Book Review: The Bombers and the Bombed

The Bombers and the Bombed:bombers and the bombed coverAllied Air War over Europe, 1940-1945By Richard OveryViking, 2014 Esteemed World War II historian Richard Overy's new book, The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe, 1940-1945 is a strange and schizophrenic thing. On the one hand, Overy is a masterful researcher and writer, here tackling one of the most challenging aspects of the war. On the other hand, this US edition is a clumsily-hobbled redaction no serious reader of history should come anywhere near. The UK edition of Overy's book, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945, is unquestionably the author's masterpiece, a densely-sourced and sweeping account of both the practical and the moral dimensions of "area bombing"; the US edition, inexplicably, is nearly 300 pages shorter, raggedly lopping off not only the earliest months of the air war but also a couple of scholarly appendices. The US edition doesn't mention the fact that it's a maimed and truncated version of the original, let alone offer an explanation, but there can be only one possible explanation: the people in the Viking marketing department assured (or instructed) the Viking editorial department that US readers who might be willing to shell out $35 for a long book on the WWII bombing war would certainly not shell out $40 for a very long book on the same subject.Nobody wins in such a mercantile intervention: US readers get a lesser product, the Viking editorial department gets discredited, and the marketing department is just plain wrong. The handful of American readers who like the sort of book Richard Overy writes better than anybody really like those books; the longer, in their opinion, the better. Fans of WWII history, encountering this book on offer from the History Book Club or the Book of the Month Club would have snapped it up if it were 1000 pages.So what do those readers get, if they opt for the lesser version titled The Bombers and the Bombed? The thing is still 500 pages long, and Overy is good on every page, so it's not fair to say such readers will get nothing. They'll still get a thorough examination of all aspects of aerial bombardment, from the famous and disturbingly prescient verdict leveled by British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin as early as 1932, "the bomber will always get through" to the equally-brutal summing-up of air minister Lord Londonderry: "It is the height of folly to imagine that any war can be conducted without appreciable risk to the civil population.”Readers will get an exhaustive archival account of the almost unbelievable carnage wrought by some of the worst examples of Allied bombing of primarily civilian targets (this account is less devastating but more comprehensive than the one in Jorg Friedrich's seminal 2002 work on the same subject, Der Brand). And readers will also get large helpings of Overy's melancholy and witty prose:

The most intensive period of bombing came in 1944 with the preparations for the Normandy invasion and the Crossbow raids against sites intended for the V-1 and V-2 missiles. Most of the raids were small tactical raids against rail and air targets carried out by medium bombers and fighter-bombers. But as Belgium and the Netherlands became involuntary parts of the vast aerial battlefield in northwestern Europe, so the pace of destruction and loss of life quickened. There descended on both populations a rain of bombs and leaflets, the second designed to explain the liberating effects of the first.

Readers will get the bulk of the work, in other words. And if they go to Allen Lane's website and order the uncut, unmangled, unbowdlerized version of Overy's book, they'll get the whole thing and a better-designed cover. It's odd that there should be such a choice, but then, the publishing world can be very odd.