Airborne in 1943: The Daring Allied Air Campaign Over the North Sea, by Kevin Wilson, Pegasus Books, New York, 2018, $29.95
Don’t judge a book by its cover, goes the old saying. Airborne in 1943 is a prime example, for while the narrative is excellent, the cover art and title are terribly misleading.
British historian Kevin Wilson has a deserved reputation for quality and accuracy, including well-regarded volumes on the Royal Air Force and U.S. Eighth Air Force. But the jacket of his latest offering suggests he’s written a joint assessment of the Anglo-American air campaign out of Britain in 1943, which it’s not. The illustration depicts a formation of Eighth Air Force B-17s, while the subtitle reinforces the notion it addresses RAF Bomber Command’s operations in concert with the “Mighty Eighth.” In fact, Airborne in 1943 provides a detailed study of Bomber Command’s activities from January 1 through December 31 of that year.
Historians often disagree about which was the most significant year of World War II, but a rough consensus has emerged that 1943 was the least important. Even accepting that notion, however, Wilson’s taut, literate and detailed text provides a balanced micro and macro view of the night air war over occupied Europe.
The most significant passages relate the May 1943 strikes on the Ruhr Valley dams and the onset of the Battle of Berlin that winter. Bomber Command’s chief, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, had hoped a sustained campaign against the Reich capital would shorten the war, but in four months he lost nearly 2,700 fliers in some 500 aircraft. In fact, throughout the war Bomber Command sustained appalling losses—nearly 60 percent killed or captured.
Most air forces accepted a 4 percent loss rate, but the RAF often sustained two to three times that figure on individual missions. How Bomber Command morale survived such attrition is part and parcel of Airborne.
Wilson did previous spadework with his 2006 Bomber Boys, with a tighter focus on the Ruhr Valley and Berlin. The intervening dozen years certainly reduced the number of aircrew available to provide firsthand accounts, but thankfully Wilson and others had conducted interviews while remaining veterans remained alive and lucid.
Wilson clearly identifies with his subjects, particularly the 137 survivors who contributed to the book. But he also describes the German defenders and civilians who opposed Bomber Command, providing a balanced assessment of that one year in a long, sanguinary war.