An obsolescent breed of heroes

Max Hasting's Bomber CommandThe next stop on our busy reading list is Max Hasting’s Bomber Command.

There are many different themes to explore in this book, so we’ll dip in and out of it over the next few days.

This is a well-researched, literary and critical book. Hastings traces the development of area bombing and produces a detailed account of one of the war’s most controversial struggles.

The bomber offensive went through three phases. The first, from 1939 to early 1940, was characterised by ineffective attacks against military targets. Daylight sorties were almost suicidal and Bomber Command was unable to locate targets under the relative safety of night’s cloak. As Hastings explains, “again and again at this period, Germany would be genuinely unaware that Bomber Command had been attempting to attack a specific target or even a specific region.”

In June 1940, after the fall of France, the bomber offensive entered its second phase. Despite the fact that less than one-third of the attacks came within five miles of the aiming point and only ten per cent of the bombs fell within the target area, the British expanded the bomber offensive by ordering attacks against urban areas in Germany. As the RAF was incapable of hitting military targets with precision it seemed there were only two choices left to Churchill in late 1941: area bombing or no bombing at all.

On 14 February 1942, the Air Ministry entered the third phase when it issued a directive authorising unrestricted area bombing.  They rationalised the campaign by claiming that the “dehousing” of German workers and their families would “break the spirit of the people.”

Hastings ruthlessly explores the flawed logic and broken chains of command surrounding these Trenchardian views. German production steamed ahead under the clever watch of Arms Minister Albert Speer. The morale of the German public remained unbroken, despite the ferocity of the attacks.

How can I live among this gentle
obsolescent breed of heroes, and not weep?
Unicorns, almost,
for they are fading into two legends
in which their stupidity and chivalry
are celebrated. Each, fool and hero, will be an

-Keith Douglas, 1943


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