Interview with Richard Overy. One

Title

Interview with Richard Overy. One

Description

Richard Overy discusses the bombing war. Richard became interested in air power whilst doing doctoral research at Cambridge, studying German aircraft production during World War Two. He started as an economic historian but became a military historian. Richard goes on to talk about the theories of air power, and then the theories behind the bombing campaigns in the Second World War and goes into the British strategies utilised during the war and how they had their routes in World War One. Richard also details the legalities of the bombing campaign in the Second World War.

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Date

2017-11-27

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Type

Format

00:39:10 audio recording

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This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Identifier

AOveryR171127

Transcription

DE: Right. So this is an oral history for the IBCC with Professor Richard Overy. My name is Dan Ellin, also in the room is Alex Pesaro. It is the 27th of November 2017 and we're in Newcastle. Right. Could you tell me a little bit about what started your interest in air power and the bombing war?
RO: Well, my interest in air power really grew out of my doctoral research at Cambridge where my subject was German aircraft production in the Second World War. And that immediately broadened out to, you know, broader strategic questions about what did bombing achieve and so on and what effect did it have on aircraft production. And then from that to look at bombing policy de de de. The impact on the home front. The impact on civilians. So, it was quite a natural progression I think probably from my original topic. But I started out as an economic historian and now I've become a military historian.
DE: Yeah. I’m kind of, I'm being more and more seen as a military historian but I see myself as a cultural and social one.
RO: Yeah. Yeah.
DE: Persuading either, either group —
RO: Yes.
DE: Where I belong is quite tricky. So why, why did you go with your dissertation on, on German military aircraft production?
RO: Well, I wanted to do something on the economy of the Third Reich which interested me when I was an undergraduate and there was almost nothing written on it on the basis of archive material. But the archive, recently the archives were all stuck away in warehouses and print had all been taken by the allies at the end of the Second World War. When I mentioned, you know they said. ‘Well, you know we've got this stack of stuff on, you know German aircraft production. We've got all these records from German aircraft firms stuck in our archives and nobody has used them. So I said, ‘All right. Well, I'll do that.
DE: Ok. So, yeah, you've been, you've been top of the field for quite some time. How have your views changed over the, over the years and why?
RO: I think the biggest change over the years has been my growing appreciation of the importance of tactical air power. I spent a lot of time talking about bombing and, and touching bombing and I think for too long I've assumed that strategic air power was really the key question in the Second World War and afterwards when you’re talking about air power. And that's what air power leaders wanted people to think. But in fact, tactical aviation both in the First World War and the Second World War proved really critical because at the end of the day attacking the home front didn't work. Didn’t work the way they thought that it would work. Destroying the enemy’s armed forces was the only way in fact to achieve victory in the First World War and in the Second World War and that's really been true I think ever since. I've observed this in the crisis in Syria and Iraq. People saying, well you know if you just send some bombers out there and start bombing them and so on but in fact it's tactical air power and support for troops on the ground that's actually produced the defeat of ISIS. So that’s, I think that’s quite a big change and there’s a lot of very good historical research done now on tactical air power which I think has underlined that. That shift in my own thinking. Tactical air fire is critical.
DE: So, what about those that argue that the strategic bombing was effective in diverting German industry and German military capability to effectively form a second front?
RO: Well, there’s no doubt that, that diverting German military resources to defending the Reich was an important but, it has to be said, unexpected because it wasn’t part of the argument in starting a strategic campaign. It was important in staffing German fighting fronts of aircraft, anti-aircraft guns and so on, radar material etcetera. I think that although, although that was important in explaining Germany’s ultimate military defeat at the fighting fronts you could also argue that there were other ways in which those air power resources were used. I mean, you could actually use them to build up big tactical forces much earlier to attack a range of tactical targets, communications, stores etcetera much more effectively than what was done at first and that, that, might well have had the same kind of effect. The critical thing was defeating the Luftwaffe and that was defeated in German airspace largely by the American Air Force. But in fact, you could have defeated the Luftwaffe in the field of course if you’d just diverted large tactical forces to, to the battlefront. There’s no point looking back at the Second World War of course and, you know re-fighting it. Fighting again. That's the choice they made and we can understand why they made those choices, but, but I do think that, you know thinking hard about it in the 1930s as for example the Germans did when they had no strategic grasp of air power. Their air power was tactical because they thought that would actually bring dividends and for the first two or three years of the war it did.
DE: Yeah. So, can you explain how it, how it was that the RAF ended up with a strategic force?
RO: I think if we, if you want to explain why the RAF became a strategic force and essentially abandoned tactical bombing in the 1920s and ‘30s one of the, one of the key explanations is the failure of the three British armed services to cooperate. Both the Army and the Navy wanted in the 1920s to break the RAF up and have an air component for the Army, an air component for the Navy and in order to defend their position the RAF had to find some kind of alternative strategy, some way of justifying why there was a separate Air Force and that naturally meant two things. It meant home defence which the Army and Navy couldn't do, they couldn't defend against air power and it meant city bombing which the British had started in the First World War and where they thought that, you know, if, if in a small way the First World War had shown what bombing could do and the Second World War they bombed, they didn’t know what, really what effect it would have but they assumed it must have some major effects on the enemy’s civilian population or on the enemy economy. That gave them a kind of strategic independence from the Army and Navy. It was only in ‘39 when the Army really woke up to the fact that it didn't have an air component. That the RAF was being told, ‘No, you've now got to send your Hurricanes and Spitfires to France. You now have got to send your bombers to France and see what they can do there.’ And the RAF was just not prepared for that.
[pause]
RO: A long winded answer.
DE: No. That's just fine. Great. I'm just, you know going back to the video interview why did, what led people to believe that you know, bombing civilians would, would damage their morale and would win the war? I mean that’s the key thing. What led them to think that?
RO: The British belief that bombing would somehow undermine the enemy’s home front, would demoralise the enemy population stemmed a lot from the experience of the First World War. The First World War German bombing of Britain was not very heavy but where it occurred it produced mass panic and the regime was uncertain about how to react to that. When the British began bombing German targets in the later stages of the war they got intelligence back saying this was having a demoralising effect and so on and I think that the Air Force leaders in 1918/1919 came to persuade themselves that one of the factors that led to the Armistice was the onset of bombing of German cities. Well, it’s simply not true because the, you know, we dropped a handful of, you know less than a hundred tonnes of bombs on German cities and killed a few hundred people. But I think that the 1919 we then looked for evidence from German cities from official reports and so on to show that they had been effective in demoralising. And of course, bombing is demoralising. We don’t want to be bombed but it’s a long step from that to the speculation that if you bomb them enough you know the whole, the whole society would collapse. There would be a revolutionary upheaval or whatever. There was no evidence for that —
DE: No.
RO: In the 1920s and ‘30s before Bomber Command began its assault on German civilian morale.
DE: Yeah. And if they had looked at the evidence from the Luftwaffe bombing —
RO: Yeah.
DE: London and Hull and places like that. They would have also gone, well, it doesn’t, it doesn’t break morale.
RO: Do you want me to say that?
DE: Sorry? Yeah. Yeah.
RO: There’s a curious moment in 1941 where the Air Ministry and Bomber Command are beginning to think about how they could crank up their operations. What they, what they needed to do and they thought maybe they would begin the assault on German civilian morale and the directive of July 1941 suggests that as a primary target and so on. Now, there were people around both in the Air Ministry and outside in ’41 who were saying, ‘Hang on a minute, you know, let’s just look what happened to the bombing of the British cities, you know. Maybe the Germans were terrorising the British in to defeat or surrender. Maybe they were hoping there would be a demoralising impact but look what actually happened.’ You know. No, the British cities survived and people took terrible losses but in fact there was no broad movement to end the war and so on. There were no, no protests to, to government and maybe this is the wrong kind of target and Air Ministry officials wrote back and or argued back well the Germans are different. The phrase, you know, the Germans are bullies by nature. Basically, if you punch them on the nose they’ll give up. Or you know the Germans are held in thrall in a fragile totalitarian system. You start bombing them and it’ll expose all the fault lines in the totalitarian system. So all kinds of rather specious arguments were produced on the basis of almost no evidence to suggest that if you bomb the Germans it will have a different effect from bombing the British.
DE: And of course, the German state had the machinery in place to —
RO: Yeah.
DE: To look after their, their —
RO: Yeah.
DE: Do you think that perhaps they used the bombing of the East End in London as evidence as to what could happen because there was, you know strong movements of people to force their way to underground shelters and things like that.
RO: Yeah. I mean if, if [pause] if the RAF had looked closely at what impact the Blitz had had, had had they would in the end realise that this was a temporary panic. You know, there was a moment when Plymouth and Southampton and Hull, you know thousands of people decamped from the city because they didn’t want to be bombed again. But all the research carried out by the Home Security Ministry showed that workers came back at a remarkably swift pace. Production was up and running again within days and people carried on trekking out of the city because they didn’t want to be bombed at night but they kept coming back in again and working during the day.
DE: Because they wanted to be, wanted to go home even if home was —
RO: Well, they wanted to go home.
DE: Yeah.
RO: But they wanted work of course. They wanted money. Wages. And as long as the state, I think the important thing is in the Second World War as long as the state is capable of providing welfare provision, teams of people to repair housing, adequate food supplies and emergency furnishings and this kind of thing then people will, will put up with the bombing. The situation where, you know there is no food supply and no welfare and you know the health system breaks down and so on, take Italy for example where bombing clearly did have a very important role in undermining popular war willingness in 1942 and ‘43 but there the state was almost incapable in fact of coping with the evacuation and situation of providing adequate welfare and so on. Even providing half decent shelters and the population reacted accordingly. And I think there’s quite a good case study actually where you, where the state doesn’t manage to do it then of course it does actually have you know an increasingly demoralising effect.
DE: Yeah. In Italy of course the bombing war has been remembered totally differently to any other, other country.
RO: Yeah.
DE: Yeah. Alex has done a fair bit of work on that.
RO: Yeah.
DE: Yeah. They’re both invaders, destroyers and saviours at the same time.
RO: Yes.
DE: So it becomes very tricky. What do, what are your thoughts and views on the way Harris has been remembered?
RO: Well, Arthur Harris has had a pretty bad press over the years. I think there’s, there are, there are two things [pause] Harris was wedded too much to the idea that if you bomb civilians continually they were bound to give up. I think he was quite impressed by the bombing of London in the First World War which he witnessed actually, eye witnessed and I think from that point on he assumed that, that, you know if bombing was going to achieve anything that was the thing it was most likely to achieve. And he he stuck rigidly to that without, without deviating even when many people in the RAF wanted him to change in late ’44 and ’45 in the way he was conducting the campaign. The second thing of course is that Harris was not doing it himself. You know, he was doing what he was directed to do and I think that too, too often people assume this is Harris’ policy. It was not Harris’ policy. It was the policy of the chief, of the chief of the air staff, and the air staff endorsed by Churchill and the war cabinet. Harris is carrying out what needs to be carried out and he thinks he’s doing it more effectively than any of his predecessors as indeed he is. But he’ll go on doing it until somebody tells him to stop and so I think much of the, you know the flak, if you’ll excuse the expression that he has received has been misplaced. Actually, the person most responsible for endorsing and supporting the bombing campaign in its early stages even when it shifted to the bombing of civilians was Winston Churchill who was a great enthusiast for bombing and assumed that if Britain couldn’t build up a large and effective Army maybe if America didn’t come in and so on it was really Britain’s only option and he had absolutely no scruples about bombing German civilians in German cities. In his case mainly on the argument that Hitler and Hitlerism was so wicked that you know they deserved anything that they got. You had to find some way of defeating them and if that involved killing large numbers of German civilians I don’t think that Churchill lost much sleep over it.
DE: Yeah. I’m quite taken with the sort of, the plot of the Life and Death of Colonel Blimp where, you know it was a propaganda film.
RO: Yes.
DE: And the story is if we are going to defeat this —
RO: Yeah.
DE: Evil that is the Nazis and of course this is being told by a refugee.
RO: Yeah. Yeah.
DE: If we’re going to defeat them we have to be as ruthless and as efficient —
RO: Use [unclear] yeah.
DE: And that’s, that’s a narrative I think that has just been totally forgotten about.
RO: Yeah.
DE: Since the war.
RO: Yeah.
DE: And even that had a lot of people behind you. That was —
RO: Yeah. Yeah.
DE: Yeah.
RO: Do you want me to say something about that?
DE: So, yeah. Yeah. Please, yeah.
RO: I think if we’re looking for explanations about why Bomber Command conducted the campaign it did or why a great many people in Britain thought that killing civilians was not a bad thing was that you have to remember the 1930s view of future wars was dominated entirely by the development of the concept of Total War. The First World War was an unexpected war. Nobody thought it would last four years, involve whole societies, destroy Russia, bring Germany to revolution. The costs were enormous and after it people began to think that the nature of modern warfare, industrialised warfare and so on, massed mobilisation meant that any future war would be the same. A war of total mobilisation. The total, a total war in which you had to use any method in order to ensure your survival. And that mindset was already well in place by 1930/1940 and I think it plays a very important part in allowing people to justify the assault against civilian society as well as against the military. And it had the curious effect I think in both Britain and in Germany of persuading the civilian population that this is what war was like. They didn't resent it in that sense. There's very little discussion about the legality of bombing for example in either Britain or Germany. A strong sense that that this is the nature of modern war. So you had to adjust to it, adapt to it. You have to find ways of combatting it but, but that's what modern war between whole societies is about.
DE: So why didn’t they go the extra step and use gas?
RO: Well, there's a lot of discussion about why gas and biological weapons weren't used in the Second World War because both sides had them. Germany had more lethal gasses and worked on biological warfare earlier than the British and Americans but, but they had these, these weapons to hand. I think one of the reasons they were not used is that there is a natural deterrent there because both sides realised the other side, you know possessed the same capability or thought they possessed the same capability. And I think there's something about the dropping of gas and the use of biological weapons which seems intrinsically different from artillery shells and bombs which are, you know at least a familiar weapon. Familiar weaponry. Otherwise, it is, I think very hard to explain why Germany with its back to the wall, Hitler desperately looking around for some way out doesn’t think well why don't we just start dropping germ bombs on London. In the end, of course firebombing a city like Dresden or Hamburg, you know eats up civilian lives and kills in horrible ways anyway. So you know one is tempted to say what difference would gas have made? But there is something about the culture surrounding gas, I think and biological warfare. That's why that was outlawed by the Geneva Agreement in 1925 and bombing wasn't. There was something culturally about gas that resonates from the First World War how awful gas was and so on. Something about biological warfare deliberately spreading disease or for example dropping poison into people you know, into reservoirs and the water system which I think for politicians and the military seemed a step too far. And I think we have to be glad it was seen as a step too far. The Allies by the end of the war had developed sophisticated plans for the gas bombing of German cities and the first whiff of gas on the battlefield they said you know they were dropping for two weeks gas canisters over sixty German cities. And that would have been, you know pretty horrendous.
DE: Yeah. So, at some, at some point during the war the sort of the political backing for the bombing campaign lessened. Can you talk a little bit about, about that?
RO: As the bombing went on during, sorry as the RAF bombing went on during the Second World War that, although popular enthusiasm for bombing was kept up by the press and so on among political and military leaders in Britain there was a growing sense that it hadn't delivered. I mean bombing would have been good if it had been short, sharp, clean, you know, undermined the German war economy and brought the German people to the point of collapse but it wasn't. It was a long war of, a messy war of attrition on both sides. Attrition of bomber crews. Extraordinary attrition of bomber crews. And I think there was a growing sense that that bombing had really in a sense overstated its case. [unclear] stated its case but it wasn't able to deliver the things that it had promised. And as it became clear that the British and Americans would have to invade Europe so tactical air bombing became much more important. Using bombing for tactical purposes became much more important. When bombing resumed again in September 1944 after the invasion of France there was a point at which there was a lot of criticism about the bombing, efforts to rein Harris back. Public, growing public unease actually about the evidence of civilian damage being done in in Germany. And of course, by the very end of the war Churchill himself was gone around a hundred and eighty degrees and saying, you know don't terror bomb any more. Why are we doing this? Forgetting I think that the whole campaign and the nature of that campaign has been dictated by Churchill and his war cabinet years before.
DE: Gosh. My questions are a bit confused because half of the ones I've got written down we've already covered in the —
RO: Ok.
DE: In the video clip. Is there anything that you'd like to talk about?
RO: Well, I could talk about the legality of bombing.
DE: That would be good.
RO: One of the awkward things about bombing in the Second World War was the issue of legality. Not whether it was moral or not but whether it could be regarded as legal in terms of international law or in terms of the established laws of war which most militaries observed. There's no doubt I think that in the British case the government and the military leadership was clear that it was legal if you were deliberately targeting civilians. If you were bombing at night and couldn't see a military target, if you couldn't clearly identify your target i.e. bombing through cloud and so on and both the British chief of Staffs and the Chamberlain cabinet told the Air Ministry that. But they had to be very careful about how they bombed because, you know under, under these other circumstances it was illegal. Illegal was, illegal was the term that they used. So, 1940 the RAF and Bomber Command and of course the British government had to find ways of of changing that orientation either saying it didn't matter that you did things that were illegal because of the nature of the war you were involved in. That was really Churchill’s argument. You know, that you were fighting a deadly devilish enemy and you had to use any means in order to be able to overcome him. The other was an argument that the RAF has been using since the 1920s. Trenchard's argument which is that Total War had changed the nature of combat. That you could now combat the weakest part. By implication the civilian home front and hope that that would break morale and so on. And that, you know everybody, the train driver from a factory worker, even the farmer in the field they were all helping the war effort therefore they were all a legitimate target. And that shift in the basis of what could be regarded as legitimate underpinned RAF Bomber Command’s campaign during the Second World War that there was nothing wrong with bombing war workers because war workers were contributing just as much as the soldier ignoring the fact of course that war workers are not armed and ought to have been protected by the Hague Convention as civilians. And it was quite interesting that after the war the British prosecution team wanted to include bombing, the Blitz in the indictment of the German war criminals and the Foreign Office said no, you certainly can't do that because we did the same and it’s going to raise very awkward questions. Legal questions at the tribunal. And four years later in 1949 the Geneva Convention, a new Geneva Convention gave special protection to civilians faced with the threat of bombing. So, I think, you know it was the Second World War was an exception, it was a gap where people legitimised the illegitimate because of the nature of the conflict that they were fighting.
DE: Yeah. I mean you see it struck me as well when Bomber Command is remembered in this country it's often either in the context of Dresden if you’re in one camp or the Dambusters in the other.
RO: Yeah. Yeah.
DE: And of course, the bombing of dams.
RO: Yeah.
DE: Then became illegal.
RO: Yeah.
DE: So, yeah, I don't know where I'm going with that.
RO: Well, I mean really I think that there was quite a lot of writing defending the bombing and saying that there was no body of international law which said you couldn't bomb and that the Hague rules of air warfare drawn up in 1922 were not valid because nobody ratified them though in fact they were generally regarded as having the force of international law. But I always argued that if you go back to The Hague Conventions the whole purpose of The Hague Convention was to protect civilians from the effects of war and there's no doubt that you know that's, that's what the Hague Convention intended. The spirit of international law in other words is that you know you don't bomb civilians and involve the home front but those thresholds had already been crossed in the First World War.
DE: Yeah.
RO: With the blockade of Germany. The British blockade of Germany, German bombing of Britain, British bombing of Germany and so on the thresholds were crossed and nobody really asked, you know important questions about it so that by the Second World War the assumption was that, you know whatever international law said, you know under certain circumstances total war legitimised what you were doing even if, you know the body of international law didn’t.
DE: Yeah. I’ve forgotten now where it was but I’ve read ideas of having an international police force that were you know armed with bombers that, after the war would, if a country stepped out of line —
RO: Yeah.
DE: That would be the immediate response.
RO: Yes. Yeah.
DE: Very strange.
RO: Well, I mean you could look at the campaign against Serbia which would be a classic example of that regarding the international police campaign.
DE: Yeah.
RO: Or indeed in Afghanistan or in the Syrian conflict as well. The idea that somehow the rest of the world gets together and then uses its bombing planes to achieve a political end by stopping Serbia in the Balkan wars or, you know destroying ISIS and so on. But I think that’s still an important way in which bombing is viewed as somehow or other it’s a tap you can turn on and it will have, you know an immediate political dividend.
DE: Yeah. Well, the evidence still, you know doesn’t stand up does it?
RO: No. It doesn’t. No. To scrutiny.
DE: No. Yeah. Still need boots on the ground [unclear] Well, I'm very much aware that time is pressing so, you know.
RO: Well, you can ask me a couple more if you want [unclear] of course.
DE: Well, it just, it would just be going through the ones that we've asked for the —
RO: Right.
DE: For the video interview but I suppose it would give you some more yeah you don’t have to do it in quite such short sound bites.
RO: Well, I could say something more about the impact on the German economy if you want at the time.
DE: That would be good.
RO: When we think about the impact of bombing on the German economy in the Second World War the British focus is always on city bombings. What that must have done. It must have demoralised workers, it must have kept them away from work and so on but recent research in the German manufacturing has shown actually that bombing was not responsible for more than a fraction of absenteeism in German factories and so on and that workers continued to work because they needed to. They needed the wages. They needed to feed their families which was true of British workers during, during the Blitz. The critical thing with the Americans, I think the Americans were much more strategically aware about air power and what it was capable of doing and once they realised that in’43 daylight bombing of industry targets wasn't very effective which it wasn't they shifted in ‘44 to bombing communications as a key factor but secondly to bombing the big capital intensive industries. Chemicals, oil for example and oil in particular because they, they reasoned that for all the possible targets those were the most vulnerable. You could do the most damage to them and so the German economy was critically dependent on explosives, chemical products and so on. And oil. And so what was really decisive in those last four months of ‘44 when the bombing began seriously again was the destruction of German communications and the assault on the big capital projects and Harris never really bought that. I mean, he had to do what he was told and he did bomb the oil refineries and so on but he never really bought that but there’s no doubt if you look at the way in which the German economy becomes completely dysfunctional in the last months of ‘44 and the early months of ‘45 it was because of transport and because of the lack of oil and in the case of explosive production of course you know the key chemical ingredients for keeping your guns firing is just disappearing.
DE: And Harris saw those as panacea type [unclear]
RO: Panaceas.
DE: Yeah. And then of course you’ve already mentioned the importance of, the Americans were doing daylight operations.
RO: Yeah.
DE: With fighter cover.
RO: Yeah.
DE: To bring in —
RO: Yeah.
DE: The Luftwaffe.
RO: Yeah. Well, the critical thing in ’44 is really was the decision by the commanders of the 8th Air Force to shift the way they conducted daylight bombing. I mean, they saw the obvious thing is you have to defeat the German Air Force first. In fact, what they were doing was doing what the Germans wanted to do in 1940 in the Battle of Britain.
DE: Yeah.
RO: And the Americans had the advantage of really high quality and very robust new generation of fighter aircraft. They were given long range by putting drop tanks on to the fly, fire into Germany. And they were given permission to seek out the Luftwaffe where they could find it. Their stores, their hangars, the airfields and so on and to engage in combat any German aircraft that appeared in the sky. And that was, you know within weeks they had taken very high losses because they were willing to engage in direct face to face contact with the German Air Force. The German Air Force took crippling losses and for the next nine months the American Air Force suppressed German air power because it was quite easy to re-construct it once new aircraft start coming through to the units, to suppress German air fire comprehensively so that Germans had no air cover any longer over the Reich and they had no air cover of course over their fighting fronts. I think of all the contributions that bombing made this was an unexpected one. An indirect one if you like but it actually did prove critical of course in terms of Germany's military capability.
DE: Going back to your idea of tactical —
RO: Yeah.
DE: Policing of air power. Yeah. I mean it's, it’s a what if but it seems to me that the RAF were doing the best they could with the equipment that they had.
RO: Yeah.
DE: And that goes back to the policies that were put in place before the war with, you know the which bombers they chose to produce.
RO: Yeah. Yeah.
DE: Would it have been any different do you think if they’d have had a long range fighter?
RO: Well, if the British had had a long range fighter, an effective long range fighter they may have thought about switching to daylight bombing which might have allowed them a greater degree of accuracy because for much of the early part of the war they couldn’t even find the town often that they were detailed to, to attack. Certainly, it might have made a difference. In technical terms of course what Bomber Command needed at the beginning of the war was a decent bombsight which would also have increased accuracy. Better navigation aids and better bombs. Thirty or forty percent of bombs dropped were duds in the early stages of the war. They were very small calibre. Now, what everyone thinks about the legality or illegality of the bombing campaign the problem that Bomber Command faced was that it was, you know it was, it was technically backward in 1940/41 and incapable of conducting the kind of operations it wanted to conduct. Long range aircraft I think would not have made much difference at that point. Later in ’44 the Spitfires were used sometimes to accompany the few times that Bomber Command flew during the day but, but Harris was adamant that he would stick to nights. He didn't want, he was worried about becoming a subsidiary to the American air effort. He didn't want to be, play second fiddle to the Americans and so bombing at night, continuing to bomb at night gave British, British Bomber Command a distinctive strategy. Distinct from the American one.
DE: And of course, the aircraft were different and the aircrews were different. They were trained differently.
RO: Yeah.
DE: That would have meant, that would have meant a whole restructuring of the, of the force, wouldn’t it?
RO: Yeah. Yeah. Indeed. I think another, sorry I —
DE: No.
RO: Another thing to consider about Bomber Command and its decision to bomb at night and to carry on bombing, you know bigger targets and so on is the fact that it had an extraordinary effect on the crews. People who had been trained. They were being trained to do the most difficult kind of flying in technically backwards circumstances against the most heavily defended parts of Germany and occupied Europe and although Harris and others were aware of the costs, they couldn’t not be aware of the costs as they saw the casualties mounting up the crews didn't really know because they didn't see the casualty list. They didn’t know the accurate figure. They were told that what they were doing was essential. They were bombing, you know, military and industrial targets and so on. And crews, the British decision to bomb at night long distance against enemy targets really put them into more or less a suicidal situation all the time and I think it’s, it’s extraordinary the extent to which crews came to accept that that was the nature of things. That was the job they had to do. It was a difficult and dangerous job. One of the most difficult and dangerous jobs that allied forces had to do.
DE: Yeah, I mean it strikes me that the use of air power was always supposed to stop the slaughter of the trenches.
RO: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.
DE: And then of course, it killed tens, hundreds of thousands of civilians.
RO: Yeah.
DE: And at great cost to the crews.
RO: Yeah.
DE: Who certainly, by the end of the war were —
RO: Yeah.
DE: Were performing wonderful skilled work.
RO: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
DE: Under the most appalling conditions. I guess that leads into how bomber crews have been remembered and how they perceive that they have been remembered.
RO: Well, bomber crews after ‘45 felt a certain resentment of somehow their sacrifice was not appreciated by wider society. Partly because wider society began to say well perhaps bombing wasn’t the right thing to do, you know. Either it didn't work or it was immoral and so on. And therefore, you know bomber crews you know shouldn't stand up and say, you know, ‘Look at us.’ Whereas Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain was, you know a classic heroic story. Very easy to do that. The Dambusters also another classic heroic story. Tactical air power in 1944 you know, you could see that that was securing dividends. I think really the problem is that ambiguity never went away for seventy or eighty years and bomber crews I think became very defensive and began to fall back on, you know into a world which they constructed for themselves and so on where the rest of society didn't really appreciate that they did. I think the problem there is that we have to separate out the strategy, you know and who had originated it and what was wrong with it and so on from the work that the crews did. They did what they were directed to do. They were, they did it under difficult circumstances. What [pause] they followed what orders they had to follow and they did so with extraordinary heroism and I think that nothing can detract from, from that. These were men of extraordinary courage day after day when they did what they did. After the war that courage ought to have been acknowledged more than it was.
DE: [coughing] excuse me.
RO: Are you ok?
DE: Yeah. I’ve got a really bad tickly throat.
RO: I think we’ll have to start packing up I think.
DE: Yeah.
RO: To go off to [unclear]
DE: Right. Well, because I can hardly talk to ask you another question. We’ll call it an end.
RO: Ok.
DE: Thank you very much.
How will you do [unclear] you will put your questions in.

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Citation

Dan Ellin, “Interview with Richard Overy. One,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed February 26, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/11433.

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