Bombing of Germany

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Strategic bombing is the doctrine of Air Power that the best use of an air force is to destroy the enemy's industrial and transportation systems. The dioctrine remains central to the mission of the United States Air Force, in addition to Tactical Air Power.

By 1939 both the British and the Americans had their own very well developed theories of strategic bombing, and built the long-range bombers to implement it. Before 1944, however, the main German industrial targets were out of range, so the RAF bombers concentrated on military and transportation targets in France and Belgium. Other major countries, such as Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan, did not believe in strategic bombing and did not build fleets of heavy bombers. They did build light bombers for battlefield duty.

Strategic Bombing Doctrine

See also: World War II in the Air

Do not be misled by tanks and artillery and infantry, air strategists insisted—that was ancient history. The war could be won hundreds or thousands of miles behind the front lines—an invasion would be unnecessary because the bombers alone could defeat Germany and Japan. Modern warfare depended upon industrial production in large, fixed, visible factories, oil refineries and electric power stations. As Lovett explained, "Our main job is to carry the war to the country of the people fighting us--to make their working conditions as intolerable as possible, to destroy their plants, their sources of electric power, their communications system."[1] Advocates promised that strategic bombing was "guaranteed" to destroy those installations sooner or later. To win the war, therefore, it was necessary merely to build up a strategic air force from suitable bases. In Europe, the enemy was within attack range of American B-17 bases in Britain and Italy, and British "LOancaster" bomber bases. Matters were more complicated in the Pacific, where the Rising Sun flew above all the islands within range of Tokyo. Perhaps suitable bases could be built in China; a very-long-range bomber for those bases, the B-29 was needed. It went into mass production. Closer and more secure bases could be built in the Mariana Islands (Saipan, Guam, Tinian), which therefore were invaded in June 1944.

In August, 1941, the AAF devised AWPD-1, its plan to win the war through air power alone (an appendix discussed tactical support for an invasion, should that prove necessary.)[2] AWPD-1 read like an engineering document, and focused on the choke points of the German war economy. It listed 154 German targets in order of priority (electric power, railroad yards and bridges, synthetic oil plants, aircraft factories). By assuming half the bombs would land within 400 yards of their targets, it concluded that 3,800 bombers could finish the job in six months time. A total of 62,000 combat planes, and 37,000 trainers would have to be built. AWPD-42, completed a year later, provided more tactical air power, proposed a detailed strategic air war against Japan, and reaffirmed the same German targets (plus submarine yards). The summit conference at Casablanca in January, 1943, accepted the basic plan of AWPD-42: Germany and Japan would be the targets of massive strategic bombing that would either force their surrender or soften them up for an infantry invasion.[3]

Marshall and King did not fully accept the doctrine of strategic bombing. They insisted that control of the air would always be supplementary, and they much preferred tactical air. Furthermore, they denied that strategic bombing of the enemy's industrial strength would be decisive in warfare. Marshall accepted AWPD-1 as a blueprint for airplane acquisition and force levels (it proved astonishingly accurate), but refused to believe that strategic bombing could be decisive, noting "an almost invariable rule that only armies can win wars." Secretary of War Stimson, who usually backed Marshall 100%, disagreed this time: "I fear Marshall and his deputies are very much wedded to the theory that it is merely an auxiliary force." The debate between the AAF and the Army and Navy resulted in a compromise: both strategic and tactical air power would be used. The production of planes (AAF, Navy, Marines) was split about equally between strategic and tactical air, with 44% going to strategic bombers (especially the B-17 and B-29), 24% going to tactical ground-support and interdiction bombers (medium land-based Army and Marine, and light carrier-based Navy planes), and 20% to fighters (which could either escort strategic bombers or be used as tactical air.) The remainder went for transports, trainers, and unarmed reconnaissance planes. Arnold kept to the compromise, and did provide Marshall with ample tactical air power, but with the proviso that his airmen would always decide on how, when and where it was to be used. In the boldest move for AAF autonomy, Arnold gained almost complete control over the strategic bombing campaigns against Japan and Germany. Nimitz and MacArthur, therefore, shared control of the Pacific war with Arnold in Washington, while Eisenhower shared control of the European war with Arnold. Secretary of War Stimson, however, trumped them all when he kept control of the atomic bomb in his own hands.

Goals and Achievements of Strategic Bombing

The American strategic bombing campaign against Germany was operated in parallel with RAF Bomber Command, which fervently believed in its own version of strategic bombing doctrine. The AAF bombed during the day, the RAF at night, when interception was difficult. Nighttime navigation was so poor that the RAF quickly gave up precision bombing; their real target was the morale of the people who lived in the largest cities. According to Air Marshal Harris of RAF Bomber Command massive nightly raids would eventually burn out all the major German cities. The populace might survive in shelters, but they would be "dehoused", and lose confidence in the Fuehrer, which would lead to loss of German will to resist. Furthermore, the factories and railroad system would eventually be burned out as well. The British were willing to spend 30% of their GNP on Bomber Command, in order to weaken Germany, gain revenge, and avoid the high infantry casualties such as the Soviets were enduring.[4] Strategic bombing did "dehouse" 7.5 million Germans, but it hardly mattered, for the target cities had a surplus of housing (because most young men were away the army, most civilians had evacuated to the countryside, and all Jews sent to death camps and their apartments seized.) As the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey reported after the war, "Allied bombing widely and seriously depressed German morale, but depressed as discouraged workers were not necessarily unproductive workers." The German civilian air defense system enrolled 22 million volunteers, supervised by 75,000 full-time officials. Focusing on basement shelters in residential districts in the cities, the Germans built interconnected passageways, pained on fire retardants, and stored emergency supplies. The Gestapo, making tens of thousands of arrests, made certain that discontent was kept unfocused. Bombs did occasionally damage factories, but fast repairs were made. Rare indeed was the bomb dropped from 20,000 feet that destroyed a steel machine tool, especially when the bombardier had only the vaguest idea where it was or where he was.

Luftwaffe's Bombing Failure

The uses made of air power depend primarily on doctrine. This is clear from the failure of the Germans, Japanese and Soviets to build long-range strategic bombers. Germany had short- range bombers, but lacking a clear doctrine of how to use them it lost the "Battle of Britain" in late summer 1940. The Luftwaffe started by successfully attacking radar stations, command posts, airfields and fighter planes—a strategy that was on the verge of gaining complete and permanent air supremacy. Hitler, enraged when the RAF bombed Berlin, ordered the Luftwaffe to switch to bombing civilians (the "Blitz"). Thousands died but British morale never faltered. The RAF rebuilt its fighter strength and soon cleared British airspace of the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe could bomb and strafe, but was unprepared to defend itself against Spitfires and Hurricanes. Hitler's invasion of Britain required air superiority, so it had to be canceled. On the eastern front, Hitler expected the blitzkrieg to work so quickly that strategic bombing of Russian munitions factories would be unnecessary. By the time the Luftwaffe realized the necessity of hitting those factories, reverses on the ground put them out of range.

In the Mediterranean, the Luftwaffe tried to defeat the invasions of Sicily and Italy with tactical bombing. They failed because the Allied air forces systematically destroyed most of their air fields, and because by 1943 German pilots were so poorly trained that they could scarcely handle large planes. The Luftwaffe threw everything it had against the Salerno beachhead, but was outgunned ten to one, and then lost the vital airfields at Foggia.[5] After that it had only one success in Italy, a devastating raid on the American supply depot at Bari, in December, 1943. (Only 30 out of 100 bombers got through, but one found an ammunition ship.) The Germans ferociously opposed the American landing at Anzio in February, 1944, but the Luftwaffe was outnumbered 5 to 1 and so totally outclassed in equipment and skill that it inflicted little damage. Italian air space belonged to the Allies, and the Luftwaffe's strategic capability was zilch.

B-17 Flying Fortress as Strategic Weapon

B-17 Flying Fortress

The centerpiece of America's strategic bombing was the B-17 Flying Fortress. Although originally designed in 1934, it was ahead of its time and proved a highly effective heavy bomber. A policy of continuous improvements added power gun turrets, bullet-proof glass, self-sealing fuel tanks, high-altitude oxygen systems, enlarged wing and tail surfaces, better radios, and ground- scanning radar. The power plant was upgraded with turbo- superchargers and 1,200 horsepower Wright Cyclone engines operating on 100 octane fuel (and later, 110/145 grade). The service ceiling rose to 35,000 feet, the range to 3,300 miles with a 4,000 pound payload. The AAF considered B-17 the perfect embodiment of its strategic bombing doctrine because of its long- range, its ability to defend itself, and its highly accurate Norden bombsight. The Norden allowed daylight precision bombing of specific targets like factories. It worked well enough in leisurely practice runs in sunny California at 10,000 feet with no flak or enemy planes. Over German airspace, in bad weather at 20,000 feet with shells exploding all around and enemy fighters a constant threat, the B-17 had at most 30 seconds over the target. "The flak is murder," the pilots said. "If you fly straight and level through it for more than ten seconds, you're a dead duck." Furthermore, it was hard to find the target in the first place. Navigation errors often put streams of 500 bombers many miles the wrong direction. At high altitude, with the usual cloud cover, it was nearly impossible to identify urban landmarks visually. On clear nights camouflage and dummy cities confused the navigators.[6] H2X, an American adaptation of the British radar system H2S, provided a crude mapping of the ground through cloud cover. It helped locate targets, but beginners' luck in its early trials gave planners a much exaggerated estimate of the accuracy the Flying Fortress could achieve. In late 1943, one bomber in 25 hit within one mile of the aiming point, and only one in 5 even got within five miles. If the aiming point was a factory or railroad yard, fewer than 10% of the bombs that did land there would do any real damage. Bombs that missed and landed in residential areas were just like the RAF's; they would destroy apartments, but the residents were usually safe in underground shelters.[7]

General Ira Eaker's Eighth Air Force first launched its heavy bombers against Hitler in August, 1942. The main priority until 1944 was the destruction of Luftwaffe planes in the air and on the ground. One year later, after 83 major missions aimed at France, Holland, and the German cities closest to the English Channel, Eaker sent 376 B-17s against the vital ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg. Both small cities were located deep in Germany, far out of range of the P-47 and Spitfire fighters that normally escorted the bombers. German fighters and flak downed 60 bombers—a half dozen more raids like that and the 8th Air Force would cease to exist. After 30 more peripheral raids the Eighth tried Schweinfurt again in October, and again 60 Flying Fortresses (out of 320) were shot down. Accuracy was good despite the fierce resistance, and damage was heavy. The Germans took several months to rebuild (and to disperse critical plants so one raid would not prove fatal.) An effort to knock out the oil refineries at Ploesti, Rumania, which provided a third of Nazi oil, cost 54 out of 177 B-24 Liberators. However, the daring raid at very low level (100 to 300 feet) destroyed 40% of Ploesti's capacity. German repair crews made unexpectedly speedy repairs. The lessons were a profound blow to strategic bombing doctrines. Luftwaffe clearly had air superiority over the Nazi heartland, unescorted bombers would suffer unacceptably high losses, and even severe damage could be quickly repaired.[8]

In daylight, large formations of several hundred B-17s were easily spotted. For self-defense each Flying Fortress had 13 50- calibre machine guns, and flew in loose formations of 6 planes, each covering the others. In 1942-43 the Luftwaffe proved the Fortresses were vulnerable. Unexpectedly heavy German flak defenses disrupted formations, and damaged on average one-fourth of the bombers in each mission. Berlin was surrounded by an outer searchlight belt 60 miles in diameter, and a flak area 40 miles across. The searchlights helped the guns locate their targets and also blinded the navigators. Three massive 120-foot flak towers resembling medieval castles protected central Berlin with 8 128mm high velocity guns each. They fired a salvo every 90 seconds that created a killing window 260 yards across in the path of the bombers.

Hit by flak, some bombers crashed, while others fell out of formation; the stragglers were easy prey for fighters. The Luftwaffe moved fighters from the Eastern Front to the West. Improved German radar, new airfields, and centralized ground control allowed groups of fighters to be quickly vectored into the predicted flight path of the bombers. The fighters discovered the best way to attack was head-on ("Twelve O'Clock High!") because the very fast closing speed gave the B-17 gunners only a split second to aim, while the fighter pilot could aim his machine guns by pointing his entire aircraft at the bomber. The B-17 loss rate climbed from 3.5% per sortie in 1942 to 5% in early 1943. The B-17 was a robust plane able to withstand heavy punishment, but when 5% were lost in a single mission, the life expectancy per bomber was a mere 13 missions. The Luftwaffe was winning this war of attrition. New defensive techniques included forward-firing chin turrets, tighter formations of 18 planes, and deceptive diversionary attacks; they were not enough.

Destroying the Luftwaffe, 1944

In late 1943 the AAF suddenly realized the need to revise its basic doctrine: strategic bombing against a technologically sophisticated enemy like Germany was impossible without air supremacy. (The B-29 did not need escorts against Japan.) General Arnold replaced Ira Eaker with Carl Spaatz and Jimmy Doolittle, who fully appreciated the new reality. They provided P-51 Mustang fighter escorts all the way into Germany and back, and cleverly used B- 17s as bait for Luftwaffe planes, which the escorts then shot down. Doolittle's slogan was "The First Duty of 8th AF Fighters is to Destroy German Fighters!"—a slogan that fits 21st century Offensive Counter-Air (OCA) doctrine. In one "Big Week" in February, 1944, American bombers protected by hundreds of fighters, flew 3,800 sorties dropping 10,000 tons of high explosives on the main German aircraft and ball-bearing factories. The US suffered 2,600 casualties, with a loss of 137 bombers and 21 fighters. Ball bearing production was unaffected, as Nazi munitions boss Albert Speer repaired the damage in a few weeks; he even managed to double aircraft production. Sensing the danger, Speer began dispersing production into numerous small, hidden factories.[9]

The P-51 easily shot down slower German fighters

Paradoxically, the Luftwaffe would have to come out and attack or see its planes destroyed at the factory. Before getting at the bombers the Germans had to confront the more numerous, better armed and faster American fighters. The heavily armed BF-110 could kill a bomber, but it slowness made it easy prey for the speedy P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs armed with numerous fast-firing machine guns. The big, slow twin-engine Ju-88 was dangerous because it could stand further off and fire its rockets into the tight B-17 formations; but it too was hunted down. Germany's severe shortage of aviation fuel had sharply curtailed the training of new pilots, and most of the instructors had been sent into battle. Rookie pilots were rushed into combat after only 160 flying hours in training compared to 400 hours for the AAF, 360 for the RAF and 120 for the Japanese. They never had a chance against more numerous, better trained Americans flying superior planes.

The Germans began losing one thousand planes a month on the western front (and another 400 on the eastern front). Realizing that the best way to defeat the Luftwaffe was not to stick close to the bombers but to aggressively seek out the enemy, Doolittle told his Mustangs to "go hunting for Jerries. Flush them out in the air and beat them up on the ground on the way home." On one occasion German air controllers identified a large force of approaching B-17s, and sent all the Luftwaffe's 750 fighters to attack. Error. The bogeys were all Mustangs, which shot down 98 interceptors while losing 11. The actual B-17s were elsewhere, and completed their mission without a loss. In February, 1944, the Luftwaffe lost 33% of its frontline fighters and 18% of its pilots; the next month it lost 56% of its fighters and 22% of the pilots. April was just as bad, 43% and 20%, and May was worst of all, at 50% and 25%. German factories continued to produce many new planes, and inexperienced pilots did report for duty; but their life expectancy was down to a couple of combat sorties. Increasingly the Luftwaffe went into hiding; with losses down to 1% per mission, the American bombers now got through.[10]

By April, 1944, Luftwaffe tactical air power had vanished, and Eisenhower decided he could go ahead with the invasion of Normandy. He guaranteed the invaders that "if you see fighting aircraft over you, they will be ours." Indeed, on D-Day Allied aircraft flew 14,000 sorties, while the Luftwaffe managed a mere 260, mostly in defense of its own battered airfields. In the two weeks after D-Day, the Luftwaffe lost 600 of the 800 planes it kept in France. From April through August, 1944, both the AAF's and the RAF's strategic bombers were placed under Eisenhower's direction, where they were used tactically to support the invasion. Airmen protested vigorously against this subordination of the air war to the land campaign, but Eisenhower forced the issue and used the bombers to simultaneously strangle Germany's supply system, burn out its oil refineries, and destroy its warplanes. Mission accomplished, Ike returned the bombers in September.[11]

Failure of German Secret Weapons

Hitler tried to sustain morale by promising that "secret weapons" would turn the war around. He did indeed have the weapons. The first of 9,300 V-1 flying bombs hit London in mid- June, 1944, and together with 1,300 V-2 rockets caused 8,000 civilian deaths and 23,000 injuries. Although they did not seriously undercut British morale or munitions production, they bothered the British government a great deal—Germany now had its own unanswered weapons system. Using proximity fuzes, British ack-ack gunners (many of them women) learned how to shoot down the 400 mph V-1s; nothing could stop the supersonic V-2s. The British government, in near panic, demanded that upwards of 40% of bomber sorties be targeted against the launch sites, and got its way in "Operation CROSSBOW." The attacks were futile, and the diversion represented a major success for Hitler. In early 1943 the strategic bombers were directed against U- boat pens, which were easy to reach and which represented a major strategic threat to Allied logistics. However, the pens were very solidly built—it took 7,000 flying hours to destroy one sub there, about the same effort that it took to destroy one-third of Cologne. The antisubmarine campaign thus was a victory for Hitler.[12]

Every raid against a V-1 or V-2 launch site was one less raid against the Third Reich. On the whole, however, the secret weapons were still another case of too little too late. The Luftwaffe ran the V-1 program, which used a jet engine, but it diverted scarce engineering talent and manufacturing capacity that were urgently needed to improve German radar, air defense, and jet fighters. The German Army ran the V-2 program. The rockets were a technological triumph, and bothered the British leadership even more than the V-1s. But they were so inaccurate they rarely could hit militarily significant targets.

Furthermore, the program used up scarce technical resources that could have gone into the development of air defense weapons like proximity fuzes and "Waterfall," a deadly ground-to-air rocket. The secret weapon of greatest threat to the Allies was the jet plane that could outfly Allied fighters and shoot down bombers. The Messerschmitt ME-262 prototype flew in 1939, but was never given high priority until too late. Hitler never understood air power; his personal interference repeatedly delayed the jets. First he proclaimed they would not be necessary, then insisted they be redesigned as bombers to make retaliation raids against London. The Luftwaffe would have been a much more deadly threat if it built ten thousand jets; it only made one thousand and they rarely flew combat missions.

Destroying Germany's Oil and Transportation

Besides knocking out the Luftwaffe, the second most striking achievement of the strategic bombing campaign was the destruction of the German oil supply. Oil was essential for U-boats and tanks, while very high quality aviation gasoline was essential for piston planes.[13] Germany had few wells, and depended on imports from Russia (before 1941) and Nazi ally Romania, and on synthetic oil plants that used chemical processes to turn coal into oil. Heedless of the risk of Allied bombing, the Germans had carelessly concentrated 80% of synthetic oil production in just 20 plants. These became a top priority for the AAF and RAF in 1944, and were targets for 210,000 tons of bombs. The oil plants were very hard to hit, but also hard to repair. As graph #1 shows, the bombings dried up the oil supply in the summer of 1944. An extreme oil emergency followed, which grew worse month by month.

Germany's supply of aviation gasoline 1940-45

The third notable achievement of the bombing campaign was the degradation of the German transportation system—its railroads and canals (there was little truck traffic.) In the two months before and after D-Day the American Liberators (B-24), Flying Fortresses and British Lancasters hammered away at the French railroad system. Underground Resistance fighters sabotaged some 350 locomotives and 15,000 freight cars every month. Critical bridges and tunnels were cut by bombing or sabotage. Berlin responded by sending in 60,000 German railway workers, but even they took two or three days to reopen a line after heavy raids on switching yards. The system deteriorated quickly, and it proved incapable of carrying reinforcements and supplies to oppose the Normandy invasion. To that extent the assignment of strategic bombers to the tactical job of interdiction was successful. When Bomber Command hit German cities, it inevitably hit some railroad yards. The AAF made railroad yards a high priority, and gave considerable attention as well to bridges, moving trains, ferries, and other choke points. The "transportation policy" of targeting the railroad system came in for intense debate among Allied strategists. It was argued that enemy had the densest and best operated railway system in the world, and one with a great deal of slack. The Nazis systematically looted rolling stock from conquered nations, so they always had plenty of locomotives and freight cars. Furthermore, most traffic was "civilian," and urgent troop train traffic would always get through. The critics exaggerated the resilience of the German system. As wave after wave of bombers blasted away, repairs took longer and longer. Delays became longer and more frustrating. Yes, the troop trains usually got through, but the "civilian" traffic that did not get through comprised food, uniforms, medical equipment, horses, fodder, tanks, fuel, howitzers, flak shells and machine guns for the front lines, and coal, steel, spare parts, subassemblies, and critical components for munitions factories. By January, 1945, the transportation system was cracking in dozens of places, and front-line units had more luck trying to capture Allied weapons than waiting for fresh supplies of their own.

Unanswered Weapons Systems

Germany and Japan were burned out and lost the war in large part because of strategic bombing. Targeting became somewhat more accurate in 1944, but the real solution to inaccurate bombs was more of them. The AAF dropped 3.5 million bombs (500,000 tons) against Japan, and 8 million (1.6 million tons) against Germany.

The RAF expended about the same tonnage against Germany; Navy and Marine bombs against Japan are not included, nor are the two atomic bombs. While it can be calculated that strategic bombing cost the US and Britain more money than it cost Germany, that calculation is irrelevant. The Allies had plenty of money. The cost of the US tactical and strategic air war against Germany was 18,400 planes lost in combat, 51,000 dead, 30,000 POWs, and 13,000 wounded. Against Japan, the AAF lost 4,500 planes, 16,000 dead, 6,000 POWs, and 5,000 wounded; Marine Aviation lost 1,600 killed, 1,100 wounded. Naval aviation lost several thousand dead.

One fourth of the German war economy was neutralized because of direct bomb damage, the resulting delays, shortages and roundabout solutions, and the spending on anti-aircraft, civil defense, repair, and removal of factories to safer locations. The raids were so large and so often repeated that in city after city the repair system broke down. In 1944 the bombing prevented the full mobilization of the German economic potential. Speer and his staff were brilliant in improvising solutions and work-arounds, but their challenge became more difficulty every week as one backup system after another broke down. By March, 1945, most of Germany's factories, railroads and telephones had stopped working; troops, tanks, trains and trucks were immobilized. With all their great cities crumbling into rubble, with the awareness the Allies had a weapons system they could not answer, Germans suddenly realized they were going to lose the war. In February, 1945, General Marshall overruled the ethical objections of Air Force commanders and ordered a terror attack on Berlin. It was designed to help the Soviet advance and to convince the Nazis their cause was hopeless; 2,900 died (both sides exaggerated the total to 25,000 for propaganda purposes.) Josef Goebbels, Hitler's bloodthirsty propaganda minister, was disconsolate when his beautiful ministry buildings were totally burned out: "The air war has now turned into a crazy orgy. We are totally defenseless against it. The Reich will gradually be turned into a complete desert." By July, 1945, Japan was almost totally shut down. The American and British airmen had achieved the goals of strategic bombing—but neither Berlin nor Tokyo would surrender. The Nazis quit when the Soviets smashed Berlin in the bloodiest battle of the war. The Japanese surrender will be considered later.

Ethics debate on Strategic Bombing

During the war prewar pacifists and a few churchmen (especially Catholics troubled over the bombing of Catholic cities like Rome and Cologne) began to question the morality of bombing cities. After Hiroshima the issue focused on the atomic bomb, with much of the discussion echoing the fears of the interwar period about flotillas of enemy bombers dropping poison gas on New York City. This time the technology was capable of mass destruction; everyone had genuine fears of a nuclear war that would kill tens of millions of Americans within minutes. Only the United States had ever used atomic weapons—and in both cases the victims were civilian populations of another race. Many of the top soldiers thought the atomic bomb was unnecessary—that their particular strategy would have won the war eventually. Each of the alternative strategies, however (such as the Army invasion of Kyushu and Honshu, the Navy's tight blockade, the Air Force's relentless firebombing) would have produced more American casualties—and probably far more Japanese killed. Some historians, starting form the assumption that the bomb was "unnecessary" have speculated that it must therefore have been used for some motivation other than military victory. Perhaps the bureaucratic dynamics of the Manhattan Project were such that the bomb had to be dropped to prove the expenditures on it were not wasted? This was highly unlikely, since Truman would not have been blamed for expenditures that took place before he took charge. Other historians suggest that the bomb was dropped in order to influence or frighten the Russians, or perhaps to keep them out of the war. In fact the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House had been begging the Russians to enter the war, and at no time did Truman ever suggest to Stalin that in fact his entry into the Pacific war was unnecessary or unwanted. As for frighteneing the Russians, that seems unlikely too. Truman and Stimson knew that Russia had the capability of building their own bomb; unleashing the American weapon was less likely to frighten the dedicated Communists than to divert them from peaceful recovery into a new arms race.

Was it necessary? Did unleashing the nuclear genie doom the human race to the risk of eventual annihilation? Were Americans so fascinated with technology that they had lost sight of the moral dimensions of their behavior? Were the American conventional bombing campaigns against cities inherently immoral?

Targets Fought Back

In evaluating the strategic bombing campaigns it is important to keep in mind what the targets were. The AAF (and the RAF) concentrated on the largest 75 to 100 cities in Germany and Japan. In Germany the targeted cities contained 25 million people before the war; the damage was done primarily in 1944-45 when at least 5 million people had evacuated. Of all 75 million civilians in Germany, 1/2 of one percent (300,000) were killed, another 1% were injured, 10% were dehoused, 25% deprived of gas, water and electricity for varying periods, and 100% were inconvenienced by fear, shortages and disruptions.[14] The bombing campaigns did not target civilians outside large cities, or their food supplies. (Tactical air sometimes did strafe passenger trains; the pilots could not tell whether they carried civilians or soldiers.) The main emphasis was on large cities for several reasons. Pragmatically, the target had to be large enough to hit. Small cities or factories in the forests were extremely hard to bomb from high altitude. Big bombers flew high when it was discovered the risk from flak was near 100% at 8,000 feet, but "only" 25% at 20,000 feet. Even at great height bombers often had to zigzag and rush their bombing run lest the ground crews get their range. The RAF noticed that when flak was light, 41% of its bombs hit near the target, compared to only 32% when flak was heavy. The Luftwaffe had figured out the logic of strategic bombing, and by late 1944 used over one million men and women to operate 16,000 heavy (high altitude) guns, 50,000 light guns, 7,500 searchlights, and 1,500 barrage balloons. The extremely critical synthetic oil plants at Leuna, Ludwigshaven and elsewhere were ringed by scores of batteries each with 8 to 12 guns. The 600 guns guarding Cologne could hurl 80 tons of shells skyward every minute. The best response was to saturate the defenses by putting as many bombers over target as quickly as possible. For every 100 sorties in 1944, 25 bombers were hit by flak; most managed to hold formation and return—stragglers usually crashed or were shot down by fighters. The Pentagon did not see enemy cities as mere passive housing tracks filled with innocent civilians but rather as the nerve centers of warmaking and as active fortresses that fought back vigorously and which often inflicted more damage than they received. ** Some raids caused "firestorms," notably Hamburg and Kassel in 1943, Dresden and Tokyo in 1945. Firestorms were very hard to start; they occurred in unpredictable situations when a number of scattered fires suddenly combined into a tornado-like inferno which sucked up all the oxygen (including the oxygen in underground shelters). At Hamburg 40,000 people suffocated inside shelters. Tens of thousands died in Dresden, but the railway yards, munitions factories and military bases were mostly undamaged. At Hamburg, full factory production resumed in a matter of weeks, but about a million civilians fled the city.[15]


Typical was the case of Ludwigshaven, a city of 150,000 population on the Rhine River near Heidelberg. Its two giant I.G. Farben plants, covering 1200 acres and employing 40,000 workers, produced much of Germany's ammonia, synthetic rubber, synthetic oil and other vital chemicals; its railroad yards were important too, and hundreds of small shops and factories produced war materials, such as diesel engines for submarines. The Luftwaffe ringed it with 180 high-powered flak guns. Thirteen thousand Allied bombers hit the city in 121 separate raids during the war, of which 56 succeeded in hitting the Farben plant. Those 56 raids dropped 53,000 bombs each containing 250 to 4,000 pounds of high explosives, plus 2.5 million 4-pound magnesium incendiary bombs. (The bombers also dropped millions of warning leaflets, plus counterfeit ration coupons.) Clouds (or protective smoke) usually covered the target, so "pathfinder" planes identified the general vicinity with flares, and the bombardiers unloaded on the flares. This sort of "area bombing" was not especially accurate: out of 1,700 bombs dropped on January 7, 1944, only 127 hit the Farben plank. On average, 1.4 tons of bombs hit each acre of the Farben complex (but buildings covered only 25% of the ground, so most hit open land.) Bombing accuracy improved with experience; in a January, 1945, raid, 1,000 high explosive bombs and 10,000 incendiaries fell within the factory fences, starting 10 large, 30 medium and 200 small fires. Bombs that missed the factory that day ruined 354 residences and dehoused 1,800 people. The shelter system worked well, for only five people on the ground were killed. By war's end most dwellings were destroyed or damaged; 1,800 people had died, and 3,000 were injured. Local Nazi officials assisted the homeless and tried to incite the residents to hate the Allies. Most residents were fatalistic or passive, and were instead inclined to blame Berlin for their troubles. Thousands fled to villages or farms, but enough stayed behind to keep producing chemicals and to assist troop transports moving by rail to the battle of the Bulge. When draft calls removed German men, I. G. Farben replaced them with German women, with civilian "volunteers" from France or Italy, and with Polish and Russian prisoners. The foreigners worked to avoid death from starvation; the Nazis treated them brutally, and were negligent about their safety during the air raids. Systematic air attacks began in earnest in early 1944, and reduced production by half that year. Repairs took longer and longer, as spare parts were difficult to find. By December, so much damage had been done to vital utilities that output dropped to nearly zero. Followup raids every week ended production permanently. On March 1, 1945, infantry from Alexander Patch's Seventh Army ended Ludwigshaven's agony by seizing the city and liberating the slave laborers.

Target Cities Critical to War Effort

The large cities were prime targets because they contained most of the enemy's munitions factories, railroad yards, government offices and communications centers. According to Air Force doctrine, only a small fraction of the enemy population was targeted for attack—notably the centers of war production, communications, command and control. Civilians were repeatedly warned (by billions of leaflets) to evacuate those cities, or else they would be considered as willing participants in the enemy war effort. Without its cities, an enemy army would lose its munitions supply and its power of movement. As early as 1916, and certainly by the 1930s, it was a well-recognized concept that "civilians" who worked in munitions factories were as much a part of the war effort as soldiers in the front lines, and were legitimate targets. The munitions workers themselves felt that way, as they glanced at posters or listened to speeches from visiting dignitaries telling them how essential they were to the war. They were "non-peaceable" civilians. The efforts of civilian munitions workers in the cities across the globe were largely responsible for deciding who would win the war. Churchill strongly protested Eisenhower's plans to bomb French railroads before D-Day, warning that many Frenchmen would be killed (and therefore France would never trust Britain again.) Eisenhower insisted, and so too did French leader Charles de Gaulle. He wanted his homeland liberated! MacArthur, however, refused to allow bombing of Manila in 1945 because the Filipinos were American subjects.

Primary responsibility for saving the lives of people in the cities was held by the defending government, not by the attacking one according the US Air Force then (and now). Every government did in fact promote civil defense by installing sirens, building bomb shelters, teaching first-aid, assigning fire-fighters and rescue workers, establishing aid stations and support agencies, and training city dwellers on what to do when a raid was imminent. (The British took advantage of this by sending wooden Mosquito bombers over Berlin every night—6,000 sorties in all; their light bombs did little damage but the sirens and rush to shelters ruined every Berliner's sleep.)

Peaceable Civilians Evacuated

In World War Two, bombing raids were not a sudden and totally annihilating event. Anyone who wanted to be a peaceable civilian and avoid the risk of air attack could and should have left the major cities. The major nations realized this and encouraged evacuation. A year before the Blitz began the British evacuated a million and a half women, children and elderly from London. Japan and Germany evacuated non-essential civilians from their cities as well. Japan moved ten million people to the countryside, including two-thirds of the residents of the Tokyo and the five other largest cities. In Cologne, 90% of the small children were removed. Artistic treasures were safeguarded in old mines, and architectural monuments were sandbagged and given special fire protection. (The thousand-year old Cologne Cathedral thus remained standing while the rest of the city was flattened.) As for morality of bombing innocent civilians, the American position was, and is, that the local government, not the US, is responsible for protecting its civilians. If they are innocent they should be evacuated to the safe countryside. Time and again the Nazis tried to evacuate women and children from Berlin; German husbands and fathers resisted. Finally in August, 1943, as the RAF raids increased in intensity, the government removed 1.5 million children and adults not engaged in war work. Simultaneously hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war and foreign "volunteers" were moved into Berlin and other major cities to work in the munitions factories. ..Read-Fisher 120-1 e With the coming of hydrogen bombs in the mid 1950s and intercontinental missiles in the early 1960s, cities became defenseless, for they could be annihilated within minutes, with no warning and no chance for evacuation. But that was not the case in World War Two. The peaceable civilians had the knowledge and opportunity to get out, and most of them did so. If anyone missed the message from their own government, they could not fail to catch one of the hundreds of millions of leaflets dropped by Allied planes warning them that a real raid was imminent and they should evacuate immediately. In late 1944 American intelligence discovered that in Berlin, "Evacuation has been very thorough and the city now is relatively empty." In peacetime, Berlin had four million population; now it had scarcely one million, many of them foreign forced laborers.

Total Mobilization of Civilians

In January 1943, Berlin decreed the full mobilization of every German. Civilian jobs not essential to the war effort were to be abolished. Hitler declared "total war. Goebbels intensified the propaganda barrage, and the Nazi Party, the Gestapo and the SS turned the screws. As Field Marshal von Rundstedt proclaimed:

The Fuhrer has decreed: that our conduct of war must become fanatical since the battle has touched German soil along broad sectors, and German cities and villages are being turned into battlegrounds....Every bunker, every block in a German city, and every German village must be turned into a fortress against which the enemy will either bleed to death or its garrison be buried in man-to-man combat.

All civilian men became liable for militia duty in the Volkssturm, and in 1945 many fought in the last ditches. In Japan, total mobilization had been declared as early as 1938 (when Japan was fighting China): "We must mobilize our entire resources, both physical and spiritual; it is not enough merely to provide sufficient munitions."[16] Civilians were more tightly organized on behalf of the state than in any other nation, and American policy makers concluded there were no peaceable civilians in Japan. The AAF policy said that deliberate killing of innocent civilians was immoral, but that in Germany and Japan all workers "voluntary or involuntary" were assisting the enemy and should accept the risks "which must be the lot of any individual who participates directly in the war effort of a belligerent nation."[17]

Dispersal of critical installations

Speer figured out the antidote to air raids in 1943—disperse critical factories outside the major cities. The V-1 and V-2 missiles were built in caves and underground factories that were largely immune from bombs. However, many local Nazi leaders, fearful that Speer's plans to build new factories in their villages would attract air raids, dragged their feet and effectively sabotaged Speer's program. Dispersal, furthermore, made the Germans even more reliant on their fragile transportation system. With railroad yards hit every week, it took longer and longer for parts to reach underground assembly factories, and it became more and more difficult to move the final product to the front lines. The Japanese built airplane components in thousands of small shops scattered about their major cities; they did not use their small towns and villages. The U.S. Air Force answered the dispersion by burning out entire large cities (while avoiding the small towns and villages.) The Soviets carried dispersion to the logical extreme. As the Germans pushed east in 1941-42, the Russians loaded trains full of blueprints, engineers, skilled craftsmen, critical materials, vital parts, and necessary tools, and set up shop in makeshift quarters in the Urals. Often the new quarters lacked heat and the workers froze in place. A complete dispersal outside the major cities could indeed drastically limited the direct damage done by strategic bombing. However, dispersal to small, remote locations with poor transportation and communications created extremely complex management problems. It slowed everything down and multiplied the difficulties of overall coordination, of recruiting, training and housing workers, of supplying fuel and raw materials, of cross-shipping of sub-assemblies, and of final shipment to the front line soldiers. Postwar analysts in the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey who stressed the unexpectedly small amount of damage done to individual plants overlooked the vast damage done to the German and Japanese system of providing munitions to the battlefront. Germany ground forces fought hard, but after the summer of 1944 they were defeated in every battle, in large part because they had lost control of their airspace, and because strategic bombing cut the front lines off from their industrial base.[18]

Revenge and racism played a role in the bombings. The American public demanded revenge for Pearl Harbor, and saw the Japanese as moral subhumans. (However Americans also proudly went to war to defend the morally worthy Filipinos and Chinese.) The British, having watched fifty thousand civilians die from the Blitz, were more than pleased to retaliate ten times over. Strategic bombing doctrine had always held with enough pounding, enemy morale would collapse and they would be forced to surrender. That is indeed what happened with Japan. The Germans surrendered only after Berlin was captured, but the ability to resist invasion had been blasted away by the Allied bombings that Germany was helpless to stop. The bottom line regarding strategic bombing in World War Two is that it was the only way a total war could be fought and won. The alternatives were compromise with the Nazis and Japanese, or invasions that would have killed far more people in Japan (and did kill far more Germans than the bombings did).[19]

Further reading

  • Haulman, Daniel L. Hitting Home: The Air Offensive Against Japan, (1998) online edition
  • Kennett, Lee. A History of Strategic Bombing (1982) good brief overview, starting in 1914
  • Knell, Herman. To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and Its Human Consequences in World War II (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Overy, Richard J. The Air War, 1939-1945 (1981), sophisticated standard interpretation, covering all major countries
  • Overy. Richard. "The Means to Victory: Bombs and Bombing" in Overy, Why the Allies Won (1995), pp 101–33
  • Sherry, Michael. The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (1987), important study 1930s-1960s
  • U.S. Air Force official histories (mostly pamphlets)
  • Werrell, Kenneth P. "The Strategic Bombing of Germany in World War II: Costs and Accomplishments," Journal of American History 73 (1986) 702-713; good place to start. in JSTOR
  • Werrell, Kenneth P. Death from the Heavens: A History of Strategic Bombing (2009)

Advanced Bibliography

Strategic Bombing: Doctrine

  • Boog, Horst. ed. The Conduct of the Air War in the Second World War (1992)
  • Davis, Richard G. "Bombing Strategy Shifts, 1944-45," Air Power History 39 (1989) 33-45
  • Griffith, Charles. The quest Haywood Hansell and American strategic bombing in World War II (1999) online edition
  • Hansell, Jr., Haywood S. Air Plan That Defeated Hitler (1980) online version
  • Kennett, Lee B. A History of Strategic Bombing (1982)
  • Koch, H. W. "The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany: the Early Phase, May–September 1940." The Historical Journal, 34 (March 1991) pp 117-41. online at JSTOR
  • Levine, Alan J. The Strategic Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 (1992) online edition
  • MacIsaac, David. Strategic Bombing in World War Two (1976)
  • McFarland, Stephen L. "The Evolution of the American Strategic Fighter in Europe, 1942-44," Journal of Strategic Studies 10 (1987) 189-208
  • Messenger, Charles, "Bomber" Harris and the Strategic Bombing Offensive, 1939-1945 (1984), defends Harris
  • Overy. Richard. "The Means to Victory: Bombs and Bombing" in Overy, Why the Allies Won (1995), pp 101–33
  • Sherry, Michael. The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (1987), important study 1930s-1960s
  • Smith, Malcolm. "The Allied Air Offensive," Journal of Strategic Studies 13 (Mar 1990) 67-83
  • Verrier, Anthony. The Bomber Offensive (1968), British
  • Webster, Charles and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, 1939-1945 (HMSO, 1961), 4 vol. Important official British history
  • Werrell, Kenneth P. "The Strategic Bombing of Germany in World War II: Costs and Accomplishments," Journal of American History 73 (1986) 702-713; good place to start. in JSTOR

Strategic Bombing: Planes and Targets

  • Beck, Earl R. Under the Bombs: The German Home Front, 1942-1945 (1986)
  • Berger, Carl. B-29: The Superfortress (1970)
  • Bond, Horatio. ed. Fire and the Air War (1974)
  • Charman, T. C. The German Home Front, 1939-45 (1989)
  • Craven, Wesley Frank and J. L. Cate. The Army Air Forces in World War II (1949), vol. 6: Men and Planes online edition
  • Cross, Robin. The Bombers: The Illustrated Story of Offensive Strategy and Tactics in the Twentieth Century (1987)
  • Daniels, Gordon ed. A Guide to the Reports of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (1981)
  • Davis, Richard G. Bombing the European Axis Powers: A Historical Digest of the Combined Bomber Offensive, 1939-1945 (2006) online edition
  • Edoin, Hoito. The Night Tokyo Burned: The Incendiary Campaign against Japan (1988), Japanese viewpoint
  • Hastings, Max. Bomber Command (1979)
  • Haulman, Daniel L. Hitting Home: The Air Offensive Against Japan, (1998) online edition
  • Hecks, Karl. Bombing 1939-45: The Air Offensive Against Land Targets in World War Two (1990)
  • Jablonsky, Edward. Flying Fortress (1965)
  • Jane's Fighting Aircraft of World War II (1989), reprint of 1945 edition
  • Johnsen, Frederick A. B-17 Flying Fortress: The Symbol of Second World War Air Power (2000) excerpt
  • MacIsaac, David, ed. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey (10 v, 1976) reprints of some reports
  • Madej, Victor. ed. German war economy: the motorization myth (1984) (based on v. 64a, 77, and 113 of the U.S. Strategic Bombing reports on oil and chemical industry.)
  • Madej, Victor. ed. The War machine: German weapons and manpower, 1939-1945 (1984)
  • Middlebrook, Martin. The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission: American Raids on 17 August 1943 (1983)
  • Mierzejewski, Alfred C. The Collapse of the German War Economy, 1944-1945: Allied Air Power and the German National Railway (1988)
  • Pape, Robert A. Punishment and Denial: The Coercive Use of Air Power (1995)
  • Ralph, William W. "Improvised Destruction: Arnold, LeMay, and the Firebombing of Japan," War in History, Vol. 13, No. 4, 495-522 (2006) online at Sage
  • Read, Anthony, and David Fisher. The Fall of Berlin (1993)
  • Searle, Thomas R. "'It Made a Lot of Sense to Kill Skilled Workers': The Firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945" The Journal of Military History, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Jan., 2002), pp. 103-133 in JSTOR
  • United States Strategic Bombing Survey. The Campaigns of the Pacific War. (1946) Online edition
  • United States Strategic Bombing Survey. Summary Report: (European War) (1945) online edition key primary source
  • United States Strategic Bombing Survey. Summary Report: (Pacific War) (1946) online edition key primary source
  • Westermann, Edward B. Flak: German Anti-Aircraft Defenses, 1914-1945 (2005)

Ethics & Civilians

  • Crane, Conrad C. Bombs, Cities and Civilians: American Airpower Strategy in World War II (1993)
  • Crane, Conrad C. "Evolution of U.S. Strategic Bombing of Urban Areas," Historian 50 (Nov 1987) 14-39, defends AAF
  • Davis, Richard G. "Operation 'Thunderclap': The US Army Air Forces and the Bombing of Berlin." Journal of Strategic Studies (March 1991) 14:90-111.
  • Garrett, Stephen A., Ethics and Airpower in World War II: The British Bombing of German Cities (1993)
  • Havens, Thomas R. H. Valley of Darkness: The Japanese People and World War Two (1978)
  • Hopkins, George F. "Bombing and the American Conscience During World War II," The Historian 28 (May 1966): 451-73
  • Lammers, Stephen E. "William Temple and the bombing of Germany: an Exploration in the Just War Tradition." The Journal of Religious Ethics, 19 (Spring 1991): 71-93. Explains how the Archbishop of Canterbury justified strategic bombing.
  • Markusen, Eric, and David Kopf. The Holocaust and Strategic Bombing: Genocide and Total War in the Twentieth Century (1995)
  • Schaffer, Ronald. "American Military Ethics in World War II: The Bombing of German Civilians," Journal of American History 67 (1980) 318-34 in JSTOR
  • Schaffer, Ronald. Wings of Judgment: American Bombing in World War II (1985)
  • Spaight, J. M. Air Power and War Rights (1947), legal
  • Speer, Alfred. Inside the Third Reich (1970), memoir of top Nazi economic planner
  • Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (1977), highly influential philosophical approach from the left

Online books


  1. see Isaacson and Thomas, Wise Men p. 206
  2. See text of AWPD-1
  3. See [ "AWPD-1 The Process" (1996)
  4. .. Werrell 707
  5. Foggia became the major base of the 15th Air Force. Its 2,000 heavy bombers hit Germany from the south while the 4,000 heavies of the 8th Air Force used bases in Britain, along with 1,300 RAF heavies. While bad weather in the north often canceled raids, sunny Italian skies allowed for more action.
  6. Cloud cover over Germany averaged 50-80%. In winter, a severe storm occurred every three days; early morning fog covered airfields in England every third morning. In 1944, the 8th Air Force was able to fly from Britain on only 200 days.
  7. Craven & Cate 3:20] LeMay told of flak, 314
  8. Craven & Cate, 2:676, 2:682-7, 479;
  9. Craven & Cate, 3:43-6
  10. Craven and Cate 3:664
  11. Murray, Luftwaffe 183, 207, 211; Craven & Cate, 3:47
  12. Webster & Franklin, 4:24
  13. Jet planes ran on cheap kerosene, and rockets used plain alcohol; the railroad system used coal, which was in abundant supply.
  14. .. USSBS 1:72, 95
  15. Martin Middlebrook, The Battle of Hamburg: The Firestorm Raid (2nd ed. 2000) p. 353 online
  16. Quoted in Conrad Totman, History of Japan (2000) online p. 435
  17. Crane, Bombs, Cities, and Civilians p. 45 online
  18. Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (1969) p. 287; Richard Overy, The Air War: 1939-1945 (1981) p. 122
  19. Lacking strategic bombers, the Russians relied on their ground forces to capture Berlin in April, 1945. It was the bloodiest battle of the war. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed, along with very large numbers of civilians. Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945 (2003)