Interview with Richard Overy. Two


Interview with Richard Overy. Two


Richard Overy discusses how Bomber Command has been remembered. Extracted audio from video interview







00:12:12 audio recording


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DE: Ok. Could you speak a little bit on how Bomber Command has been remembered? How and why Bomber Command has been remembered the way it has in the UK?
RO: In Britain Bomber Command has been remembered in a rather ambiguous way. There are people who see Bomber Command performing a necessary and strategically useful task in the Second World War against an enemy that deserved its bombing. But there are other people who see the death of German civilians in very large numbers as somehow or other a violation of the rules of war and so they tend to see Bomber Command differently as a force that was doing something strategically unimportant and involving the mass killing of civilians.
DE: And what about the way it’s been remembered in Europe?
RO: In Europe Bomber Command is obviously remembered, sorry I’ll start again.
DE: Ok.
RO: In Europe Bomber Command is remembered very differently. In Germany there is still I think quite strong resentment at the extraordinary level of damage inflicted to German cities and on German civilians. But I think Bomber Command is remembered perhaps most bitterly in places like Italy and France. In later stages of the war they were on the Allied side and yet their population suffered extreme levels of loss and damage in the course of their liberation.
DE: Could you talk a little bit about the way memorials and commemorations are springing up in Europe at the moment? Over the last ten or fifteen years or so.
RO: It's only recently that the bombing has really been remembered in Europe. For the first time you start to see memorials to those killed in the bombing. Start to see memorials to the civilian dead and not just to the soldiers which is a more familiar form of memorialization. I think it’s taken an awful long time for Europe to wake up to the reality of the bombing war and I think now people are more willing than before to look at this as a, as a, sorry. I'll start again. People are willing more than before to see this, sorry, I’ll start again. People are willing more than before to see civilians as part of the war effort. To see civilian losses as something we need to remember as well. And that’s true I think in Britain too. In Britain there are almost no memorials to the Blitz and yet forty three thousand people lost their lives during the course of it.
DE: Could you talk a little bit about your role with the museum in Hamburg?
RO: In Hamburg a new museum to the bombing has been established and Hamburg of course was a city that suffered the firestorm. Eighteen thousand people killed in one night. There I think the museum has made a great effort to try and see the bombing from every side. Not to disguise the fact that Germany was a dictatorship which practised all kinds of international crimes but at the same time to recognise that the death of German civilians was something which needs to be recorded and explained. I think this has been a very good experiment. I think what it has done is to put the bombing war properly into a modern context [pause] If that’s useful.
DE: Yeah, I think so. Could you talk for ninety seconds, like just a minute isn't it, talk about the use of resources and bombing. I know you’ve written quite a large amount on that.
RO: About what? Sorry?
DE: The bombing and the use of resources and how, you know, it’s impact or not on German industry.
RO: Right. Ok.
DE: A big ask in ninety seconds.
RO: One of the reasons for bombing Germany was to try to undermine the German war economy and stop production for the German armed forces. In the end large resources were diverted from the military to defend Germany but in the end Germany carried on producing armaments in large quantities almost until the end of the war.
AP: It would be better if you asked again the same question.
DE: Yeah, because there was a siren went past.
RO: Do it again?
DE: Yes, please.
RO: One of the reasons for the bombing campaign against Germany was to try to undermine the German war economy and to deny Germany’s armed forces adequate number of weapons. In fact what happened was that large quantities of weapons were diverted to Germany to defend against the bombing which didn't have that effect but the impact on German industry was always more muted than people had hoped. Germany continued to produce very large quantities of weapons until almost end to the war.
DE: Smashing. Thank you. Recently you published an article about propaganda and leaflets. Why has the story of the Nickel operations not been told and how effective were they?
RO: One of the least known aspects of the Bomber Command, sorry one of the least known aspects are for Bomber Command campaign was the leaflet campaign that often they carried with the bombs very large quantities of political propaganda which was dropped over Germany. I think this has not gained much publicity because in the end the political propaganda didn't achieve very much. Actually, billions of leaflets were dropped over Europe during the course of the war and at the end of the war British intelligence chief argued that he didn't think it had shortened the war by a single hour.
DE: You’ve also talked about the mismatch between what people believed bombing could achieve and what it actually was capable of doing. Could you talk about that?
RO: In the Second World War there was a huge gap between what people thought bombing could do and what it could actually achieve and the problem is really technical. People imagine that bombing would be precision bombing. That you could pick out a factory, you could take out a military installation quite easily. In fact, even the American Air Force which prided itself on having a decent bombsight and better training wasn’t able to hit a precise target with all its bombs. The problem was the aircraft flew at a great height, there were no laser or radar guided bombs and so on. You just dropped your bombs and hoped.
DE: Could you expand on that a little bit and sort of explain why? Why they thought that, you know bombing was going to be accurate?
RO: At the beginning of the Second World War the general view was that bombing was bound to be accurate. You would just get your aircraft over the target, you would drop the bombs and you would destroy things. Bomb trials were held before the Second World War to try and demonstrate this but the bomb trials themselves were conducted of course under conditions of peace. Actual bombardment involves not only the technical problem of getting over the targets accurately, identifying it and dropping your bombs but coping with anti-aircraft fire, with enemy fighters and so on. It was impossible in the circumstances of the Second World War for any bombing to be remotely accurate. You dropped a hundred bombs on the target, you dropped them at a target area and you were lucky if two or three bombs actually hit the right thing.
DE: Ok. Thanks. So from 1942 the aim of Bomber Command became to de-house populations and to break the enemy morale. Why didn't, why wasn’t that successful?
RO: By 1942 Bomber Command had been directed really to attack the morale of the German population and particularly the urban population. The working class. The idea was that if you bombed them enough, bombed their houses, destroyed their milieux, that they would then rise up and resist the regime and it would be like the end of the First World War. But this was not the First World War. This was the Second World War. This was a dictatorship. This was a dictatorship which penalised defeatism and social unrest. And the other thing I think is that on the whole people came to depend on the state even if it was a dictatorship in order to get their houses repaired, provide welfare, to provide food. They became more dependent on the state not less and the British misjudged I think the capacity of the German urban population to absorb the bombing. They might have drawn a lesson from the Blitz because although the Blitz killed forty thousand people, destroyed large areas of London and other port cities British society did not collapse. There was no question during the course of the Blitz of a social upheaval or revolution. If they had looked at that more carefully I think they might have judged the morale bombing of the German population rather differently.
DE: Fantastic. Are there any lessons that we should be learning from the bombing war in the Second World War?
RO: If we have any lessons to learn from the bombing war I think the most important lesson is that civilians don't make a good target. In the Second World War the American air chiefs were rather critical of Bomber Command and the British. ‘What are you trying to do? Trying to kill people? What does that do strategically?’ And I think there, you know there is no answer to that. In the end to defeat an enemy decisively you have to defeat your enemy’s armed forces.
DE: Yeah. That’s fantastic. I think you've answered all the questions that I really wanted for the, for this section.
RO: Ok. Can I just do the first question again because —
DE: Sure.
RO: I’m on about how it's remembered.
DE: Yeah. Yeah.
RO: But I don’t think I’ve done that as clearly as the other question.
DE: Yeah. Fine. In your own time then.
RO: There's no doubt that in Britain memory of Bomber Command is divided. It’s divided for the following reason because Bomber Command in the course of its campaign killed very large members of civilians. Now, there are some people who would say well they were civilian workers, the effect on German industry was profound and this was an entirely justified campaign. On the other hand there were those who say well this is a liberal state trying to demonstrate how different it is from Nazi Germany. You know, you shouldn't have conducted a campaign which was directed at civilians. And this is a debate which is, you know not capable of compromise. You’re either one side or on the other.
DE: Yeah. That was better.
RO: Better?
DE: Yeah. Yeah.
RO: Yeah. Ok.
DE: Are you alright, Alex?
AP: Five seconds
DE: Wonderful.



Dan Ellin, “Interview with Richard Overy. Two,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed October 3, 2023,

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