In the initial stages of the war, the RAF had been loath to attack German industrial targets, despite the doctrine of strategic bombing. During the battles for France and Britain, Bomber Command had been reduced to attacking German shipping and invasion force transport. Some successful raids against Luftwaffe airfields occurred with good results. The turning point for the strategic air campaign occurred on the night of 23 September 1940, when 84 bombers attacked Berlin. Although bomb damage and RAF losses were minimal, the RAF had commenced the practice of night bombing first industrial (especially oil) and infrastructure and later civilian targets. In 1942 the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber arrived in numbers. Having a range of more than 1,600 miles and capable of carrying 22,000 lb of bombs, the Lancaster was Britain’s mainstay heavy bomber of World War II, and it enabled Bomber Command to carry the air war deep into Germany. The Lancaster Mark II, which appeared in 1943, had a range of 2,250 miles and could carry 14,000 lb of bombs. However, night navigation and target identification proved highly problematic. With no visual reference aids at night, bomber crews relied on Pathfinders. First fielded in August 1942, Pathfinder aircraft flew ahead of the formations, identified targets, and dropped color-coded marker flares. As the war progressed, electronic navigation improved, including the relatively primitive radio set known as “Gee,” followed by the more-sophisticated blind-bombing device called “Trinity.” The latter was a precursor of the advanced “Oboe” system, which employed a ground-distance-measuring station. The H2S system provided a radar display indicating prominent geographic features such as rivers, coastline, and urban structures, thus providing the hitherto missing navigational landmarks.
Night-bombing accuracy always suffered compared with the daylight assaults carried out by the B-17s and B-24s of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) Eighth Air Force beginning in 1943. To counter the night bombing, the Luftwaffe developed efficient night fighters and relied on massed antiaircraft artillery. When the Blitz ended, Bomber Command increased the intensity of night strategic bombing. In a night raid on Hamburg on 8 May 1941, 300 bombers dropped several new 4,000 lb bombs.
On 22 February 1942, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris took charge of Bomber Command. An energetic and enthusiastic advocate of terror bombing, Harris resolved to bludgeon Germany into submission. Night bombing of industrial targets increased immediately. To underscore the new attitude (and the advantage of the Lancasters with improved electronic navigation and targeting gear), Harris ordered the first thousand-bomber raid, which struck the German city of Köln (Cologne) on 30 May 1942. Simultaneously, the newly fielded and capable De Havilland Mosquito quickly established itself as an extraordinary melding of mission capabilities, including reconnaissance, bomber, fighter-bomber, and night fighter. Under Harris, British strategic night bombing increased in intensity, capability, and destructive force for the next three years.
The major Allied strategic raids against Germany included the following:
May 30–31, 1942: A British raid on Cologne destroyed most of the center city at a cost of 41 bombers.
July 24, 1943: A combined British and American incendiary raid against Hamburg created a firestorm in which some 50,000 civilians were killed. (Bomber losses are unknown.)
August 1, 1943: The Ploeşti raid targeted refineries in this Romanian city. The U.S. Army Air Force (Eighth and Ninth Air Forces) lost 50 planes, but did inflict major damage— which, however, was soon repaired.
August 17, 1943: The Schweinfurt raids targeted German ball-bearing production. The U.S. raid on this day also targeted Regensburg, a major center of aircraft production. The factories were damaged, but not put out of commission, and the loss to U.S. Eighth Army Air Force bombers was heavy: 60 bombers lost, 122 badly damaged.
August 17, 1943: The British raid on Peenemünde (V-2 base) caused serious damage to missile launch facilities, but these were soon repaired. The RAF lost 69 heavy bombers.
October 14, 1943: In another U.S. Eighth Army Air Force raid on Schweinfurt, 60 bombers were lost and 138 damaged; however, the ball-bearing plants were destroyed—only to be quickly rebuilt.
November 18, 1943–March 31, 1944: The British RAF conducted some 35 raids against Berlin during this period, each raid consisting of more than 500 aircraft. Damage to the city was extensive, but 1,047 bombers were lost during the offensive.
February 20–26, 1944: Known as “Big Week,” this U.S. offensive targeted German aircraft factories and wiped out about half of Germany’s fighter production capacity. Losses to the Eighth, Ninth, and Fifteenth U.S. Army Air Forces were 226 bombers.
March 11, 1944: A British raid on the oil and railroad facilities at Essen was highly successful and was carried out with negligible losses.
February 13–14, 1945: U.S. and British bombers targeted the medieval city of Dresden with heavy incendiaries, which created a massive firestorm that razed the city and killed 135,000 German civilians. Losses to the Allies were no more than six bombers. Given its high cost in civilian lives and its occurrence so late in the war, this was the most controversial strategic raid of the war’s European theater. Allied critics charged that it was motivated by nothing more “strategic” than a thirst for vengeance.
As the list of major strategic bombing missions suggests, the cost in equipment and the lives of aircrews was high. The effectiveness of strategic bombing was bitterly debated both during the war and after it. Proponents claimed that it significantly reduced the German capacity to make war. Critics contended that strategic bombing wasted the lives of aircrews and, because it targeted civilians, was inherently immoral. Most likely, an accurate assessment of strategic bombing lies between the extremes of “decisive factor” and “marginally effective adjunct.”
Further reading: Biddle, Tami Davis. Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914–1945. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004; Knell, Hermann. To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and Its Human Consequences in World War II. New York: Da Capo Press, 2003; Ross, Stewart Halsey. Strategic Bombing by the United States in World War II: The Myths and the Facts. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002.