Is there any such thing as a moral bombing strategy? Detlef Siebert examines the impossible choices of war.
By Detlef Siebert
Last updated 2011-02-17
Is there any such thing as a moral bombing strategy? Detlef Siebert examines the impossible choices of war.
A few weeks before the end of World War Two, Winston Churchill drafted a memorandum to the British Chiefs 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 ... The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.'
How could a nation so proud of its high moral standards drop bombs on women and children?
More than half a century later, the strategic bombing campaign continues to nag the national conscience. Some historians go as far as to suggest that by bombing cities the British 'descended to the enemy's level' (John Keegan). This is, of course, an exaggeration. The bombing of Dresden cannot be equalled with the horrors of Auschwitz.
Many felt that the Germans deserved to reap the whirlwind they had sown. Yet Bomber Command's policy of targeting residential areas clearly contradicted Chamberlain's pre-war statement in parliament that it was 'against international law to bomb civilians as such and to make deliberate attacks on the civilian population'. How could a nation so proud of its high moral standards drop bombs on women and children?
The history of the British bombing campaign in World War Two shows us how easily war can erode moral standards. In the first months of the war, Bomber Command was anxious to avoid the risk of killing civilians, and constrained itself to leaflet dropping and attacks on naval targets. But after Dunkirk, the heavy bombers remained the only means by which Britain could fight the Nazis in continental Europe.
This was the time when Churchill began to think about the need for an 'absolutely devastating exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.' When on the night of 24 August 1940 the German air force - the Luftwaffe - accidentally and against Hitler's orders - dropped some bombs over London, the British prime minister requested a retaliatory raid on Berlin. Hitler responded by going ahead with the Blitz, and the following months and years saw tit-for-tat raids on each country's cities.
... just one in five aircraft put its bombs within five miles of its target.
At the same time, Britain's air force began to realise that its bombers were not able to find and hit specific war targets such as airfields or armament factories. An investigation revealed that just one in five aircraft was succeeding in dropping its bombs within five miles of its target. Under such circumstances, the bombing offensive could only be effective if it was directed at targets as big as cities.
Consequently, in February 1942, Bomber Command was instructed to shift the focus onto the 'morale of the enemy civil population'. This new policy came to be called 'area bombing'.
The aiming points thereafter, for bombing raids, were no longer military or industrial installations, but a church or other significant spot in the centre of industrial towns. And since fire was found to be the most effective means of destroying a town, the bombers now carried mainly incendiary bombs.
Thus, the exigencies of war had rendered the traditional distinction between combatants and non-combatants meaningless. Nearly everybody living in an 'industrial town' was considered to contribute directly or indirectly to the German war effort, and had therefore become a supposedly legitimate target.
One week after the area bombing directive was issued, Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris was appointed as the new head of Bomber Command. Harris believed that air power could be decisive in winning modern wars, and could help to prevent the slaughter of ground forces that he had witnessed in the trenches of World War One.
Harris launched 'thousand bomber raids' on big cities such as Cologne or Hamburg, whose scale of destruction made Harris confident that a concentrated campaign against Hitler's capital, Berlin, could render 'Operation Overlord', the planned invasion of German-occupied Europe, unnecessary.
... he declared that his bomber force could bring about the collapse of Germany by April 1944.
In December 1943, he declared that his bomber force could bring about the collapse of Germany by April 1944. Yet Harris's high hopes proved unfounded. By the end of March, German morale was nowhere near breaking point, and Hitler's war machine was far from crippled. German armament production continued to rise until mid 1944.
The failure of the British bombing offensive in the winter of 1943/44 was all the more disappointing for Bomber Command, because by this time their American allies were beginning to make an impact.
The US Army Air Force had joined the strategic bombing campaign in the summer of 1942. They had come committed to 'precision' bombing in daylight. However, their bombers proved easy prey for the German day fighters. Heavy losses convinced the Americans that they needed long-range escort fighters to protect their bombers. These fighters lured the Luftwaffe into dogfights, and by the spring of 1944 they were gaining air superiority.
It was not, as Harris had expected, the destruction of German cities that proved decisive for the Allies in 1944 - it was the superiority of the RAF over the Luftwaffe in the air. It enabled the bomber forces to neutralise strategic and tactical targets in France, which was crucial for the success of the D-Day landings and the subsequent advance of Allied ground forces.
Over France, the British demonstrated they could bomb with surprising accuracy. By now, the navigational and bomb aiming technology had improved greatly. Innovative airmen, such as the 'Dambusters' of 617 Squadron, introduced a new low-level target marking tactic. As a result, Harris's force was able to hit specific targets, even over heavily defended Germany.
In the summer of 1944, Bomber Command attacked few cities. Most of its efforts went into support of the Allied ground forces, the bombing of Hitler's V rocket sites, and attacks on oil targets. Intercepted German signals traffic showed that the oil campaign was hugely successful and was starving the Nazis of vital fuel supplies.
Selective targeting, however, required clear weather - the process of bombing through cloud, relying on radar, was not accurate enough to hit specific targets. At the onset of winter, Bomber Command's focus shifted back onto area targets. In October and November 1944, Harris's force dropped more than 60% of their bomb tonnage on German cities.
... the last months of the war saw yet another escalation of the bombing war.
The Americans too found themselves moving towards area bombing of cities. Although they would continue to claim that they were engaged in 'precision' bombing of military targets, 80 per cent of their bombing missions in the last quarter of 1944 relied on radar. Half of their bombs missed the aiming point by more than two miles.
Hence the last months of the war saw yet another escalation of the bombing war. By then, most German towns of industrial importance were all but destroyed. Yet the Nazis were still fighting back. Every day, they were killing thousands on the battlefield and in the concentration camps. Hitler's V rockets were spreading death and terror amongst civilians in Britain.
As Max Hastings says, 'it would have seemed odd to almost everybody who was still fighting to tell all those air forces to stand down. So those air forces were allowed to continue to do things which it must be said in cold blood were a moral blemish, a moral blot perhaps on the conduct of the Allies'.
Since the heavy bombers were running out of targets, towns were now put on the target lists that had little military or industrial importance. Some of them, like Würzburg or Pforzheim, were selected primarily because they were easy for the bombers to find and destroy. Because they had a medieval centre, they were expected to be particularly vulnerable to fire attack.
Nobody could tell what the destruction of places like Würzburg could really contribute to the shortening of the war, but the hostilities had reached a point where the mere possibility of saving Allied lives was felt to justify the death of tens of thousands of civilians in German towns.
... refugees ... were considered legitimate targets ...
Moreover, Churchill thought that the bombing of communication centres in eastern Germany might aid the Soviet advance on Berlin. Bomber Command was ordered to attack Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig and other east German cities to 'cause confusion in the evacuation from the east' and 'hamper the movements of troops from the west'.
This directive led to the raid on Dresden and marked the erosion of one last moral restriction in the bombing war: the term 'evacuation from the east' did not refer to retreating troops but to the civilian refugees fleeing from the advancing Russians.
Although these refugees clearly did not contribute to the German war effort, they were considered legitimate targets simply because the chaos caused by attacks on them might obstruct German troop reinforcements to the Eastern Front.
... it was Churchill who was ultimately responsible for the raid on Dresden.
It is significant that only a few weeks after the raid on Dresden, on 28 March 1945, Churchill tried to dissociate himself from the destruction, and drafted the previously cited memorandum in which he denounced the bombing of cities as 'mere acts of terror and wanton destruction'.
The Prime Minister, however, had actively supported the bombing campaign all along and it was he who was ultimately responsible for the raid on Dresden. But with VE Day in sight, the moral standards of peacetime had become affordable again. In war, morality is a luxury - and some rules of engagement can prove impractical.
The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, 1939 - 1945 (Official History) by Sir Charles Webster and Noble Frankland (vols 1-4, HMSO, 1961)
The Army Air Forces in World War Two by WF Craven and JL Cate, (vols 1-3, University of Chicago Press, 1948-51)
The Bomber Command War Diaries edited by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt (Midland Publishing, 1996)
Despatch on War Operations by Sebastian Cox (Frank Cass Publishing Co, 1995)
The Strategic Air War against Germany by Sebastian Cox (Frank Cass Publishing Co, 1998)
Strategic Bombing in World War Two by David MacIsaac (Garland Publishing Company, 1976)
The Hardest Victory by Denis Rechards (London, 1994)
The Air War, 1939-1945 by Richard Overy (New York, 1980)
Bomber Command by Max Hastings (New York, 1979)
Bomber Offensive by Anthony Verrier (London, 1968)
Courage and Air Warfare by Mark Wells (London, 1995)
A Forgotten Offensive by Christina JM Goulter (London, 1995)
Wings of Judgement by Ronald Schaffer (Oxford, 1985)
Detlef Siebert was the drama director for the BBC TV series 'Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution'. Before that, he produced and directed the Timewatch programmes 'Himmler, Hitler, and the Third Reich' and 'Bombing Germany'.
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