It’s a while since I reviewed the re-release of Martin Middlebrook’s epic account of the devastation of Hamburg by the RAF and USAAF in 1943. The series of raids that made up the Battle of Hamburg unleashed a horror on the Nazis it might be difficult to sympathise with and it is easy to pass off Arthur Harris’ promise of them reaping the whirlwind as being the moment his words became fact. I have never had any qualms about the offensive carried out by Bomber Command during World War II. It was a brutal expedient carried to a most vile and evil regime that was bound to cause the countless deaths of innocents.  The offensive unleashed countless personal tragedies, but I can’t see how else a Britain soundly defeated on the battlefield by German armies could have hit back at the Reich. There were odd moments of glory in the desert and with fierce pinpricks stuck into the bloated Nazi dirigible. But a genuine victory was out of sight. Things would only get worse, with the coming of the Japanese

Ghastly as it seems, bombing the Reich appeared to be the only way to achieve anything tangible. Once the frivolities of leafleting the enemy had given way to dropping ordnance the juggernaut shifted gear and roared down it’s crazy highway, consuming industries, science, men and machines. But even as the illusion of success fixed in the minds of the men pulling strings, it became caught up in it’s own momentum and, for a long time was at the fulcrum of Britain’s war making surge. It was the tip of the spear.

There were dissenting voices from the outset and fair play to the people who were brave enough to bemoan the ethics of bombing.  We also know that the offensive was flawed in concept and often in practice. The Bomber Barons did not achieve anything like the outright victory they craved. Harris, unrepentant and intensely focused, did not start the campaign, but he was happy to see it through. He hated the Germans just as much as he loathed his rivals on the Allied top table.  This was a man who chastised the British army leadership for not knowing how to use armour until they had taught the tanks to s**t and eat hay. He knew how to harness the power at his disposal and nothing would deviate him – not even sensible orders. He wanted to lay waste to Germany, to bomb it into the Stone Age so the militarism so apparent in German society would be eradicated forever.  You might argue that, on this particular score, he got everything dead right. But whether it was worth the cost of achieving a slice of Armageddon is a moot point.

The bomber boys are heroes to me.  They shine forever as a group of some of the very best a vanished Britain and ever-confident Commonwealth could produce.  They achieved feats beyond expectation and paid a terrible price.  Not least, in the way they were betrayed by their own government at the moment of victory, and pretty much ever since; until the state reluctantly allowed a fitting memorial for them. The guilt felt by a victorious British establishment whose moral cowardice blighted the legacy of the bomber crews they had sent to do their bidding was nothing short of hypocrisy, but that was the nature of things in an exhausted and bankrupt Britain. The cream of a generation had given everything and would wait a long time for due acknowledgement of their sacrifice.

Histories of the bombing campaign are many and varied, picking on single events or looking at individuals.  The inevitable names will spring to mind, as will the iconic attacks on well-known targets. In addition to this there are several big brush accounts. One of my favourites remains Max Hastings’ Bomber Command bringing to bear all his skills as a historian. When I was a kid we had a show called The Pathfinders on the telly and the perennial movies made in a flurry of newfound confidence in the 1950s were still doing the rounds, just as they do today.  The result is a kind of mixed message of pride in the bravery, fortitude and achievements of the aircrews and ground staff but utter embarrassment with the offensive itself.

All histories rely on primary sources and one of these is war-diaries. They give a contemporary look at events as they happened with the statistics and resources made plain for budding historian and bookworms alike.  You need this stuff to act as the foundation of whatever you choose to write.

In this much admired volume, Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt walk back over the ground with access to the day-to-day record of Bomber Command – all it’s groups and sub-units. A bevy of notes are provided to guide the wary modern reader along a sequence of blind alleys and cul-de-sacs. As said, the famous nights are known to us, but there were countless others when the air fleets went out over the Nazi heartland which were, in the scheme of things, standard stuff for the time. In some ways it is a bit like reading an accounts book detailing profit and loss.

Why is this book essential? The authors bring a degree of analysis to the campaign coupled with the stark facts of what happened night by night. You can use it to reach into the worlds of the individual squadrons and gradually chart the campaign in much more detail. Nothing can be taken away from the power of individual accounts. They are the very best of recorded history. But the big picture is of massive importance. A rear gunner in a Halifax was the smallest of cogs in a huge machine; Britain’s greatest combined scientific, industrial and military effort of the war. Our gunner would only know his small part, never the minutiae of the entire campaign.  What was happening in the minds of the men in command at High Wycombe is where we find the spine to the story of the bomber campaign.

There is nothing to buff up or gloss over. The offensive was an all-consuming monster and it will divide opinions long after the last surviving participants have left us. It was, perhaps, the best and worst of human endeavour.  Like other events of 20th Century British military history it has become the subject of interpretation and bias. We need straight records of genuine facts to keep all this nonsense in check. You will find it here.  Originally published in 1985, the book had become something of a must have on the wants lists of historians. This revised paperback edition is most welcome. If the campaign by Bomber Command fills any part of your historical trail, then you need this book. Think of it as being like an atlas. All the routes are clearly marked and journeys end will be easily defined. How you choose to interpret it all is your own dilemma and the stuff of other books entirely.

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

An Operational Reference Book 1939-1945
By Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt
Pen & Sword
ISBN: 978 1 78346 360 2

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.