Even though nearly 70 years have passed since the end of the Second World War, the statistics on the destruction caused by the aerial bombing campaigns still beggar belief. Around 400,000 people, many of whom were civilians, died within the 1942 borders of the German Reich.

Up to 25,000 people, again mostly civilians, perished in a single action, the Allied raid on Dresden in February 1945. A venerable list of cities – Cologne, Hamburg, Leipzig – saw their ancient centres laid waste and around 70% of housing stock destroyed.

The figures for Britain, although on a smaller scale, are no less terrible. 60,000 civilians were killed in the Blitz and V-1 and V-2 raids. Around 2.5 million houses were damaged or destroyed, and aside from London many other ports and provincial centres were left in ruins.

Such widespread destruction, particularly of civilian life, had not been experienced in Europe for centuries. The air war, in the words of military historian J F C Fuller, led to ‘devastation and terror never seen since the fall of the Seljuq Empire.’ Given its unprecedented nature and scale, one cannot help but ask how the ordinary people dealt with living under the appalling and constant threat of aerial bombardment.

Dietmar Süss, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Augsburg, attempts to answer this question in this meticulously researched, arresting, and thoroughly readable new book. It is not designed to be a history of the air war and bombing campaigns from a military perspective. Rather, it is a comparative study of how British and German society on the ground coped with this new form of warfare.

In this regard, Süss’ work is comprehensive. What preparations were made for the attacks? How did the different societies manage the loss of life and property? What were conditions like in the midst of the raids? How did people sustain the psychological pressure of the attacks? What should be done with the dead? What political and propaganda uses could be made of the devastation? And how was the memory of the air war treated after the bombers had returned home?

A new doctrine of warfare

It did not take long for many to realise that the invention of powered flight in the early 20th century was going to revolutionise conflict. H G Wells was one of the first to foresee the general devastation of cities in his 1908 War from the Skies. From the latter part of the First World War onwards military theorists began to follow suit, incorporating the potential of aircraft into new doctrines of warfare.

Aerial bombardment would move the fight from the military front to the enemy’s weak spot: the cities. Air supremacy, required for victory, would be guaranteed by maintaining one’s economic and industrial capacity whilst destroying that of one’s opponent. Those on the home front were now in the front line. Victory could be gained by destroying the will of the enemy workforce to maintain their military capacity. Hence, the idea that bombing should be used to destroy the morale of the enemy’s civilian population gained traction throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Such would be the ‘total war’ of the future.

A body discovered in an air raid shelter in Dresden after the war. At the time of the bombing, foreign slave labourers were forced to hunt for corpses amid the rubble of the destroyed city.

Although this change in warfare was long heralded, it is striking how poorly prepared each side was to protect their civilian populations. Neither side had any clear idea of what damage might be caused, though figures of over 200,000 dead in the first wave of German bombings were expected in London.

Despite this, the British dragged their feet over the construction of proper public shelters, and the distribution in 1939 of 2.5 million rudimentary corrugated iron Anderson Shelters did little for the slum and tenement dwellers who had no open space of their own.

It was a similar tale in Germany. Despite elaborate promises that the Reich was prepared for an air war, and grandiose plans for castle-like air raid towers and fortifications, few were actually built. Germany escaped relatively lightly in the early years of the conflict, but as the Allied bombing offensive grew in intensity from 1942, it became clear that the provisions for air raid protection had been shambolic, and that the Nazi State was ever less capable of protecting its citizens. Many of the shelters were inadequate, and towards the end of the war it was most common to die in the shelters.

Underground politics

For both sides, politics was never far from the air raid shelter. In Britain, there was little attempt made by government to administer the shelters aside from the appointment of wardens. Much was made of the ability of the people of different classes and even ethnic backgrounds to get on and organise themselves.

Anti-Semitism and racial tension were certainly not absent, but the government refused to bow to pressures to discriminate. Moreover, it was the prolonged encounter of different social classes in the shelters which led to a political awareness of malnutrition and lack of health education among the poor. The shelters and evacuations of children played no little part in making the welfare state politically possible.

In Germany, the shelters and air defence were a means of repression and control. A strict code of behaviour was expected at all times. Looters were liable to be taken before special 24-hour courts and shot. Entry to the shelters was tightly regulated. Jews were not admitted, and foreign workers rarely so. Many shelters were sited on former synagogues, and property confiscated from Jews was used to compensate Germans who had lost their homes in raids.

The air war was used in Germany at all levels to discriminate. Foreign slave labourers were lucky to have concrete-lined ditches for cover in their factories. As German infrastructure buckled under the bombardment from 1943, the foreign labourers were compelled to undertake the hunt for corpses. Given schnapps and cigarettes but little in the way of protective clothing, they were expected to pick through the ‘dead zones’ – areas of still searing rubble where there was nothing to be found but mangled and often unidentifiable remains – and extract the corpses.

The scene in London’s dock area, 7 September 1940. Tower Bridge stands out against a background of smoke and fires.

Earlier in the war, these would be appropriated by the Nazi Party and buried with patriotic fanfare while the individual grief of the families was given no place. Later, there was no alternative but mass burnings for the sake of hygiene.

Süss’ analysis of the differences and occasional striking similarities in the democratic and dictatorial approaches to dealing with the air war are nuanced and thought-provoking. This is also the case for his extensive coverage of the role the churches played, giving meaning to the conflict, spiritual support, and building reconciliation afterwards.

However, the most piquant observation is about morale. Academic researchers in Britain and Germany who investigated the effect of bombing both during and after the war concluded that although area bombing might undermine a people’s confidence in their government to look after them adequately, it did little to undermine their morale or desire to persist at their work.

Süss makes no final judgement as to whether the area bombing of Britain and Germany was a war crime. But by the end one can hardly be in doubt that if their purpose was to destroy morale, they were a failure.
Bijan Omrani

Death from the Skies: How the British and Germans Survived Bombing in World War II 
Dietmar Süss
Oxford University Press, £30 
ISBN 978-0-19-966851-9