The Air War Over Germany

The Origins: Airplanes in the Great War. Airplanes became a part of warfare during the First World War as part of the industrialization of the battlefield. At the end of the war in 1918, aerial combat was still in its infancy, but a glimpse of the future of air power was seen in the limited bombing raids conducted by the British, French, and Germans. Early in the war airplanes were little more than valuable reconnaissance tools. Before long machine guns were placed in airplanes, and pilots began strafing targets on the ground. For a time bombing missions consisted of nothing more than pilots throwing grenades or other explosive devices out of the cockpit by hand. But eventually more sophisticated means of delivering ordinance were added to aircraft. Despite these advances, aircraft, like tanks, had yet to become dominant factors on the battlefield.

World War1 airplanesWorld War I, however, did provide a huge impetus to the development of aviation. Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight across the Atlantic in 1927 was a milestone, but real advances in aircraft design and manufacture began to appear in the 1930s. Aircraft engines became far more powerful; aircraft bodies were made of metal rather than wood and cloth; aerodynamic features were incorporated into designs, giving aircraft greater speed, maneuverability, and range; aviation fuels and lubricants were improved, and some of the world’s most famous and durable aircraft, such as the Douglas DC-3, were developed during the 1930s. Brilliant engineers such as Howard Hughes pushed the capabilities of airplanes to new limits.

All the major nations—the United States, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, Great Britain, Italy, and others—poured millions of dollars and thousands of hours of research into aircraft development. Although much of that work was devoted to creating aircraft for carrying passengers or mail over ever-longer distances, aircraft were also being widely developed for military use. By 1940 large, powerful multi-engine aircraft were capable of carrying thousands of pounds of armaments and bombs over the battlefield. The B-17 Flying Fortress was one such airplane.

World War II: Air Warfare Comes of Age. When the World War II in Europe began in 1939, the Armed Forces of all the nations involved had been building fleets of combat aircraft for some time. Fighters, fighter-bombers, dive bombers, and long-range medium and heavy bombers were parts of the assembled air arsenals. Early in the war, use of the airplane in direct support of ground troops was seen as an acceptable and logical extension of other battlefield support weapons such as artillery, machine guns, and tanks. But the use of airplanes against nonmilitary targets was at first approached gingerly by all sides. Early in the war care was taken to avoid even accidentally striking civilian targets, but that soon changed. Very early in the conflict an uproar resulted when a few stray bombs landed in a schoolyard not far from a factory, but when the German Luftwaffe bombed cities such as Warsaw and Rotterdam, the dynamics of air warfare began to change. Following the Battle of Britain, Air Marshal Hermann Goering commenced what became known as the blitz of London, and the use of bomber aircraft against civilian targets came into widespread use. The resulting devastation was enormous.

cologneCities Become Targets. As the German army became more deeply mired in its campaign against the Soviet Union, British and American air forces undertook a massive air campaign against Germany that accelerated from 1943 through 1945. In May 1943, the first thousand-plane raid was conducted against the German city of Cologne, and all that was left standing in the heart of that old city was a huge Romanesque cathedral that had been strong enough to withstand the bombings. The cloud of smoke and ashes arising over the city of Cologne was visible from as far away as the English Channel. Hundreds of civilians were dead, and casualties numbered in the thousands.

As the air war progressed, the British and Americans developed detailed strategies for attacking Germany’s war-making capability. The use of radar and other navigation devices and improved bomb-sights were meant to increase the accuracy of air attacks, but a combination of weather, German fighters, antiaircraft guns, and ordinary human error left bombing accuracy a goal to be desired rather than a real accomplishment. Bombs often fell miles from their targets, and sometimes even the wrong cities were attacked. For example, one squadron that was heading for Dresden in February, 1945, wound up instead bombing the Czech city of Prague.

Priority targets for British and American pilots included aircraft plants, oil refineries, factories, transportation centers and facilities, military installations, and other war-related centers. But as German defenses were worn down and allied capabilities continued to grow, dozens of German cities were bombed more or less indiscriminately. In a raid on the city of Kassel, for example, the industrial targets received only minor damage whereas 90 percent of the city’s homes were hit. Toward the end of the war, raids that killed thousands of individuals occurred on a regular basis.

The Firestorm. The use of massive numbers of incendiary bombs together with high explosives soon created the most horrifying aspect of air warfare: the firestorm. When the conditions were favorable, conflagrations in concentrated areas within cities created strong drafts of wind as oxygen was drawn in to the center of burning areas to feed the flames. Those drafts increased the intensity of the fires, and the winds that swept toward the center of the burning areas eventually reached gale force, strong enough to knock a fleeing human being to the ground or even draw them into the flames. The upper drafts and rising heat sucked oxygen out of the basements where people were huddled, and many victims of bombings crouched in basements and underground tunnels died by asphyxiation.

Hamburg. The worst firestorm of the war took place in Hamburg in 1943. The attack began on July 24 and lasted for eight days and seven nights. By the time it was over almost 43,000 citizens were dead and 37,000 were wounded. Almost everything in the city was destroyed. The attacks used approximately 3,000 aircraft that dropped about 9,000 tons of bombs. The heat created by the firestorm was so intense that asphalt streets actually caught fire. As defense against fighters and flak attacks, lead airplanes dropped strips of tinfoil hamburgknown as window that confused radar defenses, allowing the bombers to hit their targets with greater accuracy.

The rubble created by explosive bombs clogged streets and prevented firemen from reaching the burning buildings. While the attacks did destroy a large number of factories and other industrial facilities, most of the casualties were civilians, including 7,000 children; an additional 110,000 children were orphaned. Despite the massive damage in the July 1943 raids, Hamburg was attacked by bombers an additional 70 times before the war ended.

An attack on the city of Pforzheim earlier in 1943 also produced a horrific firestorm. Of the 65,000 residents of Pforzheim, over 20,000 were killed, almost twice the death rate of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. Although the attack occurred in winter, the intense heat was such that hundreds of victims jumped into a nearby river, where many of them perished.

In all, twelve German cities suffered attacks that resulted in firestorms. When conditions were right—wooden buildings closely packed in crowded downtown areas, with weather conditions that did not diminish effects—the raging fires created heat that did not dissipate for days. While many victims were burned to death, the majority were killed by asphyxiation or were poisoned by gaseous fumes that saturated underground bunkers and tunnels. Basement shelters became crematoria.

The Battle of the Ruhr. The Ruhr Valley, a heavily industrialized area of Germany, became a high priority target early in the bombing campaign. The industrial output of the Ruhr area included steel, coke and synthetic oil. The most famous plant was the Krupp armament works in Essen. During the five-month campaign, repeated attacks were mounted against Essen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf, Dortmund, Bochum, Wuppertal and other cities in the region. The city of Cologne was also considered part of the Ruhr area. During the battle two dams were also attacked in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to disrupt water and hydroelectric resources. The attacks did, however, seriously disrupt German essenindustrial production, including a 50% reduction in the output of steel. Although German Armaments Minister Albert Speer later claimed that no military equipment failed to reach the battle field on time because of the bombing, German industry suffered heavy blows from the air attacks.

Attacks on the Ruhr Valley were carried out by both British and American heavy bombers such as the RAF Wellington and Lancaster and the USAAF B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator. As they did through most of the war, the British flew night attacks while the American crews attempted what was called daylight precision bombing. For a variety of reasons, however, precision was often a goal to be desired rather than an achieved reality. Bombers sometimes missed targets by as much as 25 miles. During the night raids, pathfinders dropped incendiary bombs as markers and were followed by aircraft with explosive bombs. The incendiaries often started the firestorms, driving people into the streets where they became victims of "blockbusters."

The majority of the bombing of the Ruhr Valley was carried out by the RAF. The highest concentration of German anti-aircraft artillery was located in the Ruhr Valley; nevertheless, most of the losses to attacking bombers were from fighter aircraft. British crews sometimes referred to the Ruhr area as the "Valley of no Return."

Dresden. The most famous, or perhaps infamous, raid of the European war occurred at the city of Dresden in February 1945. The war was clearly winding down at that point as Russian armies were advancing in the East, and American, British, and French forces were rapidly approaching the Rhine and Germany itself. Dresden was a picturesque old city, sometimes called the Florence of the North, and dresdenalthough it did have some minor military-related manufacturing, it was by no means an industrial city. Many of the antiaircraft defenses had been removed from the Dresden area to reinforce the cities in the Ruhr industrial region. Citizens of Dresden had come to believe that the city might be spared. They were wrong.

The city of Dresden had become clogged by tens of thousands of refugees fleeing from the advancing Russian armies to the east. The attacks on Dresden began at night when Mosquito bombers dropped thousands of incendiary flares on the city to mark it as a target for the following bombers, and to start fires throughout the city. Heavy British Lancaster and Haviland bombers followed, dropping tons of high-explosive bombs on the city. The following day, while the fires still raged, American B-17 aircraft flew over and dumped more tons of bombs on the city. Those daylight attacks were followed by yet more nighttime raids by British bombers.

By the time the raids had ended, Dresden lay in ruins, and thousands of civilians were dead, including many of the refugees who had wandered into the city seeking safety from the Russian advance. Although the exact numbers of casualties were impossible to determine, they numbered in the tens of thousands. Following the attack, the New York Times referred to the raids as deliberate “terror bombing.” After the war, the Dresden attack became a focal point for propaganda purposes against the Western powers.

Hundreds of books have been written about the European war; many of those have focused on the air war, and a number concentrate particularly on Dresden. Whatever justification for the devastating attacks may have existed at the time, the legacy of the air war rightly or wrongly served as a propaganda tool for the Soviet-dominated Communist governments of Eastern Europe in the postwar period. Even Western writers such as Major General John F. C. Fuller have deplored what they called the excesses of the Allied bombing campaigns. Postwar peace and understanding, they have written, cannot be constructed upon piles of rubble and the graves of hundreds of thousands of people.

After the war studies were done to try to determine the overall effectiveness of the air campaigns of the Second World War. Different authorities have come to different conclusions, but a consensus seems to have determined that the costs of the air war to the victims significantly outweighed the benefits to the victors. Sadly, that lesson was difficult to absorb, as the massive bombings of North Vietnam during that conflict later demonstrated. (Web site on the B-1287 Bomber)

Books on the Air War:

  • Jörg Friedrich and Allison Brown, The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945
  • Randall Hansen, Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-1945
  • Paul Addison & Jeremy A. Crang, Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945
  • Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945
World War II Home | Updated September 26, 2013