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Books about Bomber Command abound, many of them excellent, but no single book can offer every perspective and cover every facet of the RAF's strategic bombing in Europe. It would take years of reading and study to become conversant with all the details of the bomber campaign and few, even among scholars, have the luxury of sufficient time to pursue the subject so intensively.
Without pretending these books will do more than provide a sturdy framework for understanding the principal aspects of Bomber Command in the Second World War, we offer this structured reading program. It begins with the broadest survey of airpower in WWII and then focuses -- book-by-book and step-by-step -- on the RAF in general, on Bomber Command specifically, on a series of important bomber missions, and finally on the crews who actually flew the missions. There are many other fine books about Bomber Command, but this particular sequence of reading is guaranteed to be enlightening, thought-provoking, and entertaining while offering a wide variety of opinions and viewpoints.
Overy, R.J. The Air War, 1939-1945. New York: Stein and Day, 1980.
Overy summarizes the air war in three chapters (in Europe 1939-1941, in Europe 1941-1945, and in the Far East) then explores strategic bombing and identifies the underlying prerequisites for successfully waging air war and discusses each in turn: leadership, organization, and training; the "aircraft economies"; and science, research, and intelligence. A brilliant analysis of the broadest aspects of how airpower fits into the military, the economy, and the nation. A fine starting point.
Terraine, John. A Time for Courage. New York: Macmillan, 1985. (Published in the UK as The Right of the Line)
The second volume on the reading list takes as its subject the RAF at war from 1939-1945, but excluding the Far East. Terraine delves into the strategies, the air battles, and the personalities from the opening shots through the Battle of Britain, the Desert campaigns, Italy, the return to the continent, and of course the bomber offensive. Thorough and readable. Liberally quotes official documents, the official history volumes, and protagonists such as Harris. A good book for putting Bomber Command into perspective as one component of a wider war.
Hastings, Max. Bomber Command. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.
This book focuses specifically on, as its title says, Bomber Command. The author opens his book with a haunting, detailed description of a single mission in 1939 when a Wellington formation was shot to pieces by German fighters. From there he carefully explains the plans and the realities as the RAF realizes the bomber might not, after all, always get through. A solid explication of Bomber Command's evolution from a tiny, ineffective force to a powerful, unstoppable machine. Deft, balanced handling of the disputes, feuds, and controversies arising along the way.
Middlebrook, Martin. The Berlin Raids. New York: Viking, 1988.
The next title on the reading list brings us to a gem from Middlebrook, a polished and fastidious account and analysis of the campaign waged against the German capital by Bomber Command during the winter of 1943-44. He measures his subject impartially and relies on participants -- both in the air and on the ground -- to furnish new facts and overlooked details. Each mission is described and evaluated, with devastation on the ground and losses in the sky carefully tallied in the terrible ledger of destruction. A wealth of statistical appendices but, as we move closer to the actual roar of combat in the sky, the human dimension looms large.
Rolfe, Mel. Looking into Hell. London: Arms & Armour, 1995
Important though it might be to understand the economic imperatives behind air warfare, to be familiar with the various strategies, and to know the important personalities who made the decisions and issued the orders, nothing in the story of Bomber Command has quite the same visceral impact as reading the first-person accounts of the men who flew the bombers over Germany. These accounts bring home the reality of what it was like to fly through the darkness, trying desperately to find the way to the target and home without falling prey to nightfighters, flak, or mid-air collisions. A fitting reminder that strategic bombing was not just aircraft, tonnages, and targets.
To repeat, this is not intended to be a comprehensive academic syllabus, but rather a top to bottom survey providing the widest perspective on the operations of Bomber Command and its place in the Allied war effort.
In addition to this reading program, there are a few other titles that stand out from among the hundreds of tomes concerning Bomber Command. Critical to a broad understanding is the official history series: The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, 1939-1945 by Webster and Frankland; the first three volumes judiciously describe the successes and failures of the bomber offensive while the fourth volume provides a wealth of appendices and technical data. The Bomber Command War Diaries by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt is an encyclopedic reference work with full details on every mission flown by Bomber Command, a section on operational statistics, and a review of squadron performances. Next is the Despatch on War Operations by Sir Arthur Harris, his official report, formerly classified, to the government and public on the performance of his command from February 1942 through the end of the war. Finally there are the memoirs of Harris himself, Bomber Offensive. These can form the core of a very useful Bomber Command library.
Reviewed 9 August 1998
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Stone
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