A Necessary Evil? The Escalation of Civilian Bombing in World War Two | History Hit

A Necessary Evil? The Escalation of Civilian Bombing in World War Two

Graham Land

13 Aug 2018

The bombing of civilians was as controversial during World War Two as it is now, with the notion being rejected by the Royal Navy as ‘revolting and un-English’ when it was posed as a future option prior to the war.

At the outbreak of war President Roosevelt urged protagonists on both sides to refrain from bombing civilian areas and the RAF was informed that any such action would be considered Illegal.

On 13 May 1940, the Luftwaffe bombed central Rotterdam, killing more than 800 civilians. In direct response, Britain’s War Cabinet came to a significant conclusion: that bomber aircraft should be sent to attack Germany itself.

The resulting action, which targeted oil installations along the Ruhr, had little strategic impact but it signalled a move towards the indiscriminate bombing of civilians on both sides that became synonymous with the war.

Following the fall of France, Churchill recognised that a naval blockade of Germany would be impossible and re-asserted that ‘overwhelming air attack on Germany’ was ‘the sole decisive weapon in [Allied] hands’.

On 13 February 1945 Dresden, known as the ‘jewel box’ because of its stunning architecture, was obliterated by British and American bombers. Was it a war crime? Was it necessary? Why did it happen? Sinclair McKay tells the story behind one of the Second World War's most controversial moments.
Watch Now

In spite of this, the Butt Report indicated in September 1941 that only 20 per cent of aircraft had unloaded their bombs within five miles of their targets since war began, at the expense of 5,000 aircrew lives and 2,331 aircraft.

Nonetheless, the argument that only strategic bombing could allow the British to fight the Germans at arms-length until they were sufficiently weakened to allow ground troops to re-enter mainland Europe was ultimately won. The Butt Report therefore encouraged the later adoption of carpet or area bombing to increase impact.

The Blitz and escalation of bombing campaigns


Churchill walks through the shell of Coventry Cathedral following its destruction on the night of 14 November 1940.

An erroneous attempt to destroy Thames estuary ports resulted in the first Luftwaffe bombs being dropped on London in August 1940.

As in May, this provoked retaliatory bombing over Germany. This was deemed necessary to demonstrate to the British public that they were not suffering any more than their German equivalents, whilst corroding the morale of the enemy’s civilian population.

This served to incite further bombing of civilians in London and other major cities. The Luftwaffe inflicted heavy damage across Britain up to spring the following year, with the distress caused amongst the civilian population compounded by fears of invasion.

The ‘Blitz’ caused 41,000 deaths and 137,000 injuries, as well as widespread damage to the physical environment and the dislocation of families.

Simultaneously, however, this period also helped to instil a sense of defiance amongst the British people, whose collective resolve during the Luftwaffe’s air raids became popularly referred to as the ‘Blitz spirit’. No doubt they were also partly inspired by the rousing words of Churchill and the resolute aerial defence mounted in the Battle of Britain.


Public Record Office staff display true ‘Blitz spirit’ as they play cricket in gas masks.

By this time, British moral considerations were secondary to military ones. The relative impotence of aerial bombing when aimed at specific targets also added to the appeal of air raids on urban areas, which could remove key infrastructure whilst hopefully disheartening enemy civilians.

Contrary to this belief, however, the German people also maintained their resolve under attacks that became evermore terrifying as the war progressed.

Area bombing was approved by the Cabinet in February 1942, with Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris taking over Bomber Command. This roughly coincided with increases in firepower offered by the introduction of Stirling, Halifax and Lancaster aircraft and gradual improvements in navigation and targeting with flares.

German anti-aircraft defences were also consistently improving, however, adding further danger and to the bomber crews’ perilous and mentally-straining job. By spring 1943 fewer than 20 per cent of RAF aircrew made it to the end of a thirty-mission tour alive.

Nonetheless, the bombing campaign effectively provided a second front to that in the east and was vitally important in stretching German resources and diverting their attentions.

Strategic bombing by the Allies

The first ‘Bomber’ Harris-led mass mission was actually over the edge of Paris, on the night of 3 March 1942, where 235 bombers destroyed a Renault factory producing vehicles for the German army. Unfortunately, 367 local civilians also perished.

Later that month, high-explosive and incendiary bombs reduced the centre of the German port-town of Lübeck to a burning shell. On the night of 30 May, 1000 bombers attacked Cologne, killing 480. These events set precedence for the greater carnage to come.

The USAAF entered the war in summer 1942 with the ill-conceived intention of pursuing specific targets in daylight, utilising the Norden bombsight. The Americans also bolstered the efforts of Bomber Command, however, which remained fixed on conducting urban raids in the hours of darkness.

Increasingly, the Americans recognised the relative futility of their precision approach. Carpet bombing was used to devastating effect in Japan, where flames rapidly engulfed the wooden buildings, although their decisive mission in the Pacific War relied on only two bombs: ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’.

Dan talks to Hirata San, a survivor of the Hiroshima attacks, and one of the few remaining survivors who speak English, about the Hiroshima bombing.
Listen Now

The destruction of Axis cities

Firestorms raged in German cities from May 1943 onwards, starving people of oxygen and burning them alive. On 24 July, during the driest month for ten years, Hamburg was set ablaze and some 40,000 were left dead.

The carpet bombing of Berlin became a tactic of attrition from August 1943, with Harris insisting that it would end the war by April 1944. He was forced, however, to abandon this endeavour by March.

Nevertheless, Harris’ obsessive bombing of cities lasted to the end of the war, leading to the infamous destruction of Dresden in February 1945. Although Churchill supported the bombing of Dresden, the backlash it created forced him to question ‘the conduct of Allied bombing’.

On the 73rd anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden, Dan Snow accompanies British veteran Victor Gregg, a POW in Dresden during the raid, as he returns to the city for a historic meeting with Irene Uhlendorf, who was just 4 years old on the night of the bombing. Together they are able to talk about the horrors of that night and the effect that it has had on the rest of their lives.
Watch Now

Of all the bombs dropped on Germany, 60% fell in the final nine months of the war in the attempt to limit Allied losses, whilst irrevocably destroying infrastructure and forcing surrender.

The devastation caused by bombing during World War Two is unfathomable and the death toll only estimable. Around 60,000 civilians died in Britain, with perhaps as many as ten times that amount in Germany.

The Luftwaffe killed a greater number than this across north west Europe, the Soviet Union and Soviet satellites, whilst around 67,000 French people died during Allied attacks. The Pacific War involved widespread bombing of Asia on both sides, with around 300,000 dying in China and 500,000 in Japan.

Tags: Winston Churchill

Graham Land