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History

The Impact of the Combined Bomber Offensive against Axis Europe

The combined bomber offensive against Axis Europe was a topic of much debate among the British Command. The idea of long distance bombing was seen more as a weapon of ‘terror’ rather than an effective form of warfare after the limited experiences involving air power in the First World War.[1]  This may have well proved the case, as early success’s involving strategic bombing were far and few between. Area bombing was only adopted following the agonizing inability of bomber crews to make precision raids against well defended or distant targets. Throughout the war heavy bombers could rarely hit targets and suffered disastrous losses from anti-aircraft and fighter defences.[2] Area bombing seemed to be the Allied answer to the inaccuracy of Britain’s B-17 and B- 24 bombers in regards to strategic target bombing, however the bombers also had German radar and Luftwaffe to contend with.

Sir Arthur Harris was Air Officer Commanding in Chief of RAF Bomber Command and after cabinet’s agreement to implement Churchill’s policy of area bombing; Harris was tasked with implementing these plans. The First 2 years of the war, in terms of bombing raids, were little more than ‘pinpricks’ in the German war effort. More concerning was the fact that of all the bombs dropped on Germanyby night it was calculated that only 5% hit genuine objectives.[3] Despite the concern that area bombing would mean causing civilian deaths and therefore the blurring of distinction between combatants and non-combatants, Churchill was aware that the German war economy needed to be damaged in order to stop Hitler’s rapid progress across Europe. R.J. Overy uses the term ‘Blitzkrieg economy’ to describe Hitler’s war economy as the war aims were to expand and create an German Empire, in which Germany would gain economic benefits from conquered land.[4] It was Germany’s Blitzkrieg war and mass mobilisation of resources that was conquering Europe on the ground and it was the view of the British command that the area bombing of industrial towns would effect production and morale of German workers. It was not to say that the British command was not aware of the significance of German economy in the event of a war before 1939, as the RAF went into the war with a list of priority targets within the German communications system and in the oil industry.[5] The inability to hit these ‘priority targets’ by Bomber command would led to area bombing of Nazi Germany’s industrial towns and cities.

By early 1942, RAF Chiefs of Staff took the view that as soon as the necessary aircraft were available, Bomber Command should embark on an area bombing offensive.[6] This view was suggests that the British perspective was that the bombing of Nazi controlled industrial towns was integral to the winning of the war. It was more of a question regarding the means of how the Allies would implement such a plan. Britain’s bombers were still suffering heavy losses at this point and the Luftwaffe was in control of European skies. This is despite the fact that in 1940 the Allies were producing 26,714 aircraft in comparison to 16,815 Axis and production would shoot up for the Allies further following the introduction of the U.S. into the war.[7] TheU.S. although provided the Allies through the lend-lease system also provided the RAF greatly with the cooperation of the United States Air Force. With the introduction of American P-51 Mustangs the British B – 17 and B – 24 bombers now had a long range escort to aid in bombing raids on Nazi industrial towns and cities. Nazi Germany’s reliance on foreign aid and production from cities and towns within the range of Allied bombers would prove to be a vital factor in determining the effectiveness of the Nazi war effort.

In July 1943 a new bombing phenomenon referred to as the ‘firestorm’ was implemented as incendiary bombing on

Victims of the Dresden Bombing

Hamburgcaused a new dimension of devastation.[8] Older cities were targeted due to fact they were more open to spread fire, and city centres became the target points for Allied bombers. Although a month later, destruction of German morale was dropped from Bomber Command strategy at the Quebec conference, raids continued and had a demoralising effect on German towns and cities.[9] The scale of these bombings and the mass devastation caused to the industrial areas prompted the use of incendiary area bombing rather than conventional area bombing by the British Command. The scale of the bombing was such that almost as many people were killed in one week of raids on Hamburg in July 1943 as were killed during the entire Blitz on Britain’s cities.[10] This shows the scale on which the Allied bomber offensive was operating at, and the persistence of the bombing raids. The frequency of the raids by the Allied aerial forces may have been simply been due to the fact that the bombers were so inaccurate when it came to hitting primary targets. The more bombs and raids the Allies committed the more chance that they would wipe out important Nazi structures or industrial targets. Another example, even late in the war, is the joint U.S. and British bombing operation over the German city of Dresden between the 13th and 15th February where 60,000 people were killed as the city was repeatedly pulverised.[11] The effectiveness of the British raids on Axis targets seemed to increase throughout the war.

Sir Arthur Harris believed the bombing of Nazi industrial towns and cities was vital in the determining the outcome of the war. He saw the transfer of resources to the activities of the Coastal Command, who were fighting the German threat of U-Boats which were ripping up British trade, as a major diversion of effort from the area offensive.[12]  However, historian Neil Gregor argues that with everything we know now about the Third Reich it leads to the conclusion that the regime would have continued its senseless persecution of the war regardless of the impact bombing had on civilian morale.[13] Although it is now clear that the Nazi command did not care much for civilian morale throughout the war, the economic impact that the Allied bombing effort had on the Nazi war economy was substantial. By late 1944 German transportation was largely dislocated and the war economy saw massive falls in production. More importantly this brought the Luftwaffe away from other fronts to defend the Third Reich, and allowed the allies to ultimately destroy Hitler’s air force.[14] This may explain why morale bombing was discontinued at the Quebec conference as the British Command saw the potential for area bombing in terms of limiting Nazi Germany’s economic capabilities. This also explains why the bombing offensive launched in the spring of 1942, continued until the end of the war. Despite considerable improvements in Bomber Command’s precision capabilities, its overall thrust remained as an area offensive directed principally at civilian targets.[15] It may have been better described as industrial targets but civilian workers are an unfortunate by product and can be seen as a necessary casualty at times of war as the killing of workers reduces production of armaments that could end up killing Allied lives.

The operational range of the Allied B- 17 and B – 24 bombers over Axis controlled Europewas also an important factor in

P51 Mustang helped protect the Allies B-24 bombers

determining the success of the Allied bomber offensive. By 1944 Britainhad an operational range from its south east coast to the likes of Dresdenand Frankfurt. Whilst in the South the joint RAF and USAAF airbase in Foggiacovered Frankfurt, fascist Italyand also targets further east such as, Budapest, Bucharestand Hungary. Russiaalso offered aerial support from the East covering as far as occupied Poland.[16] AlthoughGermany had the ‘Kammhuber Line’ on the west coasts ofFrance up until the coasts ofDenmark, with search lights and radar posts mainlandGermany still suffered devastation in its cities from the allied aerial attacks.   The introduction of the P – 51 Mustangs aided greatly in getting Allied bombers past the German defences in day-time raids as they could challenge the defending Nazi air forces.

Hitler’s strong belief that static aerial defences would prove to be sufficient defence from Allied bombing raids proved to be costly. Hitler focused on 88mm anti-aircraft guns and it became his ‘pride and joy’, as production of the weapon went up greatly.[17] Hitler believed that anti-aircraft fire from the ground was the best form of defence. This proved to be a massive miscalculation as vast number of Allied bombers still got past the anti-aircraft fire as over 20 cities in Germany suffered bombing damage of 50 – 75% destruction by March 1944.[18]  This is not to say that Allied forces did not suffer great losses throughout the Second World War, even during night-time air raids over Germany bombers were in danger. For example in March 1944, the British RAF lost 95 bombers out of the 727 sent to bomb Nuremberg.’[19] There was some effectiveness in Hitler’s aerial defensive line, but he could not prevent the bombing of major German cities to a complete extent.

The Nazi’s also had defensive fighters which proved to be effective in causing the Allies great losses on bombing raids over Axis Europe. This was up until the introduction of the USAAF P – 51 Mustangs whom accompanied the Allied bombers on raids across Europe. However, the German fighter still had strategies in dealing with bombers that got past the anti-aircraft fire. German fighters deployed the tactic of ‘Schrage Musik’ by which they executed a slanting approach from beneath to the blind undersides of the bombers and employed upward-turned cannon.’[20] This was a tactic that contributed to the 95 bombers lost over Nuremberg in 1944, and the Nazi Luftwaffe command were resourceful in terms of deploying aerial tactics. R. J. Overy argues that the fact that Hitler was a foot-soldier, the use of static air defences was favoured by him because he could relate to the weapons used, in this case his apparent fondness for the 88mm anti-aircraft guns. [21] This is why resources were focused on ground defences rather than controlling the skies over Nazi conquered land, therefore the Allies continued to successfully bomb German cities. Hitler’s focus on the superiority of his weaponry in comparison to the Allies rather than the production also cost Germany in terms of aerial dominance over Europe.[22] The British and U.S. were producing more planes and although production was high for the Luftwaffe, operations put in place by the Allies seized dominance from the Axis air forces. Operation Point-Blank was a joint British and U.S. strategic bombing offensive, drawn up at the Quebec Conference, aiming to cripple and destroy German fighter planes.[23] The Allied bomber offensive turned its attention to the actual Nazi air force in 1943 and this may explain why so many cities in Germany received levels of at least 50% destruction from Allied bombing raids by 1944.[24] The Allies, by 1944, had successfully ‘paved’ the way for its bombers to continually bomb Axis controlled towns and cities.

Although the concept of ‘morale bombing’ and the tactic was suspended at the Quebec Conference in 1943, the Allies

Tokyo, example of the ‘blurring of distinction’ between combatant and non-combatant

continued the policy of area bombing claiming it was to cut Nazi Germany’s industrial output. In reality the reduction to Nazi industrial output by bombing was relatively modest until the development of more accurate bomb targeting in 1944.[25] This would suggest that for almost a year the Allies were still ‘morale bombing’ under the cover that its real aim was to upset Axis industrial output, under this all cities under Axis control could potentially be considered a legitimate target. This further supports the belief that the British high command felt that area bombing could bring a quicker end to the war. Earl. R. Beck, claims that most of the Allied bombing could not be considered ‘strategic’ as there was no targeting or destruction of military aims.[26] This further supports the idea that the economic pretences for area bombing were just a continuation of morale bombing against Axis Europe.

It was not just area bombing that was deployed by the Allies over Axis Europe. The Mediterranean Allied Air Force (MAAF) successfully attacked bridges and train yards behind the German front, cutting rail traffic to Romeand the Cassinofront.[27] The Allies realised the importance of the transport links asGermany conquered more and more ofEurope. The Blitzkrieg war deployed by Hitler called for fast mass mobilisation of resources and could easily suffer from the consequences of imperial overstretch. Missions such as these gave the Allied forces the upper hand on the battles fought on the ground as the Nazi’s couldn’t send reserves to aid its forces fighting on the European fronts.

The Allied area bombing offensive over Europe proved to be an effective use of air power against the Axis forces. German cities and centres of production were reduced to ruins and the usage of incendiary bombs after 1943 caused morale splitting devastation over the cities under Axis control. Although civilian casualties were an unfortunate by product of this Allied aerial tactic, the Allies had no accurate bomber or strategic means of precision bombing until 1944, so frequent raids and attacks on Industrial areas and housing of workers were deemed necessary. If we assess the total deaths from area bombing we see that Britainonly suffered 60,000 compared to Italyand Germanyscombined total of 659,796 deaths, 600,000 of which were German.[28] This shows the extent to which Germany was bombed by the Allied forces and the belief among the Allied command that area bombing would bring a quicker conclusion to the war. This also shows how Hitler didn’t value strategic bombing as an effective weapon as the Blitz was relatively small in comparison to Allied raids over Europe. Hitler also put a lot of faith into the unmanned V1 and V2 rockets, supporting R.J. Overy’s view that Hitler believed in superior weaponry rather than producing an effective bombing force.[29]

The adoption of incendiary bombing proved to be the Allies most frequent and effective form of bombing over Axis Europe. We can see the extent of which incendiary explosives were used as the U.S.strategic bombing survey over Europeclaims that 2,455,600 incendiary explosives were used in air raids in comparison to 26,180 explosive bombs.[30] The effectiveness of incendiary bombing was apparent as from 1940 – 43 60% of industrial production was destroyed in Italy by Allied air raids.[31] The operational range of the Allied bombing effort also aided in its effectiveness as from Allied controlled airbases the Allies could virtually attack any point over Axis Europe. This operational spectrum meant that the Allies could attack from 3 sides of Europe and avoid Hitler’s static aerial defences inWestern Europe if needed. Hitler’s reliance on these static defences and 88mm anti-aircraft guns rather than putting more resources into a defensive fighter force, allowed Allied raids to be accompanied with P-51 mustangs and eventually, through operations such as Point-Blank, begin to eliminate the Luftwaffe altogether.

Historian J.M. Spaight claimed as early as 1941, that ‘given the achievement of the task which the British nations have undertaken, to mass overwhelming strength in the air, the Axis must lose.’[32] The belief that the bomber offensive was vital to securing a quick end to the war proved to be vital, as although precision bombing was not fully capable until 1944, area bombing attacked Germany at its heart and on a scale of devastation that would have affected workers morale. Through strategic bombing Axis transport links were crippled and after 1944 production levels fell as the Allies were able to pinpoint industrial targets, thus making sure that the Axis couldn’t turn the tide of the war back in the favour of the Third Reich.


[1] M. Kirby and R. Capey, The Area Bombing ofGermany in World War II: An Operational Research Perspective, The Journal of Operational Research Perspective, vol. 48, no. 7, 1997, pp. 661 – 677, p. 662

[2] Kenneth Hewitt, Place Annihilation: Area Bombing and the fate of Urban Places, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 73, no.2, 1983, pp. 257 – 284, p. 261

[3] M. Kirby and R. Capey, The Area Bombing ofGermany in World War II: An Operational Research Perspective, The Journal of Operational Research Perspective, vol. 48, no. 7, 1997, pp. 661 – 677, p. 663

[4] R. J. Overy, Hitler’s War and the German Economy: A Reinterpretation,The Economic History Review, vol 35, no. 2, 1982 pp. 270 – 284, p. 24

[5] M. Kirby and R. Capey, The Area Bombing ofGermany in World War II: An Operational Research Perspective, The Journal of Operational Research Perspective, vol. 48, no. 7, 1997, pp. 661 – 677, p. 662

[6] M. Kirby and R. Capey, The Area Bombing ofGermany in World War II: An Operational Research Perspective, The Journal of Operational Research Perspective, vol. 48, no. 7, 1997, pp. 661 – 677, p. 664

[7] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Random House, Inc.New York 1987, p. 354 (table 34.)

[8] Kenneth Hewitt, Place Annihilation: Area Bombing and the fate of Urban Places, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 73, no.2, 1983, pp. 257 – 284, p. 265

[9] Martin H. Folly, The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of World War II, Palgrave MacMillan 2004, p. 27

[10] Neil Gregor, A Shicksalsgemeinschaft? Allied Bombing, Civilian Morale, and Social Dissolution in Nuremburg, 1942 – 1945, The Historical Journal, vol. 43, no.4, 2000, pp. 1051 – 1070, p. 1051

[11] Martin H. Folly, The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of World War II, Palgrave MacMillan 2004, p. 27

[12] M. Kirby and R. Capey, The Area Bombing ofGermany in World War II: An Operational Research Perspective, The Journal of Operational Research Perspective, vol. 48, no. 7, 1997, pp. 661 – 677, p. 670

[13] Neil Gregor, A Shicksalsgemeinschaft? Allied Bombing, Civilian Morale, and Social Dissolution in Nuremburg, 1942 – 1945, The Historical Journal, vol. 43, no.4, 2000, pp. 1051 – 1070, p. 1053

[14] Martin H. Folly, The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of World War II, Palgrave MacMillan 2004, p. 27

[15] M. Kirby and R. Capey, The Area Bombing ofGermany in World War II: An Operational Research Perspective, The Journal of Operational Research Perspective, vol. 48, no. 7, 1997, pp. 661 – 677, p. 665

[16] Martin H. Folly, The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of World War II, Palgrave MacMillan 2004, Map 27: The Combined Bomber Offensive, p. 27

[17] R.J. Overy, Hitler and Air Strategy, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 15, no. 3, 1980, pp. 405 – 421, p. 409

[18] Martin H. Folly, The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of World War II, Palgrave MacMillan 2004, Map 27: The Combined Bomber Offensive, p. 27

[19] Earl R. Beck, The Allied Bombing ofGermany, 1942-1945, and the German Response: Dilemmas of Judgment, German Studies Review, vol. 5, no. 3, 1982, pp. 325 – 337, p. 331

[20] Earl R. Beck, The Allied Bombing ofGermany, 1942-1945, and the German Response: Dilemmas of Judgment, German Studies Review, vol. 5, no. 3, 1982, pp. 325 – 337, p. 331

[21] R.J. Overy, Hitler and Air Strategy, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 15, no. 3, 1980, pp. 405 – 421, p. 409

[22] R.J. Overy, Hitler and Air Strategy, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 15, no. 3, 1980, pp. 405 – 421, p. 409

[23] Wesley Frank Craven & James Lea Cate, The Army Air Forces In World War 2, Europe: Torch to Pointblank, August 1942 to December 1943, Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 46, no. 2, 1950, pp. 209 – 211, p. 209

[24] Martin H. Folly, The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of World War II, Palgrave MacMillan 2004, Map 27: The Combined Bomber Offensive, p. 27

[25] Earl R. Beck, The Allied Bombing ofGermany, 1942-1945, and the German Response: Dilemmas of Judgment, German Studies Review, vol. 5, no. 3, 1982, pp. 325 – 337, p. 332

[26] Earl R. Beck, The Allied Bombing ofGermany, 1942-1945, and the German Response: Dilemmas of Judgment, German Studies Review, vol. 5, no. 3, 1982, pp. 325 – 337, p. 329

[27] Henry D. Lytton, Bombing Policy in theRome and Pre-Normandy Invasion Aerial Campaigns of World War II: Bridge Bombing Strategy Vindicated and Railyard Bombing Strategy Invalidated, Military Affairs, vol. 47. no. 2, pp. 53 – 58, p. 54

[28] Kenneth Hewitt, Place Annihilation: Area Bombing and the fate of Urban Places, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 73, no.2, 1983, pp. 257 – 284, p. 263

[29] R.J. Overy, Hitler and Air Strategy, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 15, no. 3, 1980, pp. 405 – 421, p. 416

[30] Earl R. Beck, The Allied Bombing ofGermany, 1942-1945, and the German Response: Dilemmas of Judgment, German Studies Review, vol. 5, no. 3, 1982, pp. 325 – 337, p. 333

[31] Martin H. Folly, The Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of World War II, Palgrave MacMillan 2004, Map 27: The Combined Bomber Offensive, p. 27

[32] J.M. Spaight, The War in the Air: Second Phase, Foreign Affairs, vol. 19, no. 2, 1941, pp. 402 – 413, p. 413

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