The initial British bombing raids in 1939 dropped leaflets. The British were reluctant to actually
bomb German cities, in part fearing reprisal raids from the Luftwaffe. I have little information on the
French at this time. There was not significant bombing campaign, except for Luftwaffe operations in
Poland (September-October 1940), until the Battle of Britain. After the fall of France (June 1940),
German cities were no longer as vulnerable to RAF attacks. Bomber Command had only small numbers of
heavy bombers and they were slow, poorly defended, and had a limited load capacity. Throughout the
Battle of Britain, small numbers of British bombers hit German targets in night time raids. The raids
were wholly ineffectual in a military sense. Hitting a military target at night with 1940s technology,
especially 1940 technology was very difficult. Sometimes the raiders did not even hit the intended
city. Some of the raids were also very costly in air crews and planes. The raids did have an in
important psychological impact. British raids on Berlin so enraged Hitler that he ordered a change in
Luftwaffe tactics in the Battle of Britain, which may have well resulted in a favorable turn in the
battle in favor of the British.
President Roosevelt as soon as war broke out communicated with the belligerent countries appealing
that they not launch air attacks on undefended towns or civilians (September 1, 1939). Hitler informed
the Reichstag, I want no war against women and children, and I have given the Luftwaffe instructions to
attack only military objectives." Hitler replied to Roosevelt as did Chamberlain assuring him that there would not be air attacks on civilians. The British and French at first respected that pledge. The Germans also did so at first in the West, but not in Poland.
The initial British bombing raids in 1939 attempted to hit naval targets in coastal port cities and
dropped leaflets on some German cities. There was not significant bombing campaign, except for Luftwaffe operations in Poland (September-October 1940), until the Battle of Britain. The early raids were conducted by the British who targeted naval facilities. The first British raid was on naval targets at Wilhelmshaven and the Nordsee Canal (September 4, 1939). Little damage was done and bombs fell on the Danish town of Esbjerg. The RAF lost 7 bombers. Another British raid hit Wilhelmshaven and Cuxhaven (September 5). These and subsequent British raids were relatively small which tried to hit specific military targets with little success, but suffered substantial losses.
The first German bombing raid on Britain hit naval and other military targets on the Shetlands
(November 13). A German author addressing the World war II bombing campaign hs compiled a detailed
chronology and concludes that it was the British who first began bombing (September 4, 1939) and first
began area bombing (May 10-11, 1940). [Rumpf, pp. 23-25.] As best we can tell, this appears to be an
accurate assessment, as far as it goes. What the German author does not mention is the use of the
Luftwaffe in Poland. An assessment of the strategic bombing campaign cannot consider the activities of
each country in isolation. While it is true that the British began bombing Germany before Germany began
bombing Britain. It is also true that Germany was the first belligerent country in the War to use
bombers. The German blitz of Poland extensively use bombers and included attacks on Polish cities.
Many of these attacks targeted military objectives, but the bombing of Warsaw soon became a campaign on
the city itself to terrorize the civilians into capitulating. One historian writes, "The bombing of
Warsaw early in the war made it clear to the Allies how Hitler intended to fight his war. It was to be
Schrecklichkeit ('frightfulness') with no regard for the civilian population." [Snyder] Actually the
avowed purpose was to cause civilian casualties. The Luftwaffe demolished the Polish Air Force on the
first day of the War and for 6 days 400 bombers pounded the unprotected Polish capital day and night
with no pretense of targeting military or industrial targets. Estimates vary but 25,000 Poles are
believed to have been killed in air attacks, most in Warsaw. Hitler visiting the destruction, remarked
to journalists, "That is how I can deal with any European city." The claim that the Allies first bombed
cities and non-military targets simply is not accurate. Hitler made it clear in Poland that the
Luftwaffe would be used against whole cities if they resisted the Germans.
The British were reluctant to actually bomb German cities, in part fearing reprisal raids from the
Luftwaffe. Gradually the British began pressing to begin bombing, but the French with their cities more
exposed resisted. After Poland was firmly in NAZI hands, the Allied Supreme War Council proposed bombing the Ruhr if the German struck in the West (November 17, 1939). Prime Minister Chamberlain seemed willing if hesitant. Premier Daladier wanted the plan shelved.
Germany had the most modern and powerful air force in the world. Germany did not, however, have a
strategic bomber force. The Luftwaffe was built as a tactical air force to support the Wehrmacht land
campaigns. The Luftwaffe was a separate force, but despite the terror inspired in the late 1930s, the
Luftwaffe conducted only one major campaign of its own--the Battle of Britain (1940). The German
bombers were light dive bombers (the Ju-88 Stuka) and excellent medium bombers, but with small pay loads
and limited ranges. Germany simply did not have the resources to build a strategic bomber force in
addition to its tactical air force. Hitler's war plan was to overwhelm his adversaries before a
strategic bombing campaign could be initiated. It is unclear why the Luftwaffe never built and deployed
a heavy bomber fierce. One historian studying the air war reports that he does not know with any
certainty. [Rumpf, p.34.] This in particular seems strange in that both Hitler and Güring were more
interested in bombers than fighters. Many German records were lost during and after the War. Almost
certainly it was Germany's limited industrial capacity. The Luftwaffe was created in 1935 and had what
proved to be only 4 years to prepare for the War. Germany did not have the time or resources to build
both a tactical and strategic air force. The way the War developed, it was not until the Soviet
offensive before Moscow, that it became clear that the War would be another long, brutal test of
attrition. Within the space of only two days, the Soviets launched a devestating ooffensive (December 10 1941) and Hitler declared war on America (December 11). And by this time, German industry could not
fill all the demands from existing forces let along build a large strategic bombing force. There were
plans on the drawing boards, including the long-range Americas bomber, but Germany did not have the
industrial resources or the time to build it.
I have little information on the French at this time. British Bomber Command had only small numbers
of heavy bombers (Wellingtons and Blenheims) and they were slow, poorly defended, and had a limited load
capacity. They could have been used from bases in France, but after the NAZIs occupied France, they
could not be used for an effective strategic bombing campaign against Germany. The high performance
Halifax and Lancaster would not become available until 1942. It was the Lancaster with its load
capacity of 9 tons that would become the backbone of Bomber Command and take the War to the heart of
Germany with a vengeance.
The German Western Offensive in May and June dramatically changed the complexion of the air war. The Luftwaffe was primarily used in a tactical role during the German offensive. The success of Blitzkrieg made attack on cities unnecessary. There were some attacks on cities, most notably Rotterdam. The Germans threatened further attacks, leading to the Dutch capitulation. After the fall of France (June 1940), German cities were no longer as vulnerable to Allied attacks. The distances involved in raids from Britain made attacks difficult for Britain's existing bomber force.
The first German city to suffer a severe raid was Freiburg (May 10, 1940). Considerable controversy
surrounded the attack. There were 57 people killed, many of whom were children in a playground. The
Germans charged the city was bombed by the British or French. In fact it was the Luftwaffe. Luftwaffe
pilots mistook Freiburg for Mühlhausen in Alsace. [Rumpf, p. 24.] The opening of the strategic bombing
campaign against Germany can be dated to this time. The RAF bombed Mönchen-Gladbach (May 10-11). The
raid was conducted at night, meaning that specific targets other than the city could not be targeted.
The French strenuously opposed the raid, but 36 bombers struck the city. Little was gained and the
British as the Allied position in France deteriorated did not have the capability=bili to immediately peruse the campaign, but this was the first raid in what was to become the Allied strategic bombing campaign. [Spaight]
With the fall of France (June 1940), Germany achieved control over the entire coat of France. The
Luftwaffe rapidly began taking over French air bases and building new ones close to the coast. Britain
was now exposed to Luftwaffe attacks. The resulting Battle of Britain was one of the crucial
engagements of World War II. The unfolding of the Battle of Britain is somewhat different than often
presented in popular histories. Many believe that the Blitz on London began because of a British attack
on Berlin in September. In fact the British had begun attacks on Berlin, albeit with only small
formations, before the September raids that are often cited and there is considerable accuracy to the
German claim that the Blitz was begun as a retaliatory raid. It is true, however, that the German Blitz
was the turning point of the Battle of Britain in that it re leaved pressure on Fighter Command.
Throughout the Battle of Britain, small numbers of British bombers hit German targets in night-time
raids. The rids were wholly ineffectual in a military sense. Hitting a military target at night with
1940s technology, especially 1940 technology was very difficult. Sometimes the raiders did not even hit
the intended city. Some of the raids were also very costly in air crews and planes. Although the
British could not muster massive raids on a sustained basis, there were quite a few substantial raids.
The British on November 8, 1940, for example, sent 169 over Berlin. The British raids were conducted
at night without fighter aircraft because long-range fighters did not become available until the second
half of 1944. Bomber Command lost 21 aircraft, over 10 percent. Notably only 11 Berliners were killed,
a much smaller number than in comparable raids on British cities.
Bombing raids did have an in important psychological impact. A British bomb reportedly hit
Goebbels' garden. Hitler had to reschedule some of his speeches. As a result of the NAZI-Soviet
Non-Aggression Pact, there were extensive economic dealings between the Soviets and NAZIS. The Germans
bragging that they had already won the War, had to take Molotov on November 13, 1940 to Ribbentrop's
personal bomb shelter where he asked if the War had been won why were they in a bomb shelter. British
raids on Berlin so enraged Hitler that he ordered a change in Luftwaffe tactics in the Battle of
Britain, which may have well resulted in a favorable turn in the battle in favor of the British.
Only one country at the time that World War II broke out in Europe had an effective long range
bomber. That was the United States which at the time was neutral. The B-17 Flying Fortress was
developed in the mid-1930s. Only small numbers had been built, but with the outbreak of war, more were
ordered. Bombing was still new and effective strategies had not yet been worked out. Many of the concepts of American air commanders would prove unrealistic and overly optimistic. American military commanders at the time saw a strong air force as a way of avoiding the kind of massive casualties experienced in World
Rumpf, Hans. Trans. Edwrd Fitzgerald. The Bombing of Germany (Holt, Rinehart and Wilson: New York, 1962), 256p.
Spaight, J.M. Bombing Vindicated (London, 1953-55).
Snyder, Louis L. Historical Guide to World War II (1982).
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