Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945

(Tami Davis Biddle)

Given her sub-title, it's probably unfair to fault Biddle for not including Germany and Japan in her study. Still, to read Rhetoric and Reality 60 years after history's first "thousand-plane" raid (the RAF against Cologne on the night of 30 May 1942) is like combing the bald spot at the back of your head with only a frontal image to guide you. The book has no bibliography as such, but it does have splendid notes, and from them I conclude that Biddle's only source on the German air force was James Corum's The Luftwaffe, published by the University Press of Kansas. With all due respect to Kansas, this is working at a considerable remove.

Within this handicap, Biddle has done an exhaustive job of sussing out how bombing theory evolved. The U.S. and Britain, along with most of the rest of the world (with the interesting exception of Germany, despite its early use of "terror bombing" at Barcelona, Warsaw, and Rotterdam) believed completely that air power could destroy an enemy's will to fight. In Britain, Sir Arthur Harris of Bomber Command assured the politicians that his Lancasters would make an invasion of the continent quite unnecessary.

The Americans never went that far, but the difference was in the details. The thin-skinned Lancaster could survive over Germany only at night, when bombing aids were mostly useless, forcing Harris to target city centers. The B-17 Flying Fortress carried fewer bombs but more guns and armor, and the Norden bombsight was reasonably accurate, so the Americans chose to attack specific factories and other facilities by daylight, trusting the bombers to fight their way to the target and back. In the end, the two strategies more or less converged. The British developed a good radar bombsight, while the Americans were forced (by weather and by their own huge quantities of planes) to adopt "saturation bombing." And over Japan, the B-29s prevailed only after Curtis LeMay sent them in low, at night, to burn out whole cities.

This is a useful book. It would have been even more useful if Biddle had paid a bit more attention to the nitty-gritty. It's not true, for example, that the Americans didn't get a long-range escort fighter until 1943 because they failed to develop external fuel tanks. Drop-tanks were incorporated into American fighter designs by the time the U.S. entered the war, and early P-51s could carry two of them. They didn't suffice. Not until the P-51B was given an extra fuselage tank could it shepherd bombers to Germany and back.

(In different form, this review appeared in Air&Space/Smithsonian, December 2002 - January 2003)