Fire and Fury (Book Review)

On Dec. 29, 1941, one of the worst nights of the Blitz, Arthur Harris was among the desk-bound officers in the Air Ministry who climbed to the roof to see London burn. As they watched the dome of St. Paul's stand somehow immune to the Luftwaffe's stream of incendiary bombs, Harris quietly muttered, "They are sowing the wind." From the time he took over the RAF's Bomber Command in February 1942, Bomber Harris became the driving force behind a bombing campaign that ensured Germany would reap the whirlwind. By the time the Second World War ended in Europe, in May 1945, some 60 cities had been obliterated and 593,000 people had been killed on the ground by it. Dead too were 81,000 young airmen, more than 10,000 of them Canadians. And through it all, until late in the war, German war production kept rising.

Unease over the disconnect between the deaths and the slight results is often portrayed as an attempt to insert today's higher sensibilities into yesterday's life-and-death struggle. Not so. As University of Toronto historian Randall Hansen stresses in his passionately argued but even-handed book, Fire and Fury (Doubleday), doubts - moral and military - about the campaign date back to the war itself. Winston Churchill was a strong but erratic supporter of Harris. Most times the prime minister was as dedicated to payback as the air marshal, at others Churchill was not so certain: in 1943 he wept while viewing film of devastated Ruhr cities. "Are we beasts?" he asked South African prime minister Jan Smuts. "Are we taking this too far?"

Given the size of the Canadian contribution and the price we paid - almost a quarter of our war dead - it's hardly surprising that the controversy has burned hot here. And still does. It was only a year ago that outraged veterans forced the Canadian War Museum to remove a plaque that juxtaposed the carnage with the small reduction in German war production. To the veterans it seemed to negate the entire basis for the suffering they both unleashed and underwent, turning their lost comrades into war criminals or, perhaps worse, victims of a useless strategy.

Hansen strives to cleanly separate the issues involved. Was the bombing justified, and did it work, are distinct questions, and neither reflects on the honour or valour of the young men - boys, really - who carried it out. In the early years, when Britain stood alone and precision bombing was still technologically primitive, the choice for the war effort was area bombing - flattening cities - or nothing at all. That suited Harris, who wanted to make the Germans pay and believed that killing them in massive numbers would win the war. He wanted the government to tell the public, in his own words, that "the destruction of houses and lives are the intended aims. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories."

Harris's theory was put to the test in Hamburg on July 27, 1943, when 600 bombs were dropped on a working-class district measuring only five square kilometres. A literal tornado of fire, peaking at over 1,000º C, sucked the oxygen from the cellars where cowering thousands were asphyxiated. Those fleeing outside were often caught by melting asphalt; their feet sank and their clothes caught fire, incinerating them. If they jumped in the canals, they were cooked to death - the water was boiling. At 2:25 a.m., Hansen notes, the city's senior air raid warden "jotted down a novel word in his logbook: feursturm." Firestorm.

Surprisingly, Hansen argues that even Hamburg levels of death and destruction - 40,000 buildings destroyed, 42,000 dead - could be justified if area bombing had done what its proponents claimed it would - shorten the war. But it didn't. The production loss after the most devastating raid of the war was nine per cent of one month's output.

What did work to bring Nazi Germany to its knees was intense precision bombing carried out on war-machine targets, mostly the work of the U.S. Air Force. The Americans thought their approach better, both morally - they were responsible for a quarter of civilian deaths, the RAF for 75 per cent - and militarily. The record bears them out: Hitler's production czar, Albert Speer, told postwar interrogators that the U.S. had struck such blows by day several times that British follow-up by night might have brought total collapse. But Harris, who begrudged every plane diverted from city obliteration, did not send his men to those targets. Hansen's contentious conclusion? Bomber Command did not end the war - it prolonged it.

See also WORLD WAR II.

Maclean's October 27, 2008