying German morale. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, strategic bombing almost certainly did do appalling damage to German morale, but the demoralized subjects of an efficient tyranny became more passive and more dependent on that tyranny. Strategic bombing made its very significant contribution to victory in other ways. It forced the Luftwaffe’s fighters to stay over Germany, where American escort fighters destroyed them. That made the advances by the Allied armies much cheaper; in some cases, it made them possible. It diverted vast German resources into air defense, and by the end of the war it paralyzed German war production. The premier historian of the air war, Richard Overy, says that in 1944 the effects of the bombing deprived front-line German forces of 50 percent of the equipment and ammunition they would otherwise have received.