It goes without saying that the two atomic assaults on Japan at the end of World War Two were among the most devastating that humanity has yet witnessed. If you’ve seen images of the apocalyptic horror that befell the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the aftermath of the attacks, then you may feel that the scale of the damage does not need to be quantified.
Nonetheless, even amid such catastrophic human suffering, the pursuit of hard numbers must not be dismissed as callous; such figures are always important in the seeking of a more complete understanding of history. Which isn’t to say that they are always straightforward.
The death tolls of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki are complicated by the protracted impact of nuclear fallout. While many were killed instantly by the blasts – it’s estimated that roughly half the deaths in both attacks occurred on the first day – many more died as a result of radiation sickness and other injuries, long after the detonations.
The bombs’ lethal impact can be divided into several phases:
- People who died immediately as the result of evisceration or collapsing buildings.
- People who walked considerable distances in the aftermath of the detonations before collapsing and dying.
- People who died, often in aid stations, in the first and second weeks after the detonations, often from burns and injuries sustained in the bombings.
- People who died (often years) later of radiation-induced cancers and other long-term complaints linked to the detonation.
The impact of the bombings on the long-term health of survivors makes it hard to arrive at a definitive death toll figure. The question of whether those who died of life-shortening illnesses linked to the effects of radiation should be added to the tally is contentious – if we include deaths that occurred in the decades following the bombings the tolls swell considerably.
A 1998 study posited a figure of 202,118 registered deaths resulting from the Hiroshima bombing, a number that had swollen by 62,000 since the 1946 death toll of 140,000.
Even if we choose not to include post-1946 deaths in the total, the 140,000 figure is far from universally accepted. Other surveys have the 1946 Hiroshima death toll at around 90,000.
There are numerous reasons for such confusion, not least the administrative chaos that prevailed in the aftermath of the bombing. Other factors that have complicated the process of arriving at a reliable estimate include uncertainty around the city’s population before the bombing and the fact that many bodies were completely vanished by the eviscerating power of the blast.
Such complexities are no less applicable to Nagasaki. Indeed, the estimated number of people killed by the “Fat Man” bomb at the end of 1945 ranges from 39,000 to 80,000.
How do the death tolls compare to those of other World War Two bombings?
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings will always be remembered as two of the most devastating assaults in military history, but many historians consider the American firebombing raid on Tokyo, carried out on 9 March of the same year, to be the deadliest in history.
Code-named Operation Meetinghouse, the raid on Tokyo saw an armada of 334 B-29 bombers drop 1,665 tons of incendiaries on the Japanese capital, destroying more than 15 kilometres of the city and killing an estimated 100,000 people.
Prior to the unprecedented death tolls visited upon Japan in 1945, the deadliest World War Two bombing campaigns were suffered by Dresden and Hamburg in Germany. Carried out between 13 and 15 February 1945, the attack on Dresden killed an estimated 22,700 to 25,000 people – the result of 722 British and American bombers dropping 3,900 tons of explosives and incendiaries on the city.
Two years earlier, in the last week of June 1943, Operation Gomorrah saw Hamburg subjected to the heaviest aerial assault in history. That attack killed 42,600 civilians and wounded 37,000.