‘Area Bombing’ in World War 2

A while back someone asked me a question about Hitler and Churchill and two quotes that they had both reportedly made about ‘area bombing’, a method used in the second world war involving huge armadas of bombers to destroy enemy cities and towns. The quote from Hitler, which I have sadly been unable to find, went along the lines of him saying that area bombing should be condemned under international law. The other was from Churchill who had defended the strategy. I was asked if they were true as it seems especially uncharacteristic for Hitler to proclaim something like that considering what was going on in Nazi Germany at the time. Well in short, yes it probably was true, but I thought a further explanation would help.


Rotterdam after the bombing

Although its origins can be traced back to before the First World War, the method of ‘area bombing’ as we know it was, contrary to what Hitler would have us believe, first used by Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, during the Spanish civil war. Republican cities, most notably Guernica, were carpet bombed from the air causing worldwide outrage. When the Germans invaded Western Europe in 1940, in a terrifying display of air power they carpet bombed the Dutch city of Rotterdam, devastating large parts of the city and killing thousands. Faced with the destructive power of area bombing, the Dutch quickly surrendered. When France signed the armistice with Germany, the Luftwaffe was let loose on Britain to gain air superiority in preparation for the upcoming invasion. However, after failing to defeat the RAF the Luftwaffe turned to the indiscriminate bombing of British cities at night, killing thousands of civilians and devastating large areas. It soon became known as the Blitz.

Before the war the British had invested huge sums to the development of its air force and navy at the great expense of the army. Britain had always focussed on a policy of indirect warfare, softening up their enemies in Europe by naval blockade before invading the mainland to fight a very much diminished enemy. It was of no surprise that the British army was far too ill equipped to take on the German army in 1940, especially so when France was knocked out of the war. After this Britain found herself in a difficult position. Led by Churchill’s determination, Britain wanted to continue the fight against Nazi Germany, but did not know how best to achieve a victory alone. An invasion of mainland Europe was out of the question, Britain and her empire could not match the manpower or equipment of the Germans in 1940 and it would be nothing short of suicide. Africa was the only place that the army could make an impact, but even if Britain was victorious in the desert, Germany would still be untouched on the continent and that was the only place that Britain could ultimately win the war.

Results of bombing by the RAF on Hamburg

So other approaches had to be explored, a naval blockade was an obvious strategy, but by late 1940 Germany could obtain most supplies from occupied Europe. With technological advancements there was now another option available of long range strategic bombing. It’s easy for us to look in hindsight and condemn the decisions of the British to bomb German towns and cities. An economic blockade of Germany from the sea was not going to be anywhere near as effective as it was in the First World War, a land invasion was impossible, so aerial bombardment really was the only option left.  Britain wanted to show the world that it was hitting back at Germany. After the war many criticised the British and Americans for bombing civilians, but arguments have arisen that shows how effective the bombing actually was.

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1970-088-30, Koblenz, Zerstörungen.jpg

The German city of Koblenz bombed by the RAF

The most important result of the bombing campaign was the destruction of the Luftwaffe. Time and again pilots and planes were forced to be redeployed from the Eastern front to help defend Germany. This allowed the Soviet Air Force to eventually gain the upper hand in the East. Eventually the Luftwaffe simply did not have the numbers to challenge the size of the Red Air Force.

The effect on morale is often disregarded as it appears as though instead of destroying the morale of a nation, area bombing actually consolidates a nation in a common determination. The Blitz was designed to force Britain to her knees by shattering the morale, but it didn’t work, it simply strengthened the British resolve. The same happened in Germany, with all citizens enduring the same conditions, it brought the people together and made them more determined to resist. However the morale of the German soldier on the front line was the one damaged the most. Soviet interrogations often revealed that the average German soldier was suffering with an understandable fear and concern for the fates of their families back in Germany, who endured bombing day and night by the British and Americans. Another impact on morale that is often forgotten is the impact on the populations of occupied countries. For these people, subjugated under Nazi oppression, to watch or hear allied bombers on their way to Germany was a constant reminder that others were still fighting for their freedom.

A British heavy bomber, the Avro Lancaster

So even though the Germans had started the bombing of civilian areas, the quote from Hitler is very likely. Don’t for a second think Hitler was doing this out of compassion for mankind, he just wanted to make the British and Americans out as war criminals to better the Nazi cause. Joseph Goebbels, Germany’s propaganda minister, was the most distraught over the bombing of German cities. He worked effortlessly to help the German people with emergency services, recovery after attacks and raising the morale of the people. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this kind of quote came from Goebbels as he constantly expressed his fears to Hitler over the effects of the bombing.

And with Churchill, again very likely. Churchill had committed Britain to area bombing. Before America was brought into the war, Britain’s only ally other than the commonwealth after June 1941 was the Soviet Union. The Soviets were very scathing of the British, accusing them of avoiding a proper fight with German forces. They tried on many occasions to push Britain into launching an invasion of Western Europe to take the pressure off the Red Army. The Soviets had no idea of the difficulties Britain faced in its stretched resources. Even when the USA became involved in late 1941, the western allies were woefully unprepared for an invasion of France until well into 1944, as proven by invasions of North Africa, Sicily, mainland Italy and the Dieppe raid.

British Air Chief Marshall ‘Bomber’ Harris

At the Tehran conference, in an attempt to show Britain’s contribution to the war, the British air chief Marshall ‘bomber’ Harris had brought photographs of the destruction of German cities by the RAF which impressed and fascinated the Red Army generals. Churchill had strongly defended area bombing to the Soviets who were desperate for a second front in the west, but Churchill argued that the bombing of Germany was as good as a second front. If Churchill had not defended it, then surely the bombing campaign would have stopped and if it had, then Britain would have lost their only bargaining chip that the Soviets considered to be credible in the fight against Germany. Therefore Britain was, and had to be, fully committed to the bombing in order to keep favour with Stalin, whose wish for revenge against Germany never faltered. Even if the British had wanted to stop the bombing, it would have been too late as such a large amount of Britain’s scarce resources had already been directed to the production and development of heavy bombers for the RAF.

When discussing the morality of the bombing, then things get very complicated. There’s no argument that the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the war was wrong. Things that the Soviets did, such as the mass rape of German women in 1945 and the enslavement of Eastern Europe to communism until 1990 was wrong. But when we look at ourselves and reflect on our actions during the war do we apply the same morals to our actions? Some still argue to this day that the bombing campaign was a genocide, cloaked as an attempt to hinder the industrial output of a country. Others can argue that the bombing was designed to stop the capabilities of Germany to wage war, thus bringing the war to an end. But does the end always justify the means? Is it a case of the greater good? It’s a difficult thing to discuss let alone come to a conclusion about.

I do personally believe that the British and American pilots who dropped those bombs did so believing that every bomb they dropped brought the war one bit closer to an end. Even ‘Bomber Harris’ who called tirelessly for the bombing of German cities, I would hope, did so not out of a sadistic desire to kill innocent people, but to end the worst war the world had ever seen as soon as possible. If you were to look at it in brutally honest terms then the British and American bombers killed citizens, not soldiers, but men, women, children and the elderly, all of various nations (it wasn’t just Germany that the Allies bombed). But when tackling such things you must always look at why the bombs were dropped. Adolf Hitler dragged Germany to war with Poland in 1939. The nation did not want war, the German people were terrified at the prospect of another world war, only Hitler and his Nazi fanatics desired it. From this, Britain, Europe and large parts of the world became engulfed in the war. Yet it was the ordinary people of Germany and the world that suffered for Hitler’s ambitions. Whether it was right or wrong is purely down to the individual that ponders such things.

Written By Jonny Morris.

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