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American Airpower Strategy in World War II

Bombs, Cities, Civilians, and Oil


Conrad C. Crane


Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016

Hardcover. 272 pp. ISBN 978-0700622092. $34.95


Reviewed by Stephen A. Bourque

School of Advanced Military Studies, US Army Command and General Staff College

Fort Leavenworth (Kansas)


While the Allied air war against Germany in The Second World War may appear as a united effort, in reality there existed profound doctrinal differences. The Royal Air Force Bomber Command, led by Air Marshal Arthur Harris, seldom made claims about the accuracy of his command’s efforts. In early 1944, planners working at the headquarters of Allied Expeditionary Air Force began identifying rail yards and beach targets in France and Belgium for attack by his so-called "strategic" bombers. Alarmed by the potential for civilian damage, and the inappropriate use of his aircraft, Harris attempted to make it clear to his superiors, which now included General Dwight D. Eisenhower, what would happen. He could promise almost total destruction of the assigned target, along with the killing, wounding, and de-housing of the nearby civilians. The United States Strategic Air Forces, led by Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz, agreed with Harris that heavy bombers had no business serving as ground support aircraft. Where they differed in intent, if not in practice, was the US Army Air Force’s desire to attack targets as precisely as possible with the minimum of civilian casualties. Spaatz continuously made the point that his B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberator Bombers were strategic weapons designed for precision bombing against German oil and industrial targets. However, the reality, as demonstrated by the raids against targets across German such as Schweinfurt and Dresden, was there was little difference as both commands killed tens of thousands of German civilians in their attempt to bring the Nazi empire to its knees.

Conrad C. Crane, a former military officer and long-time historian at the US Army War College, began looking at this disconnect in the late 1980s while completing his doctorate at Stanford and teaching at the United States Military Academy. On the one hand, he had difficulty explaining in response to a seminar question why the discussion about the Atomic bomb focused on "how to use it, not whether to do so." On the other, in the classroom, a student asked if "moral considerations” could be effective in “high-stakes, high-intensity conflict in a heavily populated area” [xi]. His journey to reconcile the intent of precision bombing with the reality of high civilian casualties resulted in his well-received American Airpower Strategy in World War II : Bombs, Cities, & Civilians (University of Kansas Press, 1993). After twenty years he has revisited his ideas based on new scholarship and information.

In a dozen well-written and crafted chapters, Crane walks the reader through the early beginnings of bombing theory in the post-World War I era to the epitome of strategic bombing against Japan in 1945. Along the way, he seeks to explain the tension between the Air Force's desire to attack enemy targets precisely, with the reality that delivery technology, environmental conditions, the attitudes of civilian and military leaders, and even the American public affect all aspects of strategic bombing and resulting civilian casualties. In his next to the last chapter, he addresses some interesting issues. One is the inadequacy of the official Air Force histories, especially in regards to the ethics of bombing and their effects on civilians. He describes the Air Force's disappointment with its heavy bombers in Korea and Vietnam, and their apparent success in Iraq, twice, and in the Balkans.

In his conclusion, he argues that the story of American bombing has created two different legacies. On the one hand, the professional desire for precision has never wavered. From the beginning, the service has had the goal of getting one bomb on a target, destroying it, and not ravishing adjacent communities. As an organization, the Air Force never accepted the logic of Arthur Harris who sought physically to destroy German cities, even those without military significance. Unfortunately, especially in the case of Japan, this is exactly what happened, and the idea of precision competes with the other legacy of massive destruction. While no one laboring at the Air Corps Tactical School in the 1920s would have envisioned, or even accepted, the firebombing of Japan and destroying whole cities with atomic weapons, that is what happened. As Crane implies, both narratives remain. Civilians at home believe that most American bomber missions are extremely accurate, with little collateral damage. Others see US air power as a classic example of the so-called “American Way of War,” the application of technology and industrial prowess to destroy the enemy with no apparent use of creativity. The author ends his book with the conundrum facing current military leaders which should be not to explain to “their civilian political bosses … the great things their aircraft can accomplish but instead to honestly admit what they cannot.”

The value of Crane’s revision is his detailed analysis of all aspects of strategic bombing doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures. As an outsider, with an Army background rather than Air Force, he has no problem looking at the air operations from a fresh perspective. This reviewer’s major criticism of this work is the absence of any discussion on bombing friendly states. As recent scholarship by Richard Overy, Andrew Knapp, Claudia Baldoli, and others has pointed out, American and British heavy and medium bombers killed at least 75,000 civilians in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and post-surrender Italy. In my view, the author missed an opportunity to address the doctrinal and philosophical problems air leaders faced when working outside the classic theoretical parameters of bombing only the enemy. Certainly, as air operations in Vietnam and Afghanistan indicate, the causing of collateral damage has not disappeared in the post-Second World War Era. With that criticism aside, this is an excellent work of value to those wishing to learn about American air force history and the problems this organization faced in creating its method of waging war.



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