We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

Bombing on the Western Front

LAURENCE REES: To what extent - if any - should we consider the actions of the Allied decision makers who authorised the bombing of Germany and France reprehensible?

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: We can consider them reprehensible from the perspective of the 21st Century. If those actions happened today we would consider them reprehensible, but we live in a very different moral, political and military universe than the leaders and the soldiers of 1944 and 1945 did. At the end of the day the historian is really not seeking to pass moral judgments, and I think its really important that as tempting as that is as citizens and as intelligent people who simply want to understand the past, we have to avoid that temptation to constantly say it was wrong that they bombed these cities. It probably was wrong and war is wrong but that doesn’t help us answer the question: why? What explains the intense saturation bombing of the Western German cities over a very long, prolonged period of time, not in support of one particular military operation like in D Day, but over the period of 2 and a half to 3 years? To answer the question we have to go back to the technology and see how the technology increased so that the American liberators could carry heavier and heavier pay loads further and further into Germany.

We have to understand, again putting this into context, that the nature of the war itself and the nature of the German regime so clouded the judgment of military leaders that they felt they were justified in using extraordinary violence against this foul beast regime, just as they would do when they had the opportunity in Japan in 1945. We have to realise, and again put it into context, that Britain had suffered under German bombing. 60,000 Britons died under a hail of bombs from the Germans and if the Germans had been able to carry that operation further and deeper with the same kind of effectiveness they surely would have done so. So all of these things help us to understand how rational, decent men in command of the allied forces in 1943-45, and particularly in the Spring of 1945 when the bombing was at its worst, could have concluded that the mass aerial assault upon heavily inhabited, densely inhabited cities in Western German could have been militarily justified.

We now know and we actually knew quite soon after the war that militarily the bombing of those cities was not terribly effective. It had an impact to some degree on morale and it had an impact to some degree on economic productivity, but not probably a decisive impact. We might want to conclude that the half a million or so Germans who died at the hands of American and British bombing in a sense died in vain or that their lives were wasted, and we’re free to conclude that if that’s what we want to do as citizens. But as historians I think we have to focus on the question: why did it happen? And what was the effect in the short term and long term of that bombing and leave the moral questions for the ethicists who, I think, are engaged in what the laws of war should be in respect of aerial bombing.