The Bomber Will ‘Always Get Through’


The Boeing B-29 Super Fortress.

They are one of a range of possible targets that could be regarded as strategic in nature. In simple terms a strategic target is anything that once destroyed has an impact on the campaign that is felt at the highest levels of a warring state. In simple terms their loss is so serious as to threaten the ability of the state to continue to conduct its military operations. In the Second World War strategic bombing was one of the crucial ways in which warfare was conducted, even though its effectiveness as an instrument of war is still a matter for debate.

In Spain in the 1930s the application of air power was still in its nascent stages, albeit that the Spanish Civil War did allow the Nazis to test out some of their emerging doctrine and concepts. Of all the events in the Spanish Civil War the attack on the small town of Guernica provided the most graphic evidence of what was to follow.

In January 1937 Lieutenant Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, a distant cousin of the famous ‘Red Baron’ of First World War fame was appointed Chief of Staff to the Condor Legion that Nazi Germany had sent to Spain to assist the Nationalists. Von Richthofen was an avid believer in the power of aerial bombardment. He was specifically enthusiastic about its application in close conjunction with infantry and artillery.

His ruthless application of these ideas was encapsulated in what he called his ‘golden rule’ of bombing. Far from having due regard for the civilian population and avoiding collateral damage, his view was that even if cloud cover prevented the careful identification of the target, the bomber crews should drop their weapons anyway. If civilian casualties occurred that was simply a by-product of war.

Von Richthofen’s view was simple: for every bomb dropped on the civilian population or military forces, the campaign would move closer to a positive outcome. He even developed the idea of a racetrack system where wave after wave of bombers would hit the same target relentlessly. Those that had dropped their payload would be returning to base to refuel and rearm while the next wave was inbound to the target. This tactic was simply designed to wear down the will of the defenders and to give them no respite.

It is a measure of the ad hoc nature of the approach that little thought was ever given to fitting the Ju 52 transports that were used as bombers with a bomb-aiming system. Once over the target area the air-crew were to release their bombs and then fly back to their bases to rearm. This was not in any way a sophisticated application of air power. What took place on 26 April 1937 at Guernica was to send a warning to anyone harbouring any doubts about what was to happen on the mainland of Europe.

The attack on Guernica was ordered by Von Richthofen. It was to be called Operation Rügen. The raid would be led by four He 111 aircraft supported by all three squadrons of Ju 52s, a total of twenty-three bombers. The bombers would be armed with a mix of high explosives and incendiaries. The total payload carried was 50 tons. They would be supported by Bf 109 aircraft which would also conduct strafing runs over the target area. After the raid Von Richthofen visited the town and noted that the bridge which had been the target for the raid remained intact. The rest of the town of Guernica, however, lay in ruins. The picture of the same name painted at the time by Pablo Picasso still conveys the horrors of what happened inside the town.

While Von Richthofen regarded the attack as a success, many media outlets quickly portrayed it as something very different. This was something akin to genocide. The newspapers were quick to highlight the importance of Guernica from a historical viewpoint to the Basque nation. It was the home of the ‘Holy Oak’, a symbol of the Basque nation. The town, the media ventured, had been singled out because of its importance to the Basques. Eye-witnesses at the time noted the indiscriminate nature of the attacks. Von Richthofen’s ‘golden rule’ was applied to the letter.

The strafing attacks that followed up the bombing were equally indiscriminate, killing women and children in the market place. Sadly the day selected for the attack was market day. While initial estimates of the dead ranged from 500 to over 1,600, subsequent analysis showed that 300 had died on that fateful day. This, however, was only the starter. The main course was yet to come.

When blitzkrieg was unleashed on the ill-prepared people and military of Poland in 1939 it followed the same genre of applying air power which had occurred in the Spanish Civil War. And on 14 May 1940, a little over three years after Guernica, the Luftwaffe carried out a major attack on the port of Rotterdam. This had by now been labelled by some military writers as terror-bombing; for the German high command it was a strategic target that needed to be seized.

Pictures published after the raid show the scale of destruction. Only the St Lawrence Church remains standing in an area flattened by the bombing. It remained as the only surviving building that was reminiscent of Rotterdam’s medieval architecture. The attack had been personally authorized by Adolf Hitler in his directive ‘Weisung Nr. 11’. Impatient at the lack of military progress his directive called for the Luftwaffe to ‘facilitate the rapid fall of the Fortress Holland’.

General Schmidt was tasked with achieving this success and planned a combined assault on the area on 14 May. He requested air support to his scheme of ground manoeuvre. His request for a precise attack was changed by the Luftwaffe high command in Luftflotte 2. Instead of getting a Gruppe of twenty-five aircraft he was allocated Heinkel He 111 bombers which conducted carpet bombing raids over the target area. Realizing the situation, General Schmidt tried to persuade the Dutch commander of the city, Colonel Scharroo, to surrender. He felt that a raid of this size may persuade the Dutch to stand aside. Scharroo refused the offer and tried to draw out negotiations.

The time for the air-raid had originally been set for just after 13:00 Dutch time. Sensing the Dutch would soon capitulate, General Schmidt agreed to postpone the ultimatum until 16:20. That decision, however, was not immediately relayed to the air command. At the allocated time ninety bombers from Kampfgeschwader 54 arrived over the city and started their bombing runs. Just too late to stop the first bombs landing on the city, a radio message got through to the flight leader who called off the attack.

However, another formation that had arrived over the city a few moments later did not receive the abort signal. Due to poor visibility over the target, flares launched by German forces on the ground to warn off the bombers were also not observed. A total of 1,150 50kg bombs and 158 250kg bombs were dropped on the residential part of the city. The uncontrollable fires created a firestorm that consumed the city.

Although detailed casualty figures have never been established it is generally agreed that 1,000 people died and 85,000 were made homeless. The situation was made worse by the nature of the buildings in the area which burned easily. In total 2.6 sq km of the city was laid waste and nearly 25,000 homes destroyed. In addition sixty-two schools, nearly 800 warehouses and twenty-four churches were also completely destroyed. For the people of the city on the verge of surrender this was a terrible price to pay for delaying tactics and poor communications in the German high command.

Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War the British had developed elements of air power to enable them to maintain their Empire but it would be difficult to describe much of what went on in the 1920s and 1930s as strategic in terms of the application of air power. Certainly maintaining the Empire was a strategic necessity at the time, but that was done using many instruments of power. Air power played a really small part. This led to a weak initial response by the British at the outbreak of war in 1939, and directly bombing citizens was simply not authorized. Target sets would remain military and industrial complexes linked to the Nazi war machine.

Within twenty-four hours of the bombing of Rotterdam all that changed. The first RAF raid on the interior of Germany took place on the night of 15–16 May 1940. This was to be the first step in what would be a long effort to demoralize and eventually defeat Nazi Germany using strategic bombing.

As the war came to a close the Americans were to try to use similar tactics over Tokyo. Aside from the famous ‘Doolittle Raid’ in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan’s geographic dominance of its region was so complete that the Americans had no foothold from which to launch any air attacks.

As the war in the Pacific turned against Japan and the Americans seized bases such as the Mariana Islands, their ability to bring the war to the people of Japan changed. Strategic bombing of Japan started in 1944. The first attacks on Tokyo began in November. The initial results appeared to have little impact. The raids conducted at altitudes of around 30,000ft did not seem to have any military value.

General Curtis LeMay changed the tactics and ordered the bombers to carry out their raids at altitudes between 4,500 and 8,000ft. He also directed that more incendiary devices should be used to take advantage of the predominantly wooden construction of Japanese homes.

As the war against mainland Japan was stepped up, LeMay received a list of thirty-three Japanese cities that needed to be attacked in order to pave the way for an invasion of Japan. In looking through the list and realizing the magnitude of the task, LeMay is reported to have observed that he thought that ‘for the first time strategic air bombardment faces a situation where its strength is proportionate to the magnitude of its task.’

He went on to say that ‘I feel that the destruction of Japan’s ability to wage war lies within the capacity of this command, provided its maximum effort is exerted unstintingly during the next six months.’ Comments like this from a senior advocate of air power are rare. LeMay understood the magnitude of the task he was being asked to fulfil. Putting thirty-three cities out of action using conventional bombing techniques is not easy. Over the coming months 6,690 B-29 sorties dropped 41,592 bombs on some of Japan’s major cities. They also conducted psychological operations, dropping millions of leaflets trying to persuade the Japanese to surrender. In total 94 sq miles of cities were flattened; fifty-six of these in Tokyo. LeMay lost 136 of his aircraft; an overall loss rate of 2 per cent.

Such was the effort put into that achievement by LeMay’s air force that one of its commands, XXI Bomber Command, ran out of incendiaries. Other issues were to dog the campaign against the cities which involved assets being taken away for other more important short-term tasking.

The first raid to follow this new focus on attacking centres of population took place in February 1945 and comprised 174 B-29 bombers. This destroyed around 1 sq mile of Tokyo. Given that today Tokyo occupies an area of over 5,000 sq miles, even this new tactic was going to take time to have an effect. A follow-up raid took place on the night of 9–10 March in what was known as Operation Meetinghouse. Of the 334 B-29s in the attack, 279 released approximately 1,700 tons of bombs resulting in the destruction of 16 sq miles of the city.

Over 100,000 people are thought to have died in the firestorm that followed. This was later revised downwards by a United States bombing survey to 88,000. This is a greater casualty level than either of the atomic bomb attacks that were to follow in August 1945. To this day the final death toll in the Tokyo firestorm is the subject of debate.

One historian, Richard Rhodes, has suggested that the death toll was close to 100,000 people but that nearly a million were injured and made homeless. Other commentators, such as Mark Selden, have suggested the actual figures could be much higher. In an article in Japan Focus Selden posits that with an average of 103,000 citizens per square mile, an estimated 1.5 million citizens could have been directly affected by the raid.

The situation was also compounded by the prevailing weather conditions which created walls of fire to block the escape of those who were fleeing the area. Its place at the top of the list of those killed in attacks on urban and built-up areas makes it the single deadliest air-raid of the Second World War. By the end of the war 50 per cent of Tokyo had been reduced to rubble.

After this attack the United States Air Force switched to raids against mainly industrial targets. On 2 April 1945 100 B-29 aircraft bombed the Nakajima aircraft factory. A day later 68 B-29s bombed the Koizumi aircraft factory, and 101 B-29 bombers returned to the Nakajima facility on 7 April.

Arguably the two nuclear attacks represent the pinnacle of the application of strategic bombing as a means of influencing the population. Within days the Japanese leadership agreed to the end of the Second World War. What had started in Rotterdam in May 1940 came to a close over Tokyo nearly five years later. In that time countless thousands of people had died. It is unlikely that any time soon historians will stop the debate on the morality of such attacks or their military effectiveness.


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