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To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and Its Human Consequences in World War II (review)
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Journal of Cold War Studies 8.2 (2006) 156-159

Hermann Knell, To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and Its Human Consequences in World War II. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003. 373 pp. $32.50.

Soon after the German attack on Poland began in September 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on the major belligerents to avoid the ruthless bombing of innocent civilians from the air. Adolf Hitler endorsed Roosevelt's appeal, and the governments of Britain and France concurred. A year later Hitler proclaimed that he would use bombing to "erase" British cities, and in 1942 the Royal Air Force (RAF) unleashed an area bombing offensive that ultimately destroyed most German metropolitan districts. "We were wondering," observes Hermann Knell, who was a teenager in Wurzburg during the war, "whether the British did not have the better eraser" (p. 187).

Knell is one of the survivors of the devastating RAF attack on Wurzburg on the night of 16 March 1945, a raid that obliterated 90 percent of the medieval city while killing 5,000 civilians and rendering 90,000 homeless. The impact of the attack has spurred him to write an analysis of World War II area bombing, with the destruction of Wurzburg as its centerpiece. Knell states that the goal of his analysis is not to judge or condemn those responsible for the area raids, but simply to explain why the raids occurred and, in particular, to determine why Allied air commanders chose to destroy his native city. The rationale, he contends, was the desire by Allied political and military leaders to erode German morale to such a degree that it would trigger Hitler's overthrow and hence produce surrender. Yet German morale was too resilient for bombs to break it, and Allied leaders failed to realize this. The raid on Wurzburg thus became symptomatic of what Knell sees as the Allies' failure to understand the limits of area bombing. "Wurzburg was bombed because the bombing offensive had long ago become an end in itself, with its own momentum, its own purpose, devoid of tactical or strategic value, indifferent to the suffering and destruction that it caused" (p. 334).

Calling himself a "civilian amateur historian" (p. 264), Knell bases his analysis on three different types of sources: archival records in Germany, Great Britain, and the United States; numerous secondary accounts; and personal experience. He is most comfortable when he relates events from his own memory. His recollections of the 1945 air attacks against Wurzburg, highlighted by the horrific raid on 16 March, are sobering. He devotes considerable attention to the major area attacks that occurred in both World Wars, as well as to the political decision-making that led to both conflicts. In that regard, his work is a solid capsule history of strategic bombing, especially the bombing that occurred in the European theater of World War II.

Knell regards British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, his wartime advisers, and the "bomber practitioners" as the men most responsible for the area bombing of Germany in the Second World War. Churchill's scientific adviser, Frederick Linemann—known as Lord Cherwall—receives much of the blame for spurring the British area raids. In contrast, Lord Solly Zuckerman emerges as a voice of reason with his emphasis on attacking oil and transportation targets. Churchill himself, who argued against area bombing when serving as minister of munitions during World War I, "underwent several metamorphoses during his political career, very much to the detriment of civilian populations" (p. 111). Still, Churchill does not emerge as the main proponent of area bombardment. Nor does Air Marshal Arthur Harris, who commanded RAF Bomber Command from February 1942 until the end of the war and launched the massive raids that destroyed Hamburg, Dresden, and Berlin as well as Wurzburg. Knell reserves that distinction for Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, the RAF Chief of Staff.

Knell makes his case against Portal by citing a 22 September 1942 RAF report that advocated the destruction of forty-two German cities with 100,000 or more inhabitants. The report argued that as a result of such bombing, "Germany will cease to function both militarily and on a civilian level. The...