Printer Friendly

Firebombing Air Raids on Cities at Night.

Not long after the invention of the airplane in 1903, it became a weapon of war. By the time World War I began in 1914, the airplane was already a formidable instrument for reconnaissance and artillery spotting, but within the next four years, it had also become a fighter, a transport, and a bomber. In fact, during World War I, all the major categories of air power had already been explored. By the time of the next world war, the air plane was not just an instrument to support surface forces on land and sea, but had become a strategic weapon. (1)

Military theorists between the wars, such as Guilio Douhet of Italy, Hugh Trenchard of Britain, and William Mitchell of the United States, advocated more use of the airplane as a war-winning weapon. Theorists at the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama were already developing strategic bombing war plans in the 1930s, even as the Air Corps created the B-17 Flying Fortress to carry out those plans. Meanwhile, the British were developing their own four-engine heavy bombers, as Germany under Hitler nourished an air force he hoped would be second to none. (2)

That German air force, the Luftwaffe, got a chance to demonstrate its utility during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and 1937. Deploying the "Condor Legion" to Spain, the Luftwaffe attempted to destroy Spanish cities held by the enemy and contributed to the victory of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. The German bombing of Guernica was told in gruesome art by Picasso, and the world became familiar with the bombing of cities as a component of modern war. (3)

At the beginning of World War II, the Luftwaffe continued to bomb cities, most notably Warsaw, Poland in 1939, and Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1940. Bombing cities had already become familiar even before it was done with firebombs at night. (4)

The firebombing of whole cities at night evolved quickly during the Battle of Britain in 1940. At first the Luftwaffe concentrated on attacking British airfields in order to facilitate a cross-channel invasion of England, but when a German raid accidentally bombed central London, everything changed. In retaliation, the British bombed Berlin, and Hitler ordered the wholesale bombing of London in further retaliation. Before long the Germans were bombing not only London but also other cities such as Coventry, and the British were bombing other cities besides Berlin. Both sides decided that it was better to bomb the enemy cities at night so that the bombers would not be as vulnerable to enemy fighters and antiaircraft artillery. (5)

Eventually, the British bombing of German cities at night became much more massive than the German bombing of British cities at night, partly because of the four-engine Lancaster and Halifax bombers of the British. Air Marshal Arthur Harris, the head of the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command, perfected the art of destroying German cities. He built up his bomber forces so that they were able to launch 1,000-plane raids on major German cities such as Cologne, Berlin, and Hamburg. (6) He also relied increasingly on incendiary bombs that would use thermite, which was almost impossible to extinguish. In 1943, the British firebombed Hamburg, which created an intense firestorm that not only incinerated but also asphyxiated as many as 40,000 people, mostly civilians, and left as many as a million homeless. (7) Such raids became more common as the war dragged on. More and more German cities became hollowed-out shells. When Harris was criticized for the deaths of thousands of civilians, he argued that the more urban areas of Germany destroyed, the more crippled the German war machine would be. Later in the war, German attacks on Britain included V--1 jet and V--2 rockets, which made the British people more supportive of Harris and his tactics. The German unmanned drones and ballistic missiles also killed civilians in cities at night, indiscriminantly. (8)

By then, the United States had entered the war as Britain's ally, and American B--17s and B--24s began raiding Germany from British bases. The Eighth Air Force, however, did not attack German cities with firebombs at night, as the British did. American and British leaders at Casablanca in 1943, agreed to a Combined Bomber Offensive which called for the British to continue firebombing German cities at night, while American bombers attempted to destroy specific German military targets during the daytime, in tactics that had been devised at the Air Corps Tactical School. That way the Allies could hit Germany around the clock. (9)

Technology of the time prevented the American attacks from being as successful as planned. Without fighter escorts on long-range missions, even the heavily armed B--17s had trouble reaching their targets. Sixty Flying Fortresses were shot down on each of two missions to destroy German ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt. (10) Even with the Norden bombsight, the B--17s and B--24s could not always hit their targets precisely, and clouds often obscured the enemy factories and oil refineries. The Eighth Air Force, under General Ira Eaker at first, later under General Jimmy Doolittle, resorted to ever larger bomber formations that would drop their loads simultaneously over a wide area around the intended target, sometimes marshalling yards in the center of a city. The result was often the destruction of whole urban areas not much different than what the British were doing with firebombs at night. Increasingly the American bombers were also destroying the centers of German cities and killing increasing numbers of German civilians. (11)

In February 1945, the British launched massive nocturnal fire raids on the previously untargeted German city of Dresden, known for its art, largely destroying it. American air raids on the same city around the same time completed the destruction, which became controversial because of the number of civilian casualties. Historians continue to debate just how many civilians died in the refugee-crammed city, but whether it was 35,000 or 100,000, the death toll was high, with little to show in military terms. (12)

Critics of the Combined Bomber Campaign argued that it was a failure, not worth the cost in bombers and the lives of their crews, or in terms of the hundreds of thousands of civilians who died. They claimed that German war production actually increased despite British and American bombing, and that German morale did not break. Defenders of the British and American bombing argued instead that it was decisive, because German war production would have been much more without the bombing. Furthermore it diverted thousands of personnel, artillery pieces, and aircraft to the defense of Germany from the air, keeping them away from the fronts on the ground. Albert Speer, Hitler's armaments minister, admitted that the bombing was Germany's biggest lost battle. Moreover, it largely destroyed the Luftwaffe. Escort fighters destroyed thousands of German fighters and their pilots, and bombers destroyed their airfields, aircraft factories, and fuel supplies. Deprived of control of the air, the Germans lost control of the ground. (13)

American and British bombing of Germany was not so different in the end. Both Royal Air Force and the American Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces were destroying the heart of German cities, one with firebombs at night, the other with blast and also firebombs by day. While the United States continued to concentrate on daytime "precision" bombing, they used firebombs as the British did. American bombers dropped more than a million incendiary bombs on Germany during World War II. (14)

The American bombing of Japan also evolved. At first the United States Army Air Force leaders fully intended to continue concentrating on specific military targets such as aircraft factories and refineries, even against a more hated enemy that had attacked Pearl Harbor, but their intentions could not easily be fulfilled. To accomplish the task, the Americans developed the most advanced airplane of the war, the B--29 bomber. It was larger than the British and American heavy bombers of the European and Mediterranean Theaters, and each could hold more bombs. With a pressurized cabin and advanced engines and more fuel capacity, the B--29s could also fly higher and farther and faster than the B--17s and B--24s. The B--29s were designed, however, for daylight bombing of military targets, and at first that is how they were used. (15)

Things changed as the war evolved. Plans to attack the Japanese main islands from India and China failed because of Japanese ground offensives in China, which denied the Americans the bases they needed. Hauling enough bombs and fuel and other materials over the Himalaya Mountains from India to China was also a challenge. When U.S. Navy and Marine Corps forces took the Mariana Islands of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian from the Japanese in 1944, bases on those islands became available for B-29s, bases that were within range of Japan. The Army Air Forces decided to bomb Japan from the east instead of the west. (16)

The first commander of XXI Bomber Command in the Marianas was Brigadier General Haywood S. Hansell, Jr. He had been one of the strategists at the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell in the 1930s, and he was determined to prove against Japan that precision bombing of specific targets by day would work. He launched a series of air raids from the Marianas to Japan and back, to destroy enemy aircraft factories, but he had little success. Part of his problem was that the B-29 engines often failed, and the range was so great. Before the Allied conquest of Iwo Jima, Japanese radar and fighters hindered Hansell's raids. More significantly, previously undiscovered high-altitude jet stream winds blew the bombers and bombs off course. Thick clouds often obscured the intended targets, and because the B--29s flew at such high altitudes, to avoid enemy fighters and flak, the bombs had more distance to cover before they reached the ground, increasing their inaccuracy. (17)

At that point, General Curtis E. LeMay, who had commanded the B-29s in India and China, was reassigned to succeed Hansell as commander of XXI Bomber Command. Hansell declined to serve as LeMay's chief of staff, but LeMay tried briefly to continue Hansell's policy of attacking specific Japanese military targets by day. He had no more success than Hansell, and General Henry "Hap" Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces and at first of the Twentieth Air Force, along with his Chief of Staff General Laurence Norstad, demanded results, even if they could only be shown in terms of tonnage dropped and urban area destroyed. LeMay revised his tactics, switching to those of "Bomber" Harris of the Royal Air Force. LeMay decided to destroy Japanese cities with firebombs at night, just as Harris had destroyed German cities with firebombs at night. (18)

There were many reasons to switch tactics. By flying at night, LeMay could save B--29 fuel because the bombers no longer had to fly at high altitudes to avoid enemy fighters and antiaircraft artillery. He could also remove machine guns and ammunition from the bombers, because enemy fighters would have a harder time seeing them at night. That would allow the B--29s to carry more bombs. Japanese architecture was more wood and paper than masonry, unlike most of the German urban architecture, and was more vulnerable to incendiary bombs. Moreover, the Americans had developed napalm, or jellied gasoline, which promised to be even more incendiary than the British bombs. Jet stream winds and clouds were no longer factors in the equation. (19)

During the spring and summer of 1945, LeMay launched an unprecedented series of incendiary air raids on Japanese cities in the spring of 1945. It was more destructive than the British series of nocturnal fire raids on German cities because those cities were constructed with more masonry and less wood and paper. For five months, hundreds of B--29s carrying thousands of firebombs raided more than sixty of Japan's largest cities, and the destruction of urban areas was unbelievable. Secretary of War Henry Stimson kept the old city of Kyoto off the target list, but few other cities escaped, except a couple deliberately saved for testing new atomic weapons that became operationally available in early August. To LeMay, the new weapons were unnecessary, because his bombers were already destroying the Japanese cities. In 1945, the Army Air Forces dropped 856,598 individual and 360,826 cluster firebombs on Jappn, for a total of 1,273,115 incendiary bombs unleased on urban areas. More than 16,000 bomber sorties dropped 194,930 tons of bombs on Japan between November 1944 and August 1945, and most of these were incendiary weapons. They destroyed 56.30 square miles of Tokyo, or half of the city. American B--29s destroyed 15.54 square miles of Osaka, a quarter of the city. At Nagoya, thirty-one percent of the urban area was destroyed, more than twelve square miles. The raids were extremely effective in reducing Japanese military production, not only because factories were in those urban areas, but also transportation nodes. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of people, including workers, fled the cities to the countryside, partly in response to American leaflet warnings, and partly out of fear that their city would be next. (20)

According to official Army Air Forces statistics, in five months of incendiary attacks on Japan, the B-29s killed 310,000 Japanese, injured 412,000 others, and left 9.2 million people homeless. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey estimates of homeless Japanese was even higher: fifteen million. (21)

Many historians agree that the most intense and destructive air raid in history was the one flown by the XXI Bomber Command from the Marianas against Tokyo the night of March 9-10, 1945. More than 330 bombers dropped 1,667 tons of incendiary bombs over the city, destroying fifteen square miles in one night, killing more than 80,000 people, and injuring as many as 160,000 others. An estimated 261,171 buildings were destroyed, many of them homes. American planners knew that the targeted part of Tokyo had a population density of as many as 103,000 persons per square mile. (22)

Even without the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, and even without the Soviet Union's declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria around that same time, Japan might have surrendered without an invasion, because the incendiary bombing was doing all that the atomic raids could do: destroying Japanese cities at little cost to American lives and property. By the summer of 1945, relatively few of the B--29s were being shot down, and they could fly over Japan without effective enemy aircraft or artillery resistance. (23)

Many historians would agree that despite the loss of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, the incendiary raids helped cripple and destroy the enemy war machines and bring the war to a sooner victorious conclusion. This was especially true in Japan, where an invasion was not necessary. Had the United States invaded Japan on the scale of Normandy, there might have been a much higher cost in lives, not only American lives, but Japanese lives as well. (24) More lives would have been lost in the invasions of the Japanese home islands than in the bombing, however horrendous that bombing was in terms of civilian lives lost.

Neither General LeMay nor Air Marshal Harris thought much about the immorality of killing so many civilians. LeMay claimed there were "There's nothing new about this massacre of civilian populations. In ancient times, when an army laid siege to a city, everybody was in the fight. And when that city had fallen, and was sacked, just as often as not every single soul was murdered." He also wrote, "But to worry about the morality of what we were doing- Nuts." He also admitted after the war, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." (25) They were more concerned with the effectiveness of the bombing on the Allied war effort. The bombing was not intended to destroy civilians, but to destroy the ability of the enemy to make war, and it surely did that. The rest was, to them, "collateral damage."

By the 1990s, precision-guided munitions made possible, at last, the destruction of specific enemy targets in and around cities without the destruction of the cities as a whole. The United States largely used that technology against Baghdad in Iraq in 1991 and against Belgrade in Serbia in 1999. Such precision targeting did not exist, except in very rudimentary form, in the 1940s. We can hope that precision-guided weapons will make the need to bomb whole cities completely obsolete, and there will never be another war with so many civilian deaths. I would not venture to say, however, that the wholesale destruction of cities will never happen again. History shows us again and again that people generally do to others what has been done to them, and once one side targets another side's cities, total war will return.


(1.) Warren Trest, Air Force Roles and Missions: A History (Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998), pp. 10-12

(2.) Martha Byrd, Kenneth N. Walker: Airpower's Untempered Crusader (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1997), pp. 32-33.

(3.) Alan Stephens, The War in the Air, 1914-1994 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2001), p. 42.

(4.) Williamson Murray, Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe, 1933-1945 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1983), p. 37; Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948), p. 447.

(5.) Max Hastings, Bomber Command (New York, NY: Dial Press, 1979), pp. 99-100.

(6.) Ibid., pp. 168-171.

(7.) Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 1995), pp. 119-120.

(8.) Robert F. Dorr, Fighting Hitler's Jets (Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2013), pp. 40-43.

(9.) L. Douglas Keeney, The Combined Bomber Offensive 1943-1944: The Air Attack on Nazi Germany (Campbell, CA: Premiere, 2013), pp. 5-6.

(10.) Thomas M. Coffey, Decision Over Schweinfurt (New York: David McKay Company, 1977), pp. 294, 298.

(11.) Chris Chant, Allied Bombers, 1939-1945 (Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2008), pp. 124-125, 128.

(12.) Max Hastings, Bomber Command, pp. 399-401.

(13.) Henry Probert, Bomber Harris: His Life and Times, The Biography of Marshal of the Royalk Air Force Sir Arthur Harris (London, UK: Greenhill Books, 2006), pp. 328-339; Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (New York, NY: Macmillan Company, 1970), pp. 331-332.

(14.) Army Air Forces Statistical Digest, World War II (Washington, DC: Office of Statistical Control, Dec 1945), Air Force Historical Research Agency call number 134.11-6, Dec 1941-Aug 1945, pp. 237 and 238, table 139.

(15.) Curtis E. LeMay and Bill Yenne, Superfortress: The Story of the B-29 and American Air Power (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1988), pp. 1-4, 175.

(16.) A. Timothy Warnock, Air Force Combat Medals, Streamers, and Campaigns (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1990), p. 123.

(17.) Haywood S. Hansell, Jr., The Strategic Air War Against Germany and Japan: A Memoir (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1986), pp. 166-167, 185-189.

(18.) Curtis E. LeMay and MacKinlay Kantor, Mission with LeMay: My Story (New York, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1965), pp. 347-352.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) Army Air Forces Statistical Digest of World War II (Washington, DC: Office of Statistical Control, Dec 1945), Air Force Historical Research Agency call number 134.11-6, Dec 1941-Aug 1945, pp. 237-238 and 242 (tables 138-139, 142.

(21.) Max Hastings, Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945 (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), pp. 317-318.

(22.) Walter J. Boyne, The Influence of Air Power Upon History (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2003), p. 277.

(23.) Curtis E. LeMay and Bill Yenne, Superfortress: the Story of the B-29 and American Air Power (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1988), p. 142.

(24.) Michael S. Sherry, "Patriotic Orthodoxy and American Decline," contained in the book History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past, edited by Edward T. Linenthai and Tom Engelhardt (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1996), pp. 105-106.

(25.) Curtis LeMay Quotes, from AzQuotes; Curtis E. LeMay with MacKinlay Kantor, Mission with LeMay:My Story (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1965), pp. 383-384.

Daniel L. Haulman is Chief, Organizational Histories, at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. After earning a BA from the University of Southwestern Louisiana and an ME (Master of Education) from the University of New Orleans, he earned a Ph.D. in history from Auburn University. Dr. Haulman has authored several books, including Air Force Aerial Victory Credits, The USAF and Humanitarian Airlift Operations, and One Hundred Years of Flight: USAF Chronology of Significant Air and Space Events, 1903-2002. He has written several pamphlets, composed sections of several other USAF publications, and compiled the list of official USAF aerial victories appearing on the AFHRAs web page. He wrote the Air Force chapter in supplement IV of A Guide to the Sources of United States Military History and completed six studies on aspects of recent USAF operations that have been used by the Air Staff and Air University. He has also authored The Tuskegee Airmen Chronology. The author of thirty-one published articles in various journals, Dr. Haulman has presented more than twenty historical papers at historical conferences and taught history courses at Huntingdon College,Auburn University at Montgomery, and Faulkner University. He co-authored, with Joseph Caver and Jerome Ennels, the book The Tuskegee Airmen: An Illustrated History, published by New South Books in 2011.
COPYRIGHT 2018 Air Force Historical Foundation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Haulman, Daniel L.
Publication:Air Power History
Date:Dec 22, 2018
Previous Article:Air National Guard participation in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Airlift Mission to the War in Southeast Asia: 1965-1971.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters