Allied bombing of Germany
Massive strategic bombing of Germany and its allies
author Paul Boșcu, May 2019
As distasteful as these bombing campaigns are today to most citizens of the liberal democracies under sixty years of age, the Combined Bomber Offensive in Europe and the bombing of Japan reflected not only a sense of moral conviction on the part of the West but a belief that such air attacks would end a war that daily grew more horrible for soldiers and civilians alike.
Along with the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan, the most controversial aspect of Allied involvement in the war has been the area, strategic or – to use a more emotive term – carpet or terror bombing of German cities and civilians. For most in the west at the time it was considered a perfectly legitimate way to bring the enemy to its knees once Total War had been unleashed by Hitler, but for some – especially after the war had been safely won – it was a morally unacceptable war crime. This article will seek to explore whether or not this strategy worked and if there were any alternatives.

Young men of all nations perceived romance in playing their parts in the war as knights of the air. ‘I saw myself as something like a gladiator of old,’ wrote Ted Bone, who in 1941 became a nineteen-year-old volunteer for RAF aircrew service. ‘Not for me the horrors of hand-to-hand combat with a rifle and bayonet – I would be firing at another fighter plane.’ Young men of ‘the Lindbergh generation’ exulted in the notion of flying fast and nimble single-engined, single seat aircraft, which granted pilots a power over their own destinies unusual among twentieth-century warriors. It was ironic, therefore, that many such dreamers found themselves instead committed to aerial bombardment of cities, one of the more barbarous features of the conflict.

Allied aircrew who were deployed on operational fighter or bomber squadrons faced the statistical probability of their own extinction, up to the last eighteen months of the war. Romantic delusions faded as they learned to anticipate a destiny as a bloody jam of crushed flesh and bones, or as a body atop a petrol-fuelled funeral pyre. To be sure, their daily lives on the ground were privileged: they were spared the mud and discomfort to which foot soldiers were subjected. But they were less likely to survive.

The Allied air chiefs’ principal preoccupation was strategic assault on Germany – the offensive against Japan began in earnest only in March 1945 – through which they aspired to win the war on their own. The RAF was obliged to abandon daylight bombing after a bloody initiation in 1939-40. Thereafter, its squadrons mounted night offensives, which made little material impact on Germany until 1943.

Until 1943, the most important achievement of the Allied strategic air offensive was that it obliged the Germans to divert growing numbers of their fighters and dual-purpose 88mm guns from the Eastern Front to the defense of the Reich. Berlin alone was defended by a hundred batteries of sixteen to twenty-four guns, each manned by crews of eleven. Though many gunners were teenagers ineligible for the front, the diversion of firepower and technology was important.

In 1944-45, the Anglo-American bomber offensive became the supreme expression of the two nations’ industrial might and technological prowess. Much of eastern and southern England was transformed into a chequer-board of air bases overlaid on farmland, ringed by concertina wire, and variously designated for training, transport, fighters or bombers. Up until the end, German cities were pounded mercilessly.

The return of massive bombing in daylight and deep into Germany after the victory of the new Allied long-range fighters over the Luftwaffe in February-March 1944 altered the whole picture. Thereafter the strategic bombers first aided the invasion by destroying German communications, starting with France and Belgium and later moving on to German transportation targets. Both of these efforts were highly successful. The second major truly effective bombing campaign of 1944 was that of the Americans against the German petroleum industry.

As distasteful as these bombing campaigns are today to most citizens of the liberal democracies under sixty years of age, the Combined Bomber Offensive in Europe and the bombing of Japan reflected not only a sense of moral conviction on the part of the West but a belief that such air attacks would end a war that daily grew more horrible for soldiers and civilians alike.

Proponents of air doctrine in the bomber wings of the German, British and American air forces in the 1920s and 1930s all believed that it was possible to win wars through bombing alone, with navies relegated to a blockading role and armies primarily used for mopping up and occupation. When war broke out, the Luftwaffe’s bombing of Warsaw and of Rotterdam and Louvain made it clear that Germany did not intend to abide by the view of warfare that confined targets to military assets attacked in daylight. Further raids on Coventry, Belgrade and Hull confirmed this.

‘It is well also for the man in the street to realize that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed,’ the former and future British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, then lord president of the council, told the House of Commons in November 1932. ‘Whatever people might tell him, the bomber will always get through.’ He spoke before the invention of radar, the Spitfire and the mass-production of the 4.5-inch anti aircraft gun, but the message certainly got through so that by 1939 it was assumed that general aerial bombardment would lead to massacre and the breakdown of civilization.

The Luftwaffe bomber General Werner Baumbach later recalled: ‘Hitler talked about “extirpating” the English towns, and propaganda coined the word “coventrizing” for the maximum degree of destruction which was deemed to have been inflicted on Germany.’ Yet the simple fact that the Nazis adopted ruthless methods of warfare did not necessarily mean that their foes should as well.

The origins of strategic bombing can be traced back to the doctrines and expectations of the interwar period, particularly the belief that bombers could evade enemy defenses and attack population centers and industries. Air power advocates confidently predicted the disruption of enemy society, the elimination of its industrial potential, and the collapse of civilian morale.

The RAF’s Bomber Command wing was founded in 1936, based in High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. At the outbreak of war it consisted of thirty-three squadrons comprising 488 aircraft. Initially these were planes with too short a flying range to reach even the Ruhr industrial basin – the closest German targets worth bombing – and with bomb-loads too small to cause much damage even if they had managed to get there and back.

Historian Richard Overy said about Bomber Command’s situation at the start of the war: ‘There were no effective bomb-sights; there were few bombs bigger than 250 pounds; only a handful of bases in Britain could handle the larger aircraft; and there was even a shortage of maps for navigating in north-west Europe. Bombing trials betrayed a wide margin of inaccuracy even when bombing in bright sunlight from a few thousand feet with no enemy interference.’ It was an unpromising start from which to try to force the Third Reich to its knees.

As Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war on the Third Reich, the RAF’s Bomber Command found itself without plans, trained manpower, or equipment to undertake an aerial offensive. In the ‘Phoney War’ period of 1939 and early 1940 as the Allies waited for the Germans to strike, the British bent over backward not to harm civilians, choosing instead to confine their efforts to dropping propaganda leaflets and attacking naval targets in daytime. But even these limited operations highlighted the RAF’s shortcomings. Leaflet-dropping missions suggested the difficulties of finding targets in bad weather and at night, whereas daylight attacks on naval targets led to heavy losses at the hands of enemy fighters.

With a general lack of navigational aids, target-marking and aiming equipment and carrying capacity, Bomber Command was initially forced into the strategy of attacking cities, effectively through the lack of a realistic alternative. After Bomber Command suffered unacceptably high losses – sometimes as much as 50 percent – in daylight raids on largely coastal targets such as Heligoland and Wilhelmshaven at the start of the war, it switched to night-time bombing instead, with a serious reduction in accuracy. After victory was won in the Battle of Britain in the autumn of 1940, the emphasis turned from Fighter Command defense to Bomber Command attack. By then an altogether more offensively minded Churchill had replaced Chamberlain.

After a raid on Berlin in which most of the bombs fell on farms in the surrounding countryside, rather than on the capital itself, Berliners joked: ‘Now they are trying to starve us out!’

The bombing of Germany – even if inaccurate and at night – gave an immense morale boost to Britons, who felt that they were at last taking the war directly to the enemy. There was also a tangible sense that after defeat in France and the Battle of Britain, the bombing offensive was the only possible way for Britain to show that she was still in the war and keen to continue to fight.

After the collapse of France in June 1940 and the expulsion of British forces from the Continent, strategic bombing represented the only means Britain had to strike back at Nazi Germany. As Churchill suggested, ‘There is one thing that will ... bring [Germany] down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.’ And so the great effort began. The first raids attacked specific target sets within the Nazi economy, such as oil. The results were not good.

Throughout 1940-41, naïveté persisted within the RAF about the effectiveness of Bomber Command’s operations. ‘The briefings were very, very good,’ said Ken Owen, a nineteen-year-old navigator. ‘They made us feel we were going to hit an important target, doing important damage to the Germans. And of course we all listened to the BBC bulletins next morning, which trumpeted our success; there was a tremendous amount of self-delusion. We thought we were knocking hell out of them. Maybe twelve times [out of thirty “trips”] I think we bombed the right place; otherwise it was either the wrong place or ploughed fields.’

Prewar conceptions of bombing as a means to destroy civilian morale now explicitly entered into the RAF’s practical calculations. In fall 1940 Sir Charles Portal, still Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, suggested: ‘We have the one directly offensive weapon in the whole of our armory, the one means by which we can undermine the morale of a large part of the enemy people, shake their faith in the Nazi regime, and at the same time and with the same bombs dislocate the major part of their heavy industry and a good part of their oil production.’ The emphasis shifted from oil refineries to morale as limitations on accuracy became ever clearer. Ironically, this shift came almost concurrently with the Luftwaffe’s Blitz on London, which demonstrated the ability of the British to endure heavy bombing without a collapse in morale.

While Bomber Command did attempt throughout the war to pinpoint specific German production facilities for bombing – never devoting less than 30 percent of bombing efforts to those types of targets – in a short space of time the general policy widened to destroying huge, heavily populated industrial areas in order to ‘de-house’ the workers, dislocate production and demoralize the population. The Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, was convinced that the policy he had inherited when he took over in February 1942 could win the war.

Harris tended to decry precision attacks on individual industries such as ball-bearing or synthetic-oil factories, as favored by the Americans, dismissing them as ‘panacea targets’ in the belief that the Germans could perfectly well compensate through dispersed production, alternative technologies, foreign purchases and stockpiling. While he was right to take this stance at the beginning of the war, when few bombs came close to landing on their targets, advancing technology meant that by the end of the war he was starting to be proved wrong. Yet he was not overruled when he continued to pursue his strategy.

De-housing certainly had an effect on Germany’s industrial production because, as one study has concluded, in many cases after a raid ‘workers did not turn up for work as they were either looking after their families, or physically could not reach their workplaces. Many left the devastated city for the countryside, where food was more available, and stayed with relatives.’ In the BMW factory in Munich, for example, some 20 percent of the workforce were absent in the summer of 1944, and in the same year absenteeism rose to 25 percent in the Ford plant in Cologne in the Ruhr.

The distinction between area and precision bombing was often blurred by the fact that German armaments, ball-bearing and synthetic-oil factories, as well as submarine dockyards, railway marshalling yards and other targets deemed morally acceptable by post-war armchair strategists, were very often located in built-up areas and near schools, hospitals and the tenement housing of their workers. As a senior USAAF officer joked at a post-war seminar, ‘The RAF carried out precision attacks on area targets, while the USAAF carried out area attacks on precision targets.’ The difference, as the campaign’s official historian Noble Frankland discovered, was often marginal. Specially coloured incendiary bombs were used to illuminate and differentiate targets, but photographic evidence showed that many night-dropped bombs in the first two and a half years of war missed their intended targets by thousands of yards. The development of night photographic equipment and post-operational photo-reconnaissance helped ram this point home, but there seemed little genuine alternative at the time.

Despite the limited impact of the strategic air offensive in its early years, most of the RAF’s leaders retained a visionary faith not only in what bombing might do, but also in what it had already accomplished. In September 1942, Air Marshal Sir Wilfred Freeman wrote to Britain’s air chief Sir Charles Portal complaining of the extravagant claims made by some commanders: ‘In their efforts to attract the limelight they sometimes exaggerate and even falsify facts. The worst offender is C-in-C Bomber Command.’ Freeman cited claims published in the media about the achievements of some recent raids on Germany: ‘The damage at [Karlsruhe and Düsseldorf] is described as fantastic. I believe this to be untrue … I suggest that you might … send a circular letter to commanders-in-chief … impressing on them the need to adhere strictly to the unvarnished truth in accounts of operations … I am alarmed about the effect which the present tendencies must shortly have on the good name of the R.A.F.’ But, during the long years before Western Allied armies engaged the Germans in strength, it suited not only the air chiefs, but also Britain’s prime minister and America’s president, to collude in proclaiming the triumphs of bombing.

Harris’s personality has long been held up for vilification, with the Labour politician Richard Crossman equating him with the Great War Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig. The controversy continued long after the war; in 1994, there were angry demonstrations when the Queen Mother unveiled a statue of Harris at the RAF church, St Clement Danes in London. Certainly Harris had absolutely no moral qualms about what he was doing to the Germans, telling the newsreels in 1942: ‘They sowed the wind and now they are going to reap the whirlwind. There are a lot of people who say that bombing can never win a war. Well, my answer to that is that it has never been tried yet, and we shall see.’ Yet he was not a monster, and two days after VE Day he wrote to Portal to say: ‘I regret indeed occasions on which I have been crotchety and impatient. I was the closest to the urgencies of my command, and, frankly, borne down by the frightful inhumanities of war.’

In March 1948 the wartime head of the Air Force, Marshal of the RAF Lord Portal, Harris’s immediate (indeed only) superior, spoke to the BBC correspondent Chester Wilmot, complaining that ‘The trouble with Harris was – off the record – that he was a cad, and would not hesitate to go behind your back to get something he wanted.’ Portal believed that, had there ever been a ‘showdown’ between him and Harris, Portal would have won because ‘my hold over the PM was stronger than his’. Portal accused Harris of being ‘a limelighter’, ‘a trouble-maker’, ‘particularly difficult to control’ and – possibly incorrectly in view of Portal’s own remarks – ‘his own worst enemy’. Portal despised the way that Harris would ring him in the morning to say: ‘We had 800 bombers over Munich last night and this morning we’ve only got two inches in The Times, and Coastal Command got four. If this sort of thing goes on the morale of Bomber Command will be ruined.’

Harris was unquestionably a tough man, but as the scientist Professor R. V. Jones used to ask: ‘Who else could have stood up to what he had to do?’ His refusal to indulge in pleasing euphemism – ‘kill the Boche, terrify the Boche,’ he would say openly – led to his post-war demonization, but he was a loving father and privately a warm individual, kind to his bull terrier Rastus and popular with both his men and the British public. He was a single-minded individual who thought he knew how to shorten the war, and a realist who despised cant about what his airmen were doing night after night. He also had a sharp tongue, asking civil servants, ‘What are you doing to retard the war effort today?’ and telling Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who had complained before D-Day that he didn’t want to go down to posterity as the killer of thousands of Frenchmen: ‘What makes you think you’re going to go down to posterity at all?’

By the end of 1941 Bomber Command had dropped 45,000 tons of bombs over military targets in Germany, though without much to show for it. One reason why the High Command put so many resources into the bombing offensive was to try to help the Russians. Churchill and Roosevelt were very conscious of not doing enough for the USSR – a feeling Stalin sedulously encouraged – operationally in the west. Rather like the Arctic convoys to Murmansk, the bombing offensive was conceived almost as a kind of displacement therapy. In the end, helping Russia was indeed to be its chief value to the war effort.

While the British Commonwealth was fighting twelve Axis divisions at El Alamein, the Russians were engaging on the Eastern Front. The postponing of the so-called Second Front attack in north-west France led to a powerful desire to help draw off German forces elsewhere, and the bomber offensive was thought to be one way of doing that which did not involve an over-hasty return of ground troops to France.

The night before Albert Speer died in 1981, in a hotel room in London, he told the historian Norman Stone that the Allied bombing campaign ‘had caused so many German fighters simply to patrol the skies that there was not enough air power left for the Eastern Front’. This was true: by the spring of 1943, just as the Germans needed every weapon they could use for the Kursk offensive, no fewer than 70 percent of all German fighter aircraft were stationed in the west. The Allied bombing campaign also forced the Germans to divert from offensive use as much as one-third of their artillery in anti-aircraft guns, two million men for anti-aircraft defense plus repairing, rebuilding and restoration, building air-raid bunkers and flak towers, and 20 percent of all ammunition, just in order to protect the Reich from aerial assault.

‘German air power declined steadily on the Eastern Front during 1943 and 1944, when over two-thirds of German fighters were sucked into the contest with the [Allied] bombers,’ records historian Richard Overy. ‘By the end of 1943 there were 55,000 anti-aircraft guns to combat the air offensive – including 75 percent of the famous 88mm gun, which had doubled with such success as an anti-tank weapon on the Eastern Front.’ This meant that the Luftwaffe was forced to produce fewer bombers even though bombers had hugely aided Hitler in his eastern victories of 1941-2, with their devastation of Russian aerodromes, industry and military installations.

In his 1969 autobiography, Inside the Third Reich, Speer denied that Allied bombing had weakened the German public’s morale, and that the 9 percent loss of production capacity in 1943 might even have been ‘amply balanced out by increased effort’, but he accepted that the ‘ten thousand anti-aircraft guns [whose barrels] were pointed towards the sky’ in Germany and the west instead ‘could have well been employed in Russia against tanks and other ground targets’.

Richard Overy argues convincingly that the German war effort suffered severely from the need to commit resources to home defense. Bomber Command and the USAAF made an important contribution by obliging the Luftwaffe to divert almost its entire 1943-45 fighter strength to Germany, conceding near-total air superiority over both eastern and western battlefields to the Allies. It is also plain that, while Albert Speer contrived to increase output even amid the massive air attacks of 1944, vastly more weapons would have been built – with serious consequences for the Allied armies – if factory operations had been unimpeded.

The losses suffered by Bomber Command were monstrous. No fewer than 55,573 members of Bomber Command lost their lives during the Second World War, 47,268 on operations, but a further 8,305 on training and other non-combatant missions, representing in all one-quarter of all British military dead. Out of 199,091 Bomber Command aircraft dispatched on raids during the war, 6,440 (or 3.2 percent) failed to return. The USAAF lost 26,000 men, or 12.4 percent of its bomber crews.

For the British the death toll was roughly the same number as British officers killed in the Great War or American soldiers killed in Vietnam, although it represents a far higher attrition rate than either.

Germany had 50,000 anti-aircraft guns protecting the Reich. Mid-air explosions, collisions and crash-landings were usually lethal, sitting as close as the air crew were to hundreds of gallons of high-octane fuel and tons of high explosive. Fighters could come from any angle, were always far faster than the bombers and could often see their prey caught in searchlights below or by flares above the bombers. The RAF’s Cyril March vividly recalled what it was like in his Avro Lancaster on the way to bombing Böhlen when ‘suddenly a string of flares lit up above us, lightening the sky into daylight… they continued until there was a double row for miles on our track. We knew fighters were dropping them, but where were they, behind, above or below the flares? Our eyes must have been like saucers looking for them. It was like walking down a well-lit road in the nude.’

An indication of the amount of time spent in the air on operations can be seen from the flight logbook of an Avro Lancaster rear-gunner, Bruce Wyllie, who served in Bomber Command’s 57 Squadron based in East Kirkby in Lincolnshire. The twenty-two-year-old Wyllie’s first operation was none other than the Dresden raid of 13 February 1945, which involved a 10¼-hour round-journey. The very next night he bombed Rositz (9 hours 50 minutes), then on 19 February Böhlen (8 hours 25 minutes), then the following night Mittland (6 hours 50 minutes), and on 24 February he took part in the daylight bombing of Ladbergen, which took 4 hours 50 minutes. In the space of only eleven days, therefore, this young Bomber Command ‘tail-end Charlie’, as rear-gunners were nicknamed – whose service record has been chosen entirely at random – took part in no fewer than five operations totalling over forty hours’ flying time. On top of nearly sixteen hours’ daytime and six hours’ night-time training flights since 3 February 1945, Wyllie was in the air an average of nearly three hours a day for three weeks, with about two-thirds of that time spent in mortal danger.

The courage of the men who flew hundreds of miles over many hours in the noisy, dark, cramped, freezing, unpressurized bombers filled with cables and sharp-edged objects, being fired at by anti-aircraft flak and attacked by fighter aircraft, was immeasurable. Often defensive action could not be taken against flak over the targets, as the bombardiers (or bomb aimers) needed a steady platform to achieve accuracy.

One of the only defenses the pilot of a heavy bomber had against the attentions of a fighter coming from astern was to corkscrew the plane into a 300mph diving turn that the fighter could not follow, before dragging it up sharply in the other direction. Bullet-holes through fuel tanks could lead to disastrous leakages, and air crew were often lynched on the ground – as ‘pirate-pilots’ in Hitler’s phrase – by German civilians, always supposing they managed to use their parachutes. On returning to base, ball-turret gunners under the planes were sometimes crushed to death when mechanical malfunctions trapped them inside their plastic cages and the planes’ wheels could not be lowered owing to damaged electrical systems.

The heavy losses in Bomber Command led to Churchill calling for press censorship in the War Cabinet on 21 September 1942. After Portal had given an extensive summary of the war in the air, the Prime Minister was recorded as arguing that ‘losses of bombers continue to be announced. Enormous convenience to Germany. Say we’ve done it for a long time but since it’s a great advantage to enemy after such and such a date we’ll not do it any more.’ He didn’t mind the RAF knowing the figures, and would tell the House of Commons in secret sessions, but he didn’t see why the totals should be announced after each raid. Yet the Cabinet preferred to rely on responsible self-censorship by news organizations rather than impose control centrally. For the most part their trust was justified, and information did not tend to be broadcast that was of use to the enemy, in terms either of morale or of operations.

The bombing offensive had its opponents within the British High Command, not simply because of its high cost in air crew but also because the resources it took up were enormous, and many strategists thought these could be better employed elsewhere, specifically in the immediate support of military operations on land and sea.

On the day that Singapore fell to Japan, for example, the Director of Military Operations at the War Office, Major-General John Kennedy, recommended simply ending the bombing of Germany and instead using the planes this freed up ‘for essential air reinforcement’ in Ceylon, Burma, Australia, New Zealand, India and the eastern Mediterranean. He considered the bombing campaign against Germany to be ‘ineffective and… beyond our means’. A month later there was a major allocations debate in the War Cabinet’s Defence Committee, chaired by Churchill, which was summed up (with evident bias) by Kennedy: ‘The Air Ministry want to go on with their main bombing policy and leave the other services, particularly the Army, in their present lamentable state.’ At no stage did Kennedy, Brooke or anyone else in the decision-making reaches of the High Command ever employ humanitarian considerations among their reasons for why the aerial bombardment policy was mistaken.

Brooke’s fear was that by diverting resources, raw materials (especially iron and steel), money, manpower and fuel on such a huge scale for the bombing offensive over Germany, the RAF was denuding equally worthwhile causes, such as tank production. If bombers were to be produced in such large quantities, he and others also thought, then more ought to be used against U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic and against Rommel in North Africa rather than just in bombing German cities night after night. That said, nearly one-third of all German ships sunk in European waters were by mines laid by plane.

The Germans entered the conflict with highly trained pilots, and until 1942 most of the Luftwaffe’s aircraft were superior to those of the RAF or USAAF; the Japanese and Italians also had some good types. ‘With the start the Germans had, it was a miracle we ever caught up,’ said British bomber group commander Edward Addison. The Luftwaffe’s close support for the Wehrmacht was a key factor in German victories between 1939 and 1942. Göring’s squadrons failed, however, as a strategic bomber force. Thereafter, Germany’s air force suffered a steady decline: when the first generation of Axis airmen was killed off, training of their successors languished.

The Luftwaffe had formidable capabilities for supporting their ground forces and navy, as well as for killing refugees and promoting terror, but their aircraft carried small bomb loads. The Luftwaffe inflicted pain and destruction during the 1940-41 blitz on Britain, but nowhere near sufficient to make a decisive impact on the ability of Churchill’s nation to continue the war.

The Germans made a critical strategic mistake, to which a lack of fuel contributed, by failing to allocate resources to sustain a flow of proficient pilots. By 1944-45, Axis flying skills had become markedly inferior to those of their American and British counterparts.

The first two heavy four-engined bombers used early in the war, the Short Stirling and Avro Manchester, were rather sub-standard aircraft; certainly neither was as good as the prewar medium two-engined Vickers Wellington, which was the major aircraft used in the first Thousand-Bomber Raid, launched against Cologne in May 1942. In ninety minutes over Cologne, 1,046 planes dropped 1,455 tons of high explosive and 915 tons of incendiary bombs, destroying thirty-six factories, killing 500 civilians and injuring 5,000. Some 45,000 civilians were also made homeless.

As only forty-one planes, in the phrase of the day, ‘failed to return’, it was considered a tremendous success and trumpeted as such in the press. The Times, with pardonable inaccuracy, thundered, ‘Biggest Air Attack of the War. 2,000 Tons of Bombs in 40 Minutes’. Posters were produced with the caption: ‘British Bombers Now Attack Germany a Thousand at a Time!’, so popular was the campaign with the public. It was popular with Churchill too: on 1 June he told the War Cabinet that he congratulated Portal and Harris on the fact that ‘over a thousand [bombers] left this island and almost as many go tonight – Great manifestation of air power. The United States like it very much. Give us bigger action early next month.’ Eleven days after the Cologne raid, Harris was knighted.

Albert Speer and the Director of Air Armament, Field Marshal Erhard Milch, met Hermann Göring at his Veldenstein Castle in Franconia the morning after the raid on Cologne. They heard Göring being put through on the telephone to the city’s Gauleiter, Joseph Grohé, and telling him: ‘The report from your police commissioner is a stinking lie! I tell you as the Reichsmarschall that the figures cited are simply too high. How can you dare report such fantasies to the Führer!’ He insisted that the number of incendiary bombs reported was ‘many times too high. All wrong!’ and demanded that a new one be sent to Hitler which agreed with his own, much lower estimates. After this rant he showed Speer and Milch – who knew the truth as well as he did – around the Castle, pointing out the ‘magnificent citadel’ he intended to build there. ‘But first of all he wanted to have a reliable air-raid shelter built,’ noted Speer. ‘The plans for that were already drawn up.’ Göring certainly did not want to be on the receiving end of what had apparently not just happened to Cologne.

While damage to the city proved temporary, the political reaction in Britain to the first ‘Thousand Bomber’ attack was enthusiastic. And while this was the only time in 1942 that Bomber Command could marshal this level of effort, its capabilities steadily grew, while the German leadership persisted in underestimating the danger in the skies.

The US Eighth Air Force started its major daylight bombing campaign in August 1942, using twelve 1,200hp-engined Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses to attack Rouen’s railway marshalling yards. The raid was led by Brigadier-General Ira C. Eaker and included Major Paul W. Tibbets Jr, who was later to fly the B-29 which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The system whereby the British bombed at night and the Americans during the day meant that the Germans had no respite round the clock, with all the greatly increased worry, fear, exhaustion and trauma that implied. French targets, where fighter cover could be provided, proved easier than the more distant German ones, where it could not always be.

Despite their having formidable defenses which were continually being improved, the Flying Fortresses were in constant danger from German fighters. Nonetheless the B-17G could fly at 287 mph at 25,000 feet and carry 3 tons of bombs up to 2,000 miles. Its gunners were protected against sub-zero temperatures with electrically heated boots and gloves, and wore ‘flak aprons’ of manganese steel squares for protection.

During 1943, Bomber Command’s night offensive grew dramatically in strength, and the USAAF began to deploy formidable forces. Its chief, Gen. ‘Hap’ Arnold, brilliantly promoted his service’s expansion, ‘supported as he was by a thoroughly able and quite unscrupulous staff’, in the words of an admiring British colleague. The USAAF’s wartime manpower rose from 20,000 to two million, from seventeen air bases to 345, and from 2,470 aircraft to 80,000, while the US Navy acquired 7,500 planes of its own. A steadily growing proportion of American bomber strength was deployed against Germany from British bases.

After serious initial disagreements over the prioritization of targets, the Casablanca Conference of January 1943 inaugurated the unambiguously codenamed Operation Pointblank, a joint bombing program designed to intensify ‘the heaviest possible bombing offensive against the German war effort’, to be known as the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO). This established the priority targets as (in descending order): Germany’s U-boat pens, her aircraft industry, railways and roads, her oil industry and then other targets such as Berlin, north Italian industry and warships in harbor.

General Eaker, who took over Eighth Air Force from General Carl ‘Tooey’ Spaatz in December 1942, assumed that this meant precision bombing would also be adopted by the RAF, but Portal and Harris continued to pursue their policy of night-time area bombing of the Ruhr, Berlin and other major cities.

The directive was ambiguous, in that it was clearly necessary to bomb cities in order to bring about what the Combined Chiefs of Staff ordered should be ‘the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened’. That could not be achieved by precision attacks on ball-bearing and synthetic-oil factories, Portal and Harris argued, and could clearly only be done by the kind of bombing they were already pursuing.

Attacks on the U-boat yards at Lorient and Brest were regularly made in force after Casablanca, without inflicting any worthwhile damage on the massive reinforced concrete submarine pens. Once Dönitz withdrew from the Atlantic in May 1943, this first priority fell further down the list. At the Trident Conference in Washington that month, Pointblank was redefined to concentrate more on the destruction of the Luftwaffe’s fighter arm in the air, on the ground and in production, as this was ‘essential to our progression to the attack of other sources of the enemy war potential’. Yet for all that the Combined Chiefs might want precision attacks, which the Fifteenth Air Force did undertake from the Foggia air bases in Italy later that year, Harris was given enough leeway to continue with the general area bombing that he fervently believed would bring victory soonest.

If the High Command, including Churchill, Brooke and Portal, who all complained privately about Harris, had wanted to pursue precision bombing, they could have simply ordered him to alter his targeting policy, to the point of sacking him if he refused. They did not.

Allied plans certainly did hit precision targets, such as the rocket factories at Peenemünde in August 1943 and the Tirpitz on several occasions from September to November 1944. Also, on the night of Sunday, 16 May 1943 Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s 617 Squadron breached the Möhne and Eder dams of the Ruhr, dropping specially designed bouncing and spinning Upkeep bombs with incredible precision from only 60 feet above the water. The bombing of the Ruhr and Hamburg suddenly brought the monthly growth in German armaments production crashing down. Although the German war economy was still producing as much in 1944 as it had in May 1943, the all-important rates of increase were never to recover.

Between March 1943 and April 1944 the Krupp factory in the Ruhr lost 20 percent of production, which was ‘far below’ what British propaganda was making out at the time, but very significant nonetheless. Yet that was only one site, and overall the results were mixed: in Essen, although 88 percent of its housing had been destroyed or badly damaged, and 7,000 inhabitants killed, the intensive post-war investigations discovered that production had somehow continued, through German bravery and ingenuity, until March 1945, when it was overrun.

At the end of January 1945 Albert Speer found that in 1944 Allied bombing had meant that Germany produced 35 percent fewer tanks than he had wanted to build and Germany required, as well as 31 percent fewer aircraft and 42 percent fewer lorries. In a sense those figures alone justify the Allies’ CBO, as the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe were capable of achieving tremendous results in counterattack when they had enough tanks and aircraft.

In 1943, the German economy staggered in the face of the combined pressures of shortages of coal, steel and manpower, compounded by massive destruction in the Ruhr achieved by Bomber Command and the USAAF. This was the first year in which the air offensive inflicted significant damage on the Nazi war machine.

The estimation that the entire Combined Bomber Offensive of 1944 reduced German gross industrial production by only 10 percent seems damning, in view of the sacrifice in Allied servicemen’s lives, the cost in resources in building the 21,000 bombers that were destroyed and of course the deaths by bombing of around 720,000 German, Italian and French civilians throughout the war. Yet the entire campaign took up only about 7 percent of Britain’s war effort.

In late July and early August 1943, four bombing raids on Hamburg over ten days codenamed Gomorrah led to the deaths of between 30,000 and 50,000 people. On 27 July a navigational error sent 787 RAF planes 2 miles to the east of the intended target, Hamburg’s city center, and over the closely packed tenement buildings of its working population instead. The release of thousands of strips of aluminium foil, codenamed Window, blinded the radar on which the German night-fighters and anti aircraft artillery depended, allowing the raiders more time to do their work. Hamburg had been experiencing a freak heatwave, and the hot, dry weather, when combined with the flames from high-explosive and incendiary bombs, created a firestorm inferno that reached 1,600 degrees Celsius and reduced to ashes all in its path. The surviving population fled the city, spreading panic throughout the region.

‘Hamburg had put the fear of God in me,’ admitted Speer, who predicted to Hitler that ‘a series of attacks of this sort, extended to six more major cities, would bring Germany’s armaments production to a total halt.’ The Führer merely replied: ‘You’ll straighten all that out again.’ Goebbels was as worried as Speer, writing in his diary of the ‘most serious consequences both for the civilian population and for armaments production. This attack definitely shatters the illusions that many have had about the continuation of air operations by the enemy. Unfortunately we shot down very few planes – twelve, all told… It is a real catastrophe… It is believed that new quarters must be found for about 150,000 to 200,000. I don’t know at this time of writing how we are going to solve that problem.’

‘We were told the British [bombers] would avoid Hamburg because they would need the town and its harbor later on,’ one of its traumatised citizens, Mathilde Wolff-Monckeburg, wrote amid the rubble. ‘We lived in a fool’s paradise.’ The inhabitants of Germany’s cities experienced a scale of terror and devastation far beyond anything the Luftwaffe inflicted on Britain in 1940-41: a successful bomber attack unleashed a vision of hell. Mathilde Wolff-Monckeburg wrote from Hamburg during its July 1943 firestorm: ‘For two whole hours this ear-splitting terror goes on and all you can see is fire. No one speaks. Tense faces wait for the worst at every gargantuan explosion. Heads go down automatically whenever there is a crash, and features are trapped in horror.’

With Hamburg’s defenses blinded and its location on an estuary easily identified through navigational aids, British bombers achieved devastating accuracy. The weather conditions were perfect: hot, dry, and clear. And defenses were helpless. Within 20 minutes from the time the first Pathfinder markers illuminated the target area in the center of the city, downtown Hamburg exploded in flames. The growing pyre was fed by some of the Reich’s largest lumber yards, and succeeding bombers had no difficulty finding their target and unloading their bombs.

In some areas rescuers found only ashes as the remains of those who had sought shelter from the bombing: the heat had entirely incinerated the bodies. At least 40,000 Germans died. More than half of the city’s living space, 75 percent of its electric works, 60 percent of its water system, and 90 percent of its gas works were destroyed. Following the raids, industrial production fell 40 percent for large firms and 80 percent for medium and small concerns.

An Eighth Air Force raid of 376 planes against the ball-bearing factories of Schweinfurt attracted the attentions of 300 German fighters around Frankfurt. Twenty-one Flying Fortresses were shot down before the air armada even reached Schweinfurt, and overall the raid led to the loss of sixty B-17s. In October the Americans bravely, if foolhardily, decided to return to Schweinfurt with nearly 300 bombers, only to suffer yet heavier carnage, with another sixty bombers destroyed and 138 damaged. In the aftermath of this defeat, the USAAF was forced to suspend daylight raids until it developed a long-range fighter that could escort its bombers and protect them from German fighters.

German ball bearing production was badly hit – dropping 38 percent by Speer’s estimates after the first raid and 67 percent after the second – but was made up after a few weeks by using different bearing types, slide rather than ball, and buying in more from the ever helpful (and well-paid) Swedes and Swiss.

By late 1943 the Americans had got their fighter, and began to mass-produce the single-seater, 437 mph, P-51B Mustang to escort their bombers as far as Berlin and back, and take on anything the Luftwaffe had at the time. Once the Mustangs established dominance over the German skies, shooting down large numbers of Messerschmitts flown by experienced Luftwaffe pilots, thereby allowing Allied bombers to destroy Luftwaffe factories, the next stage was to destroy the synthetic-oil factories without which new German pilots could not even complete their air training.

Auxiliary fuel tanks that could be jettisoned were the key to flying the long distances, and the fastest version, the P-51H, could reach 487 mph. Although Mustangs had been used operationally by the RAF since before America entered the war, by 1944 the constant updating of the prototype (the D model with its bubble canopy was the most recognizable) had produced a plane that could tip the balance of the air war over Germany.

Even the very existence of these American super-fighters with improved fuel capacity produced a stand-up row between Göring and his Fighter Arm commander General Adolf Galland. After Galland had warned Hitler that the Mustangs would be able to escort American bombers far deeper into German territory than ever before, Göring ‘snapped’ at him, saying: ‘That’s nonsense, Galland, what gives you such fantasies? That’s pure bluff!’ Galland replied: ‘Those are the facts, Herr Reichsmarschall! American fighters have been shot down over Aachen. There is no doubt about it!’ ‘That is simply not true,’ retorted Göring. ‘That’s impossible.’ When Galland suggested that he inspect the wreckages for himself, Göring replied that they might have glided ‘quite a distance further before they crashed’. Galland then pointed out that the planes would hardly have glided further into the Reich, as opposed to away from it, whereupon Göring left the meeting on his special train, saying: ‘I officially assert that the American fighter planes did not reach Aachen.’ Galland’s reply was simply: ‘Orders are orders, sir!’

The Mustang would have faced a mighty competitor, however, if Hitler had concentrated on producing the twin-engine Messerschmitt Me-262. The speed of this jet-powered fighter, along with its relative stability in flight, suggests that it offered the best possibility of efficient defense for Germany. Yet Hitler saw it as part of the campaign against London and the southern English invasion ports, rather than as a fighter that could protect Germany from the Allied bombing offensive. As a result of German air production being dispersed into smaller units, and the alterations Hitler had ordered, the Me-262 did not arrive until March 1944, and even then in numbers that were far too small to make a difference.

The conversion and the development of new bombing mechanisms took up valuable production time, while the acquisition of bomb-loads drastically slowed down the plane’s top speeds. Hitler saw it as a new Stuka, rather than an entirely new kind of warplane, which potentially it was.

With the American destruction of oil facilities and Luftwaffe targets, the Reich did not have the fuel to train pilots, and many brand-new models were destroyed on the ground anyway. A similarly promising warplane project, the Arado 234, which could reach speeds of 500 mph, saw only 200 produced before the Red Army captured the factory where its production had been moved in the east, for fear of bombing from the west.

Although the RAF inflicted huge damage on Germany, it was left to the USAAF to achieve the most important victory of the air war, in February 1944, by means which surprised its own commanders. The Mustang long range fighter became available in large numbers. The USAAF embarked on a major campaign against aircraft factories, pounding them for six consecutive days of ‘Big Week’ in February, and forcing the Luftwaffe to commit every available fighter to their defense.

It quickly became plain that the ground destruction achieved by the bombers was less significant than the startling success of American pilots in air combat. In a single month, the Luftwaffe lost one-third of its fighters and one-fifth of its aircrew. In March, half the Germans’ remaining air strength was destroyed; in April 43 percent of residual capability; in May and June 50 percent.

On the night of 30 March 1944, some 795 Allied aircraft devastated Nuremberg city center, but at very serious loss – mainly of Canadian air crew – with ninety-five aircraft shot down and seventy-one damaged. After this reversal, the policy of heavy night-time raids on Germany was suspended, which was due to happen anyway in order to help prepare for the invasion of Normandy.

The word Nuremberg meant many things in the relatively short period covered by the Nazi experiment. Originally it denoted the vast rallies held there in the late 1930s, then the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws, then a city that was devastated by Allied bombing, and finally the place where the International Military Tribunal brought the worst of the surviving Nazis to justice.

The policy on bombing Germany and her allies also affected grand strategy. A principal argument for landing on mainland Italy, besides capturing Rome, tying down eighteen German divisions and keeping Allied forces occupied with a successful land campaign prior to D-Day, was to capture the Foggia air bases in eastern Italy from where southern European targets could be more easily bombed than from England and Sicily.

General George Marshall wrote to President Roosevelt to explain that ‘The fall of Foggia has come exactly at the time when it is needed to complement our Bomber Offensive now hammering Germany from bases in the UK. As winter sets in over northern Europe, our heavy bombers operating from the dozen or more (13) air bases in the Foggia Area will strike again and again at the heart of German production, not only in Germany proper but in Austria, Hungary and Romania. For our bombers operating from England, this aerial “Second Front” will be a great assistance.’

Differences between the RAF and USAAF emerged occasionally, but not to the extent that they affected operations. These were the inevitable turf wars found in any great conflict, and not evidence of a genuine rift between the RAF and USAAF, whose division of labor between daylight and night-time bombing automatically solved a number of possible operational problems.

Trafford Leigh-Mallory, reporting from Washington, indeed writing on USAAF HQ paper, told air force officer Charles Portal about a lunch he had with the Chief of the US Air Staff, Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold. Leigh-Mallory reported that Arnold could not understand why with air superiority the RAF had not destroyed the Luftwaffe in France. ‘I managed to keep my temper and explain to General Arnold how air operations are carried out and how the German Air Force fights.’ Arnold claimed that the British figures were ‘hopelessly inaccurate’, and ‘also delivered a tirade against the short range of the Spitfire, and seemed to think we lacked vision in the design of our fighters and were not alive to the developments of the war. I did my best to overcome this prejudiced outlook.’ The very next day Air Marshal Sir William Welsh also wrote to Portal, this time from the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington: ‘I feel sure that the fundamental misunderstanding between us and the Americans is the constant feeling in their minds that they are always “outsmarted” by us and that we do not recognise what a great country theirs is.’

Roosevelt’s closest confidant Harry Hopkins had dinner with Welsh and spoke about Arnold, explaining that he ‘was not a great staff officer or strategist, that he was lost when dealing with the Chiefs of Staff, but that he was a born leader and a terrific fighter who had the whole of the air force behind him’. He said that Arnold was ‘bitter against the British Air Force, because we had all the important commands – in the United Kingdom, Mediterranean and India’, and added that Arnold ‘was determined to get one of these for an American, and it was only natural that he should, because America was building the greatest Air Force in the world and… her production far outstripped ours… All this was constantly drumming in Arnold’s mind.’

In March 1944 the Americans began daylight raids on Berlin, which was now being pounded almost round the clock. From mid-1944 there was a significant diversion of the bombing effort away from hitting German cities towards supporting the Normandy landings, and in particular trying to cut off German retaliation by road and rail. This was given the hardly impenetrable codename of Transportation Plan. The massive bombing of targets in north-west France, many of them far from Normandy, as a feint to convince the Germans that the attack was going to come further north, is estimated to have cost between 80,000 and 160,000 (mainly French civilian) casualties.

At a meeting at St Paul’s School in Hammersmith, London, on 15 May 1944, when the entire Allied top brass met to go over the plans for Operation Overlord, the invasion of France, the First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, who sat between Churchill and Admiral Stark, recalled that ‘Bomber Harris complained what a nuisance this Overlord operation was and how it interfered with the right way to defeat Germany, i.e. by bombing.’ Harris was also characteristically blunt about Churchill’s scientific adviser Solly Zuckerman, who on another occasion had proposed a plan to suspend the area-bombing campaign altogether for three months, describing him as ‘a civilian professor whose peacetime forte is the study of the sexual aberrations of the higher apes’.

After a War Cabinet in April 1944 Cunningham wrote of how there had been ‘Considerable sob stuff about children with legs blown off and blinded old ladies but nothing about the saving of risk to our young soldiers landing on a hostile shore. It is of course intended to issue warnings beforehand.’ Ten days later the Defence Committee returned to the theme, prompting Cunningham to report again to his diary: ‘The expected casualties were grossly exaggerated but apparently it is all right to kill 1,100 French people per week. Still I agree with the RAF policy for want of having a better and more useful one propounded.’

Less than a week away from the proposed landings, Anthony Eden told the War Cabinet that there was a worrying reaction from the French and Belgians about the heavy pre-Overlord bombing campaign. Portal reported to the War Cabinet that ‘95% of RAF show finished; US got 50% to do.’ Lord Cherwell, the government’s scientific adviser, pointed out that Swiss newspapers which had hitherto been consistently friendly towards Britain were now full of denunciations. ‘I don’t think it was the right policy,’ said Churchill, in one of the few times that he was recorded saying such a thing in the verbatim reports. This seems to have represented the start of a process by which Churchill subtly distanced himself from what were later to be considered by many the ‘excesses’ of Bomber Command. Since he normally would not have cared a hoot for the views of the Swiss press, the subject must have been weighing on him.

After D-Day, further efforts were made by the Americans – with large numbers of B-24 bombers now joining the B-17s – to shift concentration towards attacking German synthetic oil supplies. Harris opposed this too and won. Between October 1944 and the end of the war, more than 40 percent of the 344,000 tons of bombs dropped by the RAF on Germany hit cities rather than purely military targets, even though the Allies had complete aerial superiority and the RAF could bomb their targets in daylight once again.

Portal now wanted Bomber Command to concentrate on oil and transportation targets, which Harris still considered mere ‘panacea targets’. Yet the debate was only ever about the efficacy of the bombing offensive, not its morality, over which neither man had any doubts. Nor did Portal feel strong enough simply to order Harris to alter his targets, in the face of his immensely popular lieutenant’s opposition.

In the last years of the war, Bomber Command continued to be hugely enlarged. Despite losses, the thirty-three squadrons with which it had begun the war had expanded to ninety-five by its end. As usual, Canada made a disproportionate contribution to the war effort: RCAF squadrons made up the entirety of No. 6 Bomber Group, for example, which comprised fourteen squadrons and in 1944 flew 25,353 operational sorties, dropping 86,503 tons of bombs and mines with the lowest loss percentages of four-engined aircraft in the whole of Bomber Command. In all, one in four members of Bomber Command came from the overseas dominions, of whom no fewer than 15,661 did not live to see their native Australia, Canada, New Zealand or South Africa again.

From February 1945, German west-to-east troop movements were being disrupted at the Russians’ urgent request by the Western Allies bombing the nodal points of Germany’s transportation system, including Berlin, Chemnitz, Leipzig and Dresden. It was to be the raid on Dresden that was to cause the most furious controversy of the entire CBO, which lasts to this day. At the time, however, the bombing of Dresden was not a major issue. The massive attack on Dresden just after 10 o’clock on the night of Tuesday, 13 February 1945 has proved particularly controversial. It has long been assumed that a disproportionately large number of people died in a vengeance attack that had little or no strategic or military purpose. Yet although the attack on the city center was undeniably devastating, there were many war industries centered in this architectural jewel of southern Germany.

During the Yalta Conference of February 1945, the Chiefs of Staff meetings were held at Stalin’s headquarters, the Yusupov Villa at Koreiz, 6 miles from the Livadia Palace at Yalta where FDR stayed and where the plenary sessions took place. The British delegation stayed in ‘the slightly odd Moorish–Scottish baronial style’ Vorontsov Villa Palace overlooking the Black Sea at Alupka, 12 miles from the Livadia Palace. Alan Brooke was chairing the Chiefs of Staff meeting at the Yusupov Villa the day after the opening session when the Russian Deputy Chief of Staff Alexei Antonov and the Soviet air marshal Sergei Khudyakov ‘pressed the subject of [bombing German] lines of communication and entrainment, specifically via Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden’.

The 2,680 tons of bombs dropped on Dresden laid waste to over 13 square miles of the city, and many of those killed were women, children, the old and some of the several hundred thousand refugees fleeing from the Red Army, which was only 60 miles to the east. ‘They were… suffocated, burnt, baked or boiled,’ writes the military historian Allan Mallinson. ‘Boiled’ was not an exaggeration: piles of corpses had to be pulled out of a giant fire-service water tank where people had jumped to escape the flames but instead were boiled alive.

The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden the night it was bombed, and had to dig corpses out of the ruined city the morning afterwards. In his novel Slaughterhouse Five, which can be described only as semi-autobiographical because he is abducted by aliens and travels through time, the hero Billy Pilgrim nonetheless recalls how before the raid he had been ‘enchanted by the architecture of the city. Merry amoretti wove garlands above windows. Roguish fauns and naked nymphs peeked down at Billy from festooned cornices. Stone monkeys frisked among scrolls and seashells and bamboo.’ Yet when Pilgrim and his German guards emerged at noon the day after the bombing, ‘the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.’ Pilgrim notices what seemed like ‘little logs lying around’, which had been people who had been caught in the firestorm. Houses were just ‘ashes and dollops of melted glass’. Digging corpses out of the rubble, ‘They didn’t smell bad at first, were wax museums. But then the bodies rotted and liquefied, and the stink was like roses and mustard gas.’ After a while, bodies were no longer excavated. ‘They were cremated by soldiers with flame-throwers right where they were. The soldiers stood outside the shelters, and simply sent the fire in.’

Kurt Vonnegut claimed that ‘around 130,000’ people died in the bombing of Dresden, but he took his figures from the former historian David Irving’s 1964 book The Destruction of Dresden, numbers which have long been disproven. The true figure was probably around 20,000, as a special commission of thirteen prominent German historians, headed by the respected Rolf-Dieter Müller, has concluded. Claims by the Nazis at the time, and by post-war neo-Nazis since, that human bodies completely disappeared in the high temperatures, have been shown by the commission to be false.

As the foremost historian of the operation, Frederick Taylor, has pointed out, Dresden ‘was by the standards of the time a legitimate military target’. As a nodal point for communications, with its railway marshalling yards and conglomeration of war industries –its pre-war industry based on porcelain, typewriters and cameras had been converted into an extensive network of armaments workshops, particularly in the vital optics, electronics and communications fields – the city was always going to be in danger once long-range penetration by bombers with good fighter escort was possible.

The Nazi authorities in Dresden, and in particular its Gauleiter Martin Mutschmann, had failed to provide proper air-raid protection. There were inadequate shelters, sirens failed to work and next to no anti-aircraft guns were stationed there. When Mutschmann fell into Allied hands at the end of the war he quickly confessed that ‘A shelter-building program for the entire city was not carried out’, because ‘I kept hoping that nothing would happen to Dresden.’ He nonetheless had two deep reinforced concrete shelters built for himself, his family and senior officials, just in case he had been mistaken. Even though in the previous October, 270 people had been killed there by thirty USAAF bombers, the Germans thought Dresden too far east to be reached, since the Russians left the bombing of Germany almost entirely to the British and Americans. Quite why Mutschmann thought that, almost alone of large cities, Dresden should have been immune to Allied bombing is a mystery, for the Germans had themselves designated it ‘a military defensive area’.

With his honed political instinct, Churchill could see that the Combined Bomber Offensive would provide a future line of attack against his prosecution of the war, and on 28 March 1945 he wrote to the Chiefs of Staff to put it on record that: ‘It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land. We shall not, for instance, be able to get housing materials out of Germany for our own needs because some temporary provisions would have to be made for the Germans themselves. The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing… I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives… rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.’ Harris, who had had considerable misgivings about the operation because of the long distances involved, was nonetheless characteristically blunt in defending the destruction of a city that once produced Meissen porcelain: ‘The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden could be easily explained by a psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses. Actually Dresden was a mass of munition works, an intact government center and a key transportation center. It is now none of those things.’

Although the Blitz on London and other British cities in 1940-41 did not break civilian morale as it was in part intended to do – instead it stiffened it – the bombing was far lighter and shorter-lived than the retribution against Germany from 1940 to 1945, which certainly did leave very many Germans in despair. Defeatism was ever present, especially after D-Day, but unsurprisingly kept private in a totalitarian state where spreading it was a capital offence.

A total of 955,044 tons of bombs were dropped by Bomber Command during the war, and this was bound to have a demoralizing effect, but overall it was the dawning knowledge that Germany not only was not going to win the war, but was instead going to be defeated, that wrecked morale in the Reich.

The Nazi regime was driven to increasingly desperate expedients to explain to its own people their vulnerability to air assault. Newspaper headlines after the May 1943 dams raid asserted that it was ‘the work of Jews’. The public was unconvinced: security police reported that many citizens merely asked why the Luftwaffe was incapable of such achievements. In June a municipal foreman in Hagen watched a British night raid on nearby Wuppertal: ‘Hundreds of flak guns are roaring away … The air is humming with many aircraft engines. There are innumerable searchlights wandering around the sky. It’s raining shrapnel … There are five enemy aircraft caught in a searchlight cone; they fly towards us, are furiously shot at, and fly past above us. Later we see an aircraft going down in flames. The whole thing goes on for an hour and a half … In the west the sky is red … Long convoys of trucks come through the town, laden with all kinds of household goods. Distraught people sit beside their few belongings. Refugees are arriving at the main station. They stand there with their fire-blackened faces, owning nothing more than they stand up in. It’s total misery. The mood in the town is dire. Everywhere there’s the question being asked: when will it be our turn?’

Whereas the Luftwaffe flattened 400 acres of London, the RAF and USAAF turned 6,247 acres of Berlin into little more than rubble. Total War did not allow for what is today called ‘a proportionate response’. No fewer than sixty major German industrial cities suffered colossal material damage during the Second World War.

As bombing intensified and civilian morale slumped, oppression and compulsion were employed ever more ruthlessly to sustain Nazi hegemony. In 1943, the courts passed a hundred death sentences a week on citizens deemed guilty of defeatism or sabotage: two branch managers of Deutsche Bank and a senior executive of an electricity combine were among those executed for expressing gloom about the war’s outcome.

Bombing did not effect the decisive impact upon civilian morale that the British aspired to achieve: factories continued to produce and orders were still obeyed, just as in Britain in 1940-41. It was always an irony, rooted in brashly chauvinistic assumptions, that the RAF set out to do to Germany just what the Luftwaffe had failed to do to Churchill’s people. But the misery of urban Germans became very great.

Germany’s city-dwellers were obliged to spend up to half of each twenty four hours in cellars and shelters. Nazi officials’ exploitation of privileged access to the best-protected refuges caused widespread resentment. In a public shelter in Bochum, party members were reported to have ‘made themselves comfortable with a few crates of beer’ while less fortunate citizens were exposed to the fury of bombardment. A twenty two-year-old Luftwaffe woman auxiliary described her disgust about the experience of a night in a Krefeld public bunker in November 1944: ‘At the front of the room men and women of all ages were knocking back schnapps … Thick clouds of tobacco smoke make sleep impossible. From one corner there came a jumble of noise of women shrieking and men mumbling drunkenly … Children and old people lay asleep among the adults, wrapped in woollen blankets and tattered rags, on wooden plank beds or in chairs. Everywhere there were slumped, exhausted bodies and haggard faces … a terrible fug of the smell of dirty underclothes, sweat and stale air almost took your breath away. A long way away a child was quietly weeping, while from the other side there came the sound of snoring and groaning.’

The grotesqueries of destruction were boundless. Ursula Gebel wrote of a November 1943 attack on Berlin, during which many bombs fell on the city zoo. ‘That afternoon … I had been at the elephant enclosure and had seen the six females and one juvenile doing tricks with their keeper. That same night, all seven were burnt alive … The hippopotamus bull survived in his basin, [but] all the bears, polar bears, camels, ostriches, birds of prey and other birds were burnt. The tanks in the aquarium all ran dry; the crocodiles escaped, but like the snakes they froze in the cold November air. All that survived in the zoo was the bull elephant named Siam, the bull hippo and a few apes.’

Some of the bravest, best-educated and most highly trained scions of their societies became rivals in a struggle to devastate their enemies’ centers of civilization. Neither they nor their commanders saw the mission in such terms, of course. Aircrew thought not of victims on the ground, unconsidered because rarely visible, but instead about their own destinies above. In exchange for a passage to the sky, they accepted an enhanced risk of death, as well as a responsibility to shoot, bomb and strafe.

Geoff Wellum, who flew a Spitfire for the first time as an eighteen-year-old on the eve of the Battle of Britain, described the sensation: ‘I experience an exhilaration that I cannot recall ever having felt before. It’s like one of those wonderful dreams, a Peter Pan sort of dream. The whole thing feels unreal … What a pity … that an aeroplane that can impart such a glorious feeling of sheer joy and beauty has got to be used to fight somebody.’

New Yorker Harold Dorfman, who survived a tour as a B-24 navigator over Germany, said later: ‘I would not trade the experience for anything in the world.’ At a USAAF base in England, Corporal Ira Wells, a B-24 gunner, read accounts of ground fighting and thought with pity of Allied soldiers: ‘We had all the glory. I realised how fortunate we were to be in the air. I was more frightened in London during the V2 rocket attacks than in the air on missions.’ Dorfman and Wells were relatively unusual, because few bomber aircrew enjoyed their work in the way that many fighter pilots did. This was not because they agonised much, or at all, about the fate of those who died beneath their bomb doors; it was because flying for eight or ten hours either in daylight formation amid flak and fighters like the men of the USAAF, or through lonely darkness, as did those of the RAF, imposed relentless strain and frequent terror.

Although Laurie Stockwell was a sensitive young Englishman, it never occurred to him to question the ethics of his own part, as a pilot, in bombing Germany. Like almost all his kind, he simply saw himself performing, without fervor, an exceptionally hazardous role in a struggle to remove the dark threat bearing down upon Western civilization. He wrote to his mother in 1942: ‘I have never spoken to you of my feelings and thoughts about this war, and I hope I will never speak of them again. Do you remember a small boy saying he would be a conscientious objector if war came? Things happened to change that small boy’s view, talk of brutality, human suffering, atrocities, but that did not have any great effect on changing my mind, for I realize that we all are capable of doing these deeds of which we read so much nowadays. It is the fact that a few people wish to take freedom from the peoples of the earth that changed my views. News of atrocities only breeds hate, and hate is contemptible in my eyes. Why should I then fight in the war which only brings disgust into my thoughts? It is so that I might live in happiness and peace all my days with you … I am also fighting so that one day happiness will again rule the world, and with happiness that love of beauty, of life, contentment, fellowship among all men may return. You may have noticed that I have not mentioned fighting for one’s country, for the empire; that to me is just foolishness.’ Stockwell died over Berlin in January 1943.

Most young men conscripted for war service wanted to fly, but few achieved their aspirations. Air forces picked only the brightest and fittest adolescents for probable death. RAF navigator Ken Owen, a Welshman, said, ‘Perhaps a quarter of our sixth form at Pontypridd grammar school became aircrew; more than half of them were killed.’ Yet those accepted for flying duties exulted in their status as an elite: they received a popular adulation unmatched by any other breed of warrior.

An RAF squadron commander described Bomber Command’s early operations over Germany as ‘groping’. This was exemplified by the experience of Sgt. Bill Uprichard, who flew a Whitley of 51 Squadron on a mission against oil refineries at Politz on the Baltic in poor weather on the night of 29 November 1940. Outbound, after spending 2½ hours in thick cloud over the North Sea, suddenly the sky opened to reveal a brilliantly-lit city below. Uprichard and his crew realised they must be passing neutral Sweden, and hastily reset their course. They blind-bombed Politz by dead-reckoning – estimating their own time over target – then turned for home in impenetrable cloud. Without warning they found themselves facing heavy anti-aircraft fire. Uprichard wrote: ‘I woke up! The wind had been stronger than I thought and we were flying a course taking us straight over the heavily defended Friesian Islands. We crossed the North Sea still in cloud and it was difficult to get a pinpoint on anything. I spent a lot of time – probably too much – flying up and along the Yorkshire coast hoping to see a break. It was raining heavily … By this time our fuel was very low – only about 20 mins. left – so for the first time I put out an emergency signal PAN-PAN-PAN and in two ticks Linton-on-Ouse came up with a magnetic course. We were then on the verge of abandoning the aircraft. It was a matter of a long time-glide home. We made it, but the refuelling party told me we had virtually nothing left in the tanks.’

Ken Owen flew his first 1942 trip, to Kassel, in a mood of euphoria. ‘I was in a daze. It was sheer excitement – the briefing, sitting in the aircraft preparing for take-off. There was bright moonlight. We found the target – and plenty of flak. I was far more scared on the second “op”. My feet were cold, I was sweating under my arms. It didn’t take long for two kinds of reputations to be established: first, there were the “gen crews” – the real “press-on types”; then there were the ones who didn’t like it at all. Two or three were voted most likely to get the chop, some because they were so frightened they were likely to do something stupid … One or two pilots were shit-scared; one or two gunners froze in their turrets. Sometimes people got the chop because of a terrible lack of discipline in their crews.’

The intimacy of the relationships between members of bomber crews is a cliché, but was by no means universally valid. B-24 navigator Harold Dorfman respected his pilot’s skill, but ‘we hated each other … After a row on a training flight, we never talked to each other except about the mission.’ Jack Brennan, from Staten Island, was twenty-one when he joined the air force, to his family’s fury. ‘“We could have kept you out,” they said. But I was one of the kids who wanted to be a hero.’ The experience of flying twenty-four missions against Germany with an incompetent and cowardly pilot cured him of such delusions. ‘All the time, I wished I had gone into something else. We got hit almost every trip. The only good thing was that we had decent living conditions compared with the guys on the ground.’ His crew’s combat experience ended ingloriously, when the pilot persuaded them to parachute over Sweden while on a mission to Berlin. Brennan was one of three survivors, and he revelled in the comfort and safety of his subsequent experience as an internee: ‘It was like a summer camp.’

The weakness of the Allied bomber offensive was poor intelligence, which caused it to become, in Churchill’s rueful words, a bludgeon rather than a rapier. Radio intelligence offered little help in divining what was happening inside Germany, because most industrial data was transmitted on paper or by landline rather than radio. Even as the destructive power of the RAF and USAAF grew, the ‘bomber barons’ remained ill-informed about the choke points of Nazi industry, which Sir Arthur Harris was anyway little interested in identifying. Having embarked on a campaign to wreck Germany’s cities, he sustained this with obsessive dedication until 1945.

The USAAF, doctrinally committed to precision bombing, devoted much more energy to pinpointing key target systems: for instance, Eighth Air Force suffered shocking casualties attacking Schweinfurt, with indifferent success. These disasters increased Harris’s contempt for precision bombing of what he called ‘panacea targets’. It has been justly observed that, although the British leadership at the Casablanca conference in January 1943 mandated a combined bomber offensive, what actually took place was a competition between the RAF and USAAF, each independently pursuing its own doctrine.

Göring expressed astonishment that the Allies did not continue their attacks on the Ruhr, ‘because there we are in some places having to deal with production bottlenecks that present enormous dangers’, as Goebbels recorded. But Bomber Command underrated the importance of maintaining pressure on industrial cities already attacked, which Harris too readily erased from his target list on the evidence of aerial photographs showing roofless buildings.