Fire and Fury
The Allied Bombing of Germany and Japan
(revised edition: first published 2008)
By Randall Hansen
Published by Faber; Distributed in Australia by Allen & Unwin
RRP AUD $29.99 in paper | ISBN 9780571288687
When I first read the title of this book, I thought: ‘there’s another book with the same title, but not about World War II’. I was right of course. A book about Donald Trump is also called Fire and Fury.
I mention this because, according to Wikipedia, sales of this book surged upon the publication of Michael Wolff’s best-selling book of the same title about the presidency of Donald Trump.
Some people bought Hansen’s book by mistake, while others became aware of it because of the publicity over the Wolff book. The Guardian reported Hansen’s reaction to the interest in his book about the consequences of war:
“And we’re talking about that at a moment when we have this warmongering, unstable, deranged demagogue in the White House,” he said. “So that coincidence actually makes me happier than the sales.”
As noted above, this is a revised edition of a book which was first published in 2008. It was not published in the UK for which the author Randall Hansen admits he is now thankful.
The passage of time allowed him to gather feedback on the first edition and time to ‘refine his views’, having researched and written the first version ‘with the moral certainty of what passes in academic circles as youth’ – he was in his thirties – but is now offering up a more balanced and mature view now that he is in his forties – although he asserts his view has not fundamentally changed.
He believes the British bombing war, and ‘area bombing’ in particular, ‘with a few important exceptions’ was a ‘waste of lives, material, and centuries of beauty and culture’.
The book begins with a chilling description of the bombing of Hamburg in July 1943, written from the very personal perspective of those who were caught up in it.
By war’s end, Allied bombing had obliterated every major German and Japanese city. Before the dropping of the atomic bombs, conventional bombing had killed approximately 400,000 Germans and 330,00 Japanese, the vast majority civilians. Fully 83,000 British, Commonwealth, and American airmen lost their lives, all but some 3,000 over Germany.
Two-thirds of Germans who died under the bombs did so in 1944 and 1945, when Allied victory was assured and when precision bombing techniques were far more advanced than they were earlier in the war.
The legendary ‘Bomber’ Harris, Commander in Chief of RAF Bomber Command was a vocal advocate of area bombing, despite Winston Churchill’s ambivalence towards the strategy.
But by March 1945, Churchill had penned a memorandum for General Ismay, his chief of staff, outlining his mixed feelings and that ‘the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land ….’.
In Hansen’s view, it was the destruction of Dresden, once one of the most beautiful of German cities, that provided a window ‘onto the broader area-bombing campaign’ and its terrible effects.
In his conclusion, Hansen argues that ‘deliberate killing of civilians by bombing is justified if it demonstrably shortens a war and thus saves lives (other lives, but lives) on both sides.’
But he points out that subsequent studies of the loss of production following the massive bombing of Hamburg in 1943 was a 9 percent production loss spread over the succeeding eleven months. In fact, the destruction of the city had only an ‘irritant effect’ on the German war machine.
Hansen contends that his argument against the strategy of ‘area bombing’ rather than ‘precision bombing’ is not one gained purely through the benefit of hindsight.
He writes that, as early as 1943, the Committee of Operations Analysis (COA) had issued a report concluding that ‘it was better to cause a high degree of destruction in a few really essential industries or services than to cause a small degree of destruction in many industries’.
Of course, for most modern commentators, the most devastating bombing of all was the use of the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki yet RAF Bomber Command did unleash a terrible and deadly firestorm on German cities.
Was it necessary to go to such lengths in the bombing campaign in Germany? Do we accept that civilians, inevitably, are the collateral damage of any war? And how do you determine anyway if the deliberate killing of civilians by bombing shortens a war and thus saves other lives, which has long been the argument for the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan?
Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, Hansen makes a compelling argument for what can now be viewed as overreach in the ‘area-bombing’ campaign.
But in the midst of a very real struggle for survival, which is how the British viewed the threat from Nazi Germany, the question of the morality with which the war is waged might well have been a question for another day.
Randall Hansen is a political scientist and historian at the University of Toronto. His earlier book Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance in the Last Year of WWII was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. It too is available in Australia via Allen and Unwin https://www.allenandunwin.com