Strategic Bombing

The theory of strategic heavy bombing was developed at the end of the First World War. By the 1930s leaders of the the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force believed that mass long-range bombing raids had the potential to force the enemy to surrender.

However, at the beginning of the Second World War all air forces had a policy of attacking military targets only. This changed in September 1940, when the Luftwaffe began large-scale night raids on London, 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.

Three children sit in front of their remains of their home in the East End (September, 1940)
Three children sit in front of their remains of their home in the East End

The Royal Air Force responded by carrying out night-raids on Germany. Poorly trained for this kind of work, pilots lacked the navigational aids for this task. By the end of 1941 the RAF had dropped 45,000 tons of bombs on Germany but these attacks failed to bring the end of the war closer.

Charles Portal of the British Air Staff argued for a change of policy. He advocated that entire cities and towns should be bombed. Portal claimed that this would quickly bring about the collapse of civilian morale in Germany. When Air Marshall Arthur Harris 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.

Using incendiary bombs to illuminate targets, the RAF concentrated on the heavy industrial areas of the Ruhr. Harris also ordered massive attacks on the small coastal cities of Lubeck and Rostock. Although a great deal of damage was done these raids had little impact on the German economy or civilian morale.

Massive air attacks on Germany continued and in May 1942 Arthur Harris ordered a 1,050 bomber raid on Cologne. This involved the Royal Air Force using every aircraft available and in two hours over a third of the city was badly damaged.

The introduction of the Avro Lancaster in the second-half of 1942 improved the effectiveness of strategic bombing. This new plane had oboe, an improved navigational device based on radar, and this increased bombing accuracy. The use of pathfinders and the employment of the Mosquito as a high-altitude photo-reconnaissance aircraft also helped improve the success of these raids.

Arthur Harris demanded that Winston Churchill provided more resources for Bomber Command. Along with Charles Portal he argued that if he had 6,000 bombers at his disposal he would force the German government to surrender and there would be no need for an Allied invasion of Europe.

In 1942 scientists in Britain developed an idea that they believed would confuse Germany's radar system. Given the codename of Window the strategy involved the Pathfinder Force dropping strips of metallised paper over the intended target. By early 1943 a series of tests had shown Bomber Command that Window would be highly successful. However, the British government feared that once the secret was out, the Germans would use it to jam Britain's radar system. It was not until July 1943 that permission was finally given to use Window during the bombing of Hamburg.

Window was a great success and was employed by the RAF for the rest of the war. The Germans were forced to change its strategy in dealing with bombing raids. As Air Marshall Arthur Harris later pointed out: "The Observer Corps now plotted the main bomber stream and orders were broadcast to large numbers of fighters with a running commentary giving the height, direction and whereabouts of the bomber stream, and of the probable target for which it was making or the actual target which it was attacking."

Throughout 1943 the Royal Air Force bombed German cities at night while the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) under Carl Spaatz used its B-17 planes for its precision daylight operations. In August 1943 repeated incendiary attacks on Hamburg caused a firestorm and 50,000 German civilians were killed. By the end of 1943 the Allied air forces had dropped a total of 200,000 tons of bombs on Germany.

In early 1944 the USAAF introduced the long-range Mustang P-51B fighter. This new aircraft could escort bombers all the way to targets deep inside Germany. It was an outstanding combat plane and inflicted considerable damage on the Luftwaffe.

On 30th March 1944 out of 795 Avro Lancaster, Hadley Page Halifaxs and Mosquitos were sent to bomb Nuremberg. It was recorded that 95 bombers did not return, making it the largest RAF Bomber Command loss of the war. Nuremberg suffered 74 casualties and 122 injured; 130 destroyed, 879 moderately damaged buildings and 2505 with minor damages.

Despite objections from Arthur Harris and Carl Spaatz, the bombing campaign changed during the summer of 1944. As part of Operation Overlord, the task of the RAF and the USAAF was to destroy German communications and supply lines in Europe. The destruction of German oil production was also made a priority target and by September, 1944, the Luftwaffe's fuel supply had been reduced to 10,000 tons of octane out of a monthly requirement of 160,000 tons.

By the end of 1944 the Allies had obtained complete air supremacy over Germany and could destroy targets at will. On 3rd February, 1,000 bombers of the United States Army Air Force killed an estimated 25,000 people in Berlin.

Arthur Harris now devised Operation Thunderclap, an air raid that would finally break the morale of the German people. To enable maximum impact to take place Harris chose Dresden as his target. This medieval city had not been attacked during the war and was virtually undefended by anti-aircraft guns. On 13th February 1945, 773 Avro Lancaster bombers attacked Dresden. During the next two days the USAAF sent 527 heavy bombers to follow up the RAF attack. The resulting firestorm killed around 135,000 people.

The United States Army Air Force strategic bombing campaign against Japan was also stepped up. The large number of Japanese buildings made of wood made it easy for the bombers to create firestorms. On the 9th and 10th March 1945, a raid on Tokyo devastated the city. This was followed by attacks on other Japanese cities.

By the summer of 1945 the USAAF was ready to mount its final strategic bombing campaign. On 6th August 1945, a B29 bomber dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima. Japan continued to fight and a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. On 10th August the Japanese surrendered. The Second World War was over.

Primary Sources

(1) In his report Readiness For War, Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, head of Bomber Command, explained the problems that RAF pilots would have to overcome during bombing raids on the enemy (March, 1939)

The mission may often be flying above cloud until close to its target, when they will come down and must pick up the target with as little delay as possible. The complicated and congested appearance of an industrial area is notoriously most confusing to crews of aircraft, and it is impossible to provide them with too much assistance in picking out their particular objective from the tangled mass of detail.

(2) The Manchester Guardian (24th May, 1940)

Bombing attacks by the R.A.F. Have been extended from the German advance guard in France to Leipzig, some 400 miles away across Germany. The latest Air Ministry bulletins report successful bombing of troop concentrations, military transport, on roads and railways, including an ammunition train, the headquarters of a German armoured division, and a power station.

A German ammunition train was blown up, other trains were derailed and set on fire, tracks were derailed and set on fire, tracks were demolished, and the enemy's road and rail communications over a wide area were interrupted in the course of extensive operations by the R.A.F. bomber command on Wednesday night. Objectives attacked included railway junctions, marshalling yards, troop convoys, and road and rail bridges in many parts of North-West Germany and similar targets in the occupied territory of Belgium immediately behind the battle area.

(3) Winston Churchill, letter to Charles Portal (29th August 1941)

The loss of seven Blenheims out of seventeen in the daylight attack on merchant shipping and docks at Rotterdam is more severe. Such losses seem disproportionate to an attack on merchant shipping not engaged in vital supply work. The losses in our bombers have been very heavy this month, and Bomber Command is not expanding as was hoped. While I greatly admire the bravery of the pilots, I do not want them pressed too hard.

(4) 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.

(5) Joseph Goebbels described the bombing of Berlin in his diary (4th April, 1942)

It is horrible. One can well imagine how such an awful bombardment affects the population. We can't get away from the fact that the English air raids have increased in scope and importance; if they can be continued for weeks on these lines, they might conceivably have a demoralizing effect on the population.

(6) 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.

(7) In the summer of 1942 the RAF began dropping leaflets on Nazi Germany. Although the leaflet was signed by Arthur Harris he later claimed that he was not the person who had written it.

We in Britain know quite enough about air raids. For ten months your Luftwaffe bombed us. First you bombed us by day. When we made this impossible, they came by night. Then you had a big fleet of bombers. Your airmen fought well. They bombed London for ninety-two nights running. They made heavy raids on Coventry, Plymouth, Liverpool, and other British cities. They did a lot of damage. Forty-three thousand British men, women and children lost their lives; Many of our most cherished historical buildings were destroyed.

You thought, and Goering promised you, that you would be safe from bombs. And indeed, during all that time we could only send over a small number of aircraft in return. But now it is just the other way. Now you send only a few aircraft against us. And we are bombing Germany heavily.

Why are we doing so? It is not revenge-though we do not forget Warsaw, Belgrade, Rotterdam, London, Plymouth and Coventry. We are bombing Germany, city by city, and even more terribly, in order to make it impossible for you to go on with the war. That is our object. We shall pursue it remorselessly. City by city; Liibeck, Rostock, Cologne, Emden, Bremen; Wilhelmshaven, Duisburg, Hamburg - and the list will grow longer and longer. Let the Nazis drag you down to disaster with them if you will. That is for you to decide.

In fine weather we bomb you by night. Already 1000 bombers go to one town, like Cologne, and destroy a third of it in an hour's bombing. We know; we have the photographs. In cloudy weather we bomb your factories and shipyards by day. We have done that as far away as Danzig. We are coming by day and by night. No part of the Reich is safe.

I will speak frankly about whether we bomb single military targets or whole cities. Obviously we prefer to hit factories, shipyards, and railways. It damages Hitler's war machine most. But those people who work in these plants live close to them. Therefore, we hit your houses and you. We regret the necessity for this. The workers of the Humboldt-Deutz, the Diesel-engine plant in Cologne, for instance-some of whom were killed on the night of May 30 last-must inevitably take the risk of war. Just as our merchant seamen who man ships which the U-boats (equipped with Humboldt-Deutz engines) would have tried to torpedo. Were not the aircraft workers, their wives and children, at Coventry just as much 'civilians' as the aircraft workers at Rostock and their families? But Hitler wanted it that way.

It is true that your defences inflict losses on our bombers. Your leaders try to comfort you by 'telling you that our losses are so heavy that we shall not be able to go on bombing you very much longer. Whoever believes that will be bitterly disappointed. I, who command the British bombers, will tell you what our losses are. Less than 5 per cent of the bombers which we send over Germany are lost. Such a percentage does very little even to check the constant increase ensured by the ever-increasing output of our own and the American factories.

America has only just entered the fight in Europe. The squadrons, forerunners of a whole air fleet, have arrived in England from the United States of America. Do you realize what it will mean to you when they bomb Germany also? In one American factory alone, the new Ford plant at Willow Run, Detroit, they are already turning out one four-engined bomber able to carry four tons of bombs to any part of the Reich every two hours. There are scores of other such factories in the United States of America. You cannot bomb those factories. Your submarines cannot even try to prevent those Atlantic bombers from getting here; for they fly across the Atlantic.

Soon we shall be coming every night and every day, rain, blow or snow-we and the Americans. I have just spent eight months in America, so I know exactly what is coming. We are going to scourge the Third Reich from end to end, if you make it necessary for us to do so. You cannot stop it, and you know it.

You have no chance. You could not defeat us in 1940, when we were almost unarmed and stood alone. Your leaders were crazy to attack Russia as well as America (but then your leaders are crazy; the whole world thinks so except Italy).

How can you hope to win now that we are getting even stronger, having both Russia and America as allies, while you are getting more and more exhausted ?

Remember this: no matter how far your armies march they can never get to England. They could not get here when we were unarmed. Whatever their victories, you will still have to settle the air war with us and America. You can never win that. But we are doing so already now.

One final thing: it is up to you to end the war and the bombing. You can overthrow the Nazis and make peace. It is not true that we plan a peace of revenge. That is a German propaganda lie. But we shall certainly make it impossible for any German Government to start a total war again. And is not that as necessary in your own interests as in ours?

(8) On 3rd November, 1942, Charles Portal produced a report on developing a strategy to defeat Nazi Germany.

It is difficult to estimate the moral consequences of a scale of bombardment which would far transcend anything within human experience. But I have no doubt whatever that against a background of growing casualties, increasing privations and dying hopes it would be profound indeed.

I am convinced that an Anglo-American bomber force based in the United Kingdom and building up to a peak of 4,000-6,000 heavy bombers by 1944 would be capable of reducing the German war potential well below the level at which an Anglo-American invasion of the Continent would become practicable. Indeed, I see every reason to hope that this result would be achieved well before the combined force had built up to peak strength.

(9) Arthur Harris, wrote about Window in his autobiography, Bomber Command (1947)

The main objection to the use of "Window" (the strips of metallised paper) which proved to be the most important and effective of all the weapons used against enemy radar, continued to be the fear of its effect on our own defences. It was hoped that our own radar would be developed to the point where the strips of paper would not cause any very serious interference, but even so, defensive radar might never be quite so effective after its introduction as before. When I continually pressed for the introduction of this weapon, other objections were also made. It appeared that we were short of suitable plant for the manufacture of the strips in quantity, and that it would be very difficult to get priority for the supply of aluminum needed. There can be little doubt that if we had been able and allowed to use this weapon in the first months of 1943 we should have saved hundreds of aircraft and thousands of lives and would have much increased the accuracy of our bombing.

There was every reason to believe that if the authorities would only allow us to drop strips of metallised paper during our attacks we should hopelessly confuse the enemy's radar on which he relied for the control of his night fighters and the accuracy of his gunfire. Early in 1943 there had already been developed a suitable form of this weapon for jamming the enemy's ground control stations, radar-sighted guns, and airborne radar for interception. And we had already worked out the quantity of strips of paper that would be required, the rate at which it should be dropped, and the areas over which it should be released. It cannot be said that there was ever an occasion when we did not need to use this weapon, but we needed it as much as ever before at the end of July, 1943, and it was just at that time that the Air Ministry after I had urged the use of this weapon at repeated intervals for many months, decided that it was now possible to accept the risk of the enemy using the same weapon against our own defences. The strips of paper-they were given the code name "Window" - were dropped for the first time on the night of July 24th-25th. The target was Hamburg, beyond Oboe range.

(10) In Italy in 1943 Bernard Montgomery commented on the importance of air support during modern battles.

I believe that the first and great principle of war is that you must first win your air battle before you fight your land and sea battle. If you examine the conduct of the campaign from Alamein through Tunisia, Sicily and Italy you will find I have never fought a land battle until the air battle has been won. We never had to bother about the enemy air, because we won the air battle first.

The second great principle is that Army plus Air has to be so knitted that the two together from one entity. If you do that, the resultant military effort will be so great that nothing will be able to stand against it.

The third principle is that the Air Force command. I hold that it is quite wrong for the soldier to want to exercise command over the air striking forces. The handling of an Air Force is a life-study, and therefore the air part must be kept under Air Force command.

The Desert Air Force and the Eighth Army are one. We do not understand the meaning of "army cooperation". When you are one entity you cannot cooperate. If you knit together the power of the Army on the land and the power of the Air in the sky, then nothing will stand against you and you will never lose a battle.

(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) Arthur Harris, wrote about the decision to concentrate on Operation Overlord rather than the bombing of German cities in his autobiography, Bomber Command (1947)

Tactical bombing of the German lines of communication was very far from being our sole commitment. Within a few days of the landing in Normandy we were called upon to take part in a long campaign against German synthetic oil plants in Germany and, as soon as the first flying bombs were launched, to give very high priority to the new flying bomb launching sites and supply depots in the Pas de Calais. Besides this there was an even more urgent call to destroy the enemy's large fleet of E-boats and other

light naval craft in the Channel which the Navy thought an extremely serious threat to the invading army's sea communications.

(13) 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.

(14) Arthur Harris, Bomber Offensive (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.

(15) 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.

(16) Studs Terkel interviewed John Kenneth Galbraith about his experiences during the Second World War for his book, The Good War (1985)

There had been two broad strategies. The British bombed at night and went for the central cities, because that was all they could find. Naturally, working-class areas were the most damaged. The middle classes lived on the outskirts and were hardly touched. This was true of most cities, ours and theirs. In general, poor people lived in the center and the affluent lived on the edges. It was the East End of London that was hardest hit by the Luftwaffe. Or a working-class city

like Coventry. The same thing went for German cities.

American strategy involved daylight raids. We aimed for the plants themselves. The problem was targeting. In a large number of cases, we couldn't hit them. There was a saying in 1945: We made a major onslaught on German agriculture.

I don't want to exaggerate. Some of the big plants were hit. One in central Germany, which produced synthetic fuels, was hit repeatedly. The attacks on the German oil supply had a considerable effect on the mobility of their ground forces. They were only successful because it was an enormous plant covering acres and acres. And we hit it repeatedly. The Germans had some hundreds of thousands of people at work repairing that plant all the time.

We concluded that, on the whole, the Japanese industry did not have the same recovery capacity as the German. When the Japanese war plants were hit, they were more likely to stay out of production. You have to remember that from 1941 to 1945, Japan was a very small country with an equally small industrial base. It was stretched very tight and had little of the resilience of the German economy.

Yet the fire bombing of Japanese cities was not a decisive factor in the war. The war in Asia was won by the hard, slow progress up from the south and across the Pacific.

All of war is cruel and unnecessary, but the bombings made this one especially so. The destruction of Dresden was unforgivable. It was done very late in the war, as part of a military dynamic which was out of control and had no relationship to any military needs.