WW2 Anniversary

|   10 February 2012

Bombing Germany

German civilians living in cities like this were now legitimate targets for the British

Seventy years ago this month the British took a decision which, just before the war, they would have considered against International Law – they decided that German civilians were a legitimate target for RAF Bomber Command.

An Air Ministry directive of February 1942 authorised this new and terrible destruction: ‘The primary objective of your [ie British bomber] operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular of the industrial workers.’ It was an instruction that would lead to the indiscriminate killing of women and children in attacks like the fire-bombing of Hamburg.

There isn’t space here to debate the morals or merits of this new development in British policy – one which was driven not by an ethical discussion but a practical one. The fact was that British bombers were too inaccurate to precision bomb military targets and so were now directed against cities instead.

I’m familiar with the arguments on both sides about the legitimacy of these attacks. I’ve met former bomber pilots, Germans who suffered at their hands and discussed all the relevant issues with expert academics in this field of study, like the brilliant Professor Tami Biddle. I know enough to know that the questions around the British decision are not simple ones. But, in essence, I guess what concerns me is the question of ‘proportionality’. If you feel under threat, is it OK to do anything to survive and beat the enemy? If we could only have destroyed Nazism by bombing every school and hospital and kindergarten in Germany and killing all their children would we have? But suppose we didn’t need to do that to survive, but by killing all their children we would shorten the war by six months and save thousands of our servicemen’s lives as a consequence. Should we have done that? Is there an equation here – say a thousand German children equal one British soldier?

That’s not so fanciful an argument. After all, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who took over RAF Bomber Command in spring 1942, said three years later at the height of the destruction of Germany: ‘I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.’

Really, was he right?

2 Responses to “Bombing Germany”

  1. jeffwilliamswriter says:

    This issue came under debate in Canada in 1992 after the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired a three-part mini-series titled ‘The Valour and the Horror.’ The first part concerned Canadian troops in Hong Kong and the last part concerned the battle for Normandy. It was the second part, titled ‘Death by Moonlight: Bomber Command,’ that created a storm of controversy by claiming that Bomber Command (which included many Canadian airmen) deliberately targetted civilians and was responsible for the deaths of 600,000 German old men, women and children. Protests from war veterans prompted questions in the Senate (Canadian equivalent of the House of Lords) and the series was not aired again.

  2. charma1g says:

    @jeffwilliams: the Valour and the Horror was a modernist anti war attack on WWII, and was quite rightly attacked by War Veterans.

    As to the bombing of German cities, well, it was a useful ‘third’ front, one that the West could maintain, as Russia was bearing the brunt of the German armies attack. In fact, Overy has pointed out that carpet bombing of cities was a decision reached by Churchill and Stalin, PRIOR to Bomber Harris’ taking over Bomber Command. The result was that thousands of cannons that were intended for the eastern front were kept within Germany as anti-aircraft weapons.