- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

The incredibly productive Steven Ambrose has another World War II epic on the street, this one dealing with B-24 Liberator aircrews: The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany (Simon and Schuster, $26, 299 pages, illus.). The nucleus of this book concerns the experiences of George S. McGovern, presidential candidate in 1972, U.S. senator from South Dakota for several terms, and statesman for most of the period between leaving the Senate and the present. He still serves his country.
Sen. McGovern before his 22nd birthday was a bomber aircraft commander, responsible for the lives of nine other men. He is a dedicated patriot, a brave warrior, a thinking man's citizen-soldier. Mr. Ambrose, with the use of oral history, tracks Sen. McGovern's flight path from before the attack on Pearl Harbor to VE Day in Europe. We find out how he came to serve in the Army Air Forces, how he was trained, how he led his crew of gunners and a radio operator, engineer, co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier. To a man, all those who worked for and with the man found him to be a sober, brave, intelligent, and sensitive leader.
What struck me as I read Mr. Ambrose's account was remembrance of the mud slung at Sen. McGovern by the political opposition in the 1972 campaign. The John Birch Society spread a totally false and vicious story that he had been reprimanded for cowardice after flying only 15 of his required 35 missions, and had been dismissed from the theater. The Manchester, N.H., Union Leader ran with the story, and that was enough to get the lie spread all over the country. The newspaper claimed that Lt. Gen. Ira Eaker removed George McGovern from flying duty because of cowardice, but Eaker a profoundly conservative man and a Richard Nixon supporter refused to sanction this calumny and shot the lie down.
Sen. McGovern earned several combat decorations including the Distinguished Flying Cross, and dropped bombs on some of the most heavily defended targets in the Third Reich. On his 35th mission he flew to Linz, Austria, returning with a crippled airplane with 110 holes in it. Bomber crews rarely completed the 35 missions they had to fly because of the skill of the Luftwaffe pilots and the tenacity of the German anti-aircraft artillery gunners.
In fact, the odds were that a crew would not survive the war without being killed by the enemy or in an accident, captured or wounded more than half of the bomber crews didn't. Just flying a B-24 in the early 1940s, given the paucity of navigation aids, the miserable weather they operated in, and the skilled hostility of the enemy took courage.
This is a readable book about a thoroughly likable man with a fine war record. It suffers from the faults of other World War II sagas by Mr. Ambrose. The author is a sentimentalist as indicated by his previous writing in "D-Day," "Citizen Soldiers," and "Band of Brothers."
As in his previous three volumes, Mr. Ambrose does not find much fault with his lead characters or their commanders.There is much to criticize about the strategic bombing campaign the Army Air Forces executed in World War II, but don't look for it in "The Wild Blue."

There is more to learn regarding strategic bombardment from Mark Connelly's Reaching for the Stars: A New History of Bomber Command in World War II (I.B. Tauris, $35, 306 pages, illus.).The author, a practiced historian, examines the trashing of Air Marshal, Sir Arthur ("Bomber") Harris' reputation by post hoc moralists. Before the war ended, but when the end was no longer in doubt, there appeared in Britain (and also the United States) apologists for the aerial bombing campaign that crippled Germany. Mr. Connelly creatively examines unconventional sources to uncover the truths behind the maligning of the Bomber Command.
Harris did what his military and civilian leaders wanted him to do: Bomb Germany to destruction stop its war production and destroy the morale of the German people. From 1940 when the so called "Phony War" ended until the Normandy invasion struck a blow aimed at the heart of Adolf Hitler's Germany, only Bomber Command could carry the war directly to the enemy, and Harris was ruthless in his prosecution. His reputation has plummeted beginning with the city-busting raid on Dresden shortly before the war ended.
Mr. Connelly addresses the accomplishments of Harris' campaign: the lowering of German civilian and military morale, the snarling of Germany's transportation network, the leveling of factories producing munitions, the oil siege that deprived the Luftwaffe, and German army and navy of petroleum, the fact that the Germans had to devote massive resources to defense instead of offense. The author tells us that the effects of strategic bombardment were not what Harris or other bomber zealots had promised it would be, but there is no denying that it was a major factor in Germany's defeat and it made the ground assault on Germany much less costly than it would have been without an intense aerial bombing campaign.

Robin Neillands' The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany (Overlook Press, $37.50, 448 pages, illus.) is painted on a broader canvas it tells the story of the combined (that is the allied) bomber offensive but attacks the same postwar hand wringing that has denigrated Harris and bomber command. Mr. Neillands has written another "popular history," relying extensively on oral history as Mr. Ambrose and Mr. Connelly did. Like Mr. Connelly he defends Harris and Bomber Command by citing the murderous nature of Hitler's regime, and the unimpeachable fact that the only way Britain could strike back at the Nazis in from 1940 through 1944 was with Bomber Command.
Mr. Neillands also writes persuasively about the success of strategic bombardment by citing German sources. Albert Speer, Hitler's economic mobilization genius wrote that, "the real importance of the air war consisted in the fact that it opened a Second Front long before the invasion of Europe.
That front was in the skies over Germany… .this front was gigantic. Every square meter of our territory became a front line. Defence against air attacks required the production of thousands of anti-aircraft guns, the stockpiling of tremendous quantities of ammunition all over the country, and the holding in readiness of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, who had to stay in position by their guns, totally inactive, often for months at a time."
To gain perspective, about 9,000, 88-millimeter flak guns were in the anti-aircraft battalions, while Erwin Rommel had only 35 in his Afrika Korps, and 900,000 men were in anti-aircraft units to defend the Reich, while only 500,000 could be spared for defending the Normandy Coast.After the D-Day invasion, Rommel told the German high command: "Stop the bombing or we cannot win."Speer said, "the strategic bomber is the cause of all our setbacks," it was the "greatest lost battle on the German side."
These are three useful books on World War II strategic bombing.

Alan Gropman is the chairman of the Grand Strategy Department at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.


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