World War II Air Operations: Startegic Bombing-- Public Attitudes

Figure 1.--Here we see Berlin women and children in 1943 filling up sandbags to protect buildings from Allied bombers. We can't make out the writing on the purpse made baggs. The caption read, "Beiners get sand to fight bomb fires: Information accompanying this picture, received rom Germany by way of Sweden and London, describing it as chowing women and children of Berlin gathering sand in paper bags. They are said to be preparing to fight bomb-ignited fires. The fact the photograph was permitted to leave Germany gives rise to speculation wheter the Berliners, who delighted in the bombing of London, now are seeking to arouse sympathy." The American caption suggests that German civilans were fully aware of Luftaffe bombing of civilans and eagerly endorsed it. We are not sure thais was the case. This was probably the case of ardent NAZIs, but we just do not now the German public as awhole. We simply do not know how much the German people knew about Luftwaffe bombing and what they thought about it. The American editor here clerly thought that the German people were well informed and geting a taste of their own medicine.

One question that we can not answer is how World War II populations thought about the strategic bombing campaigns. We know of course what the people being bombed thoughta bout the bombing. What we do not understand is what the people in the countries doing the bombing thought about this aspect of their countries war effort. Countries which conducted bombing operation included America, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union. At this time we have only the most basic understanding of what the governments and militaries (and note the two are not synamous) were telling their people about straetgic bombing operations. Ironically the countries that began bombing other countries (Axis partners Japan and Germany) would eventually be most heavily bombed countries of the war with cities reduced to rubble and glowing cinders. And the two countries which most vehemently condemned Axis bombing of civilian popuations (America and Britain) would be the countries that would conduct the most expansive bpmbing operations of the War. Neither country wanted to fight another world war, but were forced to do so because of Axis aggression. And both America and Britain turned to bombing as a result of Axis bombing. America and Britain saw strategic bombing as a way of wageing war without sustaining the horendous battlefield casualties of World War I.


The U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) with only limited fundng experimented with various bomber types. Althoogh organizatinally part of the U.S. Army, the USAAC unlike the Luftwaffe made virtually no efort in developing a ground support doctrine. From an early point the USAAC was dominmated by the Bomber Boys, men like Hap Arnold and Carl Spaatz. This doctrine could not be sold to the isolationist and anti-War Ameerican public of the 1930s so the public position was that long range bombers could support the U.S. Navy in a kind of continental defense strategy. For the Roosevelt Administration, bombers represented a miitary strategy that would use technolgy to fight a future war rather than a large army this avoiding huge casualties. The Germans began bombing Allies cities, most notably London, in World War I. The public was concerned about bombing in any future war. And at the beginning of the 1930s this fear became all to real, first with Japanese aggession in China (1931), And then the Italians in Ethiopia (1935) and the Ialians and Germans in Spain (1936). The America public viewed these developments in horror. The Roosevelt Adminitration vigrously protested the bombing of cities. Even so, the United States at the outbreak of World War II was the only country with a modern long-range bomber, the B-17 Flying Fotress. As World War II developed, Americans watched from afar as German bombs fell first on Polish cities and then on Rotterdam. Then the German Blitz on Britain was broadcast night into American homes. Americans adopted a contrdictory policy, wanting to stay out of the War, but at the same time aid Britain. The Blitz removed any reservations about stratehic bombing not only in America, but Britain as well. The USAAC sild the B-17 and strategic bombing in general on the basis that bombs coold be dropped at high altitudes with an accuracy that allowed them to hit a 'pickle barrel'. The B-17 is surely the most icionic of all the World War II bombers. The American public thus had the idea that while the Germans and Japanese were terrorizing civilan populations, American bombers were surgically striking at war industries. This may have been what the USAAC was trying to do in Europe, but it was beyond its caability for two primary reasons. First it did not have the technical capability to do so. Second, German workers did not have cars and had to live in the cities close to the factories where they worked. I am not sure what the public knew about the bombing. It should benoted that most od the damage in Germany occured during late-1944 and early-1945. Virtually all of the damage in Japan occvurred during 1945. As a result, the American public had a fairly limited time window to learn about the results of the bombing. As far as I know, the images of German cities a mounds of ruble began appearing in the press and movie newsreels after or shortly before the NAZI surrender.


Britain had been traumatised by German bombing of London and other cities during World War I. As a result, the British developed the first integrated air defnse system -- the Chain Home system. Like the Amerians, the Royal Air Force e (RAF) focused primarily on bombers. And as a result almost began the War wihout a modern mono-wing fight. RAF Bomber Command began the War dropping leaflets. The British bombers were, however, incable of striking at the Reich in daylight. German fighters shot down the bombers that tried to do so. The German Blitz (1940-41) effectivelt elimnated any British resistance to the bombing of cities. And soon after the Blitz ended, the British had a modrnlong range nomber-the Lancaster. Hoping to avoid the huge casuaties of World War II, Britain focused its war economy on the air war. We ae not sure what the British people were told about the bombing, but it does not seem to to have been that thy were waging an area bombing campaign and not targetng specific factories. Bombing at night, the area bombing staratehy was obvius. And agfter the Blitz, the British people were all that conccened about Gerrman civilian casualties. As Air Marshal Harris explaimed, "The Germnans sewed the wunds and are now going to inherret the wirldwind". Only after Dresden did the public begin to ask questios.


Canada had an air force of its own, but its primaryair role duriung the War. They supported thge Royal Canadian navy in the Battle of the Atlantic. Canada also provided RAF Bomber Command flight crews for the strtegic bombing campaign. All the aircraft was British. They did not, however, play a role in the plannng of the campaign. This was the case throughout the War. Canada played an importnt role in the War. More in the Battle of the Atlantic than the air war. Canada also played a role in the ground war and had one of the D-Day beaches. The Canadians, however, left the watr polanning and decisin making to their larger partners, America and Britain.


Hitler in planning the War had a wide range of problems and limitations. One of those was a limited industrial base. Germany was a major industrail nation, but its industrial capacity was a fraction of that of the countries Hitler wanted to invade and conquer. They thus they culd not build an all poerful military. This forced the Luftwaffe had to make hard decisins. As most of its officers were drawn from the Heer, they devcided to cnstruct a tactical air force. They never developed a startegic bombing arm. There were plans for four engine heavy bombers, but they could not be built in any number. . We are not sure what the German people were told about Luftwaffe bombing. A weekly movie newsreel, Die Deutsche Wochenschau, was a primary source of war news for the German people. We have seen many clips from these prouctions from Goebbels Propganda Ministry. Our impression is that they focussed n the ground war. To the extent they covered the air ar, it was more on the Luftwaffe's ground support role. We are not sure to what extent they showed thesuffering and destruction on the ground. And they had plent of opportunity to do so as they occupied Poland, the Netherlands, and Yugoslavia, all scenes of Luftwaffe terror attacks. While we have seen clips we are not sure at all about the dialog or what the German press (meaning Goebbel's Propaganda Ministry was saying). Hitler viewed bombing as a way of pnishing his enenies--which is why London was such a focus. We are not sure this is what the German people were being told. This is a subject that needs to be investigated. It is of interst because we simply do not know how much the German people knew about Luftwaffe bombing and what they thought about it. The German image here published in the United States in 1943 has a caption suggesting that the German people were well informed and geting a taste of their own medicine (figure 1). Weare not sure this is true. The German press charged that the Allied Srategic Bombing campaign was a hideous war crime outside the rules of War. We know that the German people were incensed. Allied air crews shot down were attacked by the public and some killed before the German police got to them. We are unsue how much of the public connected the Allied bombing to the German bombing in the early years of the War.


Italy had bombers. They were used to drop poison gas in Ethiopia (1935). The Italian bombes were obolete in World War II terms. Italian squadrons commited to the Battle of Britain had to be withdrawn because of high losses. As far as we know they were not used to any extent in their primary European campaign--Greece (1940-41). The primary Italian war effort was in North Africa. And here the only major bombing efort was Malta. The target was the Briish bases and all-imprtant port at Valleta. There were significant civilian casualties, but the civilans were not the main target. With the Allied advances in North Africa, the bombing of Italy was possible. The primary targets was the transport infrastructure to prevent German reinforcements and supplies from moving south. This meant some civilian casualties, especially around the rail hubs which were commonly located in the cities. We are not sure how the Italians viewed the bombing. Our general impression is that they blamed Mussolini. And as the Germans seized contrl, they were more impacted by the brutal German occupation than the bombing.


The Japanese were not only the first country to bomb civilians in the run up to World War Ii, but they conducted the longest strategic bombing campaign of the War. And more than any other country untill 1945, it was the camapign that most specifically targeted civilians. This may sound like an insane idea given that Japan's wood and paper cities were the most vulnerable to aerial bombing of all the World War II combatant countries. But the Japanese calculated that the Home Island were not in range of bombers. The Chinese had no bombers and the Americans bombers were not in range, even from the Philippines. It did not dawn on the militarists that America might develop a longer ramge bomber. Ot that the decadent Americans might fight back and seize islaands close to Japan. So Japan began bombing Chinese cities (1931). This occurred even before Hitler and the NAZIs seized power in Germany. The targets were cities in Manchuria, but we know most about Shanghai because of the large European community there reporting on the Japanese actions. Theseand other Japanese bombing attacks were largely attacks on n civilans and cities, not military targets. The Japanese bombed Shanghaii because of protests over the invasion of Manchuria and attacks on Japanese officials and merchants. With the Japanese invasion of China proper (1937), Chinese cities became major targets. The small Chinese Air Force was quickly destroyed. And Chinese cities were undefended. The Chinese Nationalist Army withdrew into the interior. And the primary way the Japanese had to get at them was through bombing Chunking and and other cities in Nationalist hands. This continued until the American AVG (Flying Tiger) reached China. As the Amrican presence increased the Japamese began to suffer losses with forced them to curtail bombing operations. We are not sure how much the Japanese people knew about all of this. We know the Japanese people were not told about the horrendous Japanese attrocities committed on the Chinese people. We are also not sure what the Japanese were told about the bombing in China or subsequent Paciic War bombing of cities Hong Kong, Singapore, India, and Australia. The Japanese depicted American aircrews beginning with the Doolittle flyers as ear criminals. Many who fell in their hands were summarily executed. We are not sure to what extent Japanese civilians connected the American stratehic bombing campaign with the earlier Japanese bombing of civillians.


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Created: 4:42 AM 3/28/2019
Last updated: 4:42 AM 3/28/2019