2. The allies and the strategic bombing of Germany

There was one important facet of the European war of particular interest to those at the highest level of the Manhattan Project, and that was the strategic bombing campaign against Germany. Chickens hatched during the First World War, then coaxed to maturity by bombing theorists such as Hugh Trenchard, Arthur Harris, Giulio Douhet, and Billy Mitchell, were roosting thickly by the 1930s. Far from being represented as mass murderers, warplane pilots were portrayed as gallant individualists, knights of the air whose noble mission was to end wars quickly. As British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had put it in 1932, ‘the bomber will always get through’, holding civilians hostage and therefore requiring their governments to sue for an early peace. Thus, presumably in the name of reducing casualties overall, Italian planes bombed and strafed Ethiopian villages (and hospitals) in 1935. Thus the Japanese bombed Chinese cities in 1937 and after without regard for civilian casualties. The Germans, after practicing bombing technique at Guernica in 1937, attacked Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, and other cities, aiming ostensibly at military or industrial targets but in reality exercising little care over where the bombs dropped. Attacks on Britain alone had killed 40,000 by May 1941. In the early fall of 1940 the British began the ‘area bombing’ of German cities by night; with Prime Minister Churchill’s permission, air crews made only perfunctory efforts to drop their bombs on factories, and then only on fully moonlit nights. Their true target was the morale of the German populace.6

The American position on bombing was at that point unsettled. Air doctrine, established by the American Air Corps during the 1920s, endorsed bombing ‘attacks to intimidate civil populations’, without saying precisely that such populations would themselves be bombed. When other nations had targeted civilians, however, the US government had condemned the practice. Roosevelt’s secretary of state, Cordell Hull, called the Japanese air attacks in China ‘barbarous’, and his decision to embargo the sale of airplane parts to the Japanese was pointedly linked to this bombing. The military commentator Fielding Eliot foresaw in 1938 the need for US air attacks against Japanese cities should it come to war, but suspected that the American public would reject such a course, and that American fliers would also resist targeting civilians ‘unless driven to do so as a measure of reprisal for like enemy conduct’. As war threatened in Europe in 1939, Roosevelt declared his government and people opposed to ‘the unprovoked bombing and machine-gunning of civilian populations from the air’. When elements of the US Army Air Forces (AAF) first came to England in the spring of 1942, their commanders refused to join the RAF in its newfound commitment, under Butch Harris, to ‘de-house’ German workers. Instead, the AAF would rely on precision, daylight bombing of German military and industrial targets, in this way destroying Germany’s warmaking capacity without, the commanders told themselves, slaughtering civilians like the profligate and debased Europeans. Besides, the AAF thought that attacks on civilians might increase their will to resist.7

Notice, however, the qualifications in these statements: the American people would forbear from air attacks, wrote Eliot, ‘unless driven... as a measure of reprisal for like enemy conduct’; the United States would refrain from ‘unprovoked’ attacks on civilians, Roosevelt declared; the AAF at first shunned British air doctrine in good part because of doubts concerning not its morality but its effectiveness. The American knights of the air who flew daylight missions against German targets, mainly in the Low Countries and France, beginning in 1943, could believe, if they wished, that they were fighting more ethically than their British counterparts, bombing, as Air Force General Henry Arnold put it, ‘in accordance with American principles using methods for which our planes were designed’. What they were doing in fact was subjecting the enemy to constant bombing—the Americans by day, the British by night—and to the bombing of targets of every description. Arnold and others also believed that the Americans were better suited than the British, by training and equipment (‘methods for which our planes were designed’), to launch precision raids by day. While they did, according to Ronald Schaffer, keep an eye on American public opinion, the air generals nevertheless acted largely out of utilitarian conviction rather than an abiding sense of moral scruple. General Carl (Tooey) Spaatz, the first commander of the Eighth Air Force, said after the war that ‘it wasn’t for religious or moral reasons that I didn’t go along with urban area bombing’, but rather because of his belief that going after ‘strategic targets’ was more likely to end the war sooner. Ira Eaker, who succeeded Spaatz, ‘never felt there was any moral sentiment among leaders of the AAF’. The Americans also scoffed at British warnings about the dangers and ineffectiveness of daylight precision bombing. What the RAF had failed to do, the Americans would manage, without killing Dutch civilians or angering German civilians and thus increasing the latter’s resolve to fight on.8

The Americans’ plans failed to work. Their navigation was imperfect, the daylight bombing allowed the Germans to mount successful countermeasures using interceptor planes and anti-aircraft fire, and the weather over northern Europe provided a challenge the Americans were unused to. Panicky air crews dropped their payloads prematurely (‘creep-back’), not only resulting in missed targets but inadvertently killing civilians in occupied countries. Postwar estimates were that the Eighth Air Force placed only 20 percent of its bombs within 1,000 feet of its intended targets. The British, ironically, felt themselves compelled to advise Eaker that the Americans were alienating captive populations with their inaccuracy. Henry Arnold scolded his commanders, reminding them that each American pilot ‘is handling a weapon which can be either the scourge or the savior of humanity, according to how well he uses it’.9

The problem, the pilots would have replied, was not with their determination and courage but with the AAF’s strategy. The discrepancy between the AAF’s results and those of the RAF were vividly pointed up in July 1943, when Harris and Eaker sent their bombers over the German port city of Hamburg. The RAF struck first, on the night of the 24—25 July. Their coordinates rigged against creep-back, and protected by a new technology known as ‘Window’—aluminum shreds that, dumped from British bomb bays, distracted German radar operators—nearly 800 planes dropped high explosives and incendiaries, killing some 1,500 people, ‘dehousing’ thousands more, and, as intended, stretching beyond capacity Hamburg’s firefighters. The result was not decisive enough for Harris, so three nights later the RAF struck again. This time, conditions were perfect; as Michael Sherry has written, ‘the second Hamburg raid ignited the war’s first great firestorm’. Thousands burned to death, or simply melted into lumps of flesh in the 1,400° heat. Some who tried to run were caught in the melting asphalt of the streets. Others, seeking shelter underground as those suffering attack by explosives were advised to do, were asphyxiated as the firestorm intensified and sucked the city center dry of oxygen. Firefighters who survived the onslaught were helpless; small ‘children lay like fried eels on the pavement’. Perhaps 45,000 people died in Hamburg that night, mostly women, children, and old men. ‘Hamburg’, Jorg Friedrich has written, ‘found itself in a room for three hours not where life dies—that always happens—but rather, where life is not possible, where it cannot exist.’ It was a horror ‘transcending all human experience and imagination’.10

On the mornings after the nighttime raids, the Eighth Air Force attempted to fulfill its part of the mission, which was to attack Hamburg’s shipyards (including a submarine base) and an aircraft engine factory. Smoke from the preceding night’s attacks on both mornings hid the Americans’ targets, and the Eighth did little damage. When the results of the Hamburg attacks were assessed, the Americans began to rethink their strategy. If efficiency was the goal of bombing, and if there was no compelling moral impediment to bombing the centers of cities, Hamburg seemed to prove that the British had been right all along. Eaker’s subordinate Frederick Anderson now waxed enthusiastic about the possibility of a daylight attack on Berlin, which would, if successful, have a ‘terrific impact’ on the German population. In October the Eighth carried out its first daytime attack, on the city of Munster. The use of Window made such raids safer for the attackers, and over time the degradation of German defenses helped too. Similar assaults were made, with satisfyingly bloody results, in Axis Bulgaria and Romania the following year. And Hamburg was instructive on another front: in its aftermath, Roosevelt called it ‘an impressive demonstration’ of what might be done by American bombers in Japan.11

The best known and most notorious of Allied bombing raids on Germany came at Dresden, the capital of Saxony and a cultural center, though not altogether devoid of military and industrial targets. It was a city of refugees, many of them running from the advancing Red Army, and in its suburbs were some 25,000 Allied prisoners of war (including the future American novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr.). It was early 1945, and, despite the rapid crumbling of German resistance, Churchill wanted to continue bombing undefended German cities. The British struck first, on the fatally clear night of 13 February, unleashing high explosives and incendiaries. The Americans followed up the next morning, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, and, as in Hamburg, unable to see much of the target for the smoke and flame left by the British the previous night, bombed the area without discrimination. Neither attack encountered much opposition; indeed, the Luftwaffe was altogether absent from the sky over Dresden. The death toll came to some 35,000. The bombing was, recalled Arthur Harris’s deputy, ‘one of those terrible things that sometimes happen in wartime, brought about by an unfortunate combination of circumstances’. And it was, as Frederick Taylor has written, ‘a terrible illustration of what apparently civilized human beings are capable of under extreme circumstances, when all the normal brakes on human behavior have been eroded by years of total war’. Dresden would be remembered as an example of wanton destruction, and of killing, without evident military purpose, of a large number of people who wanted no part of war and had contributed nothing notable to its prosecution.12

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