World War II Air Campaign: Allied Bombing Campaign, 1939-41


Figure 1.--Military experts at the beginning of World War II differed as to the potential impact of strategic bombing. Some felt that air forces could win the war without the need of large ground armies. Others saw the air force as most effectively used as a ground support force. Such tactical operations could achieve considerable accuracy in their strikes. The Germans had a limited industrial capability and thus the Luftwaffe evolved primarily as a tactical force. (The principal reason the Luftwaffe failed in the Battle of Britain.) The British built both a tactical and strategic force. The initial operations of RAF Bomber Command were largely ineffective. German anti-aircraft defenses and fighters forced Bomber Command to attack at night. As a result most bombs missed the intended targets, often the bombers could not even find the intended city, let along hit a specific target in the city. British bombs commonly fell miles from the target. Here we see a bomb crater obviously not close to any target. It is being examened by German boys in 1940. One of the boys is wearing his Hitler Youth uniform. Click on the image for a fuller discussion of this photograph.

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.

Early Statements

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.

Early Allied Operations

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.

Early German Operations

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.

Strategy

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.

German Aircraft

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.

Allied Aircraft

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.

German Western Offensive (May-June 1940)

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.

Launching the Strategic Bombing Campaign (May 10-11, 1940)

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]

Battle of Britain (July-September 1940)

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.

British Operations

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.

Psychological Impact

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.

The United States

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 War I.

Sources

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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Created: January 3, 2003
Spell checked: June 30, 2007
Last updated: 6:39 PM 6/30/2007