In February 1945, over 1,200 Allied bombers of the RAF and the US Army Air Forces launched four aerial attacks against Dresden. It was the final months of the war in Europe, and would become one of the most controversial Allied attacks of the Second World War. The raids destroyed 75,000 homes and around 25,000 people were killed. However at the start of the war, the bombing of civilians had been seen as unjustifiable.

Over the course of the war, the strategic bombing campaign developed from a limited force into a weapon of immense destructive power, with hundreds of cities subjected to air attack alongside military targets.


Why the Allies bombed German cities: The strategic bombing campaign


Voice over: “In February 1945 over 1200 allied bombers of the RAF and the US Army Air Forces launched four aerial attacks against the German city of Dresden. The three-day attack obliterated the city in an attempt to force a surrender. It was the final months of the war in Europe and would become one of the most controversial allied attacks of the entire war.

The ensuing firestorm was so intense that bodies were incinerated in the blaze, it destroyed 75, 000 homes and around 25, 000 people were killed. But at the start of the war the bombing of civilians had been seen as unjustifiable.

Over the course of the war the strategic bombing campaign developed from a limited force into a weapon of immense destructive power. It received huge economic and technological resources. By 1945 aerial bombardment had turned most of the continent into an involuntary war zone, with hundreds of cities subjected to air attack.

How had the Allied bombing campaign escalated to this point? Did it actually weaken Germany’s war industries and break the German people's morale? Was this loss of civilian life justified?”

Emily Charles, IWM Curator: “The theory behind strategic bombing was developed after the First World War by Generals like Billy Mitchell in the United States, Hugh Trenchard in Britain and Giulio Duhey in Italy. Military thinkers who had witnessed the stalemate of the First World War conceived strategic bombing as an alternative to the war of attrition on the Western Front.”

Voice over: “At the start of the war, aerial bombing was seen by national leaders as unethical. The world had been horrified by the bombing of Guernica in 1937, where civilians were intentionally targeted by aerial bombardment. In 1939, RAF Bomber Command had 23 operational bomber squadrons with 280 aircRAFt. This modest force gave Britain the means to strike back at Nazi Germany but only against strictly military targets at first.”

Emily Charles: “When war broke out in 1939 US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appealed to the leaders of belligerent nations to avoid the inhuman barbarism of launching aerial attacks against civilians. All participants including Adolf Hitler quickly agreed and was swiftly followed by Britain and France. The first Allied air attacks launched in 1939 were against strictly military targets, airfields German shipping and mine laying in the channel.”

Voice over: “But this attitude did not last for long. The invasion of France and the appointment of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister in 1940 prompted the British War Cabinet to sanction a campaign of strategic bombing against German industry. The first RAF bombing operation was launched against Mönchengladbach on the 11th of May 1940.

37 bombers attacked transport and industrial targets killing four people. Also in 1940, the German Luftwaffe began a sustained campaign of aerial bombing against British towns and cities. 300 German bombers raided London on the first night of the Blitz. Both sides claimed they were bombing in retaliation. In 1942, Arthur Harris was appointed the new Commander-in-chief of Bomber Command. German cities now became a primary target for area bombing from the Allies and Harris gained much public support when he sent a thousand bombers against Cologne.”

Collections footage: “Bomber Command gets cracking. The last night of May 1942, Cologne was the target and on airfields all over Britain, a thousand bombers stood ready waiting for the order to set the raid machinery in motion. It was given by Air Officer Commander in chief Bomber Command Air Marshal Harris.”

Emily Charles: “Also in 1942 the US Army Air Forces began to arrive in Britain and also began to carry out raids against targets across Europe - largely U-boats and naval bases to attack German shipping. In 1943 the focus of the race switched. The US Army Air Forces in particular began targeting German aircraft production.”

Voice over: “At least at first the RAF planned to bomb using precision bombing in which aerial bombing was directed at specific targets and aimed to minimise collateral damage. But this would prove to be difficult to achieve. Precision bombing was, however, adopted by the US Army Air Forces.”

Emily Charles: “The accuracy of this bombing was dependent on technology and in the 1930s the US Army Air Forces had experimented with technology like the Norden bomb site and received incredibly accurate results that were exaggerated by the American press as being so accurate that you could drop a bomb in a pickle barrel from thirty thousand feet. of course, the reality proved very different.”

Voice over: “It was impossible to reproduce accuracy over Europe with weather conditions, enemy defences and limited training. Precision bombing remained hopeless even later in the war.”

Emily Charles: “In 1944, 10,000 French casualties were killed as a result of so-called precision raids against railways and other military targets. Regardless of this collateral damage the US Army Air forces still claimed that their bombs were aimed with precision regardless of whether they fell on the target area or not.”

Voice over: “Area bombing was the approach of subjecting whole cities to raids as opposed to specific targets. It was conceived by Churchill’s scientific adviser Lord Cherwell and air ministry planners in 1942 and adopted the same year.”

Emily Charles: “The policy of area bombing was justified as it was conceived as a way of de-housing German workers and therefore have an impact on the German economy.”

Voice over: “By 1944 the combined Allied bomber force began to overwhelm the Germans. American escort fighters shot the Luftwaffe out of the sky. A successful offensive was launched against Germany’s vulnerable fuel supplies. German troops were carpet bombed in advance of major Allied ground offences and Harris continued his city attacks, still convinced they would prove decisive. In 1945, the bomber offensive reached its peak of destruction. The RAF alone now had 108 squadrons with over 1500 aircraft, a record 4,800 tons of bombs were dropped on Dortmund in a single night. Raids against oil and communications proved effective. German production was massively disrupted and in some places ceased. But despite this huge escalation of air attack the impact of the bombing campaign on German industry throughout the war is debated. Overall the tactic of targeting Germans’ industrial centres resulted in mixed success.”

Emily Charles: “In the early part of the campaign between 1941 and 1943 German production actually trebled. Part of the reason for this was German-occupied territories expand across Europe and German industry could be dispersed geographically right across this area. Arguably the impact of the Allied bombing campaign against German industry was offset by Nazi Germany's employment of forced labour and the use of underground manufacturing from industries like the production of V weapons. It was only by 1944 that the Allied air campaign started to have an impact against German industry and by this stage in the war there were other factors at play, such as the advancing Soviets in the east and the advancing western allies that had the ability to restrict German territory and prevent economic recovery.”

Voice over: “The other primary goal was to demoralise the German people and from a political perspective Allied leaders used bombing to show the public that they were striking back against Nazi Germany and taking the offensive.”

Collection footage: “Greatest and most powerful of the RAF's mighty fleet of bombers here was the machine that should bring to fruition Winston Churchill’s promise that Germany would be subjected to an ordeal the like of which has never been experienced by any country.”

Emily Charles: “The RAF saw German morale as a legitimate military target, and it became the prime target for Bomber Command from 1942. The US Army Air Forces sought differently and never really sanctioned German morale as one of their prime objectives, arguing that the results could be too inconclusive.”

Voice over: “Whether or not morale was seen as a specific target, the bombing campaign inevitably had a dramatic effect on life in Germany.”

Emily Charles: “Nazi Government had to plough huge numbers of resources into offsetting the impact of the bombing on daily life. Fighters and anti-aircraft defences had to be built and rebuilt as the bombing continued. Even children had to be enlisted to support and later in the war even manned anti-aircraft defences. Like Britain, Germany developed sophisticated civil defence measures like air raid wardens, fire services and bomb shelters.”

Voice over: “Citizens of many major German cities had to endure over four years of increasingly heavy bombardment.”

Robert Frettlohr: “I’m convinced it was Sunday morning, whatever, when the war was declared and we had the first siren going on the same day and shortly after the first bombs fell in the area where I lived and the first bomb which fell next to the catholic church into the uh um vicarage or hall, that was the first one I’ve ever experienced there and then it it's got more and more and more and the casualties were straight away were quite high. And I still remember the way we had two blocks further to us there's a bomb went into the back cellar and, well I don't know how many 10 or 12 people got killed in that cellar, I think. There's one little baby, what a life, we got it out.”

Helen Leach: “I was again listening to a station, and they said heavy bomber formations are approaching Leipzig (inaudible) and as I was saying that and they were announcing it on the on the wireless you could hear a terrific noise already overhead and immediately it started, the bombs were dropping. I mean, they were so low you know I mean by the noise you could tell how is that there we are, and it was really petrifying. When we got to our friends, I stayed the night and then the next morning I made my way back into Preston again”

“What did you find there?”

“It was absolutely, you couldn't get through most of the roads it was quite horrifying there were whole, the whole rows of floods and what have you, they were just completely demolished.”

Voice over: “The majority of all deaths by bombing in Germany were suffered in the last 17 months of the war. But by the late stages of the war bombing was just one of many concerns for the German population. Fear of bombing was superseded by fear of the Soviet advance. In general, the German population likely perceived successive military defeats as more responsible for the war turning against them. But the Allied bombing campaign was not limited to Germany. Countries across Europe were affected. This map shows the extent and breadth of the aerial bombardment across Europe.”

Emily Charles: “During the Second World War, all nations allied to or occupied by Nazi Germany were subjected to some form of aerial bombardment. Throughout the Second World War, Italy was only bombed for one month less than Germany, finding even after surrender in 1943 it still remained a target for Allied bombing because of the presence of German forces on Italian territory.

France was also intensively bombed throughout the war, particularly in 1944 in the lead-up to the allied invasion of Normandy, where small targets were excessively bombed to soften the German defences ahead of the invasion.

Over the course of the war 60,000 French civilians lost their lives as a result of aerial bombardment and even port cities like la Rochelle were some of the last cities to be bombed in the course of the war.”

Voice over: “Opposition to the RAF's area bombing campaign had been prevalent throughout the war, yet many leaders saw it as a necessity. Throughout the war every nation escalated towards indiscriminate violence. The bombing of cities by the German Luftwaffe was considered as an indictment during the War Crimes Trials in 1945, but this was withdrawn when the Allies realised there would be little defence for their actions from German lawyers. In the course of the Allied air campaign over 80,000 aircrew lost their lives, over 50,000 for the RAF and 30,000 for the US Army Air Forces. Hundreds of cities had been ravaged by the bombs across Europe, hundreds of thousands of civilians had lost their lives due to Allied bombing and over a million people had suffered mental and physical injuries brought by the assault from the air.”

Emily Charles: “The strategic bombing campaign didn't achieve its aims until 1944 when the ground invasion of Europe was well underway. But continual aerial bombardment of German cities and industry did succeed in disrupting transport, factories, and economic production to an extent. One of the successes of the campaign was its engagement of the Luftwaffe and the achievement of the Allies in gaining aerial superiority over occupied Europe. But arguably this was down to the development of long-range fighter aircraft rather than the attacking of German aircraft industry itself.”

Voice over: “Ironically the strategic bombing campaign ultimately became a war of attrition of the kind that its proponents in the 1930s had hoped to avoid.”

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