The Bomber Mafia – Malcom Gladwell — REVIEW

I read a lot of history for fun. I’m interested in how we fight – what we fight with, and how we use these weapons, even though I am really a pacifist at heart. I’m especially interested in aeroplanes (airplanes to some of the world), and have been even more so since I took up scale modelling again during lockdown (current build is a 1/48 MiG-21MF (“Fishbed”) in Bundeswehr livery following German reunification).

So, when I saw Gladwell’s “Bomber Mafia” offered for sale, I actually bought a copy (we have a Waterstones in Lichfield at last!). I was disappointed. I’m not an expert in bombing tactics or strategy, but I flatter myself that I know more than the average bear.

So to read a book about “the bomber will always get through” without a mention of Douhet or Balbo and only a passing reference to Billy Mitchell seemed to me to be extraordinary. Instead, emphasis is placed on a small group of US Army aviators who are reported to have a belief in the ability of a small force of aircraft (even single plane) to perform precision bombing on a logistical Schwerpunkt such as a ball-bearing factory, thereby saving the lives of thousands by a surgical strike.

In this, the aviators would be aided by the Norden bombsight, designed by an eccentric monomaniac, described in loving detail in this book, which in theory would allow the placement of a bomb in a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet. In practice, of course, this proved completely unworkable. Winds, vibration, the difficulty of mass-producing a precision device, and human factors made it impossible to achieve this laudable goal (laudable because it would reduce the number of casualties needed to achieve a definitive war-winning result.

The British, of course, under “Bomber” Harris, scoffed at this utopian vision of warfare, and carpet-bombed German cities at night, when precision bombing was impossible. They looked at the American Schweinfurt-Regensburg raids which cost the USAAF over 60 planes and 500 men, while having results which were less than conclusive at best and wondered what the “Yanks” were playing at.

Curtis LeMay, a less than idealistic USAAF general, once he had been transferred to the Pacific theatre from Europe, decided that the best way to use the US military’s latest and most expensive project, the B-29 Superfortress, was to bomb the inflammable wood, straw and paper Japanese civilian cities with the newly invented napalm incendiaries which spilled sticky liquid fire over everything and everyone. They even built Japanese style urban dwellings to test the effectiveness of napalm.

Eventually, thanks to the discovery of the jet stream at the projected operating altitude of the B-29, these massive aircraft were sent night after night at low level to burn Japanese cities – and thousands upon thousands of Japanese civilians – indiscriminately to the ground.

But ultimately, the book somewhat underplays the horror of these mass killings, other than to describe them in American terms. The planes were so filled with the stench of burned human beings that they had to be disinfected after the missions.

And yet they continued, even after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. As a professor of history recently said in a conversation with me about this book, one problem is “the pigheaded belief that if it was Americans committing the atrocities, that somehow meant they weren’t “atrocities””. Actually, LeMay is reported to have said that if the Allies lost the war against Japan, he would be tried and hanged as a war criminal. He was fully aware of the fact that he was burning thousands to death, and however much the Japanese were depersonalised as “yellow monkeys” and the like, he was aware of the crimes he was committing. No wonder he was satirised in Dr Strangelove as General Jack D. Ripper.

To me, the book started with a reasonable idea – the story of the precision bombing, but it was full of facts which are disputable (for example, in 1936, were variable-pitch airscrews really standard? Spitfires and Hurricanes didn’t get them until 1941). And the emphasis was on the wrong people in my opinion: Norden and Lindemann (Lord Cherwell) as examples. Not a recommended book if you know anything about WWII air power and strategy.

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