The air war over Germany now seems like a certain victory in hindsight. Movies about the heroic exploits of the Eighth Air Force (and they were heroic) would have us believe that American might and pluck were all that were needed to win the war against the Luftwaffe. Films like “Twelve O’Clock High” made me wish I’d been a flyboy in 1944. And after the war, the Air Force built up the myth that air power had won the war, and that the next conflict wouldn’t even need ground forces.
In truth, The Eighth barely held on in the last months of 1942 and early 1943, suffering appalling loses, sometimes as high as 70%. And unlike in ground combat, where the wounded typically outnumber the dead 3- or 4-1, in the skies over France & Germany, the equation was reversed. Worse, the generals in Washington who ran the war refused to heed the lessons the men in the B-17s and B-24s were learning, paying for those lessons with their bodies or their minds. American leaders were in thrall to a grand strategic vision crafted between the World Wars that imagined bomber fleets deciding future conflicts in bloodless (for the attackers) surgical strikes meant to cripple the enemy’s ability to fight, or else induce mass rebellion that would bring the war to victory without the need for armies or invasions.
Almost from the start, though, the evidence was otherwise. The RAF had learned the lesson about unescorted bombing raids early in the war, and had switched to “city busting” raids: night attacks intended to destroy the housing stock and kill civilian workers, often little more than mass murder. Americans believed they could drop their bombs on targets during daylight, and avoid “collateral damage.”
It’s not only a great story, it’s one of the most-important of the war, and Donald Miller has written a superb book that focuses on the Eighth Air Force’s bombers and their crews. While there’s little in the book for modelers, I can’t think of a better all-around account of the history and the heroism of the individuals who faced up to almost certain death with every mission.
The book jumps around quite a bit, sometimes in a confusing manner, but focuses primarily on the 100th Bombardment Group (the “bloody hundredth”), a hard-luck, hard-living bunch of misfits who struggled with Army regulation and discipline almost as much as with the lack of support that faced all the bomb groups the first year the US was in England. American industry wasn’t yet at its peak, and there were demands for bombers from multiple theaters. And with American strategic bombing doctrine holding that that fast bombers didn’t need fighter escorts, the word from Washington was to get the job done.
Between the wars, the single-engine fighters couldn’t keep up with the four-engine B-17. But by 1942, not only did the Luftwaffe have planes that most definitely could catch the bombers, they were shooting them down faster than they could be replaced. The crews began to break under the strain; when an airman was lost on a mission, his bunk was stripped almost before the returning crews could take note of his passing.
The key turning point came in August, 1943 after a dual raid on Schweinfurt’s ball-bearing plants and the Messerschmitt factory at nearby Regensburg . Nearly 40% of the attacking bombers were lost or so badly damaged they could not return to the air. While insisting the job had been done, the Nazis were able to rebuild both facilities, and production actually increased. While Washington claimed a huge victory, it put more emphasis on developing a reliable plane to escort the bombers on their runs, what turned out to be the P-51 Mustang.
But other terrible mistakes were made along the way, including frittering away the lives and military striking value of the airmen by sending them against targets that were either non-strategic (Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris was obsessed with flattening Berlin), or impossible to destroy from the air (e.g., the reinforced concrete U-boat pens on the West coast of France).
The material is exhaustive, including the importance of the ground personnel who kept the planes flying, and even the doctors and psychiatrists who tried to help the men cope, and help their commanders (and those back home) understand there is only so much any one person can take before they crack. None of the ground crews ever won a medal, but these men were heroes just the same. The book’s details aren’t always pretty; Miller describes the slaughter of civilians killed in a series of fire raids on Hamburg in July 1943 in detail that will turn even the strongest stomach. The RAF’s head of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris never tried to hide the fact that he was bringing terror to the populace of Germany’s cities, though some American airmen had strong reservations about waging war on civilians. I give the book high marks for not glossing over the atrocities of war by implying the Germans “deserved it” for backing Hitler, or that war is horrible and there’s no getting around it.
One of the book’s strengths is that, while telling a great story, it shows how the commanders and the individual soldiers made choices, often choices that had bad outcomes for others. It could be as simple as refusing to believe the evidence that unescorted daylight precision bombing involved unacceptable losses, or refusing to leave behind a wounded comrade, even at the cost of one’s life.
When I write a review, I often ask myself if this could be the “one book” that I would purchase if I could only read one book about a subject. This most emphatically is that book.
This book has also been published under the title Eighth Air Force, The American Bomber Crews in Britain by Aurum Press Ltd in the UK (2007) ISBN 978-1845132217
Highs: Well-written, comprehensive, interesting.Lows: the focus shifts occasionally in a confusing, wandering manner; not for modelers.Verdict: highly recommended for propeller heads and anyone interested in the War.