Among the Dead Cities, by A C Grayling

Mass murder - or a necessary evil?
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Among many Germans the bombing campaign waged against the Third Reich by the RAF in 1942-45 is regarded as a war crime. When the Queen visited Germany in November 2004 she faced demands for a public apology. According to the philosopher A C Grayling, such an act of contrition is long overdue. Grayling regards "area bombing" employed by the RAF as the deliberate "mass killing of civilians". He argues that even within a "just war" that redeemed many terrible deeds, bombing failed every ethical test. It was neither necessary nor proportionate to the goal of defeating Nazism and, most damningly, it didn't work. This failure has lessons for today.

To his credit, Grayling tackles the strongest arguments for the bombing campaign. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris insisted that his bombers could not hit targets accurately without suffering intolerable losses. Yet, as Grayling reiterates, the American air force used precision bombing and developed long-range fighters to defend the raiders. When it wanted to the RAF could hit "pinpoint" targets.

The most compelling argument in favour of Bomber Command's offensive is that it tied up German military resources and damaged industrial production. Hitler commanded German factories to turn out fighters to resist the bombers rather than aircraft that could have wreaked havoc on Allied troops: 10,000 superb 88mm dual-purpose anti-aircraft/anti-tank guns were tied up defending the Reich. A million Germans manned flak batteries and the emergency services. A huge labour force was required to clear up after raids and repair damaged infrastructure. Surely this helped to shorten the war?

Not so, says Grayling. He claims that the same resources would have been diverted if the British had bombed industrial, fuel or transport targets. Anyway, Germany recovered with astonishing rapidity and industrial production actually increased through the bombing campaign. It collapsed only after the Americans targeted fuel and transport. For these reasons, Grayling sees the 800,000 Germans killed in air raids as the victims of an inhumane, immoral campaign.

If only it were so simple. Grayling has a shaky grasp of the wider military context. As he acknowledges, in mid-1943 the American air force discovered that the more precise the target, the more potent the defence. After suffering massive losses on "precision" daylight raids they gave up and did not return until the deployment of long-range escort fighters in early 1944. If the RAF had followed the same course, barely a ton of bombs would have fallen on Germany during that crucial year and Hitler could have diverted critical resources to battlefronts such as Kursk and Salerno, where Allied victory hung by a thread.

Grayling has little idea of how evenly balanced the contending forces were or how the Germans eked out their resources to achieve parity. As commander of the Normandy defences, Rommel had to argue for every ton of cement and labour battalion to build the Atlantic Wall. If he had received the concrete that was poured into the flak towers defending Berlin the outcome of the landings might have been very ugly.

One British attempt to break out of the Normandy beachhead was stopped by just four 88mm guns manned by air force personnel. If the Germans had been able to ring the beaches with 500 more, manned by fanatical youngsters, the war might have turned out rather differently.

Grayling trumpets the fact that German industrial output rose despite the bombing, but it would have risen even more if Albert Speer had not been forced to disperse factories and production across many sites, increasing inefficiencies. His suggestion that Harris was left alone to destroy German cultural treasures is based on the flimsiest evidence. But Grayling has written a spirited and readable polemic rather than an objective study. It shows that military history is too serious a business to be left to moral philosophers.

David Cesarani, research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London, is the author of 'Eichmann: his life and crimes' (Vintage)