World War II Air Campaign: Luftwaffe Terror Tactics (1939-41)


Figure 1.--The NAZIs as in Spain, ordered the Luftwaffe in Poland to use terror bombing as a tactic of war. The NAZI onslaught against Poland is sometimes portrayed as their war against the Jews. This is in part correct, but the NAZI crusade in Poland was aimed at the Polish nation and people. They planned to expel Poles in the western areas from their homes, kill the educated Poles, and turn the rest into slaves of the Reich.

It was the Germans who began bombing civilian populations rather than military targets as a terror tactict calculated to destroy civilian morale. Visionary military planners in the 1930s built the world's most advanced air force at the time--the Luftwaffe. [Corum] Germany was the first World War II combatant to use bombers to terrorize urban populations. This began even before World War II during the Spanish Civil War. The Luftwaffe experimented with the bombing of Guernica in 1937 and other Spanish cities were targeted. At the onset of World War II began the tactic was used on Warsaw and other Polish cities (September 1939). 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 targetting military or industrial targets. The same tactic was employed in Germany's western campaign in 1940. This time it was Rotterdam (May 1940). The Luftwaffe targetted the Dutch seaport of Rotterdam AFTER the city had surrendered. Screaming Stuka dive-bombers leveled the center of the city. Luftwaffe bombers on May 13-14 concentrated on Rotterdam without regard for civilian casualties. Hitler describes the tactic as "Schrecklichkeit" (frightfulness), the use of terror to break a country's will to resist. It worked in the Netherlands. The terror bombing of Rotterdam and threats of similar bombings of other Dutch cities convinced the Dutch that resistance was futile. The Dutch Army surrendered on May 15. It proved a disaster against the British. The success of this strategy in Poland and the Netherlands had convinced Hitler, who had a predelection for massive destruction, that it could be successfully employed in the upcoming Battle of Britain instead of following the strategy devised by the Luftwaffe. Hitler's insistance that the Luftwaffe switch to terror bombing of British cities was a crucial element in the eventual German loss of the battle as well as a major swing in Ameican public opinion. Hitler was, however, not deterred from the tactic. He ordered the terror bombing of Belgrade in 1941, calling it "Operation Punishment". Some authors challenge the common perception that the Luftwaffe itself embraced terror bombing of civilian populations. Terror was Hitler's preferred tactic, not the Lufwaffe's strategic doctrine. Actually the Americans and British were more interested in startegic bombing than Luftwaffe planners. It was Hitler that decided to use the Luftwaffe for terror bombing. [Corum] The British Royal Air Force (RAF) in contrast were very reluctant to use it bombers during the opening phase of World War II. RAF bombers actually dropped leaflets on German cities, but that was to change after the Blitz.

Spanish Civil War (1937)

It was the Germans who began bombing civilian populations rather than military targets as a terror tactict calculated to destroy civilian morale. Visionary military planners in the 1930s built the world's most advanced air force at the time--the Luftwaffe. [Corum] Germany was the first World War II combatant to use bombers to terrorize urban populations. This began even before World War II during the Spanish Civil War. Luftwaffe units were dispastcghed to Spasin (November 1936). Both the German Luftwaffe Condor Legion and the Italian Fascist Aviazione Legionaria conducted the attacks. Republican cities for the most part did not have air defenses. Madrid was heavily bombed throughout much of the War. It was, however, a large city and the force of the bombing dipersed. It is the Luftwaffe's bombing of Guernica that has most endured in the popular mind (April 1937). This is probably because Guernica was a small town of very little military importance. The town had no air defense. Estimates of the number of deaths range from about 200-1,600 people. The small size of the town allowed the Luftwaffe to concentrate its force. The results were devestating, although only a small taste of what would transpire during World War II itself. We are not sure at this time who planned the Luftwaffe bombing raids and what was military assessment of the impact. We also are unsure how Goebbels Propaganda Ministry handeled the Luftwaffe's activities in Spain. The bombing was, however, heavily reported by the Western media and depicted in the movie newsreels. Perhaps most importantly, the fledgling Luftwaffe learned a great deal from the Spanish War in the way of strategy, tactics, logistics, and operations.

Czechoslovakia (March 1939)

One terror bombing which did not occur needs to be mentioned, the bombing of Prague. Here we have direct evidence even before the War began that both Hitler and Görong were personally willing to order the Luftwaffe to use terror bombings of civilian populations. I do not think that Hitler directly threatened Chamberlain and Daladier with aerial bombardment at Munich (September 1938). It was very different when a few months later he decided in violation of his persinal commitmnt to occupy what remained of Czechoslovakia. Hitler summoned elderly Czech Persident Emile Hachla to Berlin (March 14, 1939). Both Hitler and Göring made it very clear that the historic beauties of Prague would be destroyed. There was no reference to military targets. Hitler and Göring were threatening Czech civilians and the historic buildings and artitistic treasures of Prague. Hachla feinted and had to be revived to telephone instructions to surrender back to Prague and to sign over his country to the NAZIs.

Poland (September 1939)

At the onset of World War II began the tactic was used on Warsaw and other Polish cities (September 1939). 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] We certainly think it should have been clear, but in fact Polsnd was isolated between NAZI Germany and the Soviet Union. Thus it was difficult for press reports, especially images to resch the West. The avowed purpose og the arracks on cities 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 targetting military or industrial targets. The Luftwaffe bombings of Guernica and Rotterdam are more comolicated affairs. The Luftwaffe's attacks on Poland are not complicated and are not clouded by any moral ambiguity. The Luftwaffe's attacks on Warsaw were a clear example of the terror bombing of a largely defended civilian population. 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." Some German authors claim that it was the British that began attacks on civilians. It is well to remember what Hitler and the Luftwaffe did to Warsaw in the first days of the War, before German civilians were targetted. What Hitler did not realize at the time was that Germany did not have a strategic bombing force and that the British and Americans were both building just such a force.

Rotterdam (May 1940)

The same tactic was employed in Germany's western campaign in 1940. This time it was Rotterdam (May 1940). The Luftwaffe targetted the Dutch seaport of Rotterdam AFTER the city had surrendered. Screaming Stuka dive-bombers leveled the center of the city. Luftwaffe bombers on May 13-14 concentrated on Rotterdam without regard for civilian casualties. Hitler describes the tactic as "Schrecklichkeit" (frightfulness), the use of terror to break a country's will to resist. It worked in the Netherlands. The terror bombing of Rotterdam and threats of similar bombings of other Dutch cities convinced the Dutch that resistance was futile. The Dutch Army surrendered on May 15. A Dutch reader tells us, "When Rotterdam was attacked by the Luftwaffe in 1940, I was 11 years old and living 65 km miles east of that city. I do remember the airplanes in the sky. They flew very low over our heads, ready to drop the bombs. We did not hear the actual bombing, but the next day the westwinds blew clouds of ashes in our direction. Pretty soon everything was covered : the roof on our house, the plants in our garden. Then we knew that something terrible had happened."

Battle of Britain (July-September 1940)

It proved a disaster against the British. The success of this strategy in Poland and the Netherlands had convinced Hitler, who had a predelection for massive destruction, that it could be successfully employed in the upcoming Battle of Britain instead of following the strategy devised by the Luftwaffe. Hitler's insistance that the Luftwaffe switch to terror bombing of British cities was a crucial element in the eventual German loss of the battle as well as a major swing in Ameican public opinion--both key ingredients in Germany's eventual loss of the War.

Belgrade (April 1941)

Hitler was, however, not deterred from the tactic. A group of junior Yugoslav officers staged a coup when King Paul caved into Hitler's demands to join the Tripartite Pact. Personally offronted that a country he had courted as an ally had rejected him, Hitler ordered the terror bombing of Belgrade. He calling it "Operation Punishment". [Fest, p. 711.] The Luftwaffe on April 6-10, 1941 flew more than 500 sorties against undefended Belgrade killing more than 17,500 people. Again the tactic work. A resourceful SS officer with six men after the bombing managed to seize the city ahead of the Wehrmacht time table. It was an important factor in the stunning defeat of Greek and British forces in thenext few weeks. [Heaton]

Luftwaffe Tactics

Some authors challenge the common perception that the Luftwaffe itself embraced terror bombing of civilian populations. Terror was Hitler's preferred tactic when opponents resisted German attacks, not the Luftwaffe's strategic doctrine. The Luftwaffe focused on ground support operations for the Wehrmacht. Neither the tactics for strategic bombing or a firce to conduct such operations were developed by the Luftwaffe. Actually the Americans and British were more interested in startegic bombing than Luftwaffe planners. It was Hitler that decided to use the Luftwaffe for terror bombing. [Corum]

The RAF

The British were hesitant to use the Royal Air Force (RAF) bombers during the opening phase of World War II. RAF bombers actually dropped leaflets on German cities, but that mindset was irrevocably changed after the Blitz. Sir Arthur Harris was given Bomber Command in February 1942. He is one of the most controversial figures in the War and soon stamped Bomber Command with his own vision of war which was to wreak a terrible revenge on Hitler's Third Reich and the German people. Not only was Bomber Harris determined to bring the War to the Germans, but the arrival of new haevy bombers had created a force willing to do just that and with far graeter leathality than the short-range medium bombers of the Luftwaffe.

Sources

Corum, James S. Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940" (University Press of Kansas, 2000).

Heaton, Colin D. "Taking Belgrade," World War II (January 1998), pp. 30-36.

Snyder, Louis L. Historical Guide to World War II (1982).

Fest, Joachim C. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1974), 844p.

Hillgruber, Andreas. Strategie=Hitlers Strategie: Politik und Kriegführung 1940 bis 1941 (Frankfurk am Main, 1965).

Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich (New York, 1970).






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Created: November 1, 2002
Last updated: 7:17 AM 4/22/2011