At the outset of WWII, Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a statement that “All combatants, under no circumstances undertake bombardment from the air of civilian populations.” US commanders, particularly General Frank Akers, believed that the best use of US air assets was precision bombing (as close as it got during the day) of specific military industrial targets. The British, however, felt differently about crossing the moral threshold of attacking noncombatants. British Air commander Arthur Harris said, “The Nazis began this war under the rather silly notion that they were going to bomb everyone else and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, Warsaw, London and a hundred other places, they put that rather naïve notion into use. They sewed the wind, and now they shall reap the whirlwind.” Churchill proclaimed that the side that bombed only military targets would certainly prevail. Often people with a conscience are compelled by the certitude of their own compassion and civility. The bombing o civilian infrastructure happened quite by accident.
In 1940, German bombers got lost over the English Channel and bombed a port city. Churchill was enraged and bombed Berlin. Hitler began a sustained bombing campaign against London and thus it began that non-combatants were free game in WWII.
On July 24th, 1942, British forces lined up 780 Lancaster bombers and launched a night raid against the northern factory town of Hamburg with a population of 1.5 million people under the name Operation Gomorrah. Hamburg was the second largest city in Germany behind Berlin and the chief manufacturing facilities for U-boats and ships of war were located there on the Elbe River. Hamburg itself was well defended with bunkers that could hold a quarter of a million people. Each bunker was able to withstand general bombing and each bunker held flak guns. Fifteen hundred ME-109s in airfields across the region protected Hamburg as well, all warned by Germany’s perfunctory radar warning system.
The British also had foil strips; today we call this chaff, and shoveled it out of their bombers to jam radars. The ten-hour raid was a masterpiece of air traffic control as it was conducted at night and involved almost 800 bombers. They hit the Blohm and Voss factory yards and all in all, the raid was a tremendous success militarily. Two days later the US sent 123 B-17s into Hamburg for a daylight raid. 20% of the B-17s were shot down, and the ME-109s were so well equipped and so determined that many went up, hit bombers and had the time to land and re arm and go up for a second run.
Sixty percent of Hamburg was destroyed and 45,000 people were killed. Over a million people fled the area and became instant refugees. The black eye delivered to the Germans was so embarrassing that Hitler refused to visit Hamburg and instead sent Goehring, head of the Luftwaffe.
A massive raid was planned for Berlin early the next year. The US 8th Air Force and British air assets launched 11,000 sorties against Berlin in ten days. The destruction was massive. 11,000 people were killed and 250,000 were made homeless. The British were convinced that if this pressure were maintained, the German would capitulate. Nothing further could be from the truth. The Germans showed no discernable loss of productivity or determination.
The internal fight between US air planner and British planners continued. The US felt that precision bombing of industrialize targets would be the best way to end the war, and the British felt a terror campaign would turn the tide. Neither side was completely correct.
On August 18th, 1943 General Akers ordered a daylight raid, unescorted against the ball bearing plants at Schweinfort. Again, it was a massacre of US aircrews with 20% casualties. US aircrews knew they had a 77% chance of dying before their 24 missions were over. The Brits also suffered high casualties; the RAF had lost 600 planes and 2700 flyers by the war’s end. The Schweinfort raid succeeded in hampering ball bearing manufacturing, and it also succeeded in ending Akers command. He was relieved of his duties and Jimmy Doolittle; the hero of the famous Doolittle Raid took over.
This time however, the Americans had a new long-range fighter, the P-51 Mustang. During bombing raids throughout the rest of 1943, Mustangs destroyed hundreds of ME-109s and Junker dive-bombers. Not only did they have the range, they had the speed as well. After escorting bombers in and out of Germany, the P-51s had enough fuel to drop down and strafe airfields over the French northwestern frontier and destroyed many German aircraft on the ground.
It’s interesting to note that during this intense battle, James Doolittle opposed bombing civilians. At the end of the day, even Eisenhower approved of Operation Thunderclap, a massive bombing campaign to flatten German cities both industrial and civilian. Experts believe that a half million Germans died as a direct result of the bombing campaign. Many Germans died of starvation in the streets or crowded into their bunkers during bombing raids. It’s also interesting to note that attacks on Leipsig and Berlin actually helped the Red Army overtake the still spirited and dangerous Wehrmacht.