WHAT’S THE STORY?
IT was 75 years ago tomorrow, on Sunday, March 8, 1942, that Britain’s Royal Air Force carried out its first air raid on Germany under what was known as the Area Bombing Directive (ABD).
For the first time, the general population of a city – Essen in the Ruhr – became a British target, with the 214 aircraft on the raid told they should bomb civilian targets “without restriction” and not just military or industrial ones.
Loading article content
The directive said the aim was “to focus attacks on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular the industrial workers”. Ten people died in the initial raid on Essen and a further 10 died the following night when the British bombers returned.
HOW MANY CITIES WERE BOMBED AND DID IT WORK?
UNTIL the American air force entered the European theatre of war, the RAF was solely responsible for conducting the bombing campaign against Germany. Bomber Command’s Chief Air Marshal Arthur Harris, who got the top job one week after the ABD was brought in, was convinced that “strategic” bombing of German cities would devastate the population’s morale and end the war. He was backed by what became known as the “dehousing” policy adopted by the War Cabinet – the Nazis’ Blitz on Britain had shown that destroying houses, not people, really damaged morale.
Harris, who would become known as “Bomber" Harris, stepped up the number of aircraft used on the raids and, crucially, the RAF was also taking delivery of bigger and more powerful Wellington bombers – designed by Dambusters creator Barnes Wallis – and later the Avro Lancaster with its massive bomb load.
Within weeks of the Essen raids, Harris introduced his grand plan, which was, in effect, mass indiscriminate bombing raids on cities. The port of Lubeck was the first to receive the treatment, resulting in some 62 per cent of buildings in the city being destroyed or damaged, as many as 1000 civilians killed an 10 per cent of the population displaced.
By May, Harris had what he wanted – a 1000-bomber raid on Cologne. On the night of May 30-31, 1942, the ancient city was devastated. Dozens of factories were damaged, but the civilian dead numbered in the hundreds, possibly thousands, and 45,000 people were left homeless. It was a huge propaganda success – the British press hailed it as “striking back”. From then on, and especially after the US Air Force arrived, German cities were pounded remorselessly for almost the duration of the war in Europe.
HOW DID THE GERMANS REACT?
CIVILIAN morale was affected but not broken, and any production losses, such as the Ruhr factories flooded by the Dambusters Raid, were usually made good within weeks. But the diversion of resources – aircraft, men and artillery – from the Eastern Front in particular did serious damage to the German war effort.
German civilians nicknamed for the aircrew bombing them – Terrorflieger, or Terror Flyer.
At his war crimes trial in Nuremberg, the former Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goring testified that “really important industrial targets were less frequently hit than houses”.
BUT GERMANY STARTED IT, DIDN’T THEY?
DURING the First World War, Germany raided Britain with Zeppelin airships and aircraft such as the Gotha bomber. The damage to civilian morale was considerable, but those raids ultimately doomed Germany in the Second World War – the memory of them inspired the race for radar, won by Scotsman Sir Robert Watson-Watt and his team.
Hitler had also sanctioned the 1937 bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, and in 1939 the Luftwaffe attacked the small town of Frampol in Poland as an “experiment”.
Above all, the Blitz on Britain was merciless, so in effect Germany reaped what it sowed.
WAS BOMBING CIVILIANS A WAR CRIME?
UNDER the international laws then in force, it was not, but even in 1942, there were doubts about the tactic. One senior RAF officer queried the directive, saying: “I suppose it is clear the aiming points will be the built-up areas, and not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories where these are mentioned.”
Both Germany and Britain said before the war that they would not bomb civilians, but after a stray Luftwaffe bomber dropped its bombs on London, Winston Churchill ordered a retaliatory raid on Berlin which enraged Hitler and led to the Blitz. The Hague Convention on the “rules” of warfare didn’t actually cover the bombing of civilians in cities. Goring at his trial said the Convention rules “do not take into consideration the essential principles of this war, the war of the air, the economic war and the propaganda war.”
He added: “At this point I should like to say the same words which one of our greatest, most important and toughest opponents, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, used: ‘In the struggle for life and death there is in the end no legality’.”
WHAT PRICE DID BOMBER COMMAND PAY?
AFTER the utter devastation of Dresden, above, and Dortmund in 1945, the bombing campaign became distasteful to politicians and public and Bomber Harris never recovered his reputation.
Churchill himself wrote: “It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed ... the destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.”
British air crew paid a heavy price – 55,573 were killed, a casualty rate of 44 per cent.
It is estimated that as many as a million Germans died in the raids – one person for every ton of bombs dropped.
In the Second World War as a whole, 18 air crew from Bomber and Coastal Commands were awarded the Victoria Cross, of whom five were Scottish.