bombing raids of World War Two
The Germans bombed London. The
next day the RAF retaliated and bombed Berlin. And so began
the "indiscriminate" bombing of cities that would continue
throughout the war.
In 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued a secret
memorandum to his Chiefs of Staff, ordering "an absolutely
devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers upon
the Nazi homeland."
The same year, at the Berlin Sports Palace, Fuhrer Adolph
Hitler shrieked, "We will raze their cities to the ground.
One of us will break, and it will not be National Socialist
In late 1942, Churchill
appointed Arthur Harris Air Vice Marshall, head of Bomber
Command, and charged him with carrying out the government's
threat. Like the prime minister, Harris was convinced the
air force could win the war; American Air Force commanders
agreed. But army chiefs argued that, ultimately, only great
land battles would defeat the Nazis, and so, they began
preparations for an invasion of Normandy. Until the spring
of 1944, these two strategies would wage war side by side,
each convinced of its own logic.
Lacking accurate radio navigation equipment and flight
radar, the British and Canadian bombers could only
"precision" bomb in daylight. But without long' range
fighter escorts to protect them during day missions, they
raided by night, dropping explosives from high altitudes on
industrial areas, hoping to hit something-anything-of
importance. This was "indiscriminate" or "area" bombing. If
they missed, well, they'd make a mess and at least destroy
In a secret memo, October, 1942, Air Marshall Sir Charles
Portal framed Bomber Command's new policy: "I suppose it is
clear that the new aiming points are to be the built-up
areas, not for instance, the dockyards or aircraft
In a meeting with the Chiefs of
Staff Committee, Air Vice Marshall Harris enunciated his
boss's policy: "We shall destroy Germany's will to fight.
Now that we have the planes and crews, in 1943 and 1944 we
shall drop one and a quarter million tons of bombs, render
25 million Germans homeless, kill 900,000 and seriously
injure one million."
The heyday of "area" bombing would be 1943. The bombers
pounded Germany with 48,000 tons of explosives in 1942, and
with another 207,600 tons in 1943. Night attacks escalated,
targeting Germany's most populous regions: the Ruhr, March
to June, 1943; Hamburg, July to November, 1943; Berlin,
November, 1943 to March, 1944.
An 8th Air
Force B-17 makes a bombing run over Marienburg, Germany, in
The bombing campaigns of World War II were the one
element of the air war that had a strategic
significance, on a par with
the ground movements of infantry and the
of both sides on the high seas. It
was this use of air power, first deployed to a significant
extent in the 1940s, that
was to have a lasting influence on
geopolitics for decades to come. Previously,
bombing from the air was
looked upon as a form of sabotage—an
irritant and a hindrance, but
not a map-changing strategic factor in the course of
a war. However, once bombing was
carried out extensively against
industrial, military, and civilian
targets, it had the power to change battle
lines, and ultimately to determine the outcome of a
The first use of bombing in the war was as a tactical
weapon, by the Germans in the invasion of
Poland. The early bombers
were converted transports that were originally designed to
be transformed into bombers: the
Junkers JU86 and JU88, the Dornier Do 17, and the
all used in the invasion of Poland. All
these aircraft had been tested in the Spanish Civil
War and had been found to be
vulnerable to attack from the aft and forward directions.
The remedy was to create gunner’s nests in “greenhouse” type
nests, which were to become common in later bombers of both
The bombers in service in France, Poland,
and the Netherlands at the outbreak of World War II were
antiquated, certainly compared with the German aircraft.
Some, like the French Bloch 131, were so unreliable that the
Germans preferred to destroy captured ones rather than use
them or even turn them over to their allies. Two captured
planes did see service in back areas (the North Sea and
North Africa): the Dutch Fokker T VIII, a sea- plane
(unusual for a bomber) that was also used by England when
some Dutch pilots escaped the German invasion; and the
Polish PZL P- 7, an excellent plane that was produced in
small numbers and was capable of delivering a bomb-load of a
whopping fifty-seven hundred pounds (2,588kg).
Most British bombers at the outbreak of
the war were only a little better developed. The Fairey
Battle was used extensively during the Battle of France, but
it fell so easily that production was halted suddenly and
the factory allowed to stay idle while new planes were
designed. A bit better was the Bristol Blenheim Mk 1,
a plane designed from a private passenger plane commissioned
by news paper magnate Lord Rothermere for his personal use.
It was an extremely fast plane for the day (and was
specifically designed for speed), but adapting it to bomber
duty turned it into a mediocre bomber at best.
The main bombers of the RAF were classic
aircraft that owed their designs to the state of the art in
the early 1930s, but were adaptable to new developments and
situations and remained useful through the war. The Handley
Page Hampden, for example, was relatively fast and could
carry a very large load, but it had meagre defences, so it
saw most of its use as a night bomber later in the war. The
Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley accommodated a large fuel tank,
which gave it a long flight time, making it perfect for
antisubmarine patrol. The Vickers Wellington was the bomber
with the most promise, using a geodetic frame that gave it
great strength without great weight. It would surely be the
bomber that would see the most service for the RAF and was
produced in the greatest number; about 11,460 by war’s end.
The British finally managed to field a
modern generation of bombers that became important elements
in the bombing of Europe and the softening of the Germans in
preparation for the Allied ground assault. The Short
Stirling was the first British four-engine bomber and may be
viewed as England’s first modern bomber. Its main deficiency
was an inability to maintain performance at high altitudes.
It soon gave way to the two planes that became the core of
the British Bomber Command: the Handley Page Halifax and the
One of the workhorses of the Allied bombing
campaign of Nazi-occupied Europe was the Avro Lincoln
Both relied heavily on the
Merlin engines manufactured in England and the United
States, and on the most sophisticated electronics available.
An important factor in the success of the British bombing
campaign was the use of the Sperry bombsight.
In 1939 a German-American employee at the
factory handed over a working model of the bombsight to the
Luftwaffe, who copied it and used it, but the technology
that went into the model remained secret and the Allies were
able to stay a step ahead of the Germans in bombsight
technology throughout the war. The one plane produced by the
RAF that distinguished itself in particular as both a bomber
and a fighter (and was used for everything else from
reconnaissance to submarine patrol), though it defied
classification and broke all the rules, was the de Havilland
The Mosquito came about as a result of a “what-if”
experiment conducted by designer R.E. Bishop, who wondered
about the effect of marrying an advanced Merlin engine to
the lightest possible airframe, one made of wood. The notion
found a surprisingly receptive ear in the RAF; a prototype
was ordered in November 1940 and was flying by May 1941.
The de Havilland Mosquito
The Mosquito was supposed to outrun any
fighter pursuit by flying at its maximum speed of four
hundred miles per hour (643.Skph) at a height of thirty-nine
thousand feet (1 1,887m), higher than any fighter could go.
The plane performed so well that the experimenting continued
and machine guns were added. The result was to turn the
Mosquito into an effective fighter capable of diving onto
any fighter and thus attacking from an advantageous
position: above. Even the addition of cannon did not
adversely affect the plane’s performance. Nearly sixty-five
hundred Mosquitos were built during the war, and the plane
continued to be built and placed in service until 1951, a
testament to its utility and brilliant design.
The country with the most experience with
large bomber-type aircraft was Italy, and the war gave the
Italians many opportunities to develop their bomber fleet.
Mussolini’s practice of going after lightly defended areas,
however, gave these planes little challenge, and there was,
therefore, little incentive for the Italian air force to
progress. As a result, the SIAI-Marchetti bombers that were
first-rate in the late 1930s were still the bulk of the
bomber fleet in 1942, by which time they had become
obsolete. The only bomber the Italians produced that could
compete with those of other air forces (and the only
four-engine plane Italy made) was the Piaggio P-108B, held
up in production and not placed in service until June 1942.
German Dornier DO-17s on a bombing
run over London.
In contrast to the Germans, who tested
their fighters and dive bombers in the Spanish Civil War,
but not, to any great extent, their heavy bombers, the
Japanese developed and tested their bombers in China in 1937
and prepared for war by developing their bomber fleet as
much as their fighters. Yet the Japanese only reluctantly
accepted Admiral Yamamoto’s insistence that the bomber was
also an important weapon for ground and naval support. More
bombers were developed and built by the Japanese than would
have been built without Yamamoto, but even so, only between
one thousand and twelve hundred of each of the seven most
important Japanese bombers were built during the war, as
compared with more than eighteen thousand B-24s alone.
The key bombers in the first year of the
war were the Mitsubishi G3M and G4M planes (identified by
the allies as “Nell” and “Betty,” respectively). In the
earliest stages of the war, these aircraft had little need
of protective armour or armament. As this changed, the
deficiencies of these bombers became apparent and the
Japanese (characteristically) devised solutions to the
problems. The result was the Aichi D3A1 (“Val”), a single
engine dive-bomber that had the built-in protection of three
machine guns and manoeuvred comparably to a fighter (at
least at this stage of the war). The efforts to improve the
fighter component of the bomber resulted in an improved
dive-bomber, the Kawasaki K1 48 (“Lily”), but its inadequacy
made it clear that bombers would have to be developed
The bombers deployed by the Japanese
between 1942 and 1944 betray the half-hearted way the
designers approached the issues of bomber design. The
“Lily,” for example, was a fast and agile airplane,
but no match for an Allied fighter and without even
rudimentary defences. The only four- engine bomber produced
by the Japanese in this period was the Nakajima G8N1
(“Rita”); only four were ever built and none saw
active service. Failing to create a bomber fleet, yet
desperately in need of impeding the Allied forces making
their way toward Japan, the Japanese formed the kamikaze
One wing gone,
a B-29 falls in flames after a direct hit by enemy flak over
In conscious emulation of ancient samurai warriors
(and named after the “divine wind,” or storms, that drove
the Mongol invaders away from Japan in the thirteenth
century), pilots volunteered for suicide missions, first
flying dive-bombers loaded with explosives, then flying out-
dated fighters to elude ground fire and Allied fighters.
Toward the end of the war, 852 Yokosuka MXY7s, known as
“Ohka flying bombs” and code-named Baka (“fool”), were built
with rocket engines and short air-foils. These were launched
at ships, and were virtually un-steerable.
Despite the response of its
own population to German bombing, the British Bomber Command
still believed that strategic bombing was the way to defeat
a nation’s capability and will to fight. In 1942, British
Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris was named commander of Bomber
Command and he immediately began rallying for a larger
bombing force and for a more intense, aggressive campaign
against Germany’s industrial capacity. He targeted
industrial cities with their factories, worker housing, and
anything else that might contribute to German production.
Prime industries were power plants, aircraft factories, oil
refineries, rubber factories, and transportation hubs.
During the summer of 1942, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF)
arrived to assist in the effort.
During The Big
Week, February 20-25, 1944, 3,300 bombers were dispatched to
Germany from England and 500 from Italy, with 137 of the
former and 89 of the latter being lost.
The United States and Great
Britain joined forces to create the Combined Bomber
Offensive. The two nations had different bombing approaches.
The British preferred to fly under the protection of night.
Darkness made exact targeting impossible, so "area
bombing"--dropping a large number of bombs within a
designated area around a target--was used. The Americans,
however, were extremely hesitant to participate in an action
that might result in civilian casualties. Also, they
possessed the Norden bombsight, which was quicker and more
accurate than its predecessors, increasing safety for the
bomber crew and improving the effectiveness of the bombs.
With the heavy armament of the B-17 Flying Fortresses, the
USAAF chose to fly during the day for "precision bombing,"
hitting specific targets, such as factories or
transportation hubs, precisely and with minimal damage to
the surrounding area.
On August 17, 1942, the
Eighth Air Force undertook its first mission against the
marshalling yards at Rouen-Sotteville in occupied France. A
relatively easy first mission, the only casualties were two
airmen who were injured when a pigeon flew into their plane.
But for the first several months of the campaign, losses
were heavy. Until the debut of the North American P-51
Mustang with its auxiliary gas tanks in March 1944, there
were no Allied fighter planes with the range to escort
bombers all the way to Germany. Meanwhile, to compensate for
the lack of fighter escorts, American bomber forces under
the leadership of Curtis E. LeMay implemented
tight-formation combat flying. By early 1944, American
industry was finally operating at peak capacity, producing
enough bombers to replace lost ones, and add more for
massive formations. The results were seen in the decrease in
German aircraft and fuel production. After the Allied
invasion of France on June 6, 1944, the ground troops
advanced quickly toward Germany, providing bases for escorts
and destroying the German early air warning system in
France. For much of the final year of the war, Allied
bombers held air superiority over Germany, leaving
bombed-out cities for the ground troops to occupy.