The Myths Behind the Allied Bombing Campaigns of WWII

John Glaser, March 25, 2014

In the New York Times, Ben Macintyre reviews the new book by Richard Overy The Bombers and the Bombed. Macintyre gives a summary of Overy’s myth-busting about the Allied bombing of Germany. Indiscriminate bombing of civilians, instead of sticking to military targets, is usually defended as (1) a response to similarly indiscriminate bombing campaigns by the Germans, like in the Blitz, and (2) the only way to completely bring down the Nazi regime.

Lancaster_I_NG128_Dropping_Blockbuster_-_Duisburg_-_Oct_14,_1944“Overy demonstrates, however, that the tactic of bombing urban areas had been put into action by the British before the Blitz,” Macintyre reports. And as for the second justification:

[T]hough the devastation left ordinary Germans demoralized, exhausted and frightened, the bombs did not provoke internal collapse or social implosion; the German people were not bombed into revolution. In the cruellest irony, the hardship and terror may even have solidified the Nazis’ grip on the populace: “The effect of the bombing was not, in the end, as the Allies hoped, to drive a wedge between people and regime, but the opposite, to increase dependence on the state and the party.”

Of course, this is by no means to say that the Allies were in the wrong while Nazi Germany was somehow better behaved. WWII was a massive conglomeration of evil acts of mass murder on all sides, and Nazi Germany was the epitome of that evil. But there is a valuable lesson in reviewing Allied war policy critically in this fashion.

The staying power of Allied propaganda has proven remarkably durable. Most people nowadays think back to WWI and frame it as a needless conflagration in which millions were used as cannon fodder for the small-minded and narrow self-interests of competing European states. Very little moral compulsion remains attached to the war effort on any side in that conflict.

WWII, however, is different. Most people still consider the Allied war effort a saintly battle for the freedom of the world. Political and military leaders of the time are still revered as heroes. Purging Europe of Nazis and fascists was, uncontroversially, a welcome result. But this shouldn’t delude us into framing the conflict as a purely Manichean, good vs. evil dichotomy, as it is so often framed in the public.

As U.S. General Curtis LeMay, commander of the Tokyo fire bombing operation, admitted, there were war criminals on all sides. “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal,” he said. “Fortunately, we were on the winning side.”

If Overy’s scholarship on this is right, and the two main moral and strategic justifications for Allied indiscriminate bombing of civilians don’t hold up to scrutiny, it may represent the beginnings of a broader understanding of WWII that is closer to the one we have about WWI, or closer to LeMay’s characterization. And that is for the better.




30 Responses to “The Myths Behind the Allied Bombing Campaigns of WWII”

  1. The US was praising Hitler (and Mussolini) as a "moderate" (and heavily investing in Germany (and Italy)), as they praise/support Al Qaeda/jihadists as moderates today, until it became far too obvious that Hitler was simply a psychopath.

  2. Ja, I guess you weren't around then. Funny thing about wars like World War II. It affects the human mindset and the human psyche. There is a gradual process of transition from a peacetime mentality to a wartime mentality. At first the British only dropped leaflets on Germany. When it was suggested they bomb Krupp some of the cabinet were horrified. "You can't do that", they said, "That's private property!" Five years later the British were burning thousands of women and children to death every night and everyone on our side thought it was a wonderful thing. Subtlety is a casualty of war. By l944 all Germans were the enemy and the more we killed the better. That is the wartime mentality, but its hard for people who weren't there to understand.

  3. There are recordings of Hitler's speeches using Britain's targeting of civilian populations as propaganda. He actually made Germany out to be the victim, waiting for many months of Britain bombing innocent people in Germany before launching the Blitz.

  4. Not being able to walk in one's shoes makes trying to make sense of an others actions more trying. However, for folks like me, two or more wrongs simply can not make a right. Thus the premeditated mass slaughters of civilians by the allies will always be a horrific stain on what might be left of their honor.

  5. The difference between the spin given to WW1 and WW2 is that the Germans lost WW2 utterly, and the Leftists, appalled at the success of their propaganda that Germany was victimised by the wicked Rightists after WW1, loudly proclaimed the evils of appeasement as part of their attempt to blame the wicked white West for WW2. The ranting about the need to fight 'Fascism' before WW2 was also, of course, part of Stalin's successful attempt to incite a war between Britain, France and Germany. One may note that the incorporation of Austria into Germany was greeted with at least as much joy as the liberation of the Crimea, as was Hitler's freeing of the Sudentenlanders from Czechoslovak domination. Of course the Danzigers hated the prospect of Polish rule so much that they insisted on being a separate city-state. Talking of Danzig, it is also obvious that it was a mistake for Britain and France to declare war on Germany in 1939. Morality and their duty to their Polish ally demanded that they declare war on Russia and Germany. One assumes that they accepted that they had no chance of defeating a combination of the two powers. However since common sense rather than common decency was allowed to prevail, they should have accepted that they could not defeat Germany by itself either. The French army (Britain's army was non-existent) was incapable of over-running Germany while it was occupied with Poland, and was in any case only organised for defensive warfare. Had they done nothing, Hitler would either:
    1. have built a golden palace and drunk himself to death, perhaps snapping up such tit-bits as Denmark and Holland in his spare time,
    2. attacked Russia, or
    3. attacked France.
    The first alternative was, unfortunately, most unlikely. (You can see that my parents didn't live in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Holland or Denmark!!)
    Had he attacked France, Britain and France would simply have been in the same position as they put themselves in by their declaration of war in 1939.
    Since Hitler was a believer in the myth of the Western Front, the probability was greater than 50% that he would attack Russia. Had he done so, no doubt Britain and France would have felt, like Kissinger, that it was a pity that both parties couldn't lose, and adopted the successful strategy used by the US in the Iran-Iraq war, of supporting the losing side until both parties to the contest gave up in despair. Of course Hitler might not have tolerated this conduct. But if he had attacked France anyway, Russia would have been the ally of Britain and France instead of Germany.
    One should also note that the purpose of the military is massacre. The only reason battles are fought is because the opposition collect the forces to make it too dangerous for the good guys to disperse to rob, rape, mutilate and murder before those forces are destroyed. It is only custom which allows the defeated to surrender before every man, woman and child in the offending country is killed. The fuss which was made over the continuation of the blockade to force the Germans to sign the peace treaty (unlike the North Koreans who are still at war), the massacre at Amritsar, and the unsuccessful attempts of the Black and Tans to suppress the Irish revolt meant that it was politically impossible for the British to just kill every man, woman and child in Germany. So offensive action before Germany had re-armed itself was impossible. Of course even the slaughter of the aerial bombardment was insufficient to persuade the Germans to give up. It was only the dread of Russia, deemed far more evil than the US and Britain, that convinced the German people to settle down and do as the allies told them.

  6. No.

    Hitler did not foresee or plan war in the west.

    The plan always was war in the east against bolshevism and Slavdom, but also because Hitler and the Nazis embraced the Geopolitical Theory of Mackinder taken to Germany by Haushofer as his guru.

  7. Yes,I'm afraid this is true. There was enormous American investment in Naz iGermany.

  8. One such important book of revisionist history is Pat Buchanan's "Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War." Once elected, Hitler set about to recapture some German territory that was lost from WWI. The people living there, mostly ethnic Germans, wanted to return to Germany. Britain would not allow it, the war guarantee was given to Poland, and the rest is history. One wonders, if the people living there were allowed a referendum, as the people of Crimea were, perhaps they would have voted to return to Germany. What affect would this have had on Hitler's psyche and WWII? Bottom line: the people of Crimea voted overwhelmingly to return to Russia. The US and the EU should respect their decision and stop this insane rhetoric. Who wants a repeat of WWII?

  9. American historical writing, as well as much of the 1940s Western allies, have created a myth about World War II. The adoration that the likes of Tom Brokaw achieved in The Greatest Generation only reflects the media image that is perpetuated. The great French resistance has come under serious questioned. From more Frenchmen carry guns for Vichy than for the Resistance to French complicity in the Holocaust, the image of Casablanca fades in the sunlight. Or the derring do of US commandos capturing secret coding machines from a Nazi sub, when it was our British cousins who actually accomplished the task. One of the biggest myths is that the Western Allies broke the Nazi army. In his recent book, Max Hastings puts that myth to rest. 90% of all German casualties inflicted came from combat with the Soviet Union. If Eisenhower and Montgomery had to face the full might of the German Army in June 1944, there would be a far different commemoration than the one planned for this summer.

  10. […] John Glaser writes for Antiwar: […]

  11. Hitler's imperial designs were always to the East. He actually admired Britain and the US. His peace efforts towards England were rebuffed. One school of thought says that the West should not have become involved. Pat Buchanan says that the war guarantee to Poland was a major blunder as Britain knew it could not back it up, thus Poland was decimated. If the West remained neutral it is unlikely that Hitler would have attacked as he wanted to just fight the Bolsheviks. Thus, there would have been a major regional war, not a world war. Communism may have fallen and there would have been no Iron Curtain or Cold War. Just conjecture but food for thought.

  12. There's an interesting point about American versus British bombing efforts in the war. In Europe, the Americans stuck to daylight precision bombing- that is to say, attempting to hit industrial targets- long after Britain had given up and gone to area terror bombing of civilians. Although many of their attacks targeting railway hubs or transport would have been hard to distinguish from area bombing, if you were the target, the AAF never did officially move to area bombing in Europe.

    Even with respect to Japan precision bombing of military targets was the policy until April of 1945, when it was decided that Japan's weather, the high winds over the targets, and the Japanese dispersal efforts meant that precision bombing was never going to work. And it was then that Curtis Lemay was brought in. He was the one who stripped all the defensive armament off the B-29s and sent them off at night at low level to incinerate all of Japan's cities.

    There is reason to give credit to the large number of American officers who persisted in the belief that targeting women and children was against the laws of war. The fact that Americans didn't do it in Europe, and waited until very late in the war to resort to it against Japan, implies that there was powerful opposition to area bombing. It's a story that hasn't been told.

  13. The article is about civilian bombing, and what do you know, the Brits started it, but …

    "Of course, this is by no means to say that the Allies were in the wrong while Nazi Germany was somehow better behaved."

    If it does not say the allies were wrong to initiate civilian bombing and that in fact Germany was better behaved, what in hell does is say?

    The fact that the author can then write, with a straight face presumably 'Nazi Germany was the epitome of that evil.' shows the effect of 60 years of incessant propaganda, totally absurd on its face, that is endlessly repeated and becomes fact that is impossible to even question.

  14. "… the people of Crimea voted overwhelmingly to return to Russia."

    The election in Crimea was framed in such a way that it was impossible to reject the transfer to Russia. It was also boycotted by the Crimean Tatars and others. As ethnic Russians are a majority in Crimea, a fair election might have had the same result, but not nearly as overwhelmingly.

  15. I have read exactly what you wrote – that the US bombing of Germany was much more restrained than that of Britain. So much for the Brits being such civilized people. However, this same restraint was lost when the US carpet bombed North Korean and Vietnamese cities, killing millions of civilians for no good reason. Did it have anything with them being, to use the word of the day, "gooks?" I doubt if the US would have done the same to any "white" country.

  16. Actually, the Poles broke the German Enigma code several times before and after Hitler's 1939 invasion of Poland. The Brits and French were given the details and copies of the Enigma machine by the Poles during the summer of 1939.

    The Poles even created a machine, La Bomba- meaning Splendid, composed of several Enigma code machines to break German coded messages.

  17. You think there would have been no war after the Nazis conquered Russia? They wanted all of Europe too. Then the West would have had to fight a far stronger foe.

  18. Since 1871 as the 2nd German Reich was build it was a felt threat for the French and the UK. Germany became very successful in a short time( even the label Made in Germany was a sign for quality and not for boycott).The economic power and the building from the Bagdad Rail with the Ottoman Empire was a threat.This was one reason for France and the UK to build the concorde encordiale at about 1900. The Russians did take part to encircle.There was no possibility to avoid the war.
    Germany did listen to the 14 points from US-President Wilson lay down its weapons.But then it was ignored and the worst nightmare came true.The Versailles treaty.In the Weimar Republic everybody was against this and how the Germans wear treated.From Communists till the National Socialists.
    Hitler wanted to conquer the eastern territory.Not the western area.But France and the UK declared on September 3rd 1939 war on Germany.It was the aim from Mr. Churchill and a special group from people around Roosevelt who want to perish Germany.Germany shouldn't be liberated. It should be destroyed and perished.Bomber Harris has had plans and intended to extinguish towns with populations over 50.000 people.Hooton- plan,Morgenthau etc.So the Germans have had no reason to surrender. The problem was to put the US into the game.The neutral US did send weapons and so on.Pearl Harbour and the circumstances around it was the entry .Why did France ,UK and the US not accept the Madagascar plan? Why they didn't let refugeees in their countries?Why there was no bombing on the track rails to the death camps? The average German at this time did take care more about his own life,from his relatives who had to go and fight on the front and to take care just simply to survive the hell.At this time an order was an order.They had to believe what their gouvernments did tell them. If we would believe it today…..
    The result for the UK and France: they did win the war and lost their Empires (remember that they did declare war on Germany ).
    Today the West is celebrating since 69 years everyday his victory and is forgetting the future.You only have to look at the demography.Until 2050 Russia is losing 20 million people.About the same amount as in the war.And in the western world it is the same.All without bombing.

  19. What the author fails to realize is that people are legitimate military targets. If the cannon barrel machine operator is not there to start the machine then there are no cannons that day. If the lowly machine oiler is not there then the machines grind to a halt. I don't know where any of you work but think if the smallest person on the totem pole is not there then what happens. We, present day society, think in terms of who the CEO is or of the building itself. It's really the people who in the course of their day get things to run are the real capability of any factory. You can get rid of the top and the factory will still run. If you take away the mechanics and the operators then the plant shuts down. If you even deprive them of sleep (round the clock bombing) then that person is not as effective as they normally would be. If they are worried about their families then they aren't as productive.

  20. Today the West is celebrating since 69 years everyday his victory and is forgetting the future.You only have to look at the demography.Until 2050 Russia is losing 20 million people.About the same amount as in the war.And in the western world it is the same.All without bombing.

  21. “During the late stages of WWII in 1945, Galbraith was invited by Paul Nitze to serve as one of the directors of the Strategic Bombing Survey, initiated by the Office of Strategic Services. It was designed to assess the results of the aerial bombardments of Nazi Germany.[26] Galbraith contributed to the survey’s unconventional conclusion about general ineffectiveness of strategic bombing in stopping the war production in Germany, which went up instead. The conclusion created a controversy, with Nitze siding with the Pentagon officials, who declared the opposite. Reluctant to modify the survey’s results, Galbraith described the willingness of public servants and institutions to bend the truth to please the Pentagon as, the Pentagonania syndrome.[27]

    27 Carroll, James. House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2006, p. 178.”

    Notice: “survey’s unconventional conclusion”

    When facts get in the way of conventional conclusions, the facts much change to fit the conventional wisdom. Thus crimes against humanity become the incidental destruction of civilian property and the killing non-combatant civilians (men, women and children.)

    Living in the U S of A one seems to be living the curse of Raskolnikov.

  22. Openheimer proposed to Marshall the sewing of German territory with plutonium. Marshall declined the offer

  23. What is unforgivable are the acts, the lies and their perpetuation that dropping two atomic bombs on cities packed with civilians would save a million American lives caused by an insane invasion.

    This was never going to happen and only the ignorant, brainwashed etc. promote such nonsense.

  24. There exists a practice known as "History Fiction" which always begins with "if".

  25. "Blitzing" did not begin in WW2 but in 1937 by Hitler's Luftwaffe on a town known as Guernica. It was meant to show the world what the Luftwaffe could do.
    Well before the Allies began their "saturation bombing" of German cities the Luftwaffe had multiplied Guernica in Poland and the Soviet Union (Warsaw, Bialystok, Brest, Minsk, Novgorod, Smolensk, Vyazma). Hitler's later complaints about "terror bombers" was the height of hypocrisy.

  26. The western bankers (big ones, like Rockefellers) financed the regime in Germany. War was and will always be in their best interest as it is the most efficient instrument of "change."

    WWII was three different evils fighting each other. Two of those evils survived and another showdown is a matter of time.

  27. Uh. No they didn't. That myth has been busted many times.

  28. Finally, some red pill thinking here. Not only that but Stalin would then have been unable to help Mao (who murdered 40-70 million). No Communism in Burma, Laos, or Vietnam. That means no Pol Pot. They should have just let Stalin and Hitler fight each other to a frazzle.

  29. "WWII was a massive conglomeration of evil acts of mass murder on all sides, and Nazi Germany was the epitome of that evil."

    Let me correct you a little. Here is how it should read:

    "WWII was a massive conglomeration of evil acts of mass murder on all sides, with the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany being the epitome of that evil."

    You seem to forget that Stalin exterminated over 20 million people before Hitler killed even one person. The West should have just let Hitler and Stalin wear each other out.

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