The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich

Larry Holzwarth - January 30, 2020

Military strategists developed the concept of strategic aerial bombing during the interwar period in the 1920s and 1930s. Its proponents argued that destroying the enemy’s industrial capacity from the air would achieve victory at less cost in terms of men and equipment than defeating their armies in battle. Opponents pointed out the accuracy was questionable, results were often poor, and civilian casualties were unavoidable since factories and infrastructure were located in or near population centers. International law regarding strategic bombing from the air was vague, though the bombing of civilian areas occurred in China and during the Spanish Civil War.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
B-17s radar bombing Bremen through the cloud cover in 1943. US Army

The United States and Great Britain developed bombers in the 1930s, including the Avro Lancaster and the Handley Page Halifax (Britain) and the Boeing B-17 and Consolidated B-24 (United States). Americans developed the policy of daytime precision bombing and their aircraft were heavily armed for self-defense. The British developed the policy of primarily bombing at night, when their planes were less vulnerable to fighter attack, at least early in the war. On September 1, 1939, American President Franklin Roosevelt cabled all of the belligerents, asking that aerial bombing in the new war be restricted to military targets. Britain, France, and Germany agreed to comply. The agreement was short-lived.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
The Luftwaffe bombed several Polish towns and cities during the invasion of Poland. Wikimedia

1. Germany bombed civilian areas in towns and cities during the invasion of Poland

The German Luftwaffe attacked civilian areas in cities and in some cases bombed small towns of little or no military value beginning on September 1, 1939. Some towns were selected for bombing purely to allow the Germans to evaluate the performance of their systems in combat. Towns with clearly defined street grids were selected to evaluate the precision of the German bombs. Afterward reconnaissance flights took photographs of the bomb damage for evaluation and correction. Civilian casualties in Poland were of no consequence to the Luftwaffe. In mid-September the French Air Attache in Warsaw cabled Paris the Germans were not attacking civilian areas, ignoring the evidence before him.

The French, who were allied to the Poles and obligated to support them, did nothing during the invasion of Poland other than protest. On September 3, British bombers attacked German facilities and ships at Wilhelmshaven, followed by bombing raids on Cuxhaven and Heligoland. At Heligoland on December, 22 British Wellington bombers attacked German Naval facilities, with 12 of them shot down by German fighters. The British made the attack in daylight, and the losses sustained reinforced their belief that night bombing was safer for their crews, though their accuracy was reduced. Daylight bombing in the face of the Luftwaffe and German anti-aircraft fire was deemed too dangerous.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
King George VI (with stick) inspecting a British squadron deployed to France, December 6, 1939. Wikimedia

2. The phony war including the dropping of propaganda leaflets by the RAF

Through March 1940, the RAF and the French Air Force did little other than fly occasional missions, often simply dropping propaganda leaflets. Hitler forbade the bombing of British ships in port. “The guiding principle must be not to provoke the initiation of aerial warfare on the part of Germany”, directed the Fuhrer. In February 1940, British destroyers attacked the German tanker Altmark, violating Norwegian neutrality. In response, the Luftwaffe attacked the British fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow on March 16. Damage was light, though one civilian was killed. The British responded by bombing a German airbase.

The strategic air war against the Third Reich really began after the invasion of France and the Low Countries in May. Rotterdam was heavily bombed in the attack, with heavy civilian casualties, though British propaganda deliberately inflated the number. The civilian losses suffered by the Dutch justified retaliatory attacks on Germany by their British allies, according to the strategic thinkers in the RAF’s Bomber Command. Authority to strike targets east of the Rhine River was given. The hope was the attacks would force the Luftwaffe to divert aircraft away from the front in France. Targets in the Ruhr Valley were selected. The long and bloody strategic bombing campaign against Hitler’s Reich began even as France was falling to the Germans.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
The crew of a British Halifax bomber returning from a raid over the Ruhr. Wikimedia

3. Churchill authorized the RAF to bomb targets in the Ruhr

Churchill, with his oft-used gift for rhetoric, referred to the bombing of the Ruhr as “striking at his vitals”. Targets included oil plants, steel plants, and other industrial facilities. The raids were to be conducted at night, to reduce casualties. Because they flew at night, the British bombers did not fly in formation. They also lacked precision bombsights to find their targets. If the lead British bomber dropped its bombs on the wrong target, the subsequent bombers often did too, guided by the fires of the original bombs. On May 16/17, 78 British bombers attacked oil plants near Gelsenkirchen. Only 47 of them found their targets. The rest dropped their bombs indiscriminately.

Several German cities were bombed through May and into June, including Hanover, Dortmund, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Essen, and others. The results were always the same. Some airplanes reached their assigned targets, but many did not, and bombs were scattered haphazardly in the general area. German citizens learned to take shelter when the alarms sounded or the sound of the rumbling British engines were heard. Civilian casualties led to howls of outrage in Germany and in the United States, directed against the British. The Luftwaffe did not respond by attacking targets in Britain, and remained focused on mopping up the French, before turning to face their island enemy.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
Bomb damage at Birkenhead in 1941. Wikimedia

4. The Battle of Britain changed the bombing campaign for the duration of the war

Herman Goering, Commander of the German Luftwaffe, issued a General Order for the conduct of the Battle of Britain on June 30, 1940. It included the admonishment, “It is also stressed that every effort should be made to avoid unnecessary loss of life amongst the civilian population.” Targets for bombing were limited to “destructive attacks against industry and air force targets which have weak defensive forces”. The Germans bombed airbases and docks, as well as ships in port. Hitler wanted the battle limited because he believed he could convince the British to accept a negotiated peace. Churchill had no intention of making peace with the Nazi dictator.

On August 24 German bombers, off course and at night, dropped their bombs in London. It gave Churchill the opening he needed. The following night British bombers attacked Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport and Siemenstadt. They displayed their usual accuracy, and the raids on both areas were widespread, with civilian casualties in neighborhoods surrounding the assigned targets. Tempelhof was but lightly damaged. Hitler reacted with outrage, and ordered the terror bombing of London and other British cities known to history as the Blitz. Churchill ordered the RAF to step up bombing raids on German cities in the Ruhr, as well as Berlin.

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The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
A Royal Air Force Wellington bomber is cheered as it takes off on a raid in 1942. Wikimedia

5. The British launched the first deliberate terror raid of the war in December, 1940

On December 16, 1940, the RAF executed Operation Abigail Rachel, an experimental bombing raid on Mannheim using incendiary bombs. 134 bombers were dispatched to the German city. The leading eight carried incendiaries intended to mark the center of the German city. Following bombers were instructed to use the resulting fires as a target for their own bombs. The leading eight fouled up their navigation, missed the city center entirely, and the result was the following bombers (only 100 reached the city) also missed their target. Mannheim was selected as an experiment. For the next week, the RAF returned to the city, bombing it three more times, using the smoke of the previous fires to guide them to their targets.

Mannheim was a target for RAF bombers several more times through 1944. Finally, in 1945 the RAF used incendiary bombs on the city in an attack which included 300 bombers and created a firestorm. The early raids on Mannheim demonstrated the British were incapable of consistent precision bombing at night and had shifted to the widespread bombing of cities during their raids. All told, Mannheim was the target of over 150 raids throughout the war, though much of its industry remained intact into 1944 and beyond. Churchill described the initial raids on Mannheim to be retaliation for the German bombing of Coventry in November 1940, but planning for the widespread bombing raids had been underway since the preceding summer.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
British bombing concentrated on urban centers rather than industrial targets throughout the war. Bundesarchiv

6. The British bombing had little effect on German industry and infrastructure in the first three years of the war

At the end of 1940, the British had informally adopted the policy of wide-area bombing, rather than strategic precision bombing. The lack of an accurate bombsight, and the policy of bombing at night, led to tons of bombs being dropped with little possibility of the primary target being hit. In 1942, a paper was prepared at Churchill’s request to address the issue at Bomber Command. The loss of bombers to German fighters and anti-aircraft guns strained British industrial resources which had to replace them. At issue was whether the seemingly inefficient bombing campaign justified the high percentage of resources absorbed by the bomber force.

The paper, prepared by a respected British scientist and adviser named Frederick Lindemann, came to be known as the dehousing paper. Lindemann postulated the wide-area bombing was entirely justified because it dehoused a large portion of the German population, which was detrimental to morale. Dehoused was simply a euphemism for destroying civilian homes. According to Lindemann, the destruction of 30% or more of the housing in over 50 of Germany’s largest cities was the best use of the RAF’s Bomber Command. “Investigation seems to show that having one’s home demolished is most damaging to morale. People seem to mind it more than having their friends or even relatives killed”, wrote Lindemann.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
German cities were bombed by the RAF at night and the USAAF by day in coordinated raids. Bundesarchiv

7. The Area Bombing Directive specifically called for targeting civilian residential areas

The Area Bombing Directive was issued by the British Air Ministry in February 1942. It was amended several times over the remainder of the war, mostly changing priority targets. Cities and infrastructure in France, Germany, and Czechoslovakia were identified as targets, and changed as they were damaged or destroyed. Italian targets were identified as well. The use of incendiaries was specified for some targets. The Area Bombing Directive dictated a change of RAF tactics which remained in effect for the rest of the war. Raids against, for example, a tank factory were directed at the city in which the factory was located, rather than the factory itself.

Bombing the area around a shipyard was deemed more effective than bombing the shipyard’s docks, warehouses, and shops. By May, 1942, cities in all occupied countries were included as targets for wide-area bombing. There was little debate in Parliament or the press regarding the RAF’s clear shift to concentrating on bombing civilian areas as official policy. The intent was clearly spelled out, wide-area bombing was to “focus attacks on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular the industrial workers”. Air Marshal Harris welcomed the directive as freeing his hands.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
Sir Arthur Harris favored the destruction of homes as a strategic target for his bombers. Wikimedia

8. The British began specifically targeting residential areas in February, 1942

On February 15, 1942, British Chief of the Air Staff Sir Charles Portal wrote to Air Chief Marshall Norman Bottomley, “I suppose it is clear that the aiming points will be the built-up areas, and not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories”. Bomber Command was directed to target the most heavily populated areas of Germany’s largest cities. The British wasted little time. During the night of March 27-28 1942 (March 28 was Palm Sunday) the Hanseatic city of Lubeck was attacked by 234 bombers which dropped more than 400 tons of bombs on the city center. The city was lightly defended, and just 12 bombers were lost.

The bombs included incendiaries to start fires, and the ancient city experienced a firestorm. Sir Arthur Harris, commander of Bomber Command, wrote of Lubeck, “It was not a vital target, but it seemed to me better to destroy an industrial town of moderate importance than to fail to destroy a large industrial city”. At least 300 German civilians were killed, and up to 800 injured in the raid. Of more importance to the new British strategy, about 25,000 were rendered homeless. In 1944, the International Red Cross established Lubeck as a Red Cross port, to allow it to be used to ship Red Cross packages to Allied prisoners of war held in German camps. It was accepted, which protected the ancient city from further attacks.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
Arthur Harris later wrote that Lubeck was not a vital target, but the opportunity to destroy it was at hand. Bundesarchiv

9. The Americans arrived in Britain in mid-1942

When the American Army Air Forces deployed to Great Britain to join the air war against the Reich, they brought different ideas with them. American bombers, primarily the B-17 and the B-24, were heavily armed. USAAF leaders were determined to conduct precision daylight bombing raids, from high altitudes, directed against industrial and military targets. The British informed their new ally that such tactics were suicidal, and accurate bombing from the altitudes proposed by the brash and inexperienced newcomers was impossible. But the Americans had an ace up their sleeve. They also brought with them an improved bombsight.

In testing the Norden bombsight demonstrated accuracy which was unprecedented. Though it was a closely guarded secret, the Germans were aware of its existence and had adopted some of its designs before the Americans entered the war. Nonetheless, it remained highly classified until late in the war. Under combat conditions, it never achieved the level of accuracy it displayed in testing. In fact, the results using the Norden were roughly the same as radar-guided missions favored by the British until late in the war, when missions were flown at lower altitudes after the Luftwaffe’s back was broken. Numerous changes in tactics improved American accuracy over the course of the war, but the Norden bombsight never lived up to its legend during World War II.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
The Nordern bombsight never achieved the accuracy in combat it attained in testing and demonstrations. US Air Force

10. The Americans found precision hard to achieve in combat operations

The earliest American bomber raids in the European Theater of Operations were relatively short missions to targets in France. Railway marshaling yards, shipyards, and submarine docks and pens were the most common targets. The Americans learned that the accuracy of the Norden bombsight was dependent on the skill of the bombardier operating the device. Losses were high, as the bombers fell prey to both Luftwaffe fighters and German anti-aircraft fire. The Americans developed box formations to provide maximum protection from the combined guns of the formation. In early missions, aircraft often dropped back to provide cover for damaged planes; commanders banned such actions.

The squadrons were culled for the best bombardiers, who were assigned to man the bombsights of the lead planes of the group. The remaining bombardiers were instructed to watch the lead plane and release their own bombs when they saw the leader drop. This also helped prevent the other Norden’s from drawing the aircraft too closely together when controlling the airplane, as they were wont to do. Gradually, the American performance improved in 1942 and early 1943, but losses remained high, in both aircraft and men. There was also significant debate over whether the damage done to the Germans was worth the cost being paid by the Allied Air Forces.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
The Casablanca Conference included discussions to prioritize bombing targets in Europe. Wikimedia

11. The Casablanca Conference of 1943 outlined the bombing offensive over Europe

In January 1943, the Allies met at Casablanca, including FDR and Churchill, their staffs, and Free French Forces represented by Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud. The Combined Bomber Offensive against the Germans was decided upon, with industrial targets prioritized. The number one priority was the German aircraft industry. It included not only factories building Luftwaffe fighters, but oil, petroleum, and lubricants, ball bearings, aluminum production, shipping facilities, synthetic rubber and tire manufacturers, and many more facets of German production. The Combined Bomber Offensive began with British bombing raids in the Ruhr.

In July 1943, the first fully coordinated attack between the RAF Bomber Command and the USAAF Eighth Air Force was launched. The RAF bombed Hamburg in a night raid (using wide-area bombing techniques) and the Americans followed with a daylight raid the following day, bombing the shipyards and submarine pens. The arriving Americans found their targets obscured by smoke from the fires started the preceding night, and the bombing was relatively ineffective. Fighting over Germany led, once again, to heavy casualties. The next day the Americans returned and knocked out the Neuhof power station while inflicting considerable damage to the Blohm & Voss Shipyard and supporting shops.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
An aerial photograph of the destruction in Hamburg in 1943. Wikimedia

12. The British raids on Hamburg in July, 1943 were devastating to the civilian population

The British bombed Hamburg again on the night of July 27-28, using a recently developed bombing technique called creep-back. When bombardiers in following waves of aircraft saw those ahead releasing their bombs, they tended to release theirs a bit early. This created a trail of bombed areas. When the British attacked Hamburg on July 27, they approached from a different direction from those used before, ensuring the creep-back would be across a previously undamaged section of the city. Over 700 bombers released their bombs on Hamburg that night, in a succession of waves. They had no specific target other than the city itself.

The incendiary bombs started uncontrollable fires, while explosions from penetrating bombs knocked out water supplies, demolished buildings, and tore up streets. The area bombed by the RAF in the raid was almost entirely residential, with schools, shops, and recreational areas. Over 16,000 residential structures were destroyed by the bombs or the fires they ignited. 42,000 people – nearly all of them civilians – lost their lives in the night raid. The British returned on August 2, though bad weather over Hamburg forced many of the bombers to divert to other targets. Hamburg’s war production was temporarily brought to a halt.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
The destruction of Hamburg’s residential areas reached 80% by the war’s end. Bundesarchiv

13. Hamburg’s industry recovered quickly, despite the devastation from the British raids

Hamburg’s aircraft production industry returned to over 91% of what it was before the bombing by the end of the year. British strategy destroyed the homes of the workers, but not the facilities in which they worked, for the most part. By the end of the year, much of Hamburg’s industrial capacity was producing at levels which surpassed those before the British raids. The submarine building capacity at Blohm & Voss was restored in less than two months, and a German U-boat which had been under construction during the raids was launched in September. The British raids had neither demoralized the Germans nor significantly damaged production for more than a few weeks.

The same was true in other German cities. German fighter aircraft production increased in 1942, increased further in 1943, and reached its peak wartime production levels in 1944. The same was true of U-boats. Tanks and other armored vehicles continued to roll off German production lines, destined for the Russian Front and the fighting in Italy. The Allied bombing offensive through 1943 did little other than inflict casualties on civilians, Luftwaffe fighter pilots, and Allied airmen. Without control of the sky over France, the cross-channel invasion of occupied Europe was too risky to consider. The Allied air offensive had to seize control of Europe’s skies.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
Losses and battle damage suffered by the USAAF were heavy throughout 1943 and 1944. US Air Force

14. The USAAF suspended bombing raids into Germany in October, 1943

In August 1943, the American Eighth Air Force bombed the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt and Regensburg. The Americans claimed production of the critical machinery component was reduced by 34% (a claim later proven unreasonably optimistic), a second raid was required. Losses were so heavy that they had to be delayed until lost aircraft, and aircrew was replaced. On the second mission, escort fighters went with the bombers on part of the outward leg, and others met them for the return leg. But no escorts yet existed which could accompany the bombers all the way to the target and back. On October 14, 1943, 291 bombers were sent to strike Schweinfurt’s factories again.

60 bombers never returned, and 17 more were too badly damaged to be repaired. More than 100 others required repairs to be made airworthy. Almost 600 airmen were killed in the raid, and more than 60 bailed out to become prisoners of war. German production of ball bearings was barely dented, the reserves they held were more than sufficient to continue production of equipment unabated. The Americans were forced to suspend raids deep into Germany due to the losses sustained and the inability to provide fighter escorts to the bombers. The Luftwaffe continued to gain strength despite the massive bombing raids, and the heavy casualties the Allies sustained conducting them.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
The Ploesti raid did minimal damage to the Romanian oil industry, despite great loss of life suffered by the Americans. Library of Congress

15. Operation Tidal Wave was another disaster for the bombing offensive

Operation Tidal Wave was an attack on nine oil refineries in the area surrounding Ploesti, Romania, in 1943. 177 heavy American bombers – B-24 Liberators – were launched against the refineries from bases in the Libyan desert. The B-24s were modified, with extra fuel tanks installed in the bomb bays, limiting the number of bombs each could carry. The flight plan was complicated, requiring precise navigation over the desert, the Mediterranean, Albania, and Yugoslavia. They were then to swing north of the targets and attack them while flying in a southerly direction, avoiding Ploesti itself. The raid was launched on August 1, 1943.

Less than 100 B-24s returned to Libya, nearly all of them damaged. Several crashed in the Mediterranean on the return flight, others diverted to Turkey, where they were interned. 53 were shot down. At least 310 airmen were killed and nearly 200 captured or interned when they landed in Turkey. The Americans claimed at least 40% reduction in production capacity, the Axis determined there was “no curtailment of overall product output”. The Germans lost five fighters in the raid, their Romanian ally two. Nearly all of the damage was repaired and production exceeded that before the raid in a little over three weeks. By any measure, the Ploesti raid was a disastrous failure for the USAAF.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
Lt. General James Doolittle took command of Eighth Air Force in January, 1944. US Army

16. Lieutenant General James Doolittle took command of the Eighth Air Force in early 1944

During the bloody year of 1943 Eighth Air Force was commanded by General Ira Eaker. In January, 1944 Lieutenant General James “Jimmy” Doolittle, of Doolittle Raid Fame, relieved him. With long-range fighter escorts finally available, Doolittle changed the manner in which they were deployed. Under Eaker escorting fighters were required to remain with the bombing formations they protected at all times. Doolittle sent them ahead of the bombers, to engage German fighters before the bombers arrived, using up their fuel. The newly arrived P-51 Mustang proved a match for their German counterparts. German fighter production reached its peak in 1944, but for the first time, could not keep up with losses.

The Germans were forced to send much of their production to face the Russian onslaught on the Eastern front, and the losses of Allied bombers began to subside. After the bombers hit their targets, the fighters were released to strike at targets of opportunity as they returned to base, fuel permitting. In February 1944, the USAAF launched Operation Argument over the strident objections of Bomber Command Sir Arthur Harris. Operation Argument was a series of raids designed to force the Luftwaffe into a decisive air battle. Harris objected because it diverted forces from his wide-area bombing campaign over German cities. Despite his objections, he was ordered by Portal to support the American plan.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
Britain was liberally dotted with American airbases from 1943 to the end of the war. US Army

17. The Americans maintained more than 200 airbases in Great Britain

By 1944, the USAAF had about 500,000 men stationed in Great Britain, operating out of over 200 bases. Nearly all were located near small villages in rural areas. The average base housed about 2,500 men and women, flying and maintaining the aircraft and operating support equipment. The ground echelon, which included ordnance handlers, mechanics, clerks, medical personnel, and other logistics specialists outnumbered the men who flew the airplanes into combat, especially at the fighter bases. There were analysts in London and other cities who worked side-by-side with RAF personnel, planning missions and studying the results.

Recreation included facilities on the bases and in the local village. Americans were welcomed at local pubs and often in the homes and churches of the British. Both enlisted and officer’s clubs functioned on the bases and passes to London or other larger British cities were awarded to the men by base commanders. Although aircrews rotated home after completing their tour, based on the number of missions flown, ground echelon personnel remained in theater, some for the duration of the war. When the Americans returned to the United States after the war nearly 50,000 war brides went with them.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
The B-17 crews were subjected to long, cold, and dangerous missions during their tour. US Army

18. Bombing missions were long, cold, and intense

Flights into German airspace and back could last up to 10 hours, at altitudes of up to 29,000 feet. The B-17 was not a pressurized aircraft. Air temperatures dropped to as low as 60 degrees below zero. The crew wore heavy electrically heated suits, with thick gloves or mittens. Parachutes were bulky and inhibited crew movement. They were not worn, instead, the crewmen wore a harness to which the chutes could be rapidly clipped when necessary. Oxygen masks were worn above the altitude of 10,000 feet. Each mission brought the aircrew one day closer to rotating out of combat. Until 1944 a flier needed 25 missions to complete his tour. It was later expanded to 30.

The rate of missions being flown increased as the war went on. In 1944 one aircrew completed its 30 missions in 43 days, most of them flown in support of Operation Overlord. Besides the brutal cold and the cramped conditions aboard the bombers, the crews endured the anti-aircraft fire from the German batteries and the relentless attacks of Luftwaffe fighters. Bombers often returned to their bases with the gun positions ankle deep in spent 50 caliber shells from firing at the German fighters during the flight. Upon return, the crews were debriefed, after which they waited to hear if they were to perform another mission the next day.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
All Air Forces were assigned to Eisenhower’s direct command in early 1944. US Army

19. Eisenhower assumed command of all bombing forces in early 1944

In March, 1944, the Combined Chiefs of Staff gave General Eisenhower direct control of all Allied Air Forces in Europe, despite the objections of Winston Churchill. Eisenhower in turn delegated command to the RAF’s Arthur Tedder. The change took effect on April 1, 1944, by which time air-to-air combat casualties suffered by the Luftwaffe were critical. The Allied bombers and fighter escorts had not won complete superiority in the air, but the Germans were steadily losing it, and factory production began to wane. The heavy bombers shifted from strategic bombing of industrial targets to tactical support of the Normandy campaign.

The lull in strategic missions allowed the Germans to resume production levels and disperse some areas of production, including some underground. American and British bombers concentrated on infrastructure in Europe in order to impede the Germans’ ability to reinforce their units in Normandy. Because of the need to keep the site of the invasion secret, few attacks were made on the German defenses on or near the beaches. After the invasion the bombers were used in support of the troops ashore, attacking tactical targets, and providing the massive aerial bombardment which preceded the Allied breakout during Operation Cobra. Not until September would strategic bombing of German targets resume.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
Bomb damage in an Italian church, Naples, 1943. Wikimedia

20. Bombing in Italy followed the same pattern as in Germany

RAF bombers used the technique of wide-area bombing in Italian cities, hitting Milan, Turin, La Spezia, and Genoa. The same philosophy applied as in Germany; the strategic aim was to render a large portion of the civilian population homeless. All of the Italian cities bombed by the RAF suffered heavy loss of life among their populations, and losses of residential areas, though the massive firestorms which occurred in Germany did not occur. Italian urban areas relied more on brick and stone construction than those of its ally, and were less susceptible to the incendiaries dropped by the British.

USAAF bombers were active in Italy as well, and though the targets were intended to be industrial, collateral damage – a new term to the American military – was heavy in the cities and towns of Italy. Over 90% of the city of Rimini was destroyed by US bombing raids. Central Italy, including Rome, was heavily bombed by the USAAF, though care was taken to avoid central Rome and the Vatican. Up to 5,000 civilians were killed in the bombings of the suburbs of Rome. Allied bombing in Italy reached its peak in 1944, after the Italians had surrendered and officially joined the Allies.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
German and Japanese villages were built to test incendiaries during the Second World War. US Army

21. The Americans built a German village replica to practice burning it down

In 1943, the US Army contracted to build a replica German residential center at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. German emigres, specialists in architecture and design, were hired to ensure its authenticity. Materials likely to be used in German homes were selected. Paint was selected based on its availability and use in Germany. The homes were fully furnished as would their German counterparts have been. Clothes hung in closets, dishes were in cupboards, drapes furnished windows. Books, newspapers, and magazines were installed on shelves and tables. Children’s rooms were properly decorated, and toys were placed in houses and outdoors around the site.

It was then destroyed with bombs, including incendiaries. The intent of the village was to discover the best way to create a firestorm when bombing the real German residential areas in cities and towns. After it was destroyed, or partially destroyed, the results were studied and both weapons and techniques modified accordingly. The village was rebuilt and destroyed by bombing a number of times over the course of the war. Another village, resembling the residential areas of Japanese cities, was also built for the same purpose. Both B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers were used in the tests conducted at the German village and its Japanese counterpart during the war.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
Destruction in Dresden in 1945 after one of the most controversial bombings of the war. Bundesarchiv

22. The 1945 raids on Dresden were among the most controversial of the war

Dresden, at the time the 7th largest city in Germany, entered 1945 without having been bombed, other than for two daylight raids in late 1944. It was a major industrial center supporting the German war effort, with most of its factories and marshaling yards in its eastern suburbs. The city was also a major junction point for several railroads and highways. On the night of February 13 RAF bombers, many flown by Polish crews, attacked the city near its medieval Old Town (Aldstadt). Three hours later a second wave of RAF bombers struck as German firefighters attempted to control the blazes throughout the area. The following day USAAF bombers again bombed the city, and on February 15 the Americans bombed Dresden again, as a secondary target. Their assigned primary target was obscured.

Over the course of 48 hours, more than 1,200 heavy bombers dropped their bombs on Dresden, concentrating on the city center. Most of the industrial facilities on the city’s outskirts were undamaged. The firestorm created by the bombing and the bombs themselves killed between 22 to 25 thousand civilians in the city, many of them refugees from the approaching Soviet Army. Public outcry led Churchill to write to the Chief of Staff, “It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed”. Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris protested the tone of Churchill’s note, and the Prime Minister retracted the remark formally.

Check this out: Moving Images of Dresden, Germany Before and After Allied Bombs Annihilated the Historic City

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
Berlin’s St. Hedwig Cathedral in ruins from Allied bombing. Bundesarchiv

23. Raids on Berlin reduced much of the city to rubble before the Russians arrived

The Allies launched over 360 bombing raids on Berlin from 1940 to 1945. Initially, the raids were conducted only by the British, and only at night. In 1941 the Soviets bombed Berlin. The British replaced the Chief of Bomber Command, Richard Peirse with Arthur Harris in early 1942 after a failed raid on Berlin which was costly in aircraft and men but did little damage. In late 1943 Harris launched large raids on residential areas of Berlin, using his favored wide-area bombing technique. At the end of 1943, 25% of the city’s living quarters were untenable. Regular bombing raids continued in Berlin until strategic bombing was temporarily suspended in 1944.

In February 1945 the USAAF launched a raid on Berlin which included nearly 1,000 bombers, supported by nearly 600 P-51 escort fighters. The raid started fires which raged for four days, obliterating several large districts of the German capital. Only 36 aircraft were lost to German guns. American aircrews who bailed out in Germany often found themselves protected by German soldiers and police from local civilians. Rather than destroying German morale, the extensive bombing had created intense hatred for American and British aircrews among much of the population. The total number of those killed in Berlin raids throughout the war was estimated to have been between 20 and 50 thousand.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
Targets in France included the submarine bases at St. Nazaire and elsewhere. Bundesarchiv

24. Bombing of France continued until the summer of 1944

The RAF and USAAF continued to bomb targets in France for both strategic and tactical purposes through the first three quarters of 1944. French industry was a substantial supporter of the German war effort until liberation, as was its agriculture. Industrial targets and railyards were bombed by the American and British heavy bombers, supported by medium bombers such as the American B-25 and the British Mosquito. Railroads, bridges, dams, shipyards, and logistics centers were all targeted in France by the air campaign. The results of the bombing included nearly 70,000 French citizens killed in the bombing offensive.

As the German armies receded into Germany in early 1945, Berlin, Dresden, and other cities became refugee centers, though their infrastructure was largely destroyed. American and British bombers continued to attack, and until March 1945, Arthur Harris continued to practice wide-area bombing as his favored technique. After the war, Harris wrote of the practice as “the principle of starting so many fires at the same time that no firefighting services, however efficiently and quickly they were reinforced by the fire brigades of other towns could get them under control”. The USAAF used the same principle in the bombing of Japan during the Pacific War.

The Bombing Campaign against Hitler’s Third Reich
The shattered remains of Dresden following the Allied bombing raids in 1945. Deutsche Fotothek

25. The value of the bombing was debated during and after the war

Proponents of strategic bombing argued that the campaign shortened the war in Europe by limiting German production. They refuted the argument that German production in all war industries went up each year of the war until late 1944, by arguing the production would otherwise have risen by a greater factor. After the war, it was realized that many of the bombing raids had little impact whatsoever on industrial production. But in one aspect success was realized. Approximately 7.5 million German civilians were made homeless by the bombing, largely due to the wide-area bombing favored by the RAF. About 400,000 German civilians were killed by the bombing.

Just fewer than 40,000 aircraft were lost in the European theater by the Allies, and the air war took the lives of 160,000 Allied airmen. For most of the war, they faced an enemy which held the advantage in the skies over Europe, not until the final six months or so was air superiority achieved by the Allies. The mission planners who dispatched the aircrews and bombers into European skies did so with the intention of destroying German population centers as a means of striking at its industrial base, as a matter of stated policy. The Americans attempted to limit damage to residential areas, an effort which largely failed. Its bombing was imprecise at best. By the war’s end, cities such as Hamburg and Mainz had more than 75% of their urban area destroyed by British and American bombs.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Bombing, States and People in Western Europe, 1940 – 1945″. Centre for the Study of War, State and Society, The University of Exeter

“World War II Bombings Were So Powerful They Sent Shockwaves To Space”. Sarah Pruitt, History Stories. September 27, 2018

“There Are Still Thousands of Tons of Unexploded Bombs in Germany, Left Over From World War II”. Adam Higginbotham, Smithsonian Magazine. January, 2016

“Bomber Command maps reveal extent of German destruction”. Lauren Turner, BBC News. October 8, 2015

“The Strategic Bombing of Germany in World War II: Costs and Accomplishments”. Kenneth P. Werrell, Journal of American History. December 1, 1986. Online

“Hitler Didn’t Start Indiscriminate Bombings – Churchill Did”. Tobias Grey, The Spectator. October 26, 2013

“Daylight Precision Bombing”. John T. Correll, Air Force Magazine. October 1, 2008

“Germany’s Forgotten Victims”. Luke Harding, The Guardian. October 22, 2003

“How Allied Air Attacks Evolved During World War II”. Brian Todd Carey, Historynet. Online

“Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942 – 1945”. Randall Hansen. 2010

“The Luftwaffe blunder that started five years of destruction”. Kate Connolly, The Telegraph. November 19, 2002

“The Bombers and the Bombed”. Richard Overy. 2014

“The Historiography of the Allied Bombing Campaign of Germany”. Ryan Patrick Hopkins, East Tennessee State University. December, 2008

“RAF Bomber Command During The Second World War”. Article, Imperial War Museum. Online

“Daylight Precision Bombing: Dangerous Doctrine of the Eighth Air Force”. Herb Kugel, Warfare History Network. Online