This essay will discuss the subject matter of the allied bomber campaign over Nazi Germany and examine to what extent it can be morally and strategically justified. The essay will cover the period between 1940 and 1945 but will focus mainly on the duration of Arthur Harris’s reign as head of Bomber Command. The first part of the essay will highlight the case for and against the strategic achievements of the bomber campaign and will assess its contribution to the war in Western Europe. Secondly this essay will look at the moral justification and will attempt to highlight some of the attitudes of people at the time whilst utilising several modern sources to emphasise the difference of perspectives.
Bomber Commands objective for the Second World War was to bring about the eventual defeat of the Axis armed forces, they did this through starving them of economic resources and undermining national morale. (Overy 12:1980) The issue of how much the strategic bombing contributed to the fall of Germany has been a contentious topic over the years and will no doubt continue to be for some time to come. Initially the bomber offensive had many problems, not least of which was the technological failings that were unable to match the doctrine. The Butt Report was the culmination of a study of 600 operational photos taken by photo reconnaissance aircraft and was released in August 1941, its statistical information was shocking. It showed that of 100 bombers setting out on an operation, many never found the target and of those attacking that the target, on average only one-third placed their bombs within 5 miles of the target. In the varying weather conditions over North West Europe, the number of bombers finding the target was only one in ten and on moonless nights, only one bomber in 15 found the target. (http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/ww ... eport.aspx
However damming this report was, Bomber Command had to continue to operate as best they could because if they did not, they probably would not have existed past 1941 (Source). The war in the East was going badly for the Soviets and Stalin was continually calling on Churchill to open a second front. After the fall of Tobruk Stalin became enraged and called the British cowards and if not for Churchill offering to bomb urban centres in an attempt to relieve pressure then things may have become very dire between these ‘allies of a kind’(Overy 107:1995). Area bombing in reality was all the RAF was operationally capable of and so it gave Britain the only means of striking back and showing the rest of the world that she had not given up the fight just yet (Gooch 168:1995).
As the bombing campaign over Germany intensified and the war pressed on, the arrival of Albert Speer heralded a revival in the German economy. Prior to the war Germany was assumed to have been operating at wartime production, however this was not the case and did not fully hit wartime production until the arrival of Speer. This of course has coloured some of the assessments of the strategic bomber campaign over Germany. Max Hastings points out that German industrial production did not reduce under the bombing campaign and in fact increased in places, however it seems Hastings’ assessment is based on that very assumption (Hastings 226:1999). It would be hard to judge what levels German production could have reached if not under the daily stress of the bomber campaign, however it would be prudent to assume it would have been considerably higher than the actual figures. There has also been debates put forward from several historians that criticise the resources dedicated to the bomber campaign, this has been followed by suggestions that the resources could have been put into other areas of development. However as John Buckley points out, only 12% of allied resources were designated as such (Buckley 166:1999), this of course suggests that the bombing campaign was actually far more efficient than some theorists give it credit.
The strategic bombing campaign became a huge drain on German resources, manpower and technology. Robin Neillands points out that Germany designated 8,876 88 mm flak guns (75% of the total 88’s produced. Overy 129:1995), 25,000 20/30mm flak cannons, 900,000 men to man those guns and a further 1 million to be used for clean up duty after bombings (Neillands 384-385:2004). This of course asks the question, what impact would those 88’s and excess men have had on the Eastern front? There is also some suggestion that Germany’s commitment to air defence severely hampered their technological improvements and technical output sapping vital resources. Statistically the air defence of Germany required 30% of total gun output, 20% of heavy ammunition production, 50% electronics technology production and 33% optical industry output (Overy 122-123:1980).
The development of the P-47 and P-51 into long-range escort fighters proved to be a revolutionary move and gave the bomber campaign the initiative in the war. The long-range fighter was an integral operational requirement for continuing the bomber offensive over Germany in 1944-1945. The bombers flying over Germany attracted the defensive fighters of the Luftwaffe who attempted to intercept them, however with the new escorts these were soon dispatched. The subsequent raids led to serious attrition rates on German pilots and aircraft. This resulted in only 300 German aircraft available to defend North West Europe on June 6th 1944, compared with the allied air force of 12,000 aircraft. The allies had achieved what Hitler had sought over Britain in 1940-1941, air superiority. This could be the most important achievement of the bombing campaign as “air superiority is a necessity…since the German attack on Poland no country has won a war in the face of enemy air superiority”(Warden 10:2000). This of course was not directly attributable to the bomber campaign it did however come as a consequence of it and as such should be included as part of the discussion, although Max Hastings does not see it as such. Hastings attributes the loss of air superiority to technical failures at home and defeat in the air, this perhaps neglects some important information (Hastings 231:1999). Firstly the long-range escort was developed because of operational requirements in the ETO and secondly German fighters would not have been tempted into the air if not for the bombers. In fact Goerring had purposely told his Luftwaffe not to engage allied fighters if they could help it (Buckley Air Power class lecture).
The second part of the directive from Bomber Command was the targeting and destruction of civilian morale, this was done in the hopes that it would decrease production and instil rebellion in the people. This more than any other part of the war was difficult to quantify success or failure. There had been some precedent that Bomber Command should have perhaps taken notice of, that of the ‘Blitz’. British morale did not break during the ‘Blitz’ and in fact the bombing brought people closer together. The reasoning that has been given for Bomber Commands reluctance to heed this warning seems to have been based on the assumption that the British were made of stronger moral fibre than the Germanic peoples. Air Vice Marshall John Slessor defended the logic behind targeting the German morale when he said “The strength of a chain is in its weakest links, Germanys’ weak link is the morale of its people”(Gooch 117:1995). Initially these morale attacks were used because operationally the RAF was capable of little else however as the war went on morale bombing did take a back seat in favour of economic targets. Morale bombing does have its weaknesses, perhaps the biggest of which is that when people no longer have anything to lose they will fight fanatically (Overy 119:1980). Statistically there has been evidence to suggest that morale bombing did have an effect on the German people, Richard Overy points out that absenteeism in the heavily bombed Ruhr area reached as high as 25% (Overy in Townsend 275:2000). Overy seems to be one of the few historians that is actually able to put some form of figure on the morale effect of bombing, some seem far too dismissive and instead just state that it did not work. Although Overy seems to be in favour of morale bombing he also points out that even though “demoralisation occurred, it was never expressed as had been predicted by air planners…apathy, fear and despair not revolution” (Overy in Townsend 275:2000). So perhaps the morale bombing did have an effect on Germany, but not in the way envisaged in the inter war period.
The most controversial part of this debate is the moral implications of bombing urban centres and the implications wrought from such as task. Whatever the implications of such actions there can be no doubt that there was sufficient provocation by the Nazi regime to warrant such a campaign, both in hindsight and when viewed at the time. The idea that bombing was morally wrong could be seen to be based around the idea that Western Democracies should “maintain their liberal decency’ in their conduct of the war (Overy 295:1995). World War Two like the war in 1914-18 was part of the ‘Total War’ theory and as such several conclusions can be drawn that are associated with that idea. John Buckley points out that the problem with ‘Total War’ is that it blurs the edges of distinction between civilians and military (Buckley 05:1999), he also goes on to point out that the civilians (as has been proven earlier) were far from undefended. This coupled with the fact that only industrial cities were targeted (Middlebrook 344:2000) perhaps puts a different perspective on things. The industrial workers were of course responsible for supplying German troops with the materials they needed to fight and as such this makes them targets in their own right. Thus by killing civilian workers they have in fact denied the German soldiers the means with which to fight and kill the enemy.
The Luftwaffe’s previous actions in the bombing of Warsaw, Rotterdam, Belgrade, Coventry, London, Liverpool and the continuing ‘vengeance’ weapon attacks on Antwerp and London gave the allies as much justification as was needed at the time. Although there was a minority that disagreed (most of the British public wanted the Germans punished) with the moral aspect of targeting civilian populations, such as George Bell the Bishop of Chichester. Some argue that the means justifies the ends and that by shortening the war by even days or weeks it actually saved more lives than it had taken. If we are to take it that bombing is morally wrong then it would not be too much of a stretch to say that war is also morally wrong, this of course provides a dilemma. If war is wrong and should not be fought then what would have happened in 1939? The reality is, war is wrong, but on occasions you must be prepared to go to war and use whatever means necessary to win the war as quickly as possible. The majority of criticism levelled at the bomber campaign and Arthur Harris in particular, seem to be written in hindsight and in this perhaps the weakness of the argument comes. If the bomber campaign is to be morally judged on the principles and ethics of modern society then it begs the question how would the Nazi regime and its ‘willing executioners’ stand up? The answer of course would be, it would not and there lies the justification.
In conclusion and with the evidence provided it is clear that it is possible to fully justify both morally and strategically the bomber campaign over Germany. The bombing campaign had its flaws and was by no means perfect, it did however serve a vital purpose especially in the early years of the war. The bombing did a lot to reaffirm the UK’s stance against the Nazi machine and also to prove her commitment to the Soviet Union. Strategically, by directly sapping valuable resources and indirectly by securing air superiority it is clear that bomber command made a valuable contribution to the success of the allied forces in Europe. The only criticism that should be levelled at the campaign is that of the moral case, however as has been shown in this essay there is more than enough evidence to support the case for urban bombing. This is perhaps the luxury that is afforded to us by the sacrifice of those who fought in WW2, that we are able to judge their actions with our Liberal-Democratic Western values that they fought to uphold. In war it is hard to pass a moral judgement over the actions of the men and women involved, particularly during the period of ‘Total War’. The lines of distinction between soldier and civilian were blurred, of this there can be no doubt. However on the scale of civilian deaths during World War Two, Germany perhaps came off far lighter than some.
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