On the 16 November 1943, British Bomber Command launched their biggest offensive of the war, in a bid to smash Germany into submission through the levelling of her greatest city.
Despite a heavy cost on both sides, historians have questioned both its necessity and its utility.
By the end of 1943 it had become clear to the Allies that the worst crisis of the war was over. The Russians had won important victories in the east whilst their Anglo-American counterparts had won in North Africa and had now landed in Italy.
However Stalin was becoming irritated with the Allied contribution to the war. His Soviet forces had born the brunt of the fighting and taken millions of casualties as they had pushed the Nazi armies out of Russia.
Meanwhile, in his view, his allies had done little to assist him.
The fighting in the Mediterranean, in his view, had been a morale-boosting side-show designed partially to deflect attention away from the fact that German-held western Europe had not been attacked.
Though the Americans were eager to launch an assault on France, British Prime Minister Churchill had vetoed this move, rightly believing that such an attack would be a disaster before the Allied forces were truly ready.
Stalin had to be placated however.
Bomber command steps in
The British solution was to use their control of the skies, as the Luftwaffe was becoming increasingly stretched on the Eastern Front. It was believed that devastating attacks on German cities could help appease Stalin and potentially end the war without the need for a full-scale invasion.
The main advocate of this campaign was Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of Bomber Command, who confidently proclaimed that
“We can wreck Berlin from end to end if the U.S. Air Force come with us. It will cost us between 400 and 500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war.”
With progress in Italy slow, such confidence was warmly welcomed amongst the Allied commanders, and Harris’ proposal to launch a massive bombing raid on the Nazi capital was accepted.
The RAF was impressively equipped by this time, and with 800 fully-equipped bombers in range of Berlin, Harris had some reason to be hopeful.
However, it quickly became clear that air raids would be dangerous, after U.S. bombers took such heavy losses attacking the smaller city of Schweinfurt that the Americans would be unable to participate on the attack on Berlin as had been planned.
Nonetheless, there was no change of plan, and the date for the offensive to begin was set as the night of the 18th November 1943.
Pilots were generally young men, due to the quick reflexes required. That night a large number of these young men hauled themselves into 440 Lancaster bombers and set off into the dark night, their fates uncertain.
Aided by good cloud cover, the planes made it to Berlin and dropped their load before returning home.
The cloud cover which had protected the pilots also obscured their targets however, and with damage to the city minimal many more raids would be needed.
Over the next few months the heavily defended city was bruised and pummelled by constant attacks. The 22nd November saw much of the city consumed by fire from incendiary bombs, which also partially destroyed the Kaiser Wilhelm Church, which now stands unfixed as a memorial of the war.
This had a major effect on civilian morale and rendered hundreds of thousands homeless overnight, crammed into temporary accommodation as the raids continued. Over the next few months the railway system was destroyed, factories flattened and over a quarter of Berlin made officially uninhabitable.
The inhabitants, however, remained defiant, and there was no sign of any surrender or loss of morale. As the Luftwaffe had bombed London in the Blitz in 1940 with similar results, it is questionable why Harris expected a different outcome.
In addition, the raids came at a heavy cost, with 2700 crewmen dead, 1000 captured and 500 planes destroyed – casualties which were defined as unsustainable and unacceptable according to RAF rules.
As a result, there is an ongoing debate about this raid and others that followed which continues to this day.
On the one hand, one could say that all these young lives were sacrificed for little gain, as it did nothing to force Germany out of the war, and if anything hardened the resolve of her people to fight for another gruelling 18 months.
Furthermore, it entailed the killing of civilians, a morally dubious action which seemed hypocritical after the British outrage over the Blitz earlier in the war.
Though the raid brought little concrete military gain, it did damage Berlin’s war-making capabilities and divert resources to Germany which Hitler had desperately needed in the east, and, crucially, kept Stalin happy for the time being.
Due to the unglamorous and morally grey nature of its work, the achievements of Bomber Command are comparatively little-known or celebrated.
The service arm had a death rate of 44.4%, and the courage of the men who took to the skies in bombers was extraordinary.
Most of the 56,000 men of Bomber Command who died during the war would have been younger than 25.
Header image credit: The Vickers Wellington, a British twin-engined, long-range medium bomber. Commons.