Saturday, February 14, 2009

More of the Same Revisionism

Among revisionist historians, few events have received more attention than the Allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945.

Today, missions flown against the German city by the U.S. Eighth Air Force and RAF Bomber Command are widely described as unnecessary; some historians even refer to them as "war crimes." From the revisionist perspective, raids on Dresden accomplished nothing of military value, but inflicted horrific casualties on civilians. By most estimates, the air raids killed thousands in a city choked with refugees, and some writers claim that the death toll reached 200,000.

As we noted two years ago, the revisionist version of what happened at Dresden now dominates historical writing on the subject. Of the four books on that subject that have been published in recent years, only one finds justification for the raid. The rest describe the raids as an abomination, and the three authors concur with the "war crime" assessment.

Now, you can add another name to that list. In a new article for Canada's National Post, Randall Hansen, a professor at the University of Toronto arrives at the same conclusion. Writing on the 64th anniversary of the Dresden raids, Hansen describes them as war crimes and takes the claim a step further, indicting the entire strategic bombing campaign against Germany during World War II:

All across Germany from 1942, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force tried to win the war by destroying cities and killing civilians. Let there be no mistake: The aim was to obliterate as many cities and kill as many people as possible, and to do so until the Germans capitulated. Today, we would unequivocally describe such a strategy as a war crime. At the Nuremburg Trials, we insisted — rightly — that a war crime is such regardless of whether it was formally legal when it was committed, and regardless of whether it was committed before or after the Second World War. By these standards — standards that we the Allies created — the very area bombing of Germany was a war crime.

As you might have guessed, Professor Hansen has his own book on the subject, Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany 1942--1945, which was published last fall. In his work, Hansen argues that RAF Bomber Command (which led the great night time raids against Dresden, Hamburg and scores of other German cities) was wedded to an outdated strategy of "area bombing," which did little damage to the Third Reich's war machine and may have prolonged the war. By comparison, Hansen claims that daylight raids by U.S. Army Air Forces B-17s and B-24s, played a more important role in securing Allied victory.

Despite the revisionist tilt in recent accounts of Bomber Command and its campaigns against Nazi Germany, those conclusions remain controversial, particularly among Canadians who fought in World War II. Their county--and countrymen--were disproportionately represented among British bomber crews who took the fight to the Third Reich.

By one estimate, at least one-sixth of Bomber Command's aircrew members were Canadian, and they suffered a significant share of the 55,000 fatalities recorded by RAF bomber crews during the war. With their participation in the bomber offensive, Hansen suggests that Canadians were partly responsible for the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians. We're guessing that Professor Hansen won't be getting any invitations to speak at reunions of Canadian bomber squadons that served with the RAF.

But his critique is also something of a cheap shot; with the hindsight of history, it's easy to criticize the Allied bomber offensive of World War II. Given the available technology, area bombing was notoriously inaccurate, with only a small fraction of bombs landing within five miles of their intended target. Besides, the leader of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, made no secret of his intent to weaken German morale by hitting population centers and disrupting essential services. Advisers to Prime Minister Winston Churchill first suggested the strategy in 1942, and it became marching orders for Bomber Command an its leaders.

To some degree, Air Marshal Harris and his staff had no other choice. While a British leader once observed (famously) that "the bomber will always get through," his nation did little to prepare the RAF for sustained, strategic bombing during World War II. Bomber Command entered the war both under-strength and poorly-equipped for daylight missions.

After disastrous losses during the Battle of France and the Norwegian campaign, the RAF concluded--correctly--that future bombing raids would be conducted at night. The change improved crew survivability, but resulted in degraded accuracy. Without the switch, the bomber offensive against Germany might have been an "All American" show.

Harris was not particularly concerned about criticisms leveled at his command over civilian casualties. He once observed that he did not "regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier." Harris also suggested that the Third Reich should "reap the whirlwind" for its indiscriminate bombing of Warsaw, Rotterdam, London and other Allied cities, earlier in the war.

Revenge isn't the best justification for a bomber offensive, and it wasn't the only reason for round-the-clock strikes against Germany. Despite the relative inaccuracy of World War II bombers, the raids still inflicted damage on key Nazi facilities and production centers.

Additionally, Marshal Harris, his American counterparts and their political leaders were keenly aware that bomber attacks forced the Germans to defend their airspace with hundreds of aircraft, thousands of anti-aircraft guns and an even greater number of personnel. Without the bomber campaign, those assets--and the money that paid for them--could have diverted to German military offensives and other weapons systems.

In a 2007 essay on the bombing controversy for Commentary magazine, Algis Valiunas suggested that the debate is focused on the wrong elements. Instead of asking why the U.S. and Britain unleashed the full weight of their bombers on Hitler's Germany, we should focus on how they arrived at that position. And the answer is quite simple; rather than stopping Hitler in the 1930s, when the Nazi regime was relatively weak, the Allies tried to negotiate with Germany. When Hitler's real intentions became apparent, it was too late for anything, except overwhelming military force.

We should also remember that marshaling that force was no easy matter. The American B-17 bomber program was approved by Congress by a single vote; when Arthur Harris assumed the reigns at Bomber Command in early 1942, he inherited an organization that lacked a capable four-engine aircraft, capable of dropping significant bomb loads on German targets. Within a year, the command was mounting 1,000-plane raids on Nazi cities, applying the massive firepower that (eventually) helped win the war.

That's not revisionism, but rather, a simple statement of facts.


section9 said...

The only rap against the Strategic Bombing Campaign against the Reich from a military point of view could be in its actual effectiveness as a tool. Reich production of aircraft peaked in late 1944, due to the ingenuity of Albert Speer and the Organization Todt.

The Nazis were concerned about the bombing campaigns, of course, but compensated by moving factories to rural areas and, famously, underground.

However, they could not compensate for a switch in allied strategy: smart allied planners started attacking rail lines and bridges-this began to cut off factories from raw materials and sources of power generation. Only then did Strategic Bombing come into its own.

LeMay's campaign against Japan was far more concentrated and thoroughgoing. The firebombing campaign only happened because of the dispersed nature of Japanese industry. However, smaller attacks were made against Japanese road and rail systems by fighter aircraft of the 7th Air Force and the Pacific Fleet. By the time LeMay administered the coup de grace of the atomic bombs, Japan was effectively paralyzed.

Merkw├╝rdigliebe said...

This is just another left-leaning "historian" trying to revise the existing record. Seems to be a very popular trend in academia, and it continues. Based on my own experience doing MA and PhD work, there are literally legions of historians who have already made up their minds and then write to shape issues to their ideological slant.

Regarding Reich production peaking in 1944, what would have been the case had there been no bomber offensive? The resources the combined bomber offensive tied up in aircraft, flak and other manpower (railway, railway repair, various emergency services) and the impact this had on the German war effort cannot be underestimated and certainly hastened the end of the war.

Regarding Japan, paralyzed or not, they were in no way ready to surrender and troop strength on Kyushu (up to 100,000 by the time Olympic was due to kick off) was higher than Allied planners realized.

It may well be true the war was lost for them. But had the atomic bombs not been dropped, the need for an invasion and hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of additional Japanese military and civilian deaths would have dwarfed anything the bombs could do.

It remains a sad truth these days that some of the best work now being done in the field of history is often not being done by academic historians--a sad reflection of how politicized the faculties of so many universities are today on not only the Second World War, but many other aspects of history as well.

SMSgt Mac said...

Great post! (And great comment Karla)
One of my pet peeves is when post-moderns observe the past without an empathy and understanding of the milieu they're studying: they strike me more as voyeurs. Thus, 'historians' made after about 1970 are ALWAYS to be read with an eye out for revisionism.
Thanks again for exposing this guy.

Paul Schultz said...

This article is intelligent and well-written. This latest critic (Hansen) of the Allied air offensive suffers from the same historical malaise as his predecessors: he ignores the context of the events he discusses. As mentioned, the Germans had initiated the strategy of bombing population centers (dating back to Guernica during the Spanish Civil War). To suggest that the Allies would not use the same methods is silly. World War II was a titanic, global struggle for survival. All sides used (and would have used) any and all means at their disposal to inflict damage upon their enemies.
Lest we forget, Germany and (YES!) Japan were also desperately trying to create an atomic bomb.

The efficacy of the bombing itself remains in question, except for one, enormous "side effect" it produced, as acknowledged in the article. Virtually the entire Luftwaffe was tied up defending Germany's cities from early 1943 on. They made life hell for Allied bomber crews, but were absent in any significant numbers to oppose the Normandy landings, the various massive Allied parachute drops, or the Red Army offensives coming from the East. This development provided a colossal advantage to the Allied armies moving toward and into Germany. At the same time, it severely hampered the efforts of the Wehrmacht to counter these operations, since German ground forces were often completely at the mercy of Allied aircraft. In this context, the Allied bombing campaign was an indisputable success.

WWII buffs might want to check out my new novel, The Fuhrer Virus. It is a fictional spy/conspiracy/thriller for adult readers, set in 1941. It can be found at or at


Paul Schultz

lgude said...

History can be written from a contemporary perspective without imposing an anachronistic ideological pre-judgment. I just finished Bayly and Harper's Forgotten Armies, a history of the collapse of the British Empire in the Far East at the beginning of WWII and would say it is good example. I know I already have a filter that stops me reading any book that demonstrates ideological prejudice. Recently I stopped reading Legacy of Ashes when the author claimed that the initial activities of the early CIA under Truman were 'illegal' - a blatantly post Watergate view of the legality of government acts. I kept going for a while but realized I couldn't trust the author. (Any recommendations for a balanced history of the CIA?) When we enter a post-postmodern era a general equivalent of this personal filter will be applied to all those who now advance their careers by hewing to the contemporary orthodoxy. I noticed Zinn and his ilk have already created a shadow market for more honest history when I saw that Charles and Mary Beard's History of the United States written in the 20s enjoys great popularity on the free audiobook site It takes some doing to make a 90 year old high school text book popular.

Mitch Miller said...

We no longer live on the 18th century, when wars could be decided by military-on-military conflict alone. The ACW and much more WWI showed that without civilian casulties, armies can fight on almost indefinitely. Unfortunately, to bring the war to a close, it was absolutley necessary to bomb civilian targets in Germany and Japan.

LGD said...

Section9, you overlook that airplanes have to be fueled, armed and flown. They also need to reach the combat units. USAAF attacks interrupted fuel and ammunition deliveries and depleted the Luftwaffe of its best pilots and the time it needed to train more. Plane production is useless in these circumstances. Many of these new planes were destroyed on the ground almost as soon as they were produced.

As for this point,

"When Hitler's real intentions became apparent, it was too late for anything, except overwhelming military force."

Keep in mind, too that the entire war of 1939-1945 had only brought the Allies to the borders of Germany. We still had the rest of the country to go before victory.

ULTRA intelligence intercepts from 1944 indicated that Hitler was creating an entire new force of one million soldiers for homeland defense. Some of that turned out to be the Volksturm, but some of those new troops knocked whole American divisions out of the war in December.

Intercepts also told the Combined Chiefs that Hitler would be using his surviving rail net to constantly switch reserves from the Western to the Eastern fronts for short periods at each. In February 1945 that RR network for the first time had to use Dresden, making that city's RR depot and environs a legitimate military target.

Against this obvious military argument is the clear statement of USAAF officers of the time that we knew that bombing Dresden would add refugees to the burden of the German road and RR network and we knew bombing nearly untouched Dresden would create more such refugees, and more burden.

But until the Allies reached the German borders, there never had been all that much of a refugee problem to take advantage of in this way. Bombing attacks in March and April would have the same military and refugee-burden arguments in favor of them as Dresden, but are forgotten.

[For some of this, Biddle, T. D., 2008. Dresden 1945: Reality, History, and Memory. "The Journal of Military History" 72, April 2008, pp. 413-449.

Her book on the subject in general is "Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945," Princeton University Press, 2002]

Bob Hawkins said...

Dispersing factories works to keep production up despite bombing. But it makes it hard to switch production to completely new models. So while the US was upgrading to the Mustang and the Thunderbolt, Germany was still relying on Me-109s. They had newer designs, but couldn't produce them in the numbers required to affect the outcome of the war.

Trivia: the P-38 Lightning was the only US fighter to stay in production throughout WWII.