From the flak tower, the air raids on Berlin were an unforgettable sight, and I had constantly to remind myself of the cruel reality in order not to be completely entranced by the scene: the illumination of the parachute flares… followed by the flashes of explosions which were caught by the clouds of smoke, the innumerable probing searchlights, the excitement when a plane was caught and tried to escape the cone of light, the brief flaming torch when it was hit. No doubt about it, this apocalypse provided a magnificent spectacle.
Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich, 19701
Along with the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan, the most controversial aspect of the Allies’ war has been the area, strategic or – more emotively – 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 a satanic 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 chapter will seek to establish simply whether or not it worked strategically, whether it was necessary and whether there was any alternative.2
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. ‘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.’3 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.
When war broke out, the Luftwaffe’s bombing of Warsaw in September 1939 and of Rotterdam and Louvain in May 1940 made it clear that Germany did not intend to abide by the ‘civilized’ view of warfare that confined targets to military assets attacked in daylight. Further raids on Coventry (on 15 November 1940), Belgrade (in April 1941, when 17,000 people were killed), Hull and even unarmed beauty spots like Bath (where more than 400 people died over three nights in April 1942) confirmed this. As 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.’4Yet simply because the Nazis had adopted ruthless methods of warfare, it did not follow that their foes ought to have as well.
The RAF’s Bomber Command wing was founded in 1936, based in High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire and 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. Even worse, in the words of Richard Overy:
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.5
It was an unpromising start from which to try to force the Third Reich to its knees. 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 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!’
Once Bomber Command had suffered unacceptably high – sometimes as much as 50 per cent – losses 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. Bomber Command pilots had not expected or been intensively trained for night-bombing, and the navigational aids were basic, yet after victory was won in the battle of Britain in the autumn of 1940 the emphasis turned from Fighter Command defence to Bomber Command attack. By then an altogether more offensively minded Churchill had replaced Chamberlain, whose government had even discouraged the bombing of Germany’s Black Forest on the ground that ‘so much of it was private property’.6 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 Dunkirk 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.
While Bomber Command did attempt throughout the war to pinpoint specific German production facilities for bombing – never devoting less than 30 per cent 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 ‘Bomber’, ‘Bert’ or ‘Butch’ Harris, was convinced that the policy he had inherited when he took over in February 1942 could win the war. In the words of one historian, ‘four years of arms production had given Britain the four-engined heavy bombers… and little else with which to fight… Counter-city strategy was his only option if Britain, unable to face the disaster that might ensue from invading a defended Europe with inferior forces, and under attack in Africa and threat in the Far East, was to show any signs of fighting at all.’7 Harris tended to decry precision attacks on individual industries such as ball-bearing or synthetic-oil factories, as favoured 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.’8 In the BMW factory in Munich, for example, some 20 per cent of the workforce were absent in the summer of 1944, and in the same year absenteeism rose to 25 per cent in the Ford plant in Cologne in the Ruhr.9 In 1939 Göring had addressed the Luftwaffe, saying: ‘No enemy bomber can reach the Ruhr. If one reaches the Ruhr, my name is not Göring. You can call me Meyer.’ (They did not, at least not to his face.)
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.’10 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.
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; in 1994, there were angry demonstrations when the Queen Mother unveiled a statue of Harris at the RAF church, St Clement Danes in London. 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.’11
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?’12 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?’13 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.’14 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.’15
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. When the British Commonwealth was fighting twelve Axis divisions at El Alamein, as we have seen, the Russians were engaging 186 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. 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.
The losses suffered by Bomber Command were monstrous. Soon after taking over, Harris ordered the bombing in March and April 1942 of the ports of Lübeck and Rostock, which were badly damaged for the loss of only twenty-four aircraft, but overall Bomber Command lost 150 aircraft in the month of April alone. 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 despatched on raids during the war, 6,440 (or 3.2 per cent) failed to return.16 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. The USAAF lost 26,000 men, or 12.4 per cent of its bomber crews. The heroism 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.
Germany had 50,000 anti-aircraft guns protecting the Reich. Midair 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.’17
One of the only defences 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. ‘It was a testament to the strength and aerodynamic qualities of the heavies that they could be thrown about the sky with a violence that, if they were lucky, could shake off their smaller, nimbler pursuers long enough to escape into the darkness beyond the fighter’s limited onboard radar range.’18
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.19 Horror and heroism were in abundant supply, with no fewer than nineteen Victoria Crosses being won by Bomber Command in the course of the war.
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.20 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. Wyllie and the 125,000 members of Bomber Command who volunteered for active service, 44.4 per cent of whom died on it, were truly heroic.
In 1942 fewer than half of all heavy-bomber crews survived the thirty sorties required of their first tour of duty, and only one in five of those made it through their second. By 1943 the odds had shortened yet further: only one in six survived the first tour, and one in forty a second. The crews were self-selecting and built up intense bonds of comradeship living in the flat eastern counties of East Anglia, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, and surprisingly few of them claimed mechanical failure or ditched their bombs on suburbs before reaching the target (the so-called fringe merchants).
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.’21 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 such was the commitment to press freedom, BBC independence and free speech as cornerstones of what Britain was fighting for, that 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 15 February 1942 – the day that Singapore fell – 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’.22 A month later on 12 March 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 in just 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 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 pre-war medium two-engined Vickers Wellington, which was the major aircraft used in the first Thousand-Bomber Raid, launched against Cologne on the night of Saturday, 30 May 1942. The Handley Page Halifax provided some good service, but in the last six months of 1942 the Avro Lancaster became fully operational, which enormously increased the RAF’s bombing power and range. By the end of the war sixty out of Bomber Command’s eighty squadrons flew these sturdy giants. In ninety minutes over Cologne, 1,046 planes – including trainee crews roped in to make up the talismanic four-figure number – 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.23 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’ and 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.’24 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.’25 Göring certainly did not want to be on the receiving end of what had apparently not just happened to Cologne.
The US Eighth Air Force started its major daylight bombing campaign on 17 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 flying Yankee Doodle and included Major Paul W. Tibbets Jr, who was later to fly the B-29 which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Planes could fly much closer together in daylight, and could thus protect each other better. 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 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 defences which were constantly being improved – rising to a total of thirteen 0.5-inch machine guns in the B-17G model which bombed Berlin in March 1944 – the Flying Fortresses were in constant danger from German fighters. Nonetheless the B-17G could fly at 287mph 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.
After serious initial disagreements over the prioritization of targets, the Casablanca Conference of January 1943 inaugurated the unambiguously codenamed Operation Pointblank, a joint bombing programme designed to intensify ‘the heaviest possible bombing offensive against the German war effort’, to be known as the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO).26 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 harbour. 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’. 27 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. The Chiefs of Staff were ready to will the end and provide the means; they ought therefore to be fully included in the denunciations that have instead been concentrated almost solely on Harris.
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’.28 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.
Bomber Command 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, and 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. As the actor and writer Stephen Fry has said of that raid:
It was about practice, practice, practice (for they knew not what). Then, on the day, it was about the constant monitoring of data – glide paths, magnetic compass deviations, dead reckoning pinpoints, calculations of fuel according to atmosphere and so on. These men were not just beefy brave chaps; they had real brains. Lancasters cannot take off at night in formation and fly low for hundreds of miles, drop an enormous bomb that is spinning at 500 revolutions per minute from exactly the right height and then move on to another target before returning home – all the time under fire from enemy anti-aircraft batteries – without a particular kind of steady, unblinking courage, tenacity and will that is out of the ordinary.29
The loss of no fewer than eight bombers out of nineteen and fifty-three air crew on the ‘Dambusters’ raid was a high price to pay, but Churchill was right when he told Harris that ‘The conduct of the operations demonstrated the fiery gallant spirit which animated your aircrews, and the high sense of duty of all ranks under your command.’
The bombing of the Ruhr and Hamburg suddenly brought the monthly growth in German armaments production – which had been averaging 5.5 per cent since February 1942 – crashing down to 0 per cent from May 1943 to February 1944.30 As the leading expert on the Nazi economy records: ‘For six months in 1943 the disruption caused by British and American bombing halted Speer’s armaments miracle in its tracks. The German home front was rocked by a serious crisis of morale.’31 Although the Nazi war economy was still producing as much in 1944 as it had in May 1943, indeed production was slightly higher, the miracle that had more than doubled armaments production between February 1942 and May 1943 was over and the all-important rates of increase were never to recover.
Between March 1943 and April 1944 the Krupp factory in the Ruhr lost 20 per cent of production, which was ‘far below’ what British propaganda was making out at the time, but very significant nonetheless.32 Yet that was only one site, and overall the results were mixed: in Essen, although 88 per cent 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 per cent fewer tanks than he had wanted to build and Germany required, as well as 31 per cent fewer aircraft and 42 per cent fewer lorries.33 In a sense those figures alone justify the Allies’ CBO, as we have already seen what the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe were capable of achieving in counter-attack when they had enough tanks and aircraft.
The debate about strategic bombing has all too often centred on its failure significantly to lessen actual German armaments production, but that is based on a false premise. What the campaign needed to do was to curtail the rate of increase in armaments production by which the Germans could have prolonged, or even won, the war, and this it achieved triumphantly, as is shown in Figure 1. The tragic reality was that area as well as precision bombing was necessary to halt Speer’s miracle, although by 1944 the RAF ought to have switched to concentrating more on Luftwaffe factories, which could be targeted with a far higher degree of accuracy than in 1940. The estimation that the entire Combined Bomber Offensive of 1944 reduced German gross industrial production by only 10 per cent 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.34 Yet the entire campaign took up only about 7 per cent of Britain’s war effort, and so was militarily justified.
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.35 On 27 July a navigational error sent 787 RAF planes 2 miles to the east of the intended target, Hamburg’s city centre, and over the closely packed tenement buildings of its working population instead. The release of thousands of strips of aluminium
German armament production, 1942–1944 (Jan 1942 = 100)
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 Celsius and reduced to ashes all in its path. It was said that the orange luminosity from fires that raged, largely unfought, for forty-eight hours could be seen 120 miles away.
The surviving population of 1.8 million 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.’36 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.37
Yet six more such attacks proved beyond the capacity of the already overstretched Allies. On 17 August 1943 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, 16 per cent of the total, and the damaging of a further 120 (most beyond repair), a further 32 per cent, some of them through air-to-air rocket fire for the first time.38 On 14 October the Americans bravely, if foolhardily, decided to return to Schweinfurt with nearly 300 bombers, only to suffer yet heavier carnage from rockets, air bombing from above, heavy anti-aircraft fire and then fighter action, with another sixty bombers (20 per cent) destroyed and 138 (46 per cent) 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 per cent by Speer’s estimates after the first raid and 67 per cent 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 – total production topped 15,500 – the single-seater, 437mph, P-51B Mustang to escort their bombers as far as Berlin and back, and take on anything the Luftwaffe had at the time. Auxiliary fuel tanks that could be jettisoned were the key to flying the long distances, and the fastest version, the P-51H, could reach 487mph. 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. 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.
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!’39
The Mustang would have faced a mighty competitor, however, if Hitler had concentrated on producing the twin-engine Messerschmitt Me-262, which has been described as ‘the plane with which the German air force could have reclaimed the skies over Germany’.40 The speed of this jet-powered fighter, along with its relative stability in flight, suggests that it offered the best possibility ‘of Germany driving the Allied bombers out of the sky’. Hitler saw the Me-262 for the first time at Insterburg airfield after the Berlin raids of late November 1943, in the company of Göring, Milch, Speer, the warplane designer and manufacturer Willy Messerschmitt, Galland and others, and his Luftwaffe adjutant Nicolaus von Below. (Below was a devout Nazi until his death in 1983, and his recollections of working beside Hitler between 1937 and 1945 provide an invaluable and reliable source for historians.41 He was a Christian Prussian from an old Junker soldiering family, thus personifying an entire menagerie of Hitler’s bêtes noires, but he and his wife Maria loved the Führer, and Maria was also close to his girlfriend Eva Braun.) At the Insterburg meeting, Below recorded, Hitler ‘called Messerschmitt over and asked him pointedly if the aircraft could be built as a bomber. The designer agreed, and said that it would be capable of carrying two 250kg bombs.’ Hitler replied, ‘That is the fast bomber,’ and insisted on its being developed as such exclusively, rather than as a fighter. He 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. Yet 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.
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. With the Americans’ destruction of oil facilities and Luftwaffe targets, the Reich did not have the fuel to train the 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 500mph, saw only 200 produced before the Red Army captured the factory where its production had been moved to in the east, for fear of bombing from the west.42
After the big raids of late 1943, Albert Speer drove around the factory districts of Berlin. Buildings were still burning and a cloud of smoke 20,000 feet high hung above the city, which ‘made the macabre scene as dark as night’. When he tried to describe this to Hitler, he was interrupted every time, almost as soon as he began, with questions about, for example, the next month’s tank production figures.43 By the end of that year the Allies had dropped 200,000 tons of bombs on Germany.44 Their effect in at least blunting the rate of increase in aircraft production can be seen in Figure 2.
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.45 On the night of 30 March 1944, some 795 Allied aircraft devastated the city centre, 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.
Although the Germans did manage to jam the Allies’ Gee radio-based navigational device after its introduction in March 1942, improved technologies such as Oboe, by which a control station in Britain could broadcast a radar beam that would lead Pathfinder bombers to the target, were operational from November 1942, and by the end of 1943 airborne H2X radar sets were guiding USAAF daylight bombers to enemy targets in all weathers. Pathfinder target-making squadrons (later No. 8 Group), the corps d’élite of Bomber Command, had been founded in July 1942, their specially selected crews identifying and marking the targets. The Pathfinders consisted of men who had flown a minimum of forty-five operational sorties,
Allied and German aircraft production, 1940–1945
and the bravest of the brave were the crews of the master bombers, who flew the aircraft that led the entire attack. These men determined the accuracy of the target indicators that had been dropped by the primary visual markers, and decided what further illumination was required. They would tell the rest of the force which colour markers to bomb and which to ignore, sometimes flying over the target area for more than an hour.46
The policy on bombing Germany and her allies also affected – some said skewed – 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. On 28 September 1943, 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.’47
Differences between the RAF and USAAF emerged occasionally, but not to the extent that they affected operations. On 1 November 1943 Trafford Leigh-Mallory, reporting from Washington, indeed writing on USAAF HQ paper, told Charles Portal about a lunch he had had with the Chief of the US Air Staff, Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold. After registering his shock at the way ‘We were waited on by two Negro servants before whom matters of the highest secrecy were freely discussed,’ 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.’48
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.’ Welsh replied by saying that the RAF bomber force based in the UK was only 45 per cent larger than the Eighth Air Force, yet it had dropped 237 per cent more bombs in September.49 But 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 labour between daylight and night-time bombing automatically solved a number of possible operational problems.
On 6 March 1944 the Americans began daylight raids on Berlin, which was now being pounded almost round the clock. Its strong air defences meant that the cost of attacking the capital was always high, however, and on the night of 24 March 1944 losses of almost 10 per cent of Bomber Command’s planes were suffered, and much damage was caused to those that managed to limp home. Although it cannot be conclusively proven either way, there are those who believe that the decision to concentrate on softening-up targets for D-Day was as much an admission of defeat by Bomber Command over its attempts to destroy Berlin as a necessity in aiding D-Day. Whatever the true reason, and of course both might have been true, 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. After the war, Air Chief Marshal Tedder published a book entitled Air Superiority in War which featured a graph (see Figure 3) emphasizing how exponentially the weight of bombs dropped on Germany increased as the war progressed.
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 the invasion of France, Operation Overlord, 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.’50 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’.51
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. After a War Cabinet on 3 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.’52 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.’53
By 30 May, 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
The Allied and Axis bombing campaigns, 1940–1945
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.54 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. On 30 November 1944 – incidentally his seventieth birthday – Churchill interrupted Portal’s report to criticize the bombing of Holland: ‘800-900 German [casualties] against 20,000 Dutch – awful thing to do that.’55 Back on 27 June 1943, watching a film of Germany being bombed with Richard Casey, the Australian representative in the War Cabinet, Churchill had ‘sat bolt upright and said to [Casey] “Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?” ’ It was probably meant rhetorically at that stage of the war, but he soon got the answer when Casey replied that ‘We hadn’t started it, and that it was us or them.’56
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, yet by then the Luftwaffe was somehow surviving on 10,000 tons of high-octane fuel a month, when 160,000 had once been required.57 Harris won, and between October 1944 and the end of the war more than 40 per cent 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. This led to a row between Portal and Harris, with Harris spiritedly protecting his policy. 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. But it was to be the raid on Dresden ten nights later that was to cause the most furious controversy of the entire CBO, which lasts to this day. During the Yalta Conference of 4 to 11 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.58 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’. In the view of one of those present at Yalta, Hugh Lunghi, who translated for the British Chiefs of Staff during these meetings with the Russians, it was this urgent request ‘to stop Hitler transferring divisions from the west to reinforce his troops in Silesia, blocking the Russian advance on Berlin’ that led to the bombing of Dresden only two days after the conference ended.59 (Of course this did not prevent the Soviets denouncing the bombing as an inhumane Anglo-American war crime forty years later during the Cold War, until it was pointed out to them that it had been they who had requested it.) 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 by 259 Lancaster bombers from RAF Swinderby in Lincolnshire as well as other nearby airfields – flying most of the way in 10/10ths (that is, total) cloud – and then by 529 more Lancasters a few hours later, and then by 529 Liberators and Flying Fortresses of the USAAF the next morning, has proved particularly controversial, but possibly for the wrong reasons. 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 though the attack on the beautiful, largely wooden, medieval city centre – ‘the Florence of the Elbe’ – was undeniably devastating, there were many war industries centred in this architectural jewel of southern Germany.60
The 2,680 tons of bombs dropped 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.61 Nor was ‘boiled’ 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.’62 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.’63
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, 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.64 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.
By February 1945 the Allies had discovered the means to create firestorms, even in cold weather very different from that of Hamburg in July and August 1943. Huge ‘air mines’ known as ‘blockbusters’ were dropped, designed to blow out doors and windows so that the oxygen would flow through easily to feed the flames caused by the incendiary bombs. High-explosive bombs both destroyed buildings and just as importantly kept the fire-fighters down in their shelters. ‘People died not necessarily because they were burnt to death,’ records one writer, ‘but also because the firestorm sucked all the oxygen out of the atmosphere.’65 In Dresden, because the sirens were not in proper working order, many of the fire-fighters who had come out after the first wave of bombers were caught out in the open by the second.
Yet this in itself does not make the raid the war crime that Labour’s Richard Stokes MP and Bishop George Bell described it as at the time and many have since assumed it to have been. For 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. ‘Why is it legitimate to kill someone using a weapon’, one historian has asked, ‘and a crime to kill those who make the weapons?’66
Nor was it the Allies’ fault that 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 programme 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.67 Even though 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.68
This minute has been described as sending ‘a thunderbolt down the corridors of Whitehall’. 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 centre and a key transportation centre. It is now none of those things.’69 One argument made since the war, that the raid was unnecessary because peace was only ten weeks off, is especially ahistorical. With talk of secret weaponry, a Bavarian Redoubt, fanatical Hitler Youth ‘werewolf’ squads and German propaganda about fighting for every inch of the Fatherland, there was no possible way of knowing how fanatical German resistance might be, and thus when the war would end.
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 – indeed 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 after all, but was instead going to be defeated, that wrecked morale in the Reich.70
The second major reason why the Combined Bomber Offensive was justified, as well as ending the rate of increase in German armaments production, was because of the vast number of fighter aircraft that it forced Hitler to keep stationed on the defensive in Germany, when they would have proved invaluable in other places, primarily the all-important Eastern Front. 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’.71 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 per cent of all German fighter aircraft were stationed in the west.72 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 defence plus repairing, rebuilding and restoration, building air-raid bunkers and flak towers, and 20 per cent of all ammunition, just in order to protect the Reich from aerial assault.73 ‘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 Richard Overy. ‘By the end of 1943 there were 55,000 anti-aircraft guns to combat the air offensive – including 75 per cent of the famous 88mm gun, which had doubled with such success as an anti-tank weapon on the Eastern Front.’74 This meant that the Luftwaffe was forced to produce fewer bombers – 18 per cent of the total aircraft produced in 1944, against over 50 per cent in 1942 – 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 per cent 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’.75 More rounds of 88mm or higher-calibre ammunition were produced in 1941–3 for non-tank than for anti-tank purposes, and one-third of Germany’s optical industry and half her electronics industry was engaged in producing gun-sights, radar and communications networks for defence against bombing, leaving front-line troops without infantry walkie-talkies and artillery sound-ranging apparatus, such as the Western Allies were developing.76
The fact that more than ten times the number of Germans died – some 600,000 in all – in the retaliation against the Blitz than Britons who actually died in the Blitz itself echoes the biblical phrase about David multiplying the numbers killed by Saul. (A further 120,000 French and Italians perished as well.) 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. Yet Germany is today such a model democracy, and so pacific in her foreign policy, partly because of the terrible retribution that that war visited upon her. If the Second World War had not seen civilian casualties on German soil, just as the Great War had not, a new spirit of revanchism might have been rekindled there. As it was, the Germans looked into the face of Armageddon, and it has instilled an aversion for foreign military intervention that might occasionally frustrate NATO policy-makers today, but is overall a very welcome development for the world.