Military history

TWENTY-TWO

Strategic Bombing

On 12 January 1944 Air Marshal Arthur Harris, chief of RAF Bomber Command, wrote:

It is clear that the best and indeed the only efficient support which Bomber Command can give to [Operation] Overlord is the intensification of attacks on suitable industrial targets in Germany as and when the opportunity offers. If we attempt to substitute for this process attacks on gun emplacements, beach defences, communications or [ammunition] dumps in occupied territory, we shall commit the irremediable error of diverting our best weapons from the military function, for which it has been equipped and trained, to tasks which it cannot effectively carry out. Though this might give a spurious appearance of ‘supporting’ the Army, in reality it would be the greatest disservice we could do them.

‘Bomber’ Harris’s prognosis of the effect of diverting his strategic bombers from the ‘area’ bombing of Germany to ‘precision’ bombing on France was to be proved dramatically incorrect. In the first place, his crews demonstrated that they had now acquired the skill to hit small targets with great accuracy and to sustain this ‘precision’ campaign even in the teeth of fierce German resistance. In March the objections of Harris and General Carl Spaatz, commanding the Eighth Air Force, Bomber Command’s American equivalent, were overruled and both air forces were placed under Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Eisenhower’s deputy. From then onwards strategic air forces embarked on a campaign against the French railway system which was to cost them 2000 aircraft and 12,000 aircrew in a little over two months. In April and May Bomber Command, which had dropped 70 per cent of its bombs on Germany in March, reversed its proportional effort: in April it dropped 14,000 tons on Germany but 20,000 on France; in May it launched three-quarters of its sorties against France. During June the weight of attack on France increased again when 52,000 tons were dropped in the invasion area and on the military infrastructure surrounding it.

Moreover, in flat contradiction of Harris’s forecast, RAF bombers carried out their missions with an effectiveness which not only ‘supported’ the army very effectively indeed but went far towards determining the Germans’ defeat in Normandy. By comparison with the British and American armies, the German army belonged to a previous generation of military development. Its Panzer and motorised divisions apart, it moved over short distances on foot by road and over long distances by rail; while all its supplies and heavy equipment, even for formations which possessed their own motor transport, moved exclusively by rail. The interruption of the French railway system and the destruction of bridges therefore severely restricted its ability not only to manoeuvre but even to fight at all; from April to June, and thereafter during the course of the Normandy battle itself, French railway working was brought almost to a standstill and most bridges over the major northern French rivers were broken or at least damaged too severely to be quickly repaired.

Much of the devastation was achieved by the medium-range and fighter bombers of the British Second Tactical and the recently formed American Ninth Air Forces; American Thunderbolt and British Typhoon ground-attack fighters flying vast daylight ‘sweeps’ over northern France destroyed 500 locomotives between 20 and 28 May alone. However, the far more serious structural devastation – to bridges, rail yards and locomotive repair shops – was the work of the strategic bombers. By late May, French railway traffic had declined to 55 per cent of the January figure; by 6 June the destruction of the Seine bridges had reduced it to 30 per cent, and thereafter it declined to 10 per cent. As early as 3 June a despairing officer of Rundstedt’s staff sent a report (decrypted by Ultra) that the railway authorities ‘are seriously considering whether it is not useless to attempt further repair work’, so relentless was the pressure the Allied forces were sustaining on the network.

The rail capacity that Germany’s OB West succeeded in maintaining in June and July 1944 just sufficed to provide the Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies with the irreducible minimum of food, fuel and ammunition (though not enough to revictual Paris, which was in serious danger of starvation just before its liberation). However, such supplies could be guaranteed to the fighting troops only as long as they did not attempt to manoeuvre; so fragile and so inflexible was the network of communication improvised between the Reich and Germany that the troops at the battlefront could depend upon it only if they remained fixed to its terminals. Once they moved, they risked starvation of essentials – hence their inability to ‘make a fighting withdrawal in France’. When their fortified perimeter of the bridgehead was destroyed by Patton’s Blitzkrieg, they could only retreat at the fastest possible speed to the next fortified position with which a communication system connected; and that was the West Wall on the Franco-German border.

The Normandy campaign, in both its preliminaries and its central events, therefore proved Harris wrong. Airpower used in the direct support of armies had worked with stunning success at the immediate and at the strategic level. None the less it was inevitable and also understandable that Harris should have resisted pressure from above to direct his bomber force from the attack on German cities. After all, Bomber Command justifiably prided itself on having for three years been the only instrument of force the Western powers had brought directly to bear against the territory of the Reich (the US Eighth Air Force had more recently come to the struggle). Moreover, Harris was the spokesman of a service whose singular and unique raison d’être was to bomb the enemy’s homeland.

The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, never espoused such an operational doctrine. Its chiefs had considered the desirability of founding it as a strategic bomber force in 1934 when it came into being, but rejected the option because they judged the German aircraft industry too underdeveloped to provide the necessary complement of large, long-range machines. Like the Red Air Force, it therefore grew to maturity as a handmaiden of the army, a role which its leaders, for the most part ex-army officers, were content to accept. Its ‘strategic’ campaign against Britain in 1940-1 was thus mounted with medium-range bombers designed for ground-support missions. When Günther Korten succeeded Hans Jeschonnek as Luftwaffe chief of staff in August 1943 he instituted a ‘crash’ effort to create a strategic bomber arm, but the attempt foundered for lack of the appropriate aircraft as a direct result of the decisions about the Luftwaffe’s future taken by his predecessor a decade earlier.

Korten’s belated attempt to endow the Luftwaffe with a strategic capability was motivated by the belief, which he shared with Speer, the Armaments Minister, that the Red Army’s assumption of the offensive in 1943 might be offset by a counter-offensive against its industrial rear. In short the crisis had obliged him to take up the policy which a generation of British and American airmen had adopted and refined at leisure. While he was forced into the expedient of hastily adapting medium-range bombers and retraining their crews for ‘penetration’ operations – operations which short-term emergencies would, in the event, deny him the chance to undertake – Harris already commanded a thousand-strong fleet of four-engined bombers developed over many years specifically for penetration missions.

The command of the air

Britain’s commitment to the concept of strategic bombing can, indeed, be traced to the last years of the First World War. Even though the ‘Independent Air Force’ of 1918 succeeded in dropping only 534 tons of bombs on German territory its strategy was already informed by the idea that the direct attack of the enemy’s rear was the correct role for an air force. That idea was to be elaborated by the Italian airman, Giulio Douhet, into a coherent philosophy of airpower, equivalent in scope to Mahan’s philosophy of seapower during the 1920s. Meanwhile, without benefit of elaborate theory, the Royal Air Force was creating the first ‘air navy’ of strategic bombers that the world had seen. The roots of its operational function lay in a study prepared by the ‘father’ of the Royal Air Force, Sir Hugh Trenchard, for the Allied Supreme War Council in the last months of the First World War. ‘There are two factors,’ he wrote then, ‘moral and material effect – the object being to obtain the maximum of each. The best means to this end is to attack the industrial centres where you (a) Do military and vital damage by striking at the centres of war material; (b) Achieve the maximum effect on the morale by striking at the most sensitive part of the German population – namely the working class.’

By advocating this simple and brutal strategy – to bomb factories and terrorise those who worked there and lived nearby – Trenchard proposed to extend to general warfare a principle so far admitted by civilised nations only in the siege of cities. In siege warfare armies had always operated by the code that citizens who chose to remain within a city’s walls after siege was laid thereby exposed themselves to its hardships: starvation, bombardment and, once the walls had been breached and the offer of capitulation refused, rapine and pillage. The almost uncontested generalisation of siege-warfare morality demonstrates both how closely the First World War had come to resemble siege on a continental scale and how grossly its prosecution had blunted the sensitivities of war leaders, civilian and military alike. Indeed, Trenchard’s proposals went almost uncontested: they met no principled objection among the Western Allies at the time; and once the war was over they influenced governments in Britain and France by prompting policies designed to avert ‘air raids’, minimise their effect or maximise the capacity of their own air forces to mount such raids against a future enemy. Thus, at Versailles, the Allies insisted on the abolition of the German air force in perpetuity; but by 1932 the British Stanley Baldwin, then a prominent member of the coalition government, was gloomily conceding that ‘the bomber would always get through’, while the leaders of the Royal Air Force were battling relentlessly for the expansion of the bomber fleet, even at the cost of depriving the home air defences of fighter squadrons.

The RAF’s commitment to bombing was rooted in the conviction that attack was the best form of defence. Air Marshal John Slessor, the Air Staff’s Chief of Plans in the late thirties, expressed his service’s views in classic form when he argued that an offensive against enemy territory would have the immediate effect of forcing the enemy air force on to the defensive and the secondary, indirect, but ultimately decisive effect of crushing the enemy army’s capacity to wage war. In Airpower and Armies (1936) he wrote: ‘It is difficult to resist at least the conclusion that air bombardment on anything approaching an intensive scale, if it can be maintained even at irregular intervals for any length of time, can today restrict the output from war industry to a degree which would make it quite impossible to meet the immense requirements of an army on the 1918 model, in weapons, ammunition and warlike stores of almost every kind.’

So acute and general were the fears that the prospect of strategic bombing aroused at the outset of the Second World War – fears very greatly enhanced by the international left’s brilliantly orchestrated condemnation of the bombing of Republican towns by Franco’s air force and the expeditionary squadrons of his German and Italian allies during the Spanish Civil War, of which Picasso’s Guernica is the key document – that paradoxically even Hitler joined in an unspoken agreement between the major combatants not to be the first to breach the moral (and self-interested) embargo against it.

Hitler did not extend the embargo to exclude attacks on countries unable to retaliate – hence the bombings of Warsaw in September 1939 and Rotterdam in May 1940 – or on military targets in those that could. The bombing of military targets including airfields, naval ports and railway centres was legitimate under the most traditional conventions of war. However, until midsummer 1940 all held each other’s cities inviolate. Even at the outset of the Battle of Britain, Hitler insisted that attacks be confined to airfields and to targets that might be deemed military, like London Docks. Such restrictions became increasingly difficult to observe, however, as the Battle of Britain protracted without the prospect of outcome. As the argument for ‘making the RAF fight’ intensified, entailing direct attack on populated targets, Hitler looked for means to justify breaching the embargo. In his victory speech to the Reichstag on 19 July he had publicised the notion that Freiburg-in-Breisgau had already been bombed by the French or the British air force (Goebbels had inculpated both); in fact it had been mistakenly attacked on 10 May by an errant flight of the Luftwaffe. When on 24 August another vagrant Luftwaffe crew bombed East London in error, provoking a retaliatory raid next night by the RAF on Berlin, he seized the opportunity to announce that the gloves were off. ‘When [the British] declare that they will increase their attacks on our cities [Churchill had not done so], then we will raze their cities to the ground. We will stop the handiwork of these air pirates,’ he told an ecstatic audience in the Berlin Sports Palace on 4 September; ‘the hour will come when one of us will break and it will not be National Socialist Germany.’

Crisis in Bomber Command

British Bomber Command altogether lacked the power to bring Germany to breaking-point when it began its bombing campaign in earnest in the winter of 1940. When it impertinently bombed Munich on the anniversary of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 8 November 1923, the Luftwaffe retaliated by raiding the industrial city of Coventry, destroying or damaging 60,000 buildings. In an attempted escalation of tit-for-tat the RAF attacked Mannheim on the night of 20 December, but it largely missed the city and caused only a twenty-fifth of the damage Coventry had suffered, if the score is reckoned by the tally of civilian casualties – 23 dead to 568 – which, gruesomely, was to be the measure of strategic bombing success thenceforward. Since the Mannheim raid was an exercise in ‘area bombing’ or direct attack on civilians in all but name, Bomber Command now found itself in the unenviable position of having descended to the same moral level as the Luftwaffe, while lacking the means to equal, let alone exceed, the Luftwaffe’s area bombing capacity. Throughout the ‘blitz’ winter of 1940-1 London and other British cities burned by the acre; on 29 December 1940 the Luftwaffe started 1500 fires in the City of London alone, destroying much of the remaining fabric of the streets familiar to Samuel Pepys, Christopher Wren and Samuel Johnson. No German city suffered equivalent damage during 1940 or even 1941. To all intents, Bomber Command, the service Churchill had told the War Cabinet on 3 September 1940 ‘must claim the first place over the Navy or the Army’, was and would remain for months to come ‘little more than a ramshackle air freight service exporting bombs to Germany’.

The most shaming index of its incapacity was the ‘exchange ratio’ between aircrew and German civilians killed in the course of bombing raids during 1941; the number of the former actually exceeded that of the latter. The imbalance had several explanations. One was material: the poor quality of British bombing aircraft, which as yet lacked the speed, range, height and power to deliver large bomb-loads on to distant targets. Another was geographical: to reach Germany – as yet only western Germany – the bombers had to overfly France, Belgium or Holland, where the Germans had already begun to deploy a formidable defensive screen of fighters and anti-aircraft guns. The third, and most important, explanation was technological: committed to bombing by night, since the RAF did not have the long-range fighter escorts necessary to protect bombers on daylight raids, Bomber Command lacked the navigational equipment not merely to find its designated targets – factories, marshalling yards, power stations – within the cities against which it flew but even the cities themselves. The suspicion that Bomber Command was bombing ‘wide’, even wild, was confirmed with exactitude by a study prepared at the suggestion of Churchill’s scientific adviser, Lord Cherwell, in August 1941. The Butt Report’s main findings were: ‘of those aircraft attacking their targets, only one in three got within five miles . . . over the French ports the proportion was two in three; over Germany as a whole . . . one in four; over the Ruhr [the heartland of German industry and Bomber Command’s principal target area] it was only one in ten.’

During 1941, when 700 aircraft failed to return from operations, Bomber Command’s crews in short were dying largely in order to crater the German countryside. Set beside the hopes reposed in it by Churchill and the British people as their only means of bringing the war directly to Hitler’s doorstep, this realisation was bound to precipitate a crisis. At the end of 1941 the crisis occurred. As early as 8 July 1941 Churchill had written: ‘There is one thing that will bring [Hitler] down, and that is an absolutely devastating exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.’ Goaded by Churchill, the RAF first of all committed itself to a programme of building up Bomber Command to a strength of 4000 heavy bombers (when the daily total of serviceable machines was only 700); after that target was recognised to be unattainable, it brought itself to accept that the bombers it already deployed must in future be used to kill German civilians, since the factories in which they worked could not be hit with precision. On 14 February the Air Staff issued a directive emphasising that henceforward operations ‘should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civilian population and in particular of industrial workers’. Lest the point not be taken, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal wrote the following day: ‘I suppose it is clear that the new aiming points are to be the built-up [residential] areas, not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories. . . . This is to be made quite clear if it is not already understood.’

It was appropriate that it should have been Portal, the intellectual patrician, who revealed the central idea of area bombing, for it depended ultimately upon class bias – the judgement that the latent discontents of the proletariat were the Achilles heel of an industrial state. Liddell Hart, writing in 1925, had envisaged ‘the slum districts maddened into the impulse to break loose and maraud’ by bombing attack, thereby dramatising Trenchard’s first statement of the theory in 1918. The preconceptions of all three were determined by the ruling classes’ prevailing fear of insurrection, perhaps leading to revolution, which the success of the Bolsheviks in war-torn Russia had rekindled throughout Europe after 1917. Events would prove that it was the proletariat’s endurance of suffering – particularly of ‘dehousing’ which Cherwell advocated in an important paper of March 1942 – that the effects of area bombing would most powerfully stimulate; but in early 1942 the proletariat’s class enemies – as Marx would have identified them – had contrary expectations. The ‘bomber barons’ embarked on their campaign against the German working class in the firm belief that they would thereby provoke the same breach between it and its rulers that the ordeal of the First World War had brought about in tsarist Russia.

There was a strong flavour of class reaction too in the Air Staff’s choice of agent to implement the new policy. Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris was a commander of coarse single-mindedness. He had neither intellectual doubt nor moral scruple about the rightness of the area bombing policy and was to seek by every means – increasing bomber numbers, refining technical bombing aids, elaborating deception measures – to maximise its effectiveness. ‘There are a lot of people who say that bombing cannot win the war,’ he told an interviewer soon after taking command at High Wycombe, the bomber headquarters, on 22 February 1942. ‘My reply is that it has never been tried yet. We shall see.’

He was fortunate to assume command at a moment when the first navigational aid to more accurate bombing, ‘Gee’, was about to come into service. ‘Gee’ resembled the ‘beam’ system by which the Luftwaffe had been guided to British targets in 1940-1. It transmitted two pairs of radio signals which allowed a receiving aircraft to plot its precise position on a gridded chart and so release its bombs at a preordained point. ‘Gee’ was followed in December by the precision-bombing device ‘Oboe’, which was subsequently fitted to Pathfinder Mosquitos, and in January 1943 by H2S, a radar set that gave the navigator a picture of the ground beneath the aircraft with its salient landmarks.

All three navigational aids were greatly to improve Bomber Command’s target-finding capacity, though it was the formation of the specialist Pathfinder squadrons in August 1942 which achieved the decisive advance. The Pathfinders, equipped with a mixture of aircraft that included the new, fast and high-flying Mosquito light bombers, preceded the bomber waves to ‘mark’ and ‘back up’ the target with incendiaries and flares, starting fires into which the main force then dropped its loads. Harris fiercely opposed the creation of the Pathfinder units. He believed they deprived the ordinary bomber squadrons of their natural leaders (the same argument was used by British generals against the formation of commando units) and also diminished the size of the area bombing force. However, he was rapidly obliged to withdraw his objections when the Pathfinders demonstrated how much more effectively they found targets than the unspecialised crews of Bomber Command.

The arrival of the ‘heavies’

Harris’s commitment to area bombing was also lent credibility by the appearance, at the moment he took command, of a new and greatly improved instrument of attack. The British bombers available at the beginning of the war, the Hampdens, Whitleys and elegant Wellingtons, were inadequate bomb-carriers. Their larger successors, the Stirlings and Manchesters, were also defective because they lacked altitude and power respectively. The Halifax and particularly the Lancaster, however, which appeared in 1942, were bombers of a new generation. The Lancaster, which first flew operationally in March 1942, proved to be capable of carrying enormous bomb-loads, eventually the 10-ton ‘Grand Slam’, over great distances and to be robust enough to withstand heavy attack by German night-fighters without falling from the sky.

At the outset, though, Harris was concerned not with quality but with quantity. His aim was to concentrate the largest possible number of bombers over a German city with the object of overwhelming its defences and firefighting forces. A successful raid on the Paris Renault factory in March prompted him to undertake a raid against the historic Hanseatic town of Lübeck on the Baltic on the night of 28/29 March 1942. He was cold-bloodedly frank about his intentions: ‘It seemed to me better to destroy an industrial town of moderate importance than to fail to destroy a large industrial city. . . . I wanted my crews to be well “blooded” . . . to have a taste of success for a change.’ Lübeck, a gem of medieval timber architecture, burned to the ground, and the raiding forces returned to base 95 per cent intact. The ‘exchange ratio’ persuaded Harris that he had discovered a formula for victory.

On four nights in April Bomber Command repeated its incendiary success at Rostock, another medieval Baltic town; ‘These two attacks’, wrote Harris, ‘brought the total acreage of devastation by bombing in Germany up to 780 acres, and in regard to bombing [on Britain] about squared our account.’ The Luftwaffe retaliated by so-called ‘Baedeker’ (tourist-guide) attacks on the historic towns of Bath, Norwich, Exeter, York and Canterbury. However, it lacked the strength to match Harris’s next escalation, which took the form of an attack by a thousand bombers, the first ‘thousand-bomber raid’, on Cologne in May. By stripping training units and workshops of their machines, Bomber Command concentrated the largest number of aircraft yet seen in German skies over this, the third largest city in the Reich, and burned everything in its centre except the famous cathedral.

The success of Bomber Command’s new tactics depended not only upon increased numbers and improved target-finding but also on a frank adoption of fire-raising methods. Thenceforward its bomb-loads were to contain small incendiaries and large high-explosive containers in the proportion of two to one. At Cologne 600 acres were burned. Thousand-bomber raids on Essen and Bremen in June achieved similar effects; Essen, in the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial centre, had been already attacked eight times between March and April. In the spring and summer of 1943 Bomber Command devoted its efforts to a ‘Battle of the Ruhr’ which multiplied the incendiary effect many times over.

By then the strategic bombing offensive against Germany had become a two-air-force campaign. The United States Army’s Eighth Air Force had arrived in Britain in the spring of 1942 and undertaken its first raid in August, when it attacked marshalling yards at Rouen. The attack was staged in daylight, in accordance with the philosophy worked out over many years before the war by the Army Air Force’s officers. Exercised by the pressing need to destroy hostile naval forces operating in American waters, they had developed both an aircraft and a bombsight designed to deliver large bomb-loads on to small targets with precision in daylight. The Norden bombsight was the most accurate optical instrument yet mounted in a strategic bomber. The bomber which carried it, the B-17, was notable for its long range and heavy defensive armament, the latter central to the American belief that, in the absence of a satisfactory long-range fighter, their bombers could fight their way to and from the target without suffering unacceptable losses. However, the requirements of range and armament placed a heavy penalty on the B-17’s bombload. Under normal circumstances the bombload of a B-17 seldom exceeded 4000lb and in many operations fell as low as 2600lb. Redeployed from a maritime defensive to a continental offensive role, General Ira C. Eaker’s Eighth Air Force was destined for deep-penetration missions by daylight to complement Bomber Command’s night raids into Germany and its occupied territories. By January 1943 Eaker had 500 B-17s available.

The combined bomber offensive

The integration of the developing American with the continuing British bombing attacks on Germany was formalised at the Casablanca conference of January 1943 in a ‘Casablanca Directive’, which laid the basis for a ‘combined bomber offensive’ (codenamed Pointblank in May), against key targets. These were defined, in order of priority, as German submarine construction yards, the German aircraft industry, transportation, oil plants and other targets in enemy war industry. The specification of targets disguised, however, a sharp difference of opinion between the British and Americans over operating methods. Eaker rejected British arguments for committing his B-17s to area bombing. He remained convinced that they were best employed in precision attack, against what Harris contemptuously dismissed as ‘panacea targets’. Harris, for his part, refused to be diverted from his chosen method. As a result, the two air forces effectively divided the Casablanca agenda between them, the RAF continuing its night attacks on ‘other targets’, which meant the built-up areas of the major German cities, while the USAAF committed itself to daylight raids on ‘bottlenecks’ in the German economy.

The first ‘bottleneck’ chosen by the economic analysts who advised the USAAF was the ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt in central Germany, bombed by the Eighth Air Force on 17 August 1943. Analysis suggested that destruction of the factory, from which essential components of the gearing in aircraft, tanks and U-boats were supplied, would cripple German armaments production. The theory was only partially correct, since Germany had alternative sources of supply from another plant at Regensburg and from neutral Sweden, which not only lay outside the Allied targeting area but was also bound to Germany by dependence on coal imports. The practice was almost wholly disastrous. Forced to traverse northern France and half of Germany in daylight without fighter escort, the ‘self-defending’ Flying Fortress formations were devastated by fighter attack. Of the 229 B-17s that had set out, 36 were shot down, an ‘attrition rate’ of 16 per cent, more than three times the rate that Bomber Command had established as ‘acceptable’ for a single mission. When the 24 B-17s lost suffered in the complementary raid on Regensburg were added in, and heavy damage to 100 returning bombers allowed for, it became clear that 17 August had been a day of disaster. The pre-war theory of the self-defending bomber had proved to be a misconception. The Eighth Air Force suspended its deep-penetration missions into Germany for five weeks, and they would not be fully resumed until long-range fighters had been developed to escort the daylight bombers to their targets.

The Hamburg raids

While the American campaign hung fire, the British had been spreading destruction even more widely across the cities of western Germany. The ‘Battle of the Ruhr’, which lasted from March to July, involved nearly 800 aircraft in 18,000 sorties (individual missions) which dropped 58,000 tons of bombs on Germany’s industrial heartland. In May and August Harris was also obliged to mount two ‘panacea’ missions, both of which were brilliant successes. In the first a specially trained squadron, 617, destroyed the Möhne and Eder dams, which supplied the Ruhr with much of its hydroelectricity; in August a major raid laid waste the laboratories and engineering workshops at Peenemünde, on the Baltic coast, where intelligence sources had revealed that Germany’s arsenal of secret pilotless missiles was being built.

More to Harris’s taste, however, was the four-night raid on Hamburg in July, which provoked a ‘firestorm’ and burned to cinders the heart of the great North German port covering 62,000 acres. A firestorm is not an effect that a bombing force can achieve at will; it requires a particular combination of prevailing weather conditions and the overwhelming of civil defences. When such circumstances are present, however, the consequences are catastrophic. A central conflagration feeds on oxygen drawn from the periphery by winds which reach cyclone speed, suffocating shelterers in cellars and bunkers, sucking debris into the vortex and raising temperatures to a level where everything inflammable burns as if by spontaneous combustion. Such conditions prevailed in Hamburg between 24 and 30 July 1943. There had been a long period of hot, dry weather, the initial bombardment broke the water mains in 847 places, and soon the core temperature of the fire reached 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. When it eventually burned itself out, only 20 per cent of Hamburg’s buildings remained intact; 40 million tons of rubble clogged the city’s centre, and 30,000 of its inhabitants were dead. In some areas of the city the total of fatal casualties among the inhabitants exceeded 30 per cent; 20 per cent of the dead were children, and female deaths were higher than male by 40 per cent.

When the toll of Hamburg’s bombing victims throughout the war was calculated it was found to be only 13 per cent lower than the proportion of battle deaths among soldiers recruited from the city between 1939 and 1945; and the majority had died in the great raids of July 1943. Hamburg was not the RAF’s only firestorm. It was to achieve the same effect, if with lower casualties, in October at Kassel, where fires burned for seven days. Later Würzburg (4000 dead), Darmstadt (6000 dead), Heilbronn (7000 dead), Wuppertal (7000 dead), Weser (9000 dead) and Magdeburg (12,000 dead) would also burn in the same way.

Hamburg, however, encouraged Harris to set his sights beyond Germany’s western periphery of industrial cities and Hanseatic ports. Berlin had been one of Bomber Command’s first targets when it assumed a retaliatory role during the Luftwaffe’s ‘blitz’ on London. In November 1943 Harris decided to make it his crews’ main target during the coming season of long nights, which were their best protection against German fighter attack. It had last been attacked in January 1942 but was thereafter left off the targeting list because of its long distance from Bomber Command’s bases and its strong defences, which combined to make the ‘attrition rate’ on Berlin raids exceptionally high. Probing attacks mounted in August and September suggested, however, that the German capital had become a softer target than hitherto to Harris’s greatly strengthened bombing force, and on the night of 18-19 November 1943 it committed itself to the ‘Battle of Berlin’.

Between that night and 2 March 1944 it mounted sixteen major raids on the city. No more than 200 acres of its built-up area had been damaged in all the raids mounted by the RAF since August 1940, and it continued to function normally as the capital not only of the Reich but of Hitler’s Europe. It remained a major industrial, administrative and cultural centre: its great hotels, restaurants and theatres flourished; so too, did life in its elegant residential districts, like Dahlem, home of haut-bourgeois opposition to Hitler. ‘Missie’ Vassiltchikov, an Anglophile White Russian refugee in Berlin, and a close friend of Adam von Trott, one of the principal conspirators in the July Plot, found pre-war life scarcely interrupted at all by ‘enemy action’ (the phrase used in Britain to denote the cause of bombing deaths) until late 1943. She continued to dine, dance and absent herself from work in Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry on such pretexts as attending the last great German aristocratic wedding of the war years at Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen right up until the moment when the Battle of Berlin began.

Then the clouds of war drew in fast. Goebbels, as Gauleiter of Berlin, persuaded one million of its four and a half million inhabitants to leave before Bomber Command’s main attacks began. Those who remained then began to undergo the most sustained experience of air attack undergone by any city population throughout the Second World War. Berlin did not suffer firestorm; having been built largely in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with wide streets and many open spaces, it resisted conflagration. Nevertheless its relentless drenching with high explosive and incendiaries, six times in January alone, resulted in devastation. Although only 6000 Berliners were killed in the Battle proper, thanks to the solid construction of shelters in eleven enormous concrete ‘flak towers’, 1.5 million were made homeless and 2000 acres of the city were ruined by the end of March 1944.

When the battle was then called off, however, it was not only because Harris’s aircraft were needed to help in the preparation for D-Day. Even he had been brought to accept that, in the ‘exchange ratio’ between the attrition of Berlin’s fabric and defences and that of his bomber crews, Berlin had suffered less. Though by March 1944 he disposed of a daily average of 1000 serviceable bombers, losses on raids had risen above the ‘acceptable’ maximum of 5 per cent and had sometimes touched 10 per cent (on the most costly of all raids, ironically not against Berlin but against Nuremberg on 30 March 1944, it exceeded 11 per cent). Since bomber crews were obliged to fly thirty missions before qualifying for rest, each faced the probability, in statistical terms, of being shot down before a tour was completed. In practice, crews who had flown more than five missions achieved a much higher survival rate than novices, who figured disproportionately among the ‘acceptable’ 5 per cent lost. When the attrition rate rose towards 10 per cent, however, even experienced crews were killed. The survivors sensed doom, and there was a corresponding decline in morale, indicated by bombing ‘short’ and premature return to base.

The rise in the attrition rate testified to the short-term success of German defensive measures. As the bombers penetrated more deeply into Germany, their exposure to German flak and fighter attack increased. In the early days of night bombing the Luftwaffe had found as much difficulty in intercepting the RAF as the RAF had had in combating the German night ‘blitz’ of 1940-1. During 1942, however, its success rose sharply as a result of improvements in the control of fighters, as well as in their armament and equipment. Flak, though it badly frightened the bomber crews, was a lesser means of destruction. Anti-aircraft gunfire could not touch the Mosquitoes of the Pathfinder Force flying at 30,000 feet; but fighters attacked at a range of 400 feet, once they had been guided to the target. From October 1940 onwards in Holland, Bomber Command’s natural approach route to the Reich, the Germans began to deploy, on the so-called Kammhuber Line, a force of radar-equipped night-fighters which were guided to the intruders by ground radar ‘Würzburg’ stations. The RAF retaliated by equipping their aircraft with radar detection devices, by increasing the density of their bomber streams to present fighters with a smaller target, and eventually (July 1943) by dropping metallic chaff, ‘Window’ – first used in the Hamburg raids – to cause radar interference. Eventually all these expedients were overcome: the Germans became adept at using Bomber Command’s electronic emissions as target indicators, at refining their radar sets to overcome Window, and at increasing the density of their own fighter formations to match that of the bomber streams. At the end of 1943, ‘Tame Boar’ squadrons of radar-equipped night-fighters were being supplemented by strong forces of ‘Wild Boar’ day-fighters flying as night-fighters; lacking radar, they were guided towards the bombers by radio and light beacons and then attacked in the illumination provided by flak and searchlights.

The battle of material

Had Bomber Command been Germany’s only airborne enemy it would have been close to admitting defeat in the spring of 1944. However, the Eighth Air Force was still committed to a campaign of daylight precision bombing, had now assembled a force of 1000 B-17s and B-24 Liberators in Britain and was ready to show the Germans what ‘Americans meant by a real battle of material’. So far, apart from its costly forays to Schweinfurt and Regensburg, it had ventured few mass attacks deep into Germany. Beginning in February 1944 (the ‘Big Week’ of 20-26 February) under new commanders, Spaatz and James Doolittle, the latter the hero of the Tokyo raid of April 1942, it started to penetrate to targets which the Luftwaffe was bound to defend: aircraft factories and then the twelve synthetic-oil production plants. Speer, Hitler’s able Armaments Minister, had robbed the enemy air forces of much of their target system in 1943 by separating manufacturing processes and dispersing the fragments to new small sites, particularly in southern Germany. However, aircraft factories and particularly oil plants defied dispersion, and they provided the ‘Mighty Eighth’ with prime targets.

The Eighth Air Force had, moreover, been provided with the means to reach them. Daylight bombing required fighter escorts; consequently Bomber Command had abandoned it in 1941, since the Spitfire lacked the range to reach Germany. During 1943 the range of American fighters had also largely confined the Eighth Air Force to attacks in France and the Low Countries. After August, however, at the prompting of Robert A. Lovett, US Assistant Secretary for War, the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-38 Lightning fighters were equipped with drop tanks, external auxiliary fuel tanks which could be jettisoned in an emergency; these gave them the endurance to reach beyond the Ruhr. In March 1944 there appeared in numbers a new fighter equipped with drop tanks, the P51 Mustang, which could fly to and even beyond Berlin, 600 miles from its British bases. The P-51 was a new phenomenon: a heavy long-range fighter with the performance of a short-range interceptor. It had been delayed in production because it was an Anglo-American hybrid without a strong sponsor. Into an underpowered American airframe the British had inserted the famous Merlin engine; once its improved performance was recognised by Spaatz and Doolittle, they demanded its production in volume and 14,000 were to be built altogether. By March it was present in the German skies in great numbers and already beginning to break the strength of the Luftwaffe.

As soon as the demands imposed by preparation for Overlord ceased, and despite a temporary diversion of effort against the German secret-weapons sites in northern France, Pointblank resumed with redoubled force. The Eighth Air Force had continued its attack on German synthetic oil plants even during the Normandy battle and by September its results were even greater than anticipated. Between March and September oil production declined from 316,000 to 17,000 tons; aviation fuel output declined to 5000 tons. The Luftwaffe thereafter lived on its reserves, which by early 1945 were all but exhausted. Meanwhile the two bomber forces co-ordinated a round-the-clock campaign against German cities, with particular concentration on transport centres. By the end of October the number of rail wagons available weekly had fallen from the normal total of 900,000 to 700,000, and by December the figure was 214,000.

Under day and night attack by the USAAF and RAF, each deploying over 1000 aircraft during the autumn, winter and spring of 1944-5, German economic life was paralysed by strategic bombing. With enemy armies on its eastern and western frontiers, the Reich was no longer protected by a cordon sanitaire of occupied territory. The Luftwaffe was overwhelmed as well as outclassed by the daylight bombers’ escorts and eventually could not get its few surviving fighters off the ground. Although the anti-aircraft system drained two million men and women out of other services – perhaps the bombing campaign’s chief justification – flak dwindled into ineffectiveness as the night-bomber streams became too dense and fast-moving to engage for more than a few minutes. As bomber numbers grew over Germany in 1945, the attrition rate conversely declined to as little as one per cent per mission.

The sudden reversal of advantage between defence and attack undoubtedly derived directly from the appearance of the Mustang as an escort to the Eighth Air Force’s Fortresses and Liberators and later as a unit of aggressive fighter patrols, seeking out the enemy. In late 1943 the American campaign had been defeated by the Luftwaffe’s day-fighters, in early 1944 the British campaign by its night-fighters. The Mustang restored the Eighth Air Force’s ability to penetrate German airspace. In so doing it starved the Luftwaffe of its fuel supply and thereby drastically undercut its ability to sustain the high attrition rate it had inflicted on Bomber Command in 1943-4. Thus it opened the way for the British to match the Americans’ level of destructiveness in the round-the-clock campaign of late 1944 and so ensured that German industrial production, whether as a result of physical damage or by the strangulation of supply, should come to a halt in early 1945.

Because the peak of the bombers’ success coincided with the defeat of the Wehrmacht in the field and the progressive occupation of Reich territory by the Allied armies, the claims of the strategic-bombing advocates that they possessed the secret of victory have not and can never be proved. Such claims are better supported by the results of the USAAF’s bombing campaign against Japan mounted by General Curtis LeMay’s XXI Bomber Command: between May and August 1945 the dropping of 158,000 tons of bombs, two-thirds incendiaries, on to the fifty-eight largest Japanese cities, all largely wooden in construction, destroyed 60 per cent of their ground area and brought their populations to destitution and despair. Even before the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the unleashing of the Red Army’s Blitzkrieg into Manchuria, to which Japan’s decision to surrender is variously ascribed, the home islanders’ will to resist had unquestionably been brought to breaking-point by the American bombers.

German civilian morale, by contrast, was never broken by bomber attack. The populations of individual cities were severely distressed by heavy raids. Dresden, overwhelmed on the night of 14 February 1945, did not begin to function again until after the war was over; but in Berlin public transport and services were maintained throughout and were still functioning during the ground battle for the city in April 1945. In Hamburg the 50,000 deaths from bombing, largely concentrated into the period in July 1943, almost equalled those suffered in Britain throughout the war (60,000), yet industrial production returned to 80 per cent of normal within five months. Nothing better vindicated the German people’s reputation for discipline and hardihood than the resilience of their urban men and women under Allied air attack in 1943-5 – perhaps the women most of all, since so many were forced by the war to act as heads of families.

The cost of strategic bombing on Germany’s civilian population was tragically high: 87,000 people were killed in the towns of the Ruhr, at least 50,000 in Hamburg, 50,000 in Berlin, 20,000 in Cologne, 15,000 in the comparatively small city of Magdeburg, 4,000 in that tiny baroque gem, Würzburg. Altogether some 600,000 German civilians died under bombing attack and 800,000 were seriously injured. Children represented some 20 per cent of the dead and female deaths exceeded male by as much as 40 per cent at Hamburg and 80 per cent at Darmstadt, both cities where firestorms occurred. In the aftermath, privation added to the suffering caused by bereavement and homelessness: reductions in output of up to 30 per cent of steel, 25 per cent of motor engineering, 15 per cent of electrical power, 15 per cent of chemicals and effectively 100 per cent of oil, combined with the effect of a nearly total transport standstill in May 1945, deprived the surviving population of the means to begin reconstruction; the breakdown of transport also imposed fuel shortages which reduced consumption to barest subsistence level.

Because the whole of Germany was occupied by the time of the capitulation, however, no part of the population starved, as happened during the Allies’ sustainment of the wartime blockade after November 1918. The armies, even the Red Army, collected food and made themselves responsible for its distribution. The air forces which had devoted themselves to Germany’s economic devastation in 1943-5 found themselves engaged, almost as soon as the war was over, in transporting essential supplies to the cities they had recently been overflying with high explosive and incendiaries in their bomb-bays.

In the course of their campaign the Allied bombing forces had suffered grievously themselves: in 1944 alone the Eighth Air Force lost 2400 bombers; throughout the war Bomber Command suffered 55,000 dead, more than the number of British army officers killed in the First World War. The dead aircrew were not, however, accorded the memorialisation given to the ‘lost generation’. Their campaign, though it gave a dour satisfaction to the majority of the British people in the depths of their war against Hitler, never commanded the support of the whole nation. Its morality was publicly questioned in the House of Commons by the Labour MP Richard Stokes, more insistently in the Lords by Bishop Bell of Chichester and in private correspondence by the Marquess of Salisbury, head of the leading Conservative family in Britain. All made the point, to quote Lord Salisbury, ‘that of course the Germans began it, but we do not take the devil as our example.’ This accorded with a nagging self-reproach to the national conscience which, when the war was over, denied ‘Bomber’ Harris the peerage given to all other major British commanders and refused his aircrew a distinctive campaign medal of their own. With their backs to the wall the British people had chosen not to acknowledge that they had descended to the enemy’s level. In victory they remembered that they believed in fair play. Strategic bombing, which may not even have been sound strategy, was certainly not fair play. Over its course and outcome its most consistent practitioners drew a veil.

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