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Death from the Heavens: A History of Strategic Bombing

Death from the Heavens: A History of Strategic Bombing by Kenneth P. Werrell. Naval Institute Press, 2009, 400 pp.

Death from the Heavens is a detailed assessment of strategic air bombardment carried out by aircraft ranging from dirigibles, whose crew members literally tossed bombs down on London in 1917, to today’s drones, launched to kill one terrorist wherever that enemy might be. At the end of the First World War, the four leading nations that fought on the western front were determined not to repeat the bloody trench warfare that had destroyed a generation of young men. France constructed a static row of fortresses along its border with Germany called the Maginot line, while Germany developed highly mobile ground forces aided by tactical aircraft to produce a blitzkrieg. Both Great Britain and the United States responded by relying on airpower. During the Second World War, although the Allied and Axis powers “made widespread use of air power, only the Americans and British employed strategic bombardment on a grand scale” (p. xiv).

The doctrine of strategic airpower requires fleets of heavy, long-range bombers, their very existence expected to deter an aggressor. If that failed, however, “strategic bombardment strikes the enemy’s homeland, bypasses its armed forces, and directly hits the source of power, be it physical targets, such as war industry, or population centers to destroy the will of the people to continue the conflict” (p. xv). Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt endorsed the doctrine, and so-called bomber barons in Britain and the United States wholeheartedly supported and executed it, the Americans insisting that a landing in Normandy would be unnecessary.

Nevertheless, as author Kenneth P. Werrell reveals in this detailed examination of doctrine and execution, that promise exceeded its grasp. Despite the devastating bombardment of German and Japanese cities, what the people might have “willed” had no impact on the course of the war. Nor did it destroy the capacity of the enemy to continue the struggle: “Air power was important to Allied victory, but it was just one of several factors that won the war. . . . In hindsight it appears that the connection of air power with cutting technology, the romance of aviation, and the spotlight of wartime publicity gave the airman more credit than their actions deserve” (p. 125). Thus, Alexander de Seversky’s Victory through Air Power, a classic example of wartime propaganda, proved to be a fantasy.

The author’s assessment of the strategic bombing attacks on Germany and Japan seems certain to draw fire. Controversy continues to surround the firebombings of Hamburg and Dresden as well as the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It arises not from the decision to attack legitimate military targets but from an attempt to end the conflicts by targeting population centers, thereby killing and maiming thousands of women, children, and the elderly. Although the morality of the strategic bombing of population centers remains debatable, the author notes that it should be kept in context:

Moralists critical of strategic bombing should consider the results of the World War I Allied blockade that starved to death 800,000, certainly mostly women, children, and old men. . . . While this does not excuse the situation, it provides some context. That is, the great evil is not strategic bombing but war itself. . . . Is the death of some innocents worth the saving of the lives of some combatants or other innocents either directly or by shortening the conflict? (p. 154)

This practitioner and student of airpower much appreciates the author’s going beyond the tenets of strategic bombing and the results achieved (or not achieved) to describe in some detail the “strategic delivery systems” (p. 300) from Germany’s Gotha bomber of the First World War to today’s stealth aircraft, and from Germany’s V-2 rockets of the Second World War to today’s four-stage Peacekeeper. Looking (more like glancing) at ballistic rockets that introduced a new means of delivering death from the heavens, Werrell gives short shrift to Germany’s V-2 (the “V” not representing “Victory” but Vergeltungswaffe—a weapon of revenge). The V-2s, the author writes, were “only a terror weapon because they were deficient in reliability, accuracy, destructive capacity, range and numbers. . . . A wiser allocation of resources that emphasized . . . jet aircraft, surface-to-surface missiles, and proximity fuses, could have made the Allied air offensive more expensive (by destroying more bombers)” (p. 67).

The Allied strategic bombing campaign in the Second World War represents an excellent introduction to strategic airpower in the postwar years. Death and destruction from the heavens remain fundamental doctrine, especially as a deterrent. Today we possess advanced “explosive delivery systems,” including intercontinental ballistic missiles, stealth bombers, and drones. However, Werrell concludes that “complete application of strategic bombardment is only applicable in total war, which nuclear weapons have made unthinkable, at least for nuclear-armed nations. Thus the practitioners have fallen short of the theorist’s vision. The record during its first century reveals that strategic bombardment is a case study of promises unfulfilled” (p. 300).

This excellent, well-researched study is nicely balanced: six chapters address the prewar period, and the remaining five cover postwar events. The book includes a number of photographs. Death from the Heavens is a major contribution that neither practitioners and nor students of airpower should overlook.

Robert Huddleston
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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