Hitler didn't start indiscriminate bombings — Churchill did 

Bombing in Europe was never a winning strategy, says Richard Overy in The Bombing War

26 October 2013

9:00 AM

26 October 2013

9:00 AM

The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 Richard Overy

Allen Lane, pp.821, £30, ISBN: 9780713995619

‘I cannot describe to you what a curious note of brutality a bomb has,’ said one woman who lived through the initial German raids on London during the second world war. This woman’s ambivalent reaction to having a bomb rip through her bedroom typified the shocking reality of a different type of war to any that had ever been fought before.

For as Richard Overy makes eminently clear in his extraordinary and far-reaching history of Europe’s bombing war, this was the first time civilians actually became a part of the front line. The cause of this was the advent of aerial bombardment, which, Overy says, exposed ‘the democratic nature of total war, which insisted that all citizens had a part to play.’

The idea that bombing could demoralise a population and cause a government crisis had been a topic of hot discussion during the interwar years. In a lengthy preamble Overy, who has written numerous histories of the second world war, focuses on Bulgaria as a microcosm of the issues which defined the wider ‘strategic’ bombing war in Europe:

The bombing of Bulgaria was Churchill’s idea, and he remained the driving force behind the argument that air raids would provide a quick and relatively cheap way of forcing the country to change sides.

Fine in theory, but in practice things worked rather differently. The ‘political dividend’ Churchill sought to achieve in the early months of 1944 was offset by a high level of civilian casualties ‘which undermined the prestige of both the United States and Britain in the eyes of the Bulgarian people’. Overy notes that while bombing contributed to the collapse of any pro-German consensus and strengthened the hand of opposition political parties it did not result in a change of government until September 1944 when the Soviets introduced an administration dominated by the Bulgarian communist party.

Martialling his facts with dexterity Overy argues that bombing in Europe was never a war-winning strategy and invariably caused more harm than good. In what is the first full narrative of the bombing war in Europe Overy’s scope is incredibly broad and well-researched, also highly readable. He tackles not only the wider conflict with Germany but little-known bombing wars in France and Italy, which in both cases resulted in civilian casualties the equal of the Blitz.

He has also had access to ‘two new sources’ from the former Soviet archives, which include German air force documents covering the Blitz and others which throw new light on Germany’s bombings of Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad — an area which up until now has had very little coverage.

Overy traces the origins of the bombing war back to 10 May 1940, the same day that Germany began its attack on the West and Churchill replaced Chamberlain as British prime minister. ‘Chamberlain had always opposed the use of bombing against urban targets,’ writes Overy, ‘but Churchill had no conscientious or legal objections.’ Indeed, already as Minister of Munitions in 1917, Churchill had been in favour of an independent air force and a policy of long-range bombing against German industrial targets.

Up until Churchill’s appointment as prime minister both Germany and Britain had stuck to a pledge not to attack targets in each other’s cities where civilians were at risk. Overy dismisses the long-held belief ‘firmly rooted in the British public mind’ that Hitler initiated the trend for indiscriminate bombings. Instead, he says, the decision to take the gloves off was Churchill’s, ‘because of the crisis in the Battle of France, not because of German air raids [over Britain].’

Ethical restraints which had been imposed at the start of the war became slowly eroded as a result of Britain’s decision to initiate ‘unrestricted’ bombing of targets located in Germany’s urban areas. In a fascinating chapter entitled ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ Overy suggests that Britain’s Bomber Command developed its tactics for concentrated ‘area bombing’ and the wide use of incendiary bombs by observing the destruction Germany wrought on London during the Blitz.

The RAF altered its strategy of focusing on precise targets when it saw how effectively the German air force attacked clusters of targets in industrial and commercial areas. However, Overy says that under Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris’s stewardship Bomber Command took things a grisly step further by deliberately targeting German workers to reduce industrial output.

For much of the war, combined British, Commonwealth and American forces lacked the necessary technology to develop the long-range heavy bombers they needed to launch attacks on Germany’s main industrial hubs. The bombing war only really escalated in 1943 when Harris finally felt ready to launch three major offensives: the Ruhr-Rhineland in late spring and summer, Hamburg in July and Berlin in the autumn.

It was the second of these, codenamed ‘Operation Gomorrah’, that resulted in the single largest loss of civilian life in one city throughout the European war. Some 37,000 people died and over 60 per cent of Hamburg’s houses and apartments were destroyed by a blaze of incendiary bombs. Overy cites a German doctor who says he had to estimate the number of dead by measuring the ash left on the floor.

It was only near the end of the war, and the bombing of Dresden which killed approximately 25,000 people in a few hours, that there was any kind of outcry against Allied strategy, which incidentally had failed in any way to stem Germany’s production of armaments (there was a three-fold increase between 1941 and 1944). Yet after the war the British Bombing Survey Unit’s assessment was positively damning and criticised almost ‘all phases of Bomber Command’s activities except the final phase against oil and communications targets [in Germany].’

Though he is never quick to judge Overy does not disagree with postwar interpretations which saw ‘the final flourish of bombing against a weakened enemy, with overwhelming force, as merely punitive, neither necessary, nor, as a result, morally justified’. Looking desperately among the historical rubble for a positive response to a campaign which saw roughly 50 per cent of bomber pilots lose their lives during airborne sorties, Overy, suggests that

bombing was at its most significant as a political gambit in the earlier part of the war when the British government used the RAF as a means to win support among the occupied populations and from the US by showing that Britain was capable of fighting back.

It is small consolation for what the esteemed Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith described as ‘one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, miscalculation of the war.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • georgesdelatour

    “For as Richard Overy makes eminently clear in his extraordinary and far-reaching history of Europe’s bombing war, this was the first time civilians actually became a part of the front line.”

    Not even slightly true. The Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland which marked the start of the war immediately led to massive attacks on non-combatant Polish civilians. Read about Operation Tannenberg. By October 1939 the Einsatzgruppen had already shot at least 20,000 Polish civilians.

    “It was the second of these, codenamed ‘Operation Gomorrah’, that resulted in the single largest loss of civilian life in one city throughout the European war. Some 37,000 people died and over 60 per cent of Hamburg’s houses and apartments were destroyed by a blaze of incendiary bombs.”

    Again not true. The Warsaw Uprising led to the deaths of 200,000 people. The Nazi destruction of Warsaw was far more “total” than the Anglo-American bombing of any German city.

    • Otto

      The Allied bombing was done for two big reasons: it was a way of helping the Soviet Union when that country was bleeding from every pore and badly needed any pressure that could be put on the Germans; it was a way of destroying German arrogance and teaching them that when they styled themselves the master race with unlimited right to prey on mankind they had to be prepared to be hit very hard indeed.

      The bombing worked in both respects. We have not had a peep of arrogance out of Germans since.

      The Japanese, the other self-styled master race, have also behaved unwontedly meekly ever since they made their acquaintance with the atom bomb.

      If atom bombs had been tready in time Berlin would have got it.

      Some learn the hard way. You can’t glory in playing tough guy and then whine.

      You can’t cure Nazis with sweet reason.

      Case closed.

      • Warwick

        “You can’t cure Nazis with sweet reason.”
        Of course. But Nazism was not defeated, not even slightly deterred, by area bombing. Area bombing of German cities, it has been amply shown, did not lessen armament production and did nothing to lessen the effectiveness of the German war machine.
        The bombing of German cities could most accurately be likened to the destruction of the Twin Towers. Loathsome terrorism of no military value.
        The British bombing of German civilians mostly affected women, children and the elderly. Not to put too fine a point on it, it satisfied British bloodlust. The fact was that Britain, by neglecting her military preparedness before the war, had become militarily impotent. Murdering huge numbers of civilians was one way of disguising that impotence.
        “We have not had a peep of arrogance out of the Germans since.”
        National arrogance seems to be concentrated, in Europe, amongst colonel Blimp types in Britain.
        No-one is claiming that the Nazis were not guilty of great crimes, against the Poles the Russians and particularly against the Jews.
        But by the same set of values by which the Nazis are judged, British Bomber Command must be found guilty of war crimes in the matter of the mass aerial murder of German civilians.
        The greatest examples of saturation bombing that British bomber command carried out happened well after Germany was on the ropes because of conventional on-the-ground fighting. The bombing of cities did not shorten the war by five minutes.

        • Otto

          I notice you do not comment on the Russian view of this matter. They highly approve of the bombing because it punished the Germans and made them learn the meaning of pain; and because of the additional pressure that it put on the Germans.

          The aim of the war was not just to end it but to hit Germans and hit them as hard as possible; the harder the better. If they did not want this, they should not have voted for Hitler.

          Simple. You pay a price for what you do.

          The bombing worked beautifully. Germans now fit into civilization. Now they know the cost of war and no more taswallow tales about having lost because of a Jewish a “stab in the back”.

          As for Blimps: I prefer them to Nazis.

        • georgesdelatour

          “No-one is claiming that the Nazis were not guilty of great crimes, against the Poles the Russians and particularly against the Jews.”

          The central thesis of this article is that Hitler began by waging no more than a Battle-Of-Waterloo-type gentleman general’s war, strictly limited to opposing uniformed armies; and the villain of the piece who transformed it into an all-out war against unarmed civilians was Winston Churchill, once he became prime minister in mid-1940.

          This is completely wrong. I’d even say it’s contemptibly wrong. From Day One, September 1 1939, Nazi Germany waged an unremitting war of deportation, enslavement and murder on a massive scale against unarmed civilian populations, especially in the lands to Germany’s east. The strategic bombing of enemy cities was part of German policy from the start. On Day One, the Luftwaffe destroyed the city of Wieluń, including a clearly marked hospital and its historic gothic church; and Frampol, a city with no military units or targetable industry. According to then pilot Wolfgang Schreyer, Frampol and its people were simply chosen as a kind of live lab rat for the Luftwaffe pilots to get practice at bombing defenceless cities. Warsaw was also bombed. Its Jewish quarter was bombed repeatedly, probably not for military reasons.

          The Nazis bombed Rotterdam on May 14th 1940. After Rotterdam was destroyed, the Nazis threatened to follow up with the destruction of Utrecht if the Dutch government didn’t immediately surrender. Having no defences against such aerial bombing, the Dutch government surrendered immediately.

          During Operation Barbarossa, around half a million Soviet civilians died directly as a result of German bombing raids. It’s generally agreed that the Nazis were directly responsible for a minimum of 13.5 million deaths of unarmed Soviet civilians during the war (total Soviet war deaths were between 22 and 27 million). This shows that, in World War II, bombing was by no means the most destructive method of attacking defenceless civilians.

          • Otto

            Well stated !

            The conclusion devastates the whole Overy case and its inane write-up here by Grey like an atom bomb.

            It is amazing what horrific, garbage arguments prestigious historians can get away wiith! Academic laurels maketh fools of many historians and blind devotees of the audience.

          • Angelita Smith

            The facts dont support yr assertions actually. But dont let facts get in the way of truth will you. Jews had been causing great suffering for the German people who had generously welcomed them. Berlin was a pornographic den of iniquity which the paedos & sexual perverts fondly named ‘Buggers Paradise’. The German people were in need of a great leader & they got one. He wanted the Jews gone and rightly so. It was for Indigenous Germans and not paedophilic jews who parasite off the host nation, eventually leaving it perverted, subverted and destroyed psychologically and emotionally much like what it has become today as a result of sheer fabrication by jewish criminals & ignorant ass-hat criminal americans and british who refuse to accept responsibility for being marauding colonialists who lie through their propaganda machines! You are sick apologists and by association war criminals and perverts. Disgusting!

        • Otto

          The Soviet Union, bleeding from all its pores under the merciless Nazi onslaught, had been crying out to Britain and the US for a “second front”. For whatever reason the Western Alllies could not provide this until 1944. The bombing campaign was the substitute: the only way the
          Western Allies had to put dire pressure on Germany, relieve Russia at least a bit and simply send the Soviets a message: We are fully aware of the ordeal you are going through and our sympathy is not just verbal: We are willing to sacrifice a large number of our brave airmen to make life tough for the filthy Beast…….In effect, every one of these bombs on Germany will be marked: FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE…..

          • bertjesklotepino

            You should read a book from this page:

            Especially Hitler’s war and Churchill’s war are great books.

            You might reach another conclusion.

            It is not for nothing that a NOBEL price winner has said this:

            “You must understand that the leading Bolsheviks who took over Russia were not Russians. They hated Russians. They hated Christians. Driven by ethnic hatred they tortured and slaughtered millions of Russians without a shred of human remorse.

            More of my countrymen suffered horrific crimes at their blood stained hands than any people or nation ever suffered in the entirety of human history. It cannot be overstated. Bolshevism committed the greatest human slaughter of all time.

            The fact that most of the world is ignorant or uncaring about this enormous crime is proof that the global media is in the hands of its perpetrators.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Genius, Gulag survivor [real concentration camps], Nobel Peace prize winner]

            You seem to have NO clue what so ever……… you asked: Why did the public stay loyal to Hitler.

            If you need to ask such a stupid question, you have no idea what you are talking about.

            And as for who did the slaughtering…… have a look at the Danzig massacres. The Bromburg massacres.
            The Katyn Massacres (first blamed on the Germans but subsequently revised.)

            Its just like with the revisionists who have revised the number of deaths in Auschwitz from 4 million back to 1.5 million.

            But no, its perfectly normal for the United States of Merica and Great Britain to completely bomb Germany back into the stoneage, destroy its transportsystem and all of it, causing HUGE amounts of deaths due to starvation especially in the camps……..and ofcourse lets not forget the weak bombings of Hamburg, Dresden, Berlin, etc etc etc………….
            Btw, on that website i posted a link for is also a book about Dresden. And just for your information: If this man who wrote that book had not written that book, we wouldnt have known.

            It was Great Britain who began the bombings on Berlin civilians. Not the other way around.
            It was Great Britain who declared the war.
            It was Hitler who let Great Britain escape at Dunkerk.
            It was Hitler who has made a huge amount of peace offers prior to the outbreak of war. Not the other way around.
            He even offered to pull back his troops in Poland.
            He wanted to secure the Danzig Strait.

            Indoctrination works perfectly it seems.

            En Jasper……. ja, Rotterdam ja…………….
            Heb je ook enig idee waarom?

            Weet je dat ons koningshuis Duits is?
            Weet je wat Bernhard aan het doen was?
            Weet je wat Bernhard erna heeft opgericht?

            Go read a book.

      • Jasper van Lieshout

        Forgot about the bombing of Rotterdam in 1940?

    • Otto

      Well spotted! The lies by Overy are scoundrelly. He has swallowed the Nazi version of the war hook, line and sinker.

      I only disagree with you when you stress that the invasion of Poland was Soviet as well as Nazi. Technically this is true, but the Soviets had no alternative to a deal with the Nazis at that point if they did not want war with Germany on their own. Even Churchill pointed out that the Soviets had to reach a deal with Germany after the Munich betrayal of them by Chamberlain.

      • curri

        Yeah, that’s the standard version we’ve heard all our lives since kindergarten. It should probably be barked on loudspéakers everywhere 24/7.

        • Otto

          It was Hitler the Allies feared: not Stalin.

          Hitler had already sized up the Jews for extermination in case of war: he had said so.

          Your argument proves how necessary the obliteration of German power was: otherwise we would have to take you seriously….Brrrrrr! The age of cannibalism in Europe is over, thanks in part to the bombers of the US and British air forces.

          One unfortunate aspect was that the atom bomb came a bit too late for Germany to get it.

          • Angelita Smith

            YOu are a sick psychopath and still running around on the streets of Europe free which is a worry. You should be in jail for what you are saying here, but they will never happen because yr criminal brethren believe in the same barbaric way you. Yr a terrorist!

    • curri

      What are your stats for the battles of Budapest and Berlin?

      • Angelita Smith

        They fried almost 1million German civilians with white phosphorous but always deflate figures when it comes to their crimes! However inflate them when it is anyone else…by 100%

    • Angelita Smith

      Polish killed 70,000 ethnic Germans with their greedy little eyes on their land & businesses as a reward! The photos & evidences are there for all to see, this is why the war started! I am Polish & I know my OWN history and I am not proud of it. What despicable human being justifies the bombing of innocent men, women & children & tries to justify it? A psychopath only. Many psychopaths in the world today, and they are Americans, British & Israelis who choose not to face the reality of their own criminality. Yr disgusting!

  • Otto

    Nothing this fellow says is right. John Kenneth Galbraith was an American, though born Canadian. He was very careful to stress his American nationality.

  • Otto

    Grey bleats:

    “For as Richard Overy makes eminently clear in his extraordinary and
    far-reaching history of Europe’s bombing war, this was the first time
    civilians actually became a part of the front line.”

    This is outrageous drivel of course, but let us suppose it is true for the sake of argument.

    Is is a coincidence that this was also the first time that Germans realised that war is not worth the candle and it is better to make good beer and football instead?

  • Otto

    The Soviet Union, bleeding from all its pores under the merciless Nazi onslaught, had been crying out to Britain and the US for a “second front”. For whatever reason the Western Alllies could not provide this until 1944. The bombing campaign was the substitute: the only way the Western Allies had to put dire pressure on Germany, relieve Russia at least a bit and simply send the Soviets a message: We are fully aware of the ordeal you are going through and our sympathy is not just verbal: We are willing to sacrifice a large number of our brave airmen to make life tough for the filthy Beast…….In effect, every one of these bombs on Germany will be marked: FROM RUSSIA AND WITH LOVE…..

    • kepayas mana

      u support and crying for russia sooo much…dont u ever learn that russia also had a planed to conqoured europe in 1939? Russian mass their army in the polish border to wait order from stalin… If there is no german army in the centre of europe that feared by russian army, europe in russian hand today. That is fact. Without nazi europe fall easly to russian. So think twice to gratefull some monster here

  • David Garcia Antoñanzas

    1,5 Million Germans werd burnt or crushed to death by the murderous British and American planes under the aegis of International Jewry

  • Raold

    Yes, my uncle served in Bomber Command during the war and they were told on every mission that they were attacking ‘strategic’ targets. On night raids to Germany they were given coordinates for bomb drops with no real idea of the fact that they were actually targeting civilians. So not only were the British public lied to, the bomber crews never knew the real truth either. He survived the war and spent a whole year being cured from his amphetamine addiction from the ‘Go Pills’ they were given on every raid.
    So disgusted was he after the war in his pat in the mass slaughter of civilians that he actually coined this phrase. ‘The Germans may have burned many innocent people during the war, but at least they had the decency to kill them first, we simply burned them alive’.
    Needles to say his war medals ere binned in a fit of pique, and, ‘Arthur Harris’ was a name forbidden in his home.

    • Angelita Smith

      Good on you and your uncle for having the heart to admit this. Most people are in denial. Hitler was actually opposed to all ariel bombing & had made numerous requests to world powers to have it outlawed. Obviously it didnt happen.

      • Hortance

        Thats a lie. A common one for Nazi apologists.
        Hitler didn’t oppose bombing civilians when he bombed multiple Polish cities in 1939, or over a dozen French cities, including Lyons in the same year. When Hitler bombed Rotterdam Holland in 1940, he killed 30-40,000 civilians. He didn’t complain about that….He also bombed the Brits twice in 1940, including London in August 1940. All before a single bomb was dropped on German civilians.
        No complaining from you, now. The lowest scum sets the rules in any conflict. Hitler and the Germans (I am one, American) reaped what they sowed.
        “Hitler wanted this, Hitler didn’t want that….”
        Save it for your Nazi friends in whatever hole you crawl into to meet.

        • lighthorse16

          Hitler gave Warsaw plenty of time to surrender in 1939… They refused and during their refusal, thousands of ethnic Germans were being butchered.

          • Hortance

            How many times do we hear a despot making the same claim, throughout history?
            Hell, Putin is using the same argument to excuse his ongoing assault against Ukraine.

          • lighthorse16

            I know, Most US Presidents have managed to find an excuse to go to War.. Gulf of Tonkin incident, Saddams non existant WMD’s, blaming the whole of Afghanistan for 911 when in reality, the US government and Larry Silverstein were involved along with a bunch of Saudi Nationals.

          • Hortance

            YEah, when your NATO allies lay on their arses for decades while you spend billions to defend Europe (past couple of years GB and France have stepped up, I admit. Since we have a Muslim in office), and others, you tend to get into wars. And then the Islamists target you because you are the biggest target….yeah, we have wars to fight. So what?
            BTW–Google up the 2nd Wikileaks document dump of 2010.
            We DID find WMDs, it seems. Lots of them. Brits found some. Poles found some. US found a lot, multiple locations. Notice how the Left fell out of love with Julian Assange all-of-a-sudden? That’s why.
            Why didn’t Bush say “told you so?”. Probably because they kept it quite for some expected diplomatic benefit. Guess he’s a bigger man than me, because I’d have been rubbing the Left’s face in it.
            BTW—I just felt like educating you on a side issue, but lets not forget…..none of the red herrings you fling about distract from your original flogging on the question of who started the civilian bombing campaigns.

          • lighthorse16

            A Muslim who bends over backwards for Rahm Emmanuelle ? Good one… Rahm may have gone, but the game remains the same.

  • Whiz

    Churchill and Harris are war crimesand not better than Hitler and Stalin. They kill thousands of old man, women and children. I hope they roast in hell for that

  • lighthorse16

    25,000 dead in Dresden? That is a hateful lie, they know the real death toll is nearer 500.000. Churchill had asked for ” suggestions how to blaze 600.000 refugees ” Another thing about Churchill, he drank Wine for breakfast. Yep, Britain elected a raging alcoholic to lead them into battle.

  • Richard Gearon

    Far more than 25,000 were killed in Dresden. There were many tens of thousands of refugees, from the east, living “rough” in Dresden, mostly in a huge park in the middle of the city. Few or none of those people were counted in the “official” statistics.

  • Gul Fraz Majeed

    Jesus interesting territory

  • Terry Field

    The point of engaging in warfare is to win. Then the aim must be to feel good about one’s efforts.

  • Francois Schaut

    Author needs to go back and research. On on 14 May 1940, Germany didn’t even blink an eye to bomb the Dutch city of Rotterdam into the ground. 900 civilians died and 85,000 others homeless. Only when the Germans threatened to do the same to the city of Utrecht the next day, Holland capitulated..

    • Mark

      The RAF began blitzing German cities on 11 May 1940.

      • Francois Schaut

        If you are referring to the bombing on Monchengladbach (focused on the rail yard); ground casualties was 4. I wouldn’t call that a blitz bombing of civilian targets. If you are speaking of another target, I’ll be happy to hear about it, and look into it.

        • Mark

          The RAF bombed cities in Germany every night from 11 May 1940.

          Anyway throughout the Blitz the Germans were targeting military and industrial areas.

          • Francois Schaut

            Mark, I can only find the Monchengladbach for that date, please give some city names and dates. If you have specific information please share this

          • Mark

            Churchill bombed Berlin seven times before Hitler finally retaliated by ordering the London Blitz.

            It is hilarious how the UK destroyed itself by starting World War II, and became an American satellite.

      • Sterculius65

        Lets not forget the bombing of civilians in Poland by Germany in 39.

        • Mark

          That was a combined German-Soviet operation.

          • Sterculius65

            Yes it was but the bombings started before Russia invade from the east.