Death from the Heavens: A History of Strategic Bombing
This book takes a comprehensive look at the history of strategic bombing from its earliest origins to today. Ken Werrell is a historian as well as an expert on the technology based on his service in the U.S. Air Force. However, the subject is treated not just as an American activity but encompasses the events, philosophy and hardware of France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy and Russia. The eleven chapters break the history into time segments from 1783 to 2009.
The story begins with the Montgolfier brothers and their hot air balloon. This technology was soon applied by the French as a reconnaissance platform. As it did not suit Napoleon’s form of warfare, he abolished its use. In turn the history of WWI, interwar years, WWII, postwar/Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, winged and ballistic missiles and modern weapon delivery systems are treated in concise but relevant detail.
While the hardware is a major part of bombing history, the evolving strategy is not neglected. At times the use and projected application of strategic bombing is far ahead of the weapon and delivery capability. At other times, the demands stimulate development. The influence of Mitchell, Douhet, Knauss, Harris, LeMay and others are made clear. Each country had to deal with conflicting requirements of strategy, hardware and economics. Civilians had to be convinced that strategic bombing was a major threat that if war came would make survival difficult.
Aircraft were the major carriers of the bombs intended to defeat the enemy’s capability to wage war. The author gives a description of each airplane that was important but also deals with failed designs. Germany placed emphasis on aircraft that could support its troops and thus failed to have a significant arsenal of strategic bombers. Nevertheless, their weapon development was ahead of that of the Allies. Only a shortage of development time and resources prevented their tactical use. Post WWII and the Cold War reflected the influence of nuclear weapons. While aircraft were developed to deliver nuclear bombs, they were not the carriers of choice. Missiles took up that role. Eventually, ICBMs formed the major deterrent delivered from ground-based silos as well as from nuclear submarines.
The Vietnam War saw the delivery of many bombs but to little effect. The political decisions to limit the war to certain targets as directed by Washington had a predictable outcome. Guerilla warfare is not a candidate for strategic bombing. However, it became increasingly clear that greater precision of delivery was necessary. The current precision-guided bombs are one of the outcomes.
Perhaps the most valuable part of this book is the critical analysis of strategic bombing. The author does not differentiate between military ‘precision’ bombing and ‘carpet’ bombing as many recent books have tried in order to cover the moral stance. He examines the overall value of this type of warfare and convincingly concludes that it fails. “Complete application of strategic bombardment is suitable only in total war, which nuclear weapons have made unthinkable.”
This is a larger format book that permits a double column text and generous use of clear photographs. For the reader with a limited budget and an interest in a broad but accurate treatment of strategic bombing, this book belongs on his library shelf.