By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
World War had begun. And, America, Britain, and Soviet Union formed an alliance and experimented with testing the German defenses to see how good they were. The answer was that they were extremely strong and difficult to break. Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt then decided to concentrate on bomber attacks against German industry.
This one was an industrialized, high-tech warfare. The entire German economy was involved, just as the entire American economy was involved. The Allies believed that if they could destroy the factories where German munitions were made, then that was a highly effective way of bringing the German war machine to a stop. Besides, the terror of bombs falling on them would have a deterrent effect on the German people themselves. Perhaps, it would break their morale and their will to resist.
One of the names for this is the “Jupiter Complex”, like the old classical god Jupiter raining down thunderbolts from heaven, in a frenzy of righteous rage. Huge resources were devoted to these bomber campaigns: the Royal Air Force would fly night raids, and the Americans would fly day raids.
The “Flying Fortresses”
Huge numbers of these bombing planes, mainly “Flying Fortresses” at first, B-17s, were lost in these raids, shot down by effective German anti-aircraft fire and by the attacks of German fighters.
According to a theory, bombers like the Flying Fortress were supposed to be so heavily armed that they could defend themselves against the fighters, but the reality was that the fighters were too fast for them, and that far more of the bombers would be lost when they were encountered than fighters would be shot down.
It’s possible to get a little glimpse of this in the movie Memphis Belle, which gives a vivid picture of the nature of the raids, and the terrifying character of being inside the bomber planes as you’re approaching German cities.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Inefficacy of the Raids
Now, what was so disheartening about the great air war is that it proved to be relatively unsuccessful and inefficient. Far from breaking the will of the enemy, it intensified the enemy’s will to resist.
German civilians, once they became the victims of British and American bombing raids, became more than ever determined to sacrifice and to fight, and to work hard on behalf of the Third Reich.
The German Strategy
The Germans became very good at minimizing damage, first of all by dispersing industry rather than concentrating it in city centers where they were easy targets, finding ways to devolve a lot of it out into the countryside.
In addition, although the bombing planes were certainly very powerful and the bombs were enormously destructive, they weren’t usually accurate enough that they could reliably pinpoint and destroy a target. What was really going on in these raids was “area bombing”. An area would be attacked, and everything in that area, or anything that might be in that area, could be destroyed.
Aviators “Creep Back”
One can imagine, though, that as the aviators were flying southeast from Britain into Germany—or sometimes due east—they themselves were very afraid. There was an extremely strong temptation to drop the bomb load a little bit before actually getting to the target.
When the second wave of bombing planes came in, the pilots would be tempted to drop their bombs as they approached the first set of fires. Certainly, aerial photography, and later, experience on the ground, showed that regularly, the northwestern suburbs and the northwestern countryside outside the towns had been very heavily attacked.
So, they wouldn’t really get to the target properly. This phenomenon of not bombing on the target, but before it, for reasons of self-preservation, is called “creep back”.
Now and again, the raids were murderously effective, the conditions were very dry, and when the target was set on fire, a firestorm was created. By early 1943, raids consisting of more than 1,000 planes were often being sent. In one of them, against Hamburg, the weather conditions were just right to create one of these firestorms.
This was between July 24 and August 3, 1943. What happened then was that the first high-explosive bombs would destroy buildings on the ground, and then incendiary bombs would set fire to the wreckage. The fires grew very intense and very hot. As oxygen was pulled into the fire to feed the flames, it could create gale force winds in the surrounding area.
The fact that the raids went on for several consecutive days and nights meant that as rescue workers concentrated on the city of Hamburg, very often they were killed in subsequent raids.
The result of the raid was that somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 people were killed in those few days in the city of Hamburg, and eight square miles of the city almost totally destroyed.
To give a comparison of destructiveness, in the whole of the Second World War, about 60,000 British people were killed in air raids. In other words, that one attack was almost as lethal as the combined German air attacks against Britain in the war. Overall, German bombing casualties were 10 times as high as those of the British.
The attack on Hamburg at least attacked a genuine industrial target. Far less defensible was the later attack on Dresden, the historic old city further east in Germany, which—because it didn’t have any military value—was packed with refugees from former raids. It, too, was destroyed in a firestorm, in what has remained one of the most controversial acts of the Allies during the war.
Common Questions about Allied Bomber Raids on Germany
The Allies believed that bomb raids would have a deterrent effect on the German people themselves. Perhaps, it would break their morale and their will to resist.
The raids were inefficient because the German civilians became more than ever determined to sacrifice and to fight, and to work hard on behalf of the Third Reich.
Dresden, the historic old city further east in Germany, was destroyed in a firestorm, making it one of the most controversial acts of the Allies during the war.