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9 October 2001 (UK)  »

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Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man.
13 March 2016 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

Fifty-five thousand air crew of the RAF bomber command died between 1939 and 1945, a higher percentage than any other branch of the Armed Forces. Nobody knows how many Germans died under their bombs, including mostly civilians.

The withdrawal of the Allies from Dunkirk left the RAF in the only position to take the war to Germany. Initial raids were flown in daylight against specific military targets but on some mission fewer than half the bombers returned, so night bombing was adopted. Safer at first, it led to a decrease in accuracy so that few bombs fell anywhere near their industrial targets. The only navigation was by dead reckoning or by sighting landmarks below. The results were appalling. A survey in 1941 showed that only one in four bombs fell within three miles of the target. Over the Ruhr Valley, the heart of Germany's industry, the percentage was only one in fifteen. The price paid was seven hundred British bombers and crew. The campaign was halted at the end of the year.

The strategists pondered the problem and came up with another plan. Abandon any attempt at precision bombing and do what the Germans were doing to cities in England -- obliterate them. It was called carpet bombing and its only objective was to lay waste to enemy cities and kill enough of their people that the will to fight the war was broken. Sir Arthur ("Bomber") Harris was put in charge. "Cometh the hour, cometh the man." Harris was a controversial figure, then and now -- witty, dry, and ruthless. His "reap the whirlwind" speech is iconic. His instrument was the Lancaster, arguably the finest heavy bomber of the war. It carried a massive bomb load and in some way handled like a fighter. One pilot put one through a barrel roll.

Harris put every bomber of every type he could into the air for the famous thousand-plane raid on the ancient city of Köln, losing forty-two aircraft, killing several hundred people on the ground and making thousands homeless. There was criticism of his strategy. Some said it killed too many women and children. Others said it wouldn't work in undermining moral. (It didn't work in Britain; it didn't work in Germany; it never has worked.) Harris was unabashed and intensified the campaign. Technological advances made accurate navigation possible. Hamburg was a city of no particular military importance but it was thoroughly demolished and thirty thousand civilians died. The firestorm melted bodies of those who had taken refuge in cellars.

Against Harris' wishes, the heavy bombers were yanked away from his attempt to do to Berlin what he'd done to cities like Hamburg. They were finally used in daylight precision bombing in aid of the Allied troops that had landed in Normandy on D Day. (No mention of the civilian casualties or the errors in dropping the bombs.) The war was almost over in February, 1944, when Harris demolished Dresden over the course of several nights, accompanied by USAF bombers during the daytime. The city was filled with refugees from the east who were fleeing the soldiers of the Soviet Union. Forty square miles of the city were set alight and fifty thousand people killed. That was the end of the bombing campaign.

This is an exceptional series. Richard Holmes is a sober and knowledgeable host and the narration is candid, although he doesn't mention that when a statue of Sir Arthur Harris was unveiled by the Queen Mum shortly after the war, there were some boos from the crowd. The morality of the program was an issue. On a smaller scale, it remains an issue today, even when conducted by drones.


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