Jonathan D. Beard
Review of Randall
Hansen, Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany,
1942-1945. New York: NAL Caliber, 2009. Pp. x, 352. ISBN
Few topics in the historiography of World War II have remained as
controversial as the Anglo-American bombing campaign against Germany.
Arguments about its efficacy and morality raged during the war and
continue to exercise historians, the reading public, and politicians.
Bombing Germany cost the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Force
about 81,000 airmen, while over 600,000 German civilians died
as dozens of their country's cities were reduced to gray shells of
their former glory. For decades, the topic of German suffering and
losses was almost taboo in Germany itself, but this changed in 2002
with the publication of Jörg Friedrich's Der Brand,
which depicts Allied bombing as deliberate cultural destruction and
mass murder--making clear
allusions to the Nazi killing of Europe's Jews.
In Fire and Fury,
Randall Hansen, a historian and professor of political science at the
University of Toronto, approaches the
topic from a different perspective. He contends that the British,
under the leadership of the stubborn and charismatic Arthur "Bomber"
(or "Butcher") Harris, deliberately pursued the destruction of
Germany's historical cities and their inhabitants right to the end of
the war, while the American bombing effort was almost entirely devoted
to precision attacks on militarily significant targets. Despite
opposition from his superiors, Harris continued to make terror attacks
on cities even after the notorious destruction of Dresden (13
February 1945) and maintained that these attacks helped to shorten,
even win, the war. The Americans, led by General Carl Spaatz, were never
comfortable with the morality of bombing civilians and sought to
destroy the German transportation network and synthetic fuel plants in
daylight raids that minimized civilian casualties. Hansen damns Harris
and the RAF for deliberately choosing to destroy medieval city centers
and to kill women and children--actions that failed to speed the
collapse of Nazi Germany to any significant extent. He praises the
American generals Henry ("Hap") Arnold and Ira Eaker as well as Spaatz, for
heeding their intelligence staffs' advice to first destroy the
Luftwaffe and then take out individual industries, thereby shortening
Fire and Fury
describes leaders and their decisions based on the rich archive of
memos and reports written during the war and studies and memoirs
composed after it. Hansen excels at quoting just the right passages,
like this 1943 memo by Harris, emphasizing his intent not to destroy
war-related industries, but to burn out cities and kill their
The aim of our bomber force which went to Cassel on October 22/23 was
to wreck the city…. In the course of the proceedings, the Henschel
Works and a number of other factories probably got damaged, and this
makes the loss to the enemy all the greater. But the fundamental
purpose was to knock another great German city out of the war and add
it to the growing list of those which are now liabilities and not
assets to the enemy from the point of view of morale and production.
By obscuring this purpose, we simply rob the whole operation of its
By contrast, the American general James Doolittle wrote as follows in
a letter to his superior, Carl Spaatz, who had ordered him to
carpet-bomb Berlin in 1945: "We will, in what may be one of our last
and best remembered operations regardless of its effectiveness,
violate the basic American principle of precision bombing of targets
of strictly military significance for which our tactics were designed
and our crews trained and indoctrinated" (252).
Hansen also quotes German leaders on their reaction to Allied raids.
Most of these quotes come from the memoirs of Albert Speer,
Hitler's Minister of Armaments and Munitions during the second half of
the war. Speer said that, while British raids on cities horrified the
Nazi leadership, he himself feared American attacks on such targets as ball bearing plants and synthetic fuel facilities,
because without these products, the German war machine would grind to
Hansen forgoes that staple of books on the air war: combat
reports by aircrew. Though he gives some detail on a few
raids--Hamburg, the famous "dam-busters," and the destruction of
Dresden--he does not provide much testimony from either Allied bombing
crews or the Luftwaffe fighter pilots who shot them down.
To the extent that "little people" figure in the book, they are mostly
German civilians who survived, or not, the destruction of their
cities. Hansen interviewed dozens of these people, besides mining the
vast literature of local history in Germany.
Unfortunately, Hansen is weak on the terminology of military
technology. The errors do not detract from his argument, but will
annoy readers familiar with World War II military history. For
instance, in an otherwise accurate description, he calls Gee, the
British bombing aid, a "new development in radar" (my
emphasis), which is an unrelated technology. Similarly, in describing
the Kammhuber Line, the German air defense system, he translates
"Himmelbett" too literally as "sky bed." A Himmelbett is a four-poster
or canopy bed, and the name was chosen because the defense system
created a "canopy" over the radar and searchlight stations. Writing
about an American raid on Berlin, he says "Flashlights [read
"searchlights"] coned them and flak blasted them," and later mentions
Hitler ordering "the transfer of fighters from hydrogen [read
"hydrogenation"] plants to the Western Front." Hansen discusses the
August 1943 British air raid on Peenemünde, where the V-2 was built
and tested, and cites the tragic killing of hundreds of slave
laborers in the bombing. But these workers lived and died at Camp
Trassenheide, not the Dora camp Hansen mentions, which was the much
worse camp set up near Nordhausen after the raid, when V-2 production
was moved into caves.
But these minor mistakes do not undermine Hansen's book, which ends
with a judicious chapter on all the difficult questions raised by the
bombing war: is area bombing ever justified? Did it work in Germany?
Could bombing alone have defeated Germany? Was killing civilians
justified, given the death and destruction the Nazis wreaked
throughout Europe? Hansen ably answers them all, concluding that the
area bombing of German cities was a "massacre" that did little or
nothing to shorten the war.
New York City
 Munich: Propyläen. It has since appeared in
English as The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945, tr.
Allison Brown (NY: Columbia U Pr, 2006).
 Readers wanting an action history of the
American effort should read Donald L. Miller, Masters of the
Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War against Nazi
Germany (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2006), Hansen's main
source for the American side. Max Hastings, Bomber Command: The
Myths and Reality of the Strategic Bombing Offensive 1939-45
(NY: Dial Pr/J. Wade, 1979) has detailed coverage of the RAF
 Inside the Third Reich  and Spandau: The
Secret Diaries , both trans. Richard and Clara Winston
(NY: Macmillan, 1970/1975).
 For a fascinating look at German attitudes
before Friedrich, see W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of
Destruction , tr. Anthea Bell (NY: Random House, 2004).
Sebald, one of Germany's finest postwar novelists, bemoaned the
virtual absence of the bombing war in German literature.