** World War I: Aerial War strategic bombing campaign

World War I: Aerial War--Strategic Bombing

Figure 1.--History's first strategic bombing campaign was launched by Germany in World ar I. The Germans targeted Allied (British and French) cities. Civilians in both cities were horrified, especially as schools were hit and children killed. In soon became clear that the German Zeppelins and Gotha bombers could not hit military targets while bombing from high aldtitudes. Even so, the Germans continued the bombing, believing that British and French civilians would be so terrified that they would demand their governments make peace. Here we see the result of a German Gotha bomber raid on Paris. The first Gotha raid on Paris occurred (January 30-31, 1918). They dropped 250 bombs, killing 75 people. It was a pure terror raid, no effort was made to hit military targets. The Gottha returned to Paris in a series of night raids (March 1919). Here we see the result of one of the raids (March 11). Many terrified civilians flocked to public shelters Other curious imp´┐Żtinents wanted to see the show from balconis or the roof of high rise buildings. Bombing Allied cities could have been one of the great German mistakes of the War. The bombing had no impact on the Allied war economies, but it did furher fuel a desire for revenge in both countries. The Allied civilians rather than peace wanted vengence. Only the German request for an armistace (November 1918) prevented a masive Allied air assault on German cities during 1919. The Allies had a far greater industrial capacity than Germany and the destruction would have been immnense. The principal impact of the German World war I strategic bombing campign was that during the inter-War era while neglecting defense measures, the British began preparing air defenses--most notably the Chain Home Network. And the Germans did repeat their bombing of cities in World War II. This time not only were British prepared, but the war did not end before the Allies began the strategic bombing of German cities. Source: Branger Studio Photo. No. Negatif: 105451.

Strategic bombing was not new to World War II. The first strategic bombing campaign was the German World war I campaign aimed at knocking Britain out of the War. The Germans who had expected another quick victory by their well prepared army, were shocked to be stopped at the Marne and the Generals realized by 1915 that they would be unlikely to crack open the Western Front. Given mounting losses and shortages at home as a result of the Allies naval blockade, the Generals realized that aar of attrition was not likely to end in a German victories., The Germans thus turned to technology: poison gas, U-boats, and aerial bombing. The Germans believed that strategic bombing was a possible way to bring the war to a succesful conclusion (1915). At first the Kaiser ordered that the raid be confined to military targets. The generals at first may have believed that this was possible, but it very quickly became obvious that with the technology at hand that it was not. And as the Kaiser lost influence, the genrals adopted the strategy of breaking British civilian morale. And civilians wee terrified, but did not crack. The British after a year of Zeppelins raids developed methods to shoot down the slow, vulnerable Zeppelins. The Germans after sustaining heavy losses retired the Zeppelins, but then introduced the faster Gotha bombers. This time the goal from the onset was to break British civilan morale. The impact was just the opposite. The preceived savagery of the German attacks actually increased support for the War and a desire to punish the Germans. The most significant impact of the German campign ws to instill a fear of aerial bombardment. Thus while the British slashed military budgets, money was found to reserch and develop air defenses. thus when German bombers arrived a second time (1940), the Chain Home Network was operating to help defend Britain.

Air Docrine

World War I began with not tactical or strategic air doctine. Many military men at the onset of the War thought that the the flimsy early aircraft useless as an effective weapon. It quickly became obvious, however, that aircraft were invaluable for reconisance. The first aircraft were unarmned. Pilots srarted aerial combat when they began taking pistiks and shitfuns aloft to take pot shots at each other and quickly escalated. Aicraft during the War were primarily use for reconisance (and fighters to shoot down photo recon planes) and tactical operations. Whike this was the bulk of air ooerations, bot sides did conduct stratehic operations. These were primarily conducted by the Germans with first Zepplins and than the Gotha bombers. There was no developed strategic bombing doctrine althiugh the militaries on both sides were discussing the various developing theories such as destroying war industry or undermining civilian morale. Always present whether said or unsaid was a desire to punish the enenemy--and not just the emeny soldiers. Here the Germans were especially intent on punishing the English because thy got it onto their head thar the English were responsible for the War. Later of course they would blame the Jews, a less dangerous target. Apparently during the War the Germans rationalized that if England had not declared War after Germamy invaded neutral Belgium, they could hace defeated the French in a few weeks and what became the Great War would have never occurred. Apparently in the German mind, it was permissible for Germany to declare war and invade other countries, but other countries were npt susposed to declare war on Germany. As a result, a popular German war slogan became 'Gott strafe England' (May God punish England). The slogan resonated with many Germans. Note that it was not God punishing France or Russia--but England. Strategic air dictrine was bever fully devlooed durung Woekd War I. Strategic bombing was mostly conducted by the Germans, but very ineffevtively. The primary aim became to terrorize the Bristish peoole and force Britain out of the War. The actual result was to infuriate the British public and create a pooular demand for reprisal raids. And by 1918 the Allies had the industrial capacity to build strategic bombers as well as tactical aitcraft. And were preparing a major strategic bombing camoaign into Germany in 1919. Germany asked for the armistice before this could be launched. But from the begining the idea of punishing and striking back at enenmny civilians was a factor in the air war. Some leaders like Hitler made this clear. Others talked more of actual military onjectives, but inbthe firey heat of war, it cannot be dismissed as a factor be it articulated or not.

German Zeppelins

The Germans attempted to use Zeppelins as bombers, but they proved easy targets for fighters and artillery. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917) was born in Konstanz, Baden (1838). His name became virtually synonymous in Europe with rigid, lighter than air craft or dirigibles. (The non-rigid craft are known as blimps. He was an officer in the Prussian Army who fought in the Austro Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). He also was a military observer with the Union Army during the American Civil War (1863). It was during the Civil war that he first worked with balloons. He developed working dirigibles in the early 20th century and convinced the German military that they had potential military applications. Zeppelin's LZ-3 was commissioned by the Germany Army as the Zeppelin Luftschiff 1 (1909). The Germans deployed 115 Zeppelins during World war I. They were used for reconnaissance and bombing. Some even raided Britain. They proved to be vulnerable to attack and unsafe in rough weather. The Germans essentially discontinued the use of Zeppelins for active combat during the Verdun campaign (1916). By that time the Allies were deploying high performance aircraft that were easily shooting the Zeppelins down. The Germans introduced models that could reach higher altitudes, but this reduced their ability to hit targets. The mounting losses of Zeppelins and the superior performance of fixed wing aircraft caused the Germans to withdraw the Zeppelins from active service (1917). Count von Zeppelin also died (1917).

German Fixed-wing Bombers

Fixed-wing bombers were not employed to any extent because they were still being developed. There were some limited bombing operations in 1918. Both sides were, however, preparing bombing operations had the War lasted into 1919. The bombing that did take place did prove immensely significant, ironically in World War II not World War I. When the War began neither the Allies or Germans had bombers. Once country had worked on a bomber. Igor Skikorsky created the Ilya Muromets (Sikorsky S-22) at the Russo-Baltic Carriage Factory (RBVZ) in Riga (1913). Russia at the time did not have the industrial capacity to manufacture planes in the numbers needed to make them an important factor in the War. The plane impressed the Germans who created the Gota bomber, influenced by Skikorsky's work. The German raided London with their Gotha bombers (June 13, 1917). There were 162 Londoners killed. The British were shocked. This and other raids succeeded in hitting cities, but not important targets. They were essentially nuisance raids, forcing the British to divert resources and take counter measures. The Germans did not have the technology or the industrial capacity to launch an effective strategic bombing campaign. The Allies did and had the war continued into 1919, German cities would have been heavily bombed. The German Gota bombers abs Zeppelin attacks made a significant impression.

British Stategic Bombing Campaign

One of the notable observations from World War I is the number of advances made during the War by one side or another. Advances menbing increased lethlty included poson gas and machine gun firing mechanisms to allow firing through propellers, importnt because it mean the pilot could better im. And in addition to the innovations, was the rate at which those advances could be replicated by the other side. There is a long list of these developments. Many of these developments were at first made by the Germans who somewhow failed to realize the rapidity which they could be replicated by the Allies who had a greater industrial capacity and thus the capability to produce armaments in larger quantities. Thus the Germans again were not thinking about the consequences when they began bombing civilians, first with Zepplins and then with the new Gotha bombers. Britain formed the Royal Air Force as a indepdent service (April 1, 1918). Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised to repay the Germans for its air raids 'with compound interest'. [Tilford, pp. 15-16.] The Allies did not begin building Zapplins, but they did begin building bombers. Had not the Germans not surrendered (Novembr 1918), German civilians woukd have experienced the horrors of strategic bombing that the Germans had initited. The Allies were building a massive fleet of strategic bombers and crriued out small scale raids (1918). The Germans built 205 Gotha bombers. The Allies built 600 Handley Page bombers and omnly stopped because the Germasns surrendered. The United Srates has begun building the Handley Page bombers. These bombers would hve been turned on the Germans in 1919 had the Germans not surrendered (November 1918). (While this did not occur in World War I, it would occur in World War II on massive scale unimagined World War I.

Other Countries

Germany and Britain are the only two countries to conduct imprtant strategic bombung iperations. Several countrues,m however, built bombers and consducted stratgic operations, inclusing France, Italy, and Russia. Thde Umnited States did bot desiugn a bomber, but began building Handley Page bombers for the British. The British built about 800 Handley Pages, but the American industrial capacity gave it an almost unlimited capacity to build aircraft if the war had not ended (November 1918).


The German Zeppelin and Gotha bombers had no military impact on England. Nor did they cause the Brirish people to demand an end to the War. And the Germans knew this from an early point which might cause one to wonder why they persisted in the effort. We suspect their the 'Gott strife England mentality' was very important in the German mindset. This is not to say that the German bombing was not a very significant aspect of the War. In fact it had a powerful impact on the British. There were several very important consequenves of the German bombing campaign. First, rather than terrorrizing the British prople into demanding an end to War, it made a negotiated peace very difficult. The British people wanted victory not peace and the bombing was an important factor. Second, the British people also wanted revenge. There was no thiught of morality of bimning cities. And as a resuklt the Allies were peparing a massive boming camapign in 1919. And unlike the Germans, the Allies were capable of building a bomber force that could do real danage to the Germans. The Allies were building a much larger fleet of long-range bombers. And the British were anxious to pay the Germans back in kind for raids on British cities. Had the war continued into 1919, German cities would have been heavily bombed. Third, it created a political climate demanding a hard peace wjich was relected in the Versailles Peacr Treaty. It of course was nit the only factor, but it as an especially powerful one as it occurred at home--in fact in the heart of London and children were part of the casualties. Fourth, while German bombing in World War I had accomplished very little militarily, it had made, however, a significant impression as a terror weapon on the public. Military planners realized that progress in air design would mean that much larger and more powerful bombers would be built. Strategists debated as to if a country could be defeated entirely from the air. The British after the War took several important steps. One was to create the Royal Air Force (RAF), the world's first independent air force. As a result the British began to prepare for aerial war and trained professionals to assess strategies and tactics. The most significant outcome of this was preparations to defend Britain from another aerial assault. The RAF was underfunded and unprepared for World War II, but it had considerable trechnological skill and a substantial industrial capacity. That would they did create a defensive system including the Chain Home radar system which was just enough to defeat the vaunted Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain (1940). And by 1942 they had created arguably the most potent bomber of the War--the Avro Lancaster which would help tear the heart out of industrial Geramany.

World War II Strategic Bombing

Arguably the most contoversial aspect of World War II was the Allied strategic bombing campaign. There are two elements of the campaign that remain controversial. First is the effectiveness of the campaign. Second is the morality of the campaign. With the NAZIs in command of the Continent, the only way that Britain could stike at Germany was by air. Germamn air defenses meant that the RAF could only bomb at night and restricted British strategy to areavbombing. This significantly inhibited the effectiveness of British operations. The entry of America into the War meant that the air offensive could be significantly expanded. Both Curchill and Roosevely were committed to strategic bombing. The hope was that strategic bombing would force the NAIs to capitulate. The Allies at Casablanca demanded unconditional suurendetr (January 1943). The American buildup of air forces in Bitain continued throughout 1942 and by the beginning og 1943the 8th Air firce was ready to join the British in an around the clock bombing campaign against Germany. American and British planners agreed on four priority targets: 1) U-boat building facilities, 2) aircraft production plants, 3) ballbearing plants, and 4) oil refineries. Although not at the time, the Allied strategic boming campaign has become the most controversial aspect of World War II.


Tilford, Jr., Earl H. "Air Warfare: Strategic Bombing" The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1996).


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Created: 11:17 PM 7/26/2014
Last updated: 4:04 AM 7/2/2021