Two full months (and then some) have passed since I last published a review and, for that, I apologise. The latest issue of Flightpath is largely responsible, but home life has been rather hectic as well. You do not want to know how little reading I've done in the past month! Anyway, as always when I am neglectful of ABR, one of my cadre of very clever guest reviewers is happy to step up to easily fill the void. In this case, it's Adam Purcell, a fine young Bomber Command historian here in Australia. Adam, as I have mentioned before in the introduction to his review of Norman Franks' Veteran Lancs, runs a blog called Something Very Big. It is an account of his research into a relative's bomber crew and also anything and everything to do with Bomber Command that he encounters in his travels. I always find it insightful and informative and I trust you will too. The same applies to this review. Andy Wright.
Royal Air Force Bomber Command flew its first operation of the Second World War within hours of Sir Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war on Germany. Its final trip was completed in the last week of the war in Europe. For more than five and a half years, Bomber Command waged an almost nightly war on the enemy. It is therefore an almost unfathomably complex and wide-ranging story, one that is very difficult for a single person to fully understand, let alone condense enough to fit into one book.
Not that this has stopped people trying, of course. The gold standard remains Max Hastings’ magisterial Bomber Command, first published way back in 1979. The Bombing War by Richard Overy (2013) is a close second, but also looks further afield at bombing in the Pacific and other theatres. These are substantial volumes: my 1982 copy of Bomber Command runs to 490 pages in very small type, including notes, and The Bombing War to 852. It’s simply very hard to comprehensively tell the story in less space.
But what if you don’t want or need to read that much detail? What if there was a more accessible, but still comprehensive book about Bomber Command that also looks at both sides of the war and tells a range of stories from the commanders right down to the aircrew? This is more or less what Peter Jacobs has attempted with Pen & Sword’s new title, the 208-page Night Duel over Germany: Bomber Command’s Battle over the Reich during WWII.
Jacobs (a former RAF F-4 and Tornado navigator and the author of several books for Pen & Sword) follows the conduct and background of Bomber Command’s war in a chronological fashion. He includes what was happening at the same time on the Luftwaffe side too. It’s not a bad effort. Some sections are done particularly well, such as the chapter covering the first 1000-bomber raids in 1942, and the section about Hamburg in 1943. The book clearly sets out the distinct phases of the bomber war, taking the reader through the early years, the developing see-saw of the electronic battle, and the campaigns against the Ruhr and Berlin, before turning to the end game and the inevitable section about Dresden. The book is not written in the most terribly sophisticated fashion and Jacobs’ prose could best be described as ‘workmanlike,’ but, apart from a few sentences which I thought were grammatically rather tortured, it is mostly written quite clearly. There’s also a good selection of mostly-new (to this reviewer) photographs and diagrams on glossy paper in the middle of the book that illustrate facets and personalities from both the British and German sides of the conflict.
Unfortunately, though, there are several features which take the shine off the overall effect. Jacobs is perhaps guilty of over-using certain pet words and phrases: ‘coveted’ is one, applied throughout when describing awards like the higher levels of the Knight’s Cross, and the slightly awkward phrase ‘discussions, arguments even’ crops up more often than I’d like. He has, it would appear, been let down by some rather sloppy editing: at one point ‘of’ is used in place of ‘or’.
Editing is sometimes not something that authors will have total control over, however, so these errors and annoyances perhaps reflect more on the publishers than on Jacobs himself. Having said that, I have my doubts about how Night Duel Over Germany was researched, and that is something that the author does control. There is a reasonably extensive bibliography, but what jumped out immediately at me is that it contains only secondary sources. This means that Jacobs is a little too reliant on quotes from books by other authors instead of going to the original source. About the only primary source that Jacobs appears to have consulted is the German Wehrmachtbericht, which he regularly cites throughout the text, but it is not recorded in the bibliography so it’s unclear where he got it from. It’s somewhat indicative of a lack of rigour that is perhaps what led to a few incorrect facts slipping into the final product. Things like claiming that Pathfinder leader Don Bennett was from New Zealand, as happens on page 72, are near inexcusable (he is later correctly identified as an Australian in the caption for a photograph – in the author’s defence, the inconsistency alone should have been picked up in editing). Jacobs has also confused the terminology surrounding the different Pathfinder roles of Supporters and Backers-Up.
These quibbles aside, however, Night Duel Over Germany does pull together enough detail and some gripping stories from both sides of the battle to be, overall, a useful and accessible introduction to Bomber Command’s war.