Area Bombing

At the beginning of the Second World War both the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force concentrated on attacking military targets. As a result of anti-aircraft fire, both sides suffered heavy losses during these strategic air attacks.

In September 1940 the Luftwaffe began large-scale night raids. Of these, 71 were targeted on London. The main targets outside the capital were Liverpool, Birmingham, Plymouth, Bristol, Glasgow, Southampton, Coventry, Hull, Portsmouth, Manchester, Belfast, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham and Cardiff.

Night-time raids dramatically reduced accuracy and it became impossible for pilots to concentrate on bombing military targets. Although the main targets during the Blitz had been British radar stations, aircraft factories and fighter airfields over 42,000 civilians were killed.

Charles Portal of the British Air Staff advocated that entire cities and towns should be bombed. Portal claimed that this would quickly bring about the collapse of civilian morale in Germany. Air Marshall Arthur Harris agreed and when he became head of RAF Bomber Command in February 1942, he introduced a policy of area bombing (known in Germany as terror bombing) where entire cities and towns were targeted.

It was now argued that one of the main objectives of night-time blanket bombing of urban areas was to undermine the morale of the civilian population and attacks were launched on Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden and other German cities. This air campaign killed an estimated 600,000 civilians and destroyed or seriously damaged some six million homes.

George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, criticised Winston Churchill and Arthur Harris for the policy of of area bombing. On 10th May 1941, Bell made a speech where he described the "night-bombing of non-combatants as a degradation of the spirit for all who take part in it".

In July 1943 Bell attempted to persuade William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to oppose area bombing. Temple refused as he did not share Bell's views on this subject. In February 1944 Bell raised this issue in the House of Lords. In the debate Bell asked: "How can the War Cabinet fail to see that this progressive devastation of cities is threatening the roots of civilization."

George Bell obtained no support from the Lords, but a couple of Labour Party MPs in the House of Commons agreed with him. This included Richard Stokes and Alfred Salter who in a debate argued passionately against the bombing of civilians: "All this is founded on the great and terrible fallacy that ends justify means. They never do. Is there no pity in the whole world? Are all our hearts hardened and coarsened by events?"

In March, 1945, Winston Churchill gave instructions to Arthur Harris to bring an end to area bombing. As he explained: "It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land."

The atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also examples of area bombing. It has been estimated that over the years around 250,000 people have died as a result of these two bombs being dropped.

Primary Sources

(1) Winston Churchill, speech, 22nd June 1941.

We shall bomb Germany by day as well as night in ever increasing measure, casting upon them month by month a heavier discharge of bombs, and making the German people taste and gulp each month a sharper dose of the miseries they have showered upon mankind.

(2) Winston Churchill, letter to Charles Portal in a reply to a report on the need to use more terror bombing attacks on Nazi Germany (27th September, 1941)

It is very disputable whether bombing by itself will be a decisive factor in the present war. On the contrary, all that we have learnt since the war began shows that its effects, both physical and moral, are greatly exaggerated. There is no doubt that British people have been stimulated and strengthened by the attack made upon them so far. Secondly, it seems very likely that the ground defences and night-fighters will overtake the air attack. Thirdly, in calculating the number of bombers necessary to achieve hypothetical and indefinite tasks, it should be noted that only a quarter of our bombs hit the targets. Consequently an increase of bombing to 100 per cent would in fact raise our bombing force to four times its strength. The most we can say is that it will be a heavy and I trust a seriously increasing annoyance.

(3) William Leahy, ambassador to Vichy government, wrote about the British policy of area bombing in his autobiography, I Was There (1950)

British propaganda was advertising the prospect of fatally injuring Germany's morale by bombing attacks. This presupposed a lack of courage on the part of the Germans not justified by either past German history or their present performance, or by the reaction of Englishmen to the destructive Blitz of England the preceding year.

British bombers made a destructive raid on the Renault auto works in the northern suburbs of Paris on the night of March 3, killing 500 and injuring 1,200, mostly non-combatants. Violent anti-British feeling flared immediately in both the occupied and unoccupied zones of France.

(4) Arthur Harris, Bomber Command (1947)

On the night of March a8th-29th the first German city went up in flames. This was Lubeck, a rather distant target on the Baltic coast, but not difficult to identify because of its position on the River Trave, by no means so well defended as the Ruhr, and from the nature of its buildings easier than most cities to set on fire. It was a city of moderate size, of some importance as a port, and with some submarine building yards of moderate size not far from it. It was not a vital target, but it seemed to me better to destroy an industrial town of moderate importance that to fail to destroy a large industrial city. However, the main object of the attack was to learn to what extent a first wave of aircraft could guide a second wave to the aiming point by starting a conflagration: I ordered a half an hour interval between the two waves in order to allow the fires to get a good hold before the second wave arrived. In all, 234 aircraft were dispatched and dropped 144 tons of incendiaries and 160 tons of high explosives. At least half of the town was destroyed, mainly by fire. It was conclusively proved that even the small force I had then could destroy the greater part of a town of secondary importance.

(5) In his diary Joseph Goebbels recorded how Adolf Hitler had decided to increase the terror bombing attacks on Britain (25th April, 1942)

He said he would repeat these raids night after night until the English were sick and tired of terror attacks. He shares my opinion absolutely that cultural centres, health resorts and civilian resorts must be attacked now. There is no other way of bringing the English to their senses. They belong to a class of human beings with whom you can only talk after you have first knocked out their teeth.

(6) The Manchester Guardian (1st February, 1943)

No fewer than four major attacks were made on Germany by R.A.F. bombers on Saturday. Besides the two daylight attacks on Berlin by Mosquitoes Wellingtons raided Emden also in daylight, and at night 8,000lb and 4,000lb bombs and thousands of incendiaries were rained on Hamburg.

The two raids on the capital were made within the space of five hours, and caught the German defences wholly unprepared. Our crews reported surprisingly little flak, and throughout only three enemy fighters were sighted.

The first attack took place at 11 a.m, the hour at which Göring was to have begun his "anniversary" broadcast tot eh German armed forces. His speech was delayed for an hour. The second was at four o'clock, just before Goebbels went to the microphone in the Sportpalast to read Hitler's proclamation calling for still greater sacrifices by the people.

From the first attack all our machines returned safely: from the second one Mosquito failed to return.

At eleven o'clock the opening announcement of Göring's speech was heard and was followed immediately by a shout, then a confusion of voices and a bang-which was interpreted in London as the crash of the first bombs. The microphone in the German Air Ministry was then apparently switched off, and listeners heard a gramophone record of a march.

(7) Adolf Galland, The First and the Last (1970)

A wave of terror radiated from the suffering city and spread through Germany. Appalling details of the great fire was recounted. A stream of haggard, terrified refugees flowed into the neighbouring provinces. In every large town people said: "What happened to Hamburg yesterday can happen to us tomorrow". After Hamburg in the wide circle of the political and the military command could be heard the words: "The war is lost".

(8) Cecil King, editorial director of the Daily Mirror, was one of those concerned about the use of terror bombing on Germany.

The most shattering item was put out tonight by SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force), saying that at the last the long-expected orders had been given and that to shorten the war we were resorting to terror bombing. Recent attacks on Berlin, Dresden and Chemnitz had been directed at the refugees swarming into these cities and were part of this policy. I cannot help feeling that the price, political and moral, we shall have to pay for all this will be a grievous one. We rang up the Ministry of Information as soon as the news came in, to urge that it be suppressed - a very forlorn hope - and in any case did not print it.

(9) Members of the RAF bombing crews became increasingly concerned about the morality of area bombing. Roy Akehurst was a wireless operator who took part in the raid on Dresden.

It struck me at the time, the thought of the women and children down there. We seemed to fly for hours over a sheet of fire - a terrific red glow with thin haze over it. I found myself making comments to the crew: "Oh God, those poor people." It was completely uncalled for. You can't justify it.

(10) Arthur Harris, launched the first thousand-bomber raid on Nazi Germany on 30th May 1942. He eventually selected Cologne as the target of his attack.

We made our preparations for the thousand bomber attack during May; it had the code word "Millenium".

The organisation of the force involved a tremendous amount of work throughout the Command. The training units put up 366 aircraft. No. 3 Group, with its conversion units put up about 250 aircraft, which was at that time regarded as a strong force in itself. Apart from four aircraft of Flying Training Command, the whole force of 1047 aircraft was provided by Bomber Command.

The moon was full on the night of May 30th and that morning we were promised good weather over the home bases. On the other hand thundery cloud was known to cover much of Germany; the weather often helped the enemy throughout the war, and at this time it was much to his advantage that the winds which brought good weather over our bases tended to produce cloud over Germany. If I sent the force that night, the target might be cloud-covered, and the whole operation reduced to naught and our plan disclosed. From among a number of suitable targets only Cologne was at all likely to have reasonably good weather during the night, and there was no certainty about the weather over Cologne. I chose Cologne and dispatched the force.

Nearly 900 aircraft attacked out of the total of 1047, and within an hour and a half dropped 1455 tons of bombs, two-thirds of the whole load being incendiaries. The casualty rate was 3.3 per cent, with 39 aircraft missing, and, in spite of the fact that a large part of the force consisted of semi-trained crews and that many more fighters were airborne than usual, this was considerably less than the average 4.6 per cent for operations in similar weather during the previous twelve months. The medium bomber had a casualty rate of 4.5 per cent, which was remarkable, but it was still more remarkable that we lost scarcely

any of the 300 heavy bombers that took part in this operation; the casualty rate for the heavies was only 1.9 per cent. These had attacked after the medium bombers, when the defences had been to some extent beaten down, and in greater concentration than was possible for the new crews in the medium bombers.

The figures proved conclusively that the enemy's fighters and flak had been effectively saturated; an analysis of all reports on the attack showed that the enemy's radar location devices had been able to pick up single aircraft and follow them throughout the attack, but that the guns had been unable to engage more than a small proportion of the large concentration of aircraft.

Reconnaissance after the attack showed that 600 acres of Cologne had been devastated and this in turn conclusively proved that the passive defences of Cologne had been saturated In just the same way as its guns and searchlights had been, together with the air defence of the whole of Western Germany, by concentration of attack. The damage had increased out of all proportion to the increase of bomb tonnage.

(11) Arthur Coningham had doubts about the use of strategic bombing during the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944.

The bombing of friendly towns during the campaign, and the insistence by the Army Commanders that it was a military necessity caused me more personal worry and sorrow than I can say. My resistance, apart from humanitarian grounds, was due to a conviction, since confirmed that in most cases we were harming Allies and ourselves eventually more than the enemy. I thought, also, of the good name of our forces, and particularly of the Air Force. It is a sad fact that the Air Forces will get practically all blame for destruction which, in almost every case, was due to Army demands. On many occasions, owing to the organization of command, I was over-ruled and then came the "blotting" by strategic bombers who, on their experience with German targets, tended to over hit. Ample factual evidence will now be forthcoming, and I hope that, in future, it will not be thought that the sight and sound of bombers, and their uplift effect on morale, is proportional to the damage they do to the enemy.

(12) Winston Churchill, memorandum to Air Marshall Arthur Harris (28th March 1945)

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land. We shall not, for instance, be able to get housing material out of Germany for our own needs because some temporary provision would have to be made for the Germans themselves. I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives, such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction.

(13) Arthur Harris, Bomber Command (1947)

In spite of all that happened at Hamburg, bombing proved a comparatively humane method. For one thing, it saved the flower of the youth of this country and of our allies from being mown down by the military in the field, as it was in Flanders in the war of 1914-1918. But the point is often made that bombing is specially wicked because it causes casualties among civilians. This is true, but then all wars have caused casualties among civilians. For instance, after the last war the British Government issued a White Paper in which it was estimated that our blockade of Germany had caused nearly 800,000 deaths-naturally these were mainly of women and children and old people because at all costs the enemy had had to keep his fighting men adequately fed, so that most of what food there was went to them. This was a death-rate much in excess of the ambition of even the most ruthless exponents of air frightfulness. It is not easy to estimate what in effect were the casualties caused by allied bombing in Germany because the German records were incomplete and often unreliable, but the Americans have put the number of deaths at 305,000. There is no estimate of how many of these were women and children, but there was no reason why bombing, like the blockade, should fall most heavily on women and children; on the contrary, the Germans carried out large schemes of evacuation, especially of children, from the main industrial cities.

Whenever the fact that our aircraft occasionally killed women and children is cast in my teeth I always produce this example of the blockade, although there are endless others to be got from the wars of the past. I never forget, as so many do, that in all normal warfare of the past, and of the not distant past, it was the common practice to besiege cities and, if they refused to surrender when called upon with due formality to do so, every living thing in them was in the end put to the sword. Even in the more civilized times of today the siege of cities, accompanied by the bombardment of the city as a whole, is still"a normal practice; in no circumstances were women and children allowed to pass out of the city, because their presence in it and their consumption of food would inevitably hasten the end of the siege. And as to bombardment, what city in what war has ever failed to receive the maximum bombardment from all enemy artillery within range so long as it has continued resistance?

(14) Noble Frankland, speech on the morality of area bombing at the Royal United Service Institution (13th December 1961)

The great immorality open to us in 1940 and 1941 was to lose the war against Hitler's Germany. To have abandoned the only means of direct attack which we had at our disposal would have been a long step in that direction.