The Germans achieved a stupendous military victory in the summer of 1940 leaving Britain isolated behind the English Channel, which acted as a ‘moat’. It quickly became apparent the Germans couldn’t invade Britain and vice versa. A military impasse ensued which was conceptually similar to the First World War. No senior military leader or politician looked back on that war with fondness. A solution had to be found.
Bombing as a solution
Sir Arthur Harris, Marshall of the RAF and Commander in Chief Bomber Command 1942 – 45 believed that he:
As commander of Bomber Command …. could put into operation his belief that an enemy could be bombed into submission – a ploy he called ‘area bombing’. Harris believed that if the morale of civilians was destroyed as a result of their city being attacked, they would put pressure on their government to capitulate. The first raids were on Lubeck and Rostock. Here the bombers dropped incendiary bombs and these raids did a great deal of material damage to both cities. In May 1942, a massive 1000 bomber raid on Cologne did vast damage to the city for the loss of just 40 planes. Such a small rate of loss was considered extremely good especially when the government took into account the ‘feel good’ factor of the raid – the boost it gave to Britain’s civilians knowing that Germany was being bombed just as London had.*
The sledgehammer: Hamburg 1943**
The bombing of Hamburg, beginning on 24th July 1943, lasted eight days and seven nights. Its outcome was 40,000 dead and 900,000 displaced German families. The Hamburg raids produced ‘firestorms’, which slaughtered the population. This outcome was planned by Harris and as such made him a war criminal. The twin objectives of smashing both industry and infrastructure was achieved but probably more significantly was the disruption of the population. Nearly a million people were directly affected with the ripple effect sweeping through the city. Hamburg took months to re-establish anything like the necessary productivity needed for the German war effort. Despite this massive slaughter there was no uprising against the German government however thereby refuting Harris’s principal strategic aim.
The scalpel: Amiens 1944***
The bombing of the Amiens Gestapo Prison, 18th February 1944, was timetabled. The bombers took out the north and east walls and destroyed the guards’ mess hall killing those who were having lunch. This was a remarkable piece of precision bombing and timing. The thirteen Mosquito fighter-bombers weren’t part of the main RAF bomber command but were widely believed to have been part of the British secret service (MI6). 255 out of 717 French Resistance prisoners escaped though sadly most were recaptured shortly afterwards. There were no ‘collateral deaths’ in the city of Amiens. There were some deaths amongst unfortunate French prisoners, though their deaths were seen as acceptable as they were likely to be executed anyway.
The bombing of Britain demonstrated that bombing couldn’t win a war. Notwithstanding the Blitz, British military industrial capacity was unimpeded. ‘Bomber’ Harris believed, against all the evidence, that bombing could win the war. He based his entire strategy on gigantic bombing raids. The destruction of the morale of the German population cannot be underestimated and the impact of German productivity was an important factor in ultimate victory. But neither the sledgehammer or the scalpel was decisive. Only invasion could beat Hitler, which left Harris’s strategy in tatters. Nonetheless he persisted to February 1945 with the massacre of Dresden, which was entirely inexcusable and definitely a war crime.