Note: I wrote this term paper for a class called War and Peace in the Twentieth Century. It was a good class.

Strategic Air Power and Its Effects on Civilians

World War II saw the introduction of strategic air power as a viable military force. For the first time, airplanes were developed that could carry thousands of pounds of bombs to a target deep behind enemy lines. Naturally, this changed the face of war for the generals, who could no longer plan for battle along a single front and assume that assets behind the lines were relatively safe. It also, however, had a profound effect on civilians. With the advent of strategic air power, the cities themselves became targets for area bombing. It is generally accepted that strategic bombardment shortened the war, particularly in Japan, but some question the humanity of a strategy that deliberately makes civilian populations the target of attacks. This paper examines the strategic decisions made, as well as the technology used, and the effects of those decisions and technology on the civilian populations of Germany and Japan.

Early British attempts at strategic bombing were marked by extreme caution to avoid injuring civilians. On December 18, 1939, twenty-four bombers set out to bomb the German Navy. Finding the German fleet near the coast, and acting under orders not to drop their bombs if they had any chance of hitting the shore, they did not drop their bombs and were subsequently decimated by German fighters. As a result, the British were convinced that bombing during daylight without escort was impossible to carry out successfully. Since there existed no British fighter with the range to accompany a bomber to the target and home, British Bomber Command was forced to begin investigating the possibility of bombing at night. (Levine 22-23)

Early in the war, the British had developed neither the "pathfinder" technique for marking targets at night nor the electronic guidance systems which would later allow the bombardiers to bomb "blind." (Levine 42) This effectively meant that bombing at night would be so inaccurate that the bombers could be assured only of hitting a target the size of a city — even in 1943, a very good raid put only 51 percent of the bombs dropped within 1000 feet of the target; earlier raids were much less precise, sometimes landing as few as 40 percent of the bombs within a mile of the target. (Hansell 94) Even in 1942, glide bombs were being produced that could hit "an area the size of Dayton, Ohio, from 25,000 feet" (Crane 85) — and Bomber Command was, at the outset of the war, unwilling to begin area bombing.

The British resistance to area bombardment evaporated in the wake of the first German attacks on London. After bombs fell on London for the first time, Churchill ordered Bomber Command to attack Berlin. This marked the beginning of an escalation in assaults on cities, and a corresponding decline in the percieved need to protect civilians from bombing. This escalation culminated in Europe with the firebombing of Dresden and other German industrial cities and in Japan with the firebombing of Tokyo, followed by the burning of several other cities and, finally, the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In both Japan and Germany, the massive damage caused to the cities was made possible by two technological developments: First, the heavy bombers (mainly B-17’s and Lancasters in Europe and B-29’s in Japan) which could carry unprecedented amounts of ordnance to their targets and drop the bombs from the relative safety of 20,000 feet or higher (although flying at such altitudes made even the pretense of "precision bombing" impossible, even with the advanced Norden bombsight and, later, the "Eagle" radar bombsight). More importantly, however, a tremendous effort went into the development of incendiary bombs – bombs which were designed to start fires and which could, in sufficient numbers, create a firestorm which would burn an entire city to the ground.

Even before the outbreak of war, the U.S. Army Air Corps recognized that it might be necessary, in the event of war, to engage in a type of strategic air warfare which would entail grave consequences for civilians. In the 1930’s, the Air Corps Tactical School taught that strategic air warfare could include

"Direct air attack on the economic and social systems and structure of the enemy state, including destruction or neutralization of major supporting systems… their paralysis would undermine both the military capability of the enemy state and the social and political "will to resist"… and Direct air attack on enemy social centers, including cities and factory worker dwelling areas. (Hansell 18-19)
Presumably British Bomber Command had come to the same conclusions. This doctrine formed the basis for the strategy of bombing enemy cities or "dehousing the workers," as it was euphemistically called.

It is impossible to construe the German attacks on London as anything other than terrorism; the German bombers, often finding most of the city blacked out, dropped their bombs more or less at random, hoping to hit something, and succeeding mainly in destroying a few homes around town. The V-2 rockets used later in the war were incapable of hitting a target smaller than a city, and as such were completely ineffective as weapons of war. As weapons of terror, though, they excelled. It was this terror bombing of London and other British cities that prompted Bomber Command to begin indiscriminately bombing German cities. The first of the German cities to receive a massive area attack was Hamburg in July 1943; Bomber Command sent 787 planes loaded with 2,326 tons of bombs, mostly incendiaries. They created a firestorm covering over four square miles, mostly in residential areas. Some 40,000 people perished as a result of this attack. (Levine 62) While this attack had a devastating effect on the German military production, mainly due to lack of labor, the toll on the civilians was horrible indeed. It is hard to believe that the military objectives achieved in this case were worth the damage done to the civilian population, especially given that the British bombers intentionally aimed at residential areas instead of the industrial sector.

Bomber Command’s Air Marshal Arthur Harris was particularly enamored of area attacks against cities; in November 1943 he told Churchill of his plan to "wreck Berlin from end to end." (Levine 66) Throughout the war, Harris was one of the key champions of area bombing; he felt that the only way to retaliate for the Blitz was to bomb Berlin. In fact, he put off attacks on targets with more military significance (Schweinfurt comes to mind) in favor of the continued ineffective attack on Berlin. In retrospect, it seems incredible, perhaps even criminal, that Harris was allowed to continue his attacks on the civilian populations of Germany. Under his command, British bombers laid waste to Berlin, Hamburg, Köln, and, most infamously, Dresden. American bombers which joined in the raids generally attempted to carry out "precision bombing" on military targets, but the inaccuracy of even the most advanced contemporary bombing techniques made it near-impossible to avoid causing damage to civilian populations.

The firebombing of Dresden is a particularly galling example of the Allied disregard for the protected status of civilians. According to Uwe Hartmann, who was born and raised a few kilometers from Dresden, the people fled from their houses into the large park in town when they realized an incendiary attack was underway. The bombers proceeded to drop several bombs into the park (U. Hartmann, letter, May 13, 2001). It is doubtful that the park was intentionally bombed; it is difficult at best to imagine crews aiming at open space with the intent of killing more civilians. More likely it was stray bombs aimed at the semi-legitimate target of the commercial sector of Dresden which landed in the park. In any event, the British attack of February 1945 on Dresden was inexcusable in that the British explicitly aimed at residential areas, using weapons calculated to cause a firestorm and massive civilian casualties. The following American attack on Dresden was little better; although the American bombers aimed at a railway junction instead of a residential area, many bombs landed among the houses. In addition, the escort fighters reportedly strafed the banks of the Elbe, killing still more civilians. (Levine 179) If the earlier attacks on Hamburg and Berlin stretched the limits of decent wartime conduct, the Dresden raid was outright criminal. There were few important industries left in Dresden by that time, and what industry was there was largely ignored; the bombs fell almost exclusively on civilian targets.

It would be easy at this point to place the blame for the widespread destruction of civilian populations squarely on Harris’ shoulders; he was, after all, the man who planned the raids which burned Dresden and Hamburg to the ground, and which devastated much of Berlin and several other German cities. RAF High Command, however, had given him orders which read, "It has been decided that the primary objective of your operation should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population, and in particular, of the industrial workers." (Kerr 16) In a sense, then, he was carrying out the orders of his superiors, who are also responsible for the devastation their orders caused. The RAF’s bombing, while effective when it was directed at military targets, often was instead turned on civilians, resulting in massive avoidable losses of life.

The air war over Japan was not much better in terms of the effects it had on civilians. Once American forces had secured Iwo Jima and established air superiority in the Pacific, all of Japan was within easy reach of the Air Corps’ B-29 bombers. The best-known raids, of course, are those of the Enola Gay and Bock’s Car — the atomic bombings which directly preceded Japan’s unconditional surrender. However, prior to the completion of the nuclear bomb, the Army Air Corps firebombed several Japanese cities, resulting in great loss of life.

The bombing of Japan was calculated from the start to cause chaos and "dehouse" the people of the target cities. According to Kerr, "Col. Turner probably expressed the feelings of others when he said, ‘We have been intrigued with the possibilities…of complete chaos in six cities killing 584,000 people.’ He speculated that if the raids were successful the casualties might be far greater." (Kerr 80) One report called for incendiary attacks sufficient to burn out 186 square miles in 20 cities and dehouse 12 million people. (Kerr 44) It is clear that Air Corps strategy focused on rendering the civilians of Japan unwilling or unable to continue the war. To their credit, after Tokyo burned, the American commanders attempted to warn civilians of the impending raids with leaflets exhorting them to get out of the cities, with the result that whereas 100,000 people died when Tokyo burned, only 4,000 died in the bombing of Osaka. (Kerr 207, 217)

Despite the huge loss of life, the incendiary attacks on Japan were probably the only way short of a full-scale invasion to force Japan to capitulate; unlike the Germans, the Japanese accomplished a significant portion of their war production in individual homes, rather than concentrating production in factories. Given the fact that bombing was still not accurate enough to shut down the Japanese steel industry by destroying the coke ovens, there was no other way to deliver a crippling strike to the warmaking capability of the Japanese people. As Henry Arnold put it, "It was practically impossible to destroy the war output of Japan without doing more damage to civilians connected with the output than in Europe." (Crane 135) It seems clear that while the loss of civilian lives in Japan was certainly regrettable, there was no way to avoid it without invading the Japanese mainland, an action which would have likely cost many more lives than the air campaign against Japan.

Much more questionable in terms of military necessity was the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the time that nuclear weapons were used, Japan’s ability to fight was mostly destroyed. There is some evidence that the Japanese would have continued to fight had the Bomb not been dropped, but it is more likely that the use of nuclear weapons served merely to hasten Japanese unconditional surrender. The bombings did serve a political purpose, in that they demonstrated American power to the Soviets and prevented Stalin from entering the war, but damage to civilians must be justified through military, not political necessity, and military necessity is a requirement that was not clearly met for the destruction of two cities.

In conclusion, the development of strategic air power certainly cost the lives of tens of thousands of civilians by making possible attacks like the firebombing of Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo. The responsibility for these deaths, however, lies not with the technology which made the attacks feasible, but with the commanders who ordered the attacks. Harris of Bomber Command, in particular, needlessly killed thousands of civilians in the bombing of residential areas of Dresden. The raids on Japan, while less than exemplary in their effects on civilians, were probably the only feasible solution to the problem of breaking the Japanese war economy, and were arguably more humane than plans to starve the Japanese people by destroying the rice crop. In short, the Japanese fire raids come closer to falling under the umbrella of "military necessity" than did the German fire raids — but neither was an ideal solution.


Merrill, James M. Target Tokyo: The Halsey-Doolittle Raid. Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1964

Levine, Alan J. The Strategic Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945. London: Praeger, 1992

Hansell, Haywood S. Jr. The Strategic Air War against Germany and Japan: A Memoir. Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1986

Kerr, E. Bartlett. Flames Over Tokyo: The U.S. Army Air Forces’ Incendiary Campaign Against Japan. New York: Donald I. Fine, Inc. 1991

Nagatsuka, Ryuji. I Was A Kamikaze. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc. 1973

Crane, Conrad C. Bombs, Cities, and Civilians: American Airpower Strategy in World War II. University Press of Kansas, 1993

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