Who can write better about an air war than someone who has been there and seen it for himself? “The Deadly Skies: The Air War in Europe 1939-1945” is by Bernard Nolan who was a young co-pilot and later commander of B-24s and B-17s in the 8th Bomber Command of the USAF during the Second World War. This book, which covers the air wars in Europe from 1939 to 1945, is by a retired Lt. Col. in the USAF who flew 33 combat missions and is qualified to speak of the experiences air crew ( those in bombers, in particular) had in their long flights into far away Germany from bases in the UK. Nolan’s book is not restricted to the bombings over Germany. He starts off chronologically with the aftermath of the First World War and the lessons learned from the air wars of that period. He moves on to cover the Battle of Britain made memorable by Churchill’s words, ” Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” It was touch and go in those days on 1940 as it appeared quite possible that the Luftwaffe would herald in an invasion of the UK by crushing the valiant efforts of the beleaguered RAF’s Fighter Command.
Later, Nolan moves on to the theories of how the “bomber will always get through” and how this shaped the strategy adopted by the Allies to bomb the Germans to submission. The book describes the stands taken by the air leaders of those times like Air Chief Marshal Harris of the RAF’s Bomber Command and US Air Commanders like Ira Eaker, Jimmy Doolittle, Carl Spaatz and Curtis Le May. He also covers German air commanders like Adolph Galland and how Herman Goering failed time and again to deliver the promises he made to Hitler.
Nolan describes at length the merits and demerits of the aircraft involved in the air battles both from the perspective of the Allies as well as the Germans. Legendary fighter aircraft like the Supermarine Spitfire, the Hawker Hurricane, the Messerschmitt bf 109, the Focke-Wulfe 190, the Mustang P-51 as well as the bombers like the Avro Lancaster, the B-24 and the B-17 feature prominently in Nolan’s story, supplemented by some awesome illustrations by Matthew Holnes which greatly enhance the value of the book.
The book moves from tactical stories of the real life experiences of air crew (especially in the bombers) to the strategic overviews and actions as planned by the higher level air commanders. You get a sampling of both in good measure.
The statistics in the book give perspective on the intensity of the air wars and the toll they took on the airmen themselves and the people on the ground on both sides, Allied as well as German. At times, the psychological advantage gained by a hazardous air strike was considered more beneficial than the results of the air strike itself, as evidenced in the famous Dam Busters raid led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson of the RAF’s 617 Squadron on the dams on the Ruhr. By the end of the war, the 8th Bomber Command of the USAF alone had dumped 692,918 tons of bombs in Western Europe and lost 47,000 men ( dead or missing) in its three years of operations in Europe. The RAF’s Bomber Command had 55,573 casualties in the six-year war.
Clearly the supremacy of the air over Europe played a huge role in helping the Allied land forces win the war in the final stages after the invasion at Normandy. This came at a great cost as the book describes.