*** war and social upheaval: World War II air campaign

War and Social Upheaval: World War II Air Campaign (1939-45)

World War II air war
Figure 1.--These British children seek shelter in a trench from German bombs during the Battle of Britain. One source suggest that it was taken on what has become known as Battle of Britain Day somewhere in London (September 15, 1940). Images like this helped to convince the American public that Britain had to be saved and the Germans defeated. Some 61 German planes were shot doiwn, although the RAF claimed 185. A British reader writes, "This is quite a famous picture, one of the most important British images of the War. It should be noted that most of these kids were less afraid than fascinated by the dogfight going on above them! Around the time of the 60th anniversary, a news paper tracked some of these people down for their recollections." In the rest of European children like these watched their homes being bombed without any opposing force defending them. These children are watching perhaps the most important air battle of the War with RAF fighters shooting down German bombers and dogfights with the German fighters. A reader has provids a colorized version.

"I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through. The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves... If the conscience of the young men should ever come to feel, with regard to this one instrument [bombing] that it is evil and should go, the thing will be done; but if they do not feel like that – well, as I say, the future is in their hands. But when the next war comes, and European civilisation is wiped out, as it will be, and by no force more than that force, then do not let them lay blame on the old men. Let them remember that they, principally, or they alone, are responsible for the terrors that have fallen upon the earth."

-- Stanley Baldwin, British Prime Minister, November 9, 1932

One of the countroversies surrounding World War II is the Allied bombing campaign of Germany. Of course it was the Germans who began bombing civilian populations as a terror tactict to destroy civilian morale. This began even before the World War II during the Spanish Civil War with the bombing of Guernica in 1937?. Once the World War II began the tactic was used on Warsaw (September 1939), Rotterdam (May 1940), and on numerous British cities (1940-41). Once America joined the War in December 1941, a much larger bombing campaign was launched on Germany which by 1943 began to inflict serious civilian casulties. After D-Day (June 1944), the Allied bombing campaign was significantly intensified. The Americans bombing by day, attempting to hit specific targets using the Nordon bomb sites. The British bombed by night and at best could hit specific cities. Large numbers of German civilians were killed, injured, or rendered homeless. Contrary to popular conceptions, the German economy was not effectively harnessed for war. Only when Albert Speer was put in charge did German industry begin to reach some of its potential. The Germans, as a result, despite the bombing were able to expand war production. Here the question that should be asked is how much more they could have expanded production had it not been for the bombing. The bombing significantly clearly disrupted the economy and the ability of the NAZIs to persue their development of new weapons.

Military Doctrine

World War I saw the first appearance of combat air craft in modern war (1914). The airplane had only been invented 11 years earlier by the Wright Brothers in America. The War resulted in the rapid expanion in aviation technology. Air operations during World War I were mostly reconisance and tactical operations. The Allies were preparing a massive strategic bombing campaign. The War ended, however, before the strategic campaign could be launched. Military experts afer the War argued about the furure nature of war and the role of air power. One of the most influential thinkers was an Italian strategist, Giulio Doubet. He argued that a strategic bombing force could prevent another terrible land war which had caused millions of death. He argued that the heavily armed bomber would always get through fighter and other air defense systems. And thus a country before all else should buid a strategic bombing force because no country would dare invade a country with such a force. He argued that fighter defenses and close air support were wasted resources. [Doubet] It is difficult to assess the impact of Doubet's strategic thesis, but he did establish the basic alternatives avalable to military planners. The British pursued a dual track approach with both tactical and strategic arms. The United States at first gave great attention t building a strategic bomber, in part to avoid the casualties that would result from aland campaign. The result was thefamed B-19 Flying Fortress. NAZI Germany chose the other alternative and built a tactical force. This was not because some Luftwaffe planners did not want a strategic bombing force. It was because German industry did not have the capacity to build both a tactical and strategic force. And because Hitler and Göring formed the Luftwaffe by attracting Wehrmacht personnel, the Luftwaffe became a basically tactical force focused on close-air support of the Wehrmacht and its Panzers. This of course violated Doubet's thesis as he saw no need for close inter-service cooperation. The German Luftwaffe at the start of the War was the only national airforce that had engaged in this inter-service planning.

Target Cities

Strategic bombing theory from the beginning in World War I involved the targeting of enemy war industries to destroy the country's ability to make war. This inevitably meant bombing enemy cities as this is where industrial manufacturing plants were located. And as the Germans found out in World War I with Zeppelin and Gotha bombers, the technology did not exist to hit just industrial plants and not the surronding residential areas. This did not stop the Germans from contining to bomb London and other cities. Technology advanced by the time of World War II, targetin devices were improved like the Nordon bomb site. But so did anti-aircraft defenses, so World War II bombers were designed to bomb at great alditudes when rebdered percission bombing impossible in combat conditions which would take World War II airforces some time to learn, especially the Americans. The Army Air Corps developed in dtrategic bombing docreaine in the clear desert skies of the Southwest againsdt no enemy defenses. The skies over nprthern Europe and vJapan wpould prove very different. There were significant differences between cities rendering different countries more or less susceptable to strategic bombing. American cities were beyond the reach of Axis bombers. Japanese cities were beyond the reach nof enememy bombers when the War began (1939), but they were by far the most vulnmeravle. British cities were different than much of Europe. The British built out insterad of up. There were apartmnt building, but fewer than on the ciontiunent. The British, both the poor and miffle class loved in sinhle story dwelings. Row houses (teraces) in the city. And free standing homes in the sunburbs, iften yweo stories. This mean that population denisty was lower than in the continent. French cities had mnany aprtment buildings, but as France surended to the NAZIs wa not significantly involved in the startehic bombing campaoihn, exceot for the U-boat ports which were targeted by the British. German cities except for the largelky wooden Baltic ports were built in stone and brick. But much of the population lived in multi-story apartments meaning a much higer population densdity that British cities. Japanese citiies were not only densly populated, but largely constructed out of wood and paper--essentially kindling for great bonfires. Soviet cities had many large apartmernt blocks. This was the Soviet answer to low-cost hosing for the masses. Most of the important Soviet cities were located in the western Soviet Union which made them vulnerable to Germany's fleet of medium, tactical bombers. And as part of Generralplan Ost, the NAZI objective in the East was to destroy industrial cities and create a vast agricultural colony.

Aviation Industries

The airplane had been invented in America by two bicycle mechanics, the Wright Brothers (1903). At the time of World War I, however, the United States did not have modern combat aircraft. When America entered the War (1917), it had to use British and French planes. In the inter-war period, several countries developed important aircraft industries: America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union. A key to building modern aircraft was aluminum. Thus a country's potential to build aircraft was the size of its aluminum industry. Aluminum production not only required bauxite, but vast quantities of electrical power. Some World War II planes were built with plywood (the British Mosquito and the German FW-190), but most were built with aluminum. Until the NAZI-take over in 1933, national aviation industries primarily depended on civilian demand. And here the largest civil aviation industry was in the United States. Passenger aircraft were needed by a country like the United States when smaller countries had no great need for aircraft in domestic transport. Aircraft had played only a minor role in World War I. This was to be very different in World War II and the aviation industries of the beligerant countries had a major impact on the War.

National Air Forces

It was the Lufwaffe which dominated Europe for the first 3 years of the War. It looked for a time that the Luftwaffe would win the War for the NAZIs. It was the Royal Air Force, however, that delivered the force defeat to Hitler's military. Germany began the War with a strategic and industrial capability inferior to that of the countries Hitler planned to conquer. Part of the NAZI concept of war was to wage it with superior technology. The NAZI defeat so early in the War should have given Hitler pasuse. It did not. Air Marshall Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris when he was appointed to lead the RAF's Bomber Command stated that the Germans began the War with the unrealistic assumption that they would bomb enememy cities, but German cities would not be bombed. The British at the time were outproducing the Germans. The Luftwaffe destroyed the Red Air Force in the first few days of Barbarossa. It did not, however, destroy the Soviet aircraft industry. Relocated Soviet began factories begun producing improved aircraft types in huge numbers. The Allies significantly underestimated the effectiveness of Japanese aircraft and the result was the loss od wide areas of Southeast Asia and the Paciic in 1942. More than any other country the United States decided to fight the War with a massive air force. About 25 percent of American war spending was devoted to the air war. Not only was this a greater share than Germany devoted to the Luftwaffe, the industrial capacity of America was much greater than that of Germany. The British focused on bombers. The Americans produced a wide range of aircraft for its various commands as well as for its allies. It took some time for the Allies to perfect tactics and production priorities, but by 1944 the Allies unleased a torrent of destruction, first on Germany and then on Japan that was in terms of destruction was unprecedented in modern warfare.


There are several different types of aerial ordinance used during World War II. The most widely used bomb was the high explosive bomb. It ws used in horizontl strategic bombing. High explosive bombs came in a wide range of sizes and configurations. The largest bomb dropped in any numbers was the 4,000 lb bombs dropped by the Americans and British. This was possible because of the large fleets of heavy bombers built by Britain and the United States. High explosives were the favored ordinance of the bomber boys because of the destructive impact -- if delivered on target. And this was the problem, World War II boming forces did not have the ability to deliver high explosive bombs on target. Most bombs fell ar considerable distance from target. The only way to destroy a target was to drop bombs in huge waves of bombers. The Germans in particular were working on guided weapns with high-explosive warheads. They were a tiny fraction of the high eeplosive dropped. The German V-weapons both used high explosives. Dive bombing unlike horizontal bombing could be precise, but could only be delivered by small planes with limited ranges and bomb loads--unsuitable for strategic bombing. Dive bombing was suitable for tactical and naval operations, but not strategic bombing. The other basic type of strategic ordinance was incendiaries. The air commanders at the beginning of the war focused on high explosives rather than incendiaries. They proved more destructive than high exolosive wepons when used against cities. The Germans in the Battle of Britain and the Allies in the early phases of the Strategic Bombing Campaign did not fully understand the destructive potential of incendiaries. Enormous damage could be done without the need for percision targetting. There were also weapons of mass destruction delivered by bombers. The ultimate strategic bomb of course was the atomic bombs develope by the Americans and British. To the surprise of many, the most feared aerial weapon was not used except by the Japanese -- chemical wepons meaning poison gas. The Japanese also used biological weapons. There were a range of ordinance used in tactical operations. Here they were primarily high explosive bombs. But tactical aircraft also were armed with rockets and napalm. Naval aviation with few exceotions deployed tactical bombers, mostly high explosive bombs delivered by dive bombers. A destinctly naval weapon was the aerial torpedowhich used a high explosive warhead. In the Pacific War the Americans relied heavily on dive bombing and the Japanese on torpedoes.

Civil Defense

While aerial bombardment of cities was relatively rare, it did occur in World War I. And as a result there was enormous concern during the inter-War about aerial bombardment in any future war and how to protect civilans. And the advances in aviation meant that it wold be far more destructive than in World War I. This concern escalated when Göring and Hitler announced the creation of the Luftwaffe (1935). Actually they had been building the Luftwaffe in secret soon after taking power. The two coutries that gave the greatest attention to civil defense (CD) were Britain and Germany, although neither built deep shelters for civilians. Much of the concern before the War was the use of poison gas. The British as a result prepared plans to issue everyone gas masks. The French had a more limited program. The Soviets did not have an important CD program. Moscow's subways were built deeper tha necessary, in part out of considration for aerial attack. Germany's Axis partners had very limited civil defense programs. Musolini apparently thought that the Germans had largely won the War ad that the Meditrranean would become an Axis lake making Italy safe from aerial attack. The Japanese with wood and paper cities were the most vulnerable to aerial attack. The ,ilitarists who launched the Pacific War believed that Japan was invulerable beause the IMperial Navy could prevent attacks and the Americans did not have bombers of suffient range. The United States began Civil Defense plannong ven before entering the War. President Roosevelt put Mrs. Roosevelt and New York's popular mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, in charge of the effort.

Air Defenses

As Europe spiraled toward World War II, the accepted dictum in military circles was that 'the bomber would always get through'. Few countries could build formidable air defenses. This required primariy a strong airforce. And a very small number of countries had major air forces (America, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union). Air defenses are generally construed as defending cities and other priority assetts, but an important aspect was defending the country's airforce. This was not fully appreciated before the war and thus an impprtant factor in early Grman and Japanese victories. If the airforce was destroyed as in the case of the Dutch and the Soviets, than the cities could not be defended. Only one country (Britain) during the War built a major air defense. The British air defenses employed radar for the first time and husbanded enough of its fighter squadrons to beat off the Luftwaffe. The combination proved decisive in the Battle of Britain (1940). The Luftwaffe like the British had developed radar, but failed to fully appreciate its importance in air warfare. And because they planned to do the attacking, defensive measurs were not a high priority. German air defenses were not seriously tested at the onset of the War because the Allied feared Luftwaffe reprisals. This changed after the fall of France and the Battle of Britain. Britain devoted a substantial share of its industrial capacity for building Bomber Command which with the arrival of the Lancaster finally had the capability to strike at the Reich. The Germans built the most fearsome air defense of the War, extracting terrible losses on attacking bomber formations. Gradually Bomber Command and the American 8th Airforce wire the Luftwaffe down, especially after the arrival of long-range escorts (December 1944). America relied primarily on its twin ocean barries for air defenses. Air defense failures proved disaterous in Hawaii and the Philippines at the onset of the War. France pursued a strategy of moving much of its auirdorce south to rear areas, but that meant it was not in place to blunt the German Western Offensive when the blow came. Japan' wood ad paper cities were the most vulnerable to air attack, but the country's primary air defense was the Pacific Ocean which meant at the time Japan launched the Pacific War, the Home Islands were beyond the reach of Allied bombers. The Soviet Union pursued the opposite of the French tactic. Stalin moved a substantialpart of the Red Army and Red Airforce west into unprepared defenses. This allowed the Germans to savage these forces at the onset of Barbarossa (1941). The Red Air Force was vurtually destoyed and would not reappear in force on the battlefield for 2 years.


The air war was conducted in several different campaigns both to support naval and ground forces. Germany build a tactical airforce, primarily because it did not have the industrial capacity to also build a strategic air force as well. The use of tactical air power in close association with mechnized ground forces was in esence the birth of modern warfare--Blitzkrieg. This allowed the Germans to conquer most of Europe. German also used its airforce to bomb enemy cities, beginning with the campaign in Poland. Germany did not, however, conquer Britain, nor could it even reach the United States. These countries did have the industrial capacity to build strategic air forces. America's productive capability added to that of Britain ad the Sviet Union produced air craft for both tactical and strateic operaions as well as cargo airctaft to support operations around the world. America and Britain decied at the onset of their storied alliance that Hitler and the NAZIs were the major threat. Thus the predominance of air assetts were deployed in the European theater and resulted in epic struggles in the skies over northern Europe. Germany began the War with the assumption that only the cities of other countries would be bombed. Air Marshall Göring assured the German people that German cities would never be bombed. As Air Marshall Harris explained, "Germany has sewed the winds and now it will reep the whirlwind." America's huge industrial capability soon permitting aircraft in large numbers to be delivered for the struggle in Asia and the Pacific as well. And Japan which began the War by bombing undefended Chinese cities would also pay a terrible price. .

Morality of Strategic Bombing

The morality of the air campaign is a still hotly debated question. At the time, none of the major combatant countries with bombing formations (Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States) questioned their own use of bombing on moral grounds. America and Britain accused NAZI Germany of war crimes when it conducted terror bombing of cities with that explicit goal. The Japanese did the same in China. After the the NAZIs began using this tactic, both America and Britain subsequently launched much more massive assaults on German and later Japanese cities. Although the goal was never described explicity as terror, the differences if you were a German civilian would be difficult to determine. The German foreign minister coming to Washington in November 2002 recalled cowering in a bomb shelter during the Allied bombing. A HBC reader remembers the glow in the night sky from raging firesc in a nearby city after Allied bombing runs. Much of the debate over the morality of the aerial campaign really or questions on the morality of war itself. There are questions, however, that pertain uniquely to the World War II aerial campaign itself. HBC does not seek to answer these questions. A thorough discussion would be a study in itself. We do believe, however, that it is important to pose some of the major questions.

Public Attiudes

One question that we can not answer is how World War II populations thought about the strategic bombing campaigns waged by their countries. 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.

War Crimes: Tactical Operations

The greatest loss of life especially of civilians associated with the air war resulted from strategic bombing. We have dealt with that issue above. Here we want to discuss tactical operations specifically. There are several topics that need to be considered: 1) firing on aircrews that had bailed out of a damaged plane, 2) targeting civilians (commonly refugees), 3) firing on survivors of submarine attacks, and 4) firing on air ambulances. In terms of combat, the major issue here was shooting at men who had bailed out of a stricken plane. Men descending in parachuchuttes were defenselsss and sitting ducks. Hollywood suggests that the German pilots commonly did this. Hollywood hardly a creditable source, but they have left that impression in the public mind. There are reports of this happending and all the major combatants have been accused. This was the case with Battle of Britain, the first major air battle. We suspect that this was primarily the Germans respomsible because British pilots bailing out could be in the air the next day. Interviews with Luftwaffe pilots after the War reveal that it was against regulations to do this. And they claim it did not hasppen. Then again we do not know of anyone ever procecuted for doing it. Most pilots saw it as a violation of the rules of war. American pilots described going after German pilots who did this. We believe it occured doing the strategic bombing of Germany. Here the moral issues are clouded because the Allied pilots were bombing German cities. There were many reports of German pilots targeting civilians. Here they were apparent following orders as fleeing refugees clogged the roads and impeded troop movements. We note an incident in which Allied aircraft attacked German submarines rescuing survivors from a British ship they had just sunk (the Laconia incident). During the Battle of Britain, Fighter Command was oirdered to attack flot planes marked with red crosses attempting to rescue downed German airmen. This order was given because the battle basically turned on the number of pilots. The British were not short of aircraft during the War, they were short of trained pilots.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

Chemical weapons were extensively used during World War I. They were introduced by the Germans on both the Eastern and Western Front. The Western Allies retaliated by using them as well. The primary ordinance was artillery shells. Most observers believed that thaey would be used again when World war II broke out and would be used against civilians in aerial attacks. This did not occur, one of the ffew horrors which dfid not materialize. There were a few isolated incidents in Europe. Even though the Germans developed nerve agents that were far more deadly than Workd War I chemical agents, Hitler decided not to use them. Historians are not entirely sure why. German sources suggest that chemical experts asured him that the Allies probably had similar weaons or could easily produce them and no real advantage could be gained. There may also have been personal reasons for Hitler's decesion. World War I beligerants also developed biological weapons. The two most important seem to be antrax and thyphus. Typhus was not weaponized, but the disease itself killed millions of people during World War I and the Russian Civil War. The development of DDT managed to contain it after the War. The Germans, however, remained very concerned about it. Typhus may have been used to a limited extent on the Eastern Front. The British did a great deal of work on anthrax. The Japanese appear to have been the World War II beligerant country that most extensively used both chemical and biological weapons, primarily in China. The Soviets launched a major biological warfare program after the War. Unexpedctedly, it would not be chemical or biological weapns that wouyld play an important part in Wotld war II, but a stateling new scientific achievement--nuclear weapons.

Secret Weapons

All the major World War II belligerant were working on secret weapons. The Germans had the most imaginitive secret weapons program, a reflectgion of the German scientific establishment that existed with Hitler and the NAZIs seized power. They have attracted the most attention by World WSar II authors. The German secret weaons could have a huge impact on the War. Four factors prevented this and Hitler was at the heart of the failure. First Germany's limitd industrial capacity. Second, Hitler's mismanagement, especially his interference with the jet program. Third, the Allied intelligence effort and strategic bombing campaign. Fourth, Hitler's war against the Jews. The British matched the Germans in inventedness, but did not fund the efforts of their scientists like the Germans did. And like the Germans did not have the industrial capability to actually produce the creations of their scientists in the quantities were required to wage global war. Fortunately for the world, the Americans did. America had the world's largest industrial capacity. It was also developing a major scientific capability with its expamding university system and the icreasing demands of its industrial companies. Churchill made a decesion soon after becoming prime-ministr to fully share its secret weapon technology with the Americans who unlike the Bitish actually had the capacity to manufacture them. Most of the Allied secret weapons were conceived by the British. The primry American secret weapon was not aecretat all--mass production. Major Allied ecret weapms were Brirish concepts (cavity mgntron and prociomity fuse). What Americadid was to take these comcepts nd mass produce them. This often ebtailed imprtant design changes to facilitate mass production. This involved more than secret weapons. The P-51 Mustang is often described as the marriage of an American airframe with the Britiosh Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. Actually it is more complicated than that. Rolls royce developed a magficicent egine, but not one that was easy to build. The Americans redesigned the British engine to facilitate mass production. And to even incease America's involvement in secreat weapon's production, Hitler's campaign against the Jews drove some of the greatest scientific minds in Germany and other European countries to America and Britain and convince even the pacifists among them (like Einstein) to create the most destructive weapon in human history. The Japanese surprised the Americans and British with potent secret weapons (the Zero fighter and the Long-Lance Torpedo) at the onset of the war, but did not have the scientific or industrial capacity to compete with th Anglo Americans. And the Germans, unlike the Aliies, were unwilling to share their secret technology with their Japanese Axis ally until late in the War. The Soviets built effective weaponry, but did not make introduce major scientific innovations. Their most advanced weapon was the T-34 tank which they introduced at a critical point of the War. Unlike World War I, we know of no important French inovations in weaponry. Of course weapons development was cut short by the fall of France in the first year of the War (June 1940. Poland was not a a major industrial power and was occupied by the Germans at the outset of the War. Unbenognst to the Germans, however, it was a small Polish cryptgraphic unit tha set in motion the greatest secret development of the War--cracking the German Enigma Machines.


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

Doubet, Giulio. Command of the Air.

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).

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

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


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Created: August 20, 2002
Last updated: 1:11 AM 6/2/2022