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Forgotten Blitzes

France and Italy under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945


Claudia Baldoli & Andrew Knapp


New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012

Paperback. xv + 296 p. 7 maps and tables. ISBN 978-1-4411-8581-5. $34.95


Reviewed by Stephen A. Bourque

U.S. Army Command and General Staff College

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas



Shortly after midnight on April 19, 1944, 273 British Avro Lancaster bombers, each capable of carrying several thousand pounds of bombs, attacked the Sotteville rail yard in Rouen’s suburbs. While they seriously damaged the target, at least 4,600 bombs hit the old city, burning more than 2,000 ancient buildings, killing more than 900 French citizens, and leaving thousands more wounded and homeless. Unknown to most in the English-speaking world, these attacks on occupied states were not isolated events. They were routine. For more than four years, British and American aircraft bombed rail yards, bridges, factories, rocket sites, airfields and German military installations in Italy, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. By the time ground forces had driven the enemy away, these air attacks had killed more than 120,000 civilians.

For more than seventy years, the Anglo-American narratives of the Second World War have ignored this aspect of the war and generally portrayed it as a heroic struggle between organized combatants. Battles in southern Italy and France, such as Anzio, Normandy, and the Bulge, have dominated portrayals of the land war. In the air, the struggle began with combat between British Spitfires and German bombers over London. By the end of the war, British Bomber Command and the U.S. Eighth Air Force, according to the accepted narrative, had taken the war to the German heartland, destroying cities such as Dresden. Missing in this depiction is the plight of the French and Italian civilians caught in the massive Allied effort to destroy Hitler’s empire in the west. Those who lived through this carnage, of course, have not forgotten the war. In the case of Rouen, the citizens commemorated the British attack by constructing a poignant statue portraying a mother kissing her young child, as the father and older son look skyward, and they call the old square the Place du 19 Avril 1944.

Although historians have published many studies of the bombing in French and Italian, few accounts have appeared in English. Claudia Baldoli, a senior lecturer in Modern European History at Newcastle University, and Andrew Knapp, a professor of French Politics at the University of Reading, have produced an account that should fundamentally change all future narratives of the war in Europe. Both authors are personally motivated to address the nature of the bombing. Baldoli is Italian by birth and a graduate of the University of Venice, as well as the London School of Economics and Political Science, and brings a refreshingly different perspective to understanding this war. Knapp attained a baccalaureate from Cambridge University and a doctorate from Oxford University and, as a student, spent time in Le Havre, where he heard from survivors of the Royal Air Force’s destruction of the city in 1944. With shared interests, Baldoli and Knapp joined forces in 2006 and organized a research project titled “Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe, 1940-1945.” Employing a number of their graduate students, the team explored aspects of the bombardments not covered in traditional accounts.

While not intended as a military history, Baldoli and Knapp begin their study with a synopsis of the bombing war. In language anyone can appreciate, they walk the reader through the hierarchy of war from the decisions at the political level, to the directives and policy prepared by the staffs and various military committees, down to the engagement of specific targets and what military leaders hoped to achieve with these missions. This superb chapter sets the stage for the remainder of the book and serves as a stand-alone tutorial on this aspect of the conflict.

The remaining narrative, organized into nine readable and informative chapters, addresses two different, but related, concerns. On the one hand, they explore the differences between the French and Italian experiences. The authors compare the two states in regard to preparing for enemy bombing, the nature of the occupation, civil defense organizations, domestic media, and life during the bombing. Among a variety of topics, they explore how the bombing affected people’s attitudes towards their own governments, the resistance movements, and the advancing Allies. The authors conclude that both France and Italy shared similar conditions at the beginning of the conflict – unprepared for the war, with deeply unpopular governments. As the conflict progressed and the bombing intensified, the French local administrators proved more capable in coordinating passive defense and mobilizing the local populations to respond to the assault from the air. The authors conclude that Italian citizens were more accepting of the bombing, while the French people generally joined in condemnation of the attacks as the invasion approached.

The second issue Knapp and Baldoli explore are the legal and moral issues concerning the bombing of civilians in the occupied territories. Those not familiar with the topic may be surprised to learn that many bombing missions specifically targeted French and Italian infrastructure, such as bridges and road junctions, rather than German military units. In other cases, such as Caen, Monte Cassino, and Le Havre, the bombing was excessively disproportionate to the defenders’ ability to prevent the Allied advance. The authors point out that post-war agreements, such as the 1949 Geneva Convention, the 1977 First Protocol and others, would consider much of the American and British bombing war crimes. Yet those agreements did not exist on the eve of the war and all powers, reflecting the theory embraced by aviation enthusiasts such as Italian Giulio Douhet or Briton Hugh Trenchard, planned to bomb civilians as a means of waging war. What the Allies were guilty of, the authors suggest, is a failure to “measure military necessity against the cost of their attacks in civilian lives and property” [252]. The facts of the bombing campaign clearly illustrate that not all missions were required by some sense of military necessity. It is here that the verdict of history may not be on the Allies’ side.

Unfortunately, missing from this narrative are discussions regarding the experience of civilians in Belgium and the Netherlands. The residents of these countries also suffered from the air offensive; and this reader wonders how their experiences would compare to the Franco-Italian experience. As mentioned earlier, those interested in a detailed military history of the bombing campaign should go elsewhere, as the authors do not discuss the exploits of Bomber Command, or the various United States Army Air Forces. However, Forgotten Blitzes, by introducing the non-military perspective, should fundamentally change modern scholars’ perception of the war in Europe. This is the definitive work in this field and will serve as a beginning for all future research and discussion of this topic. No future account of the war in Europe should be written without referring to this excellent book.


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