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Western FrontFebruary 1942

'Area' bombing

Why did the British start bombing civilians?
The RAF began the war with the policy of targeting enemy military or industrial targets. But then, early in 1942, that policy suddenly changed to embrace the deliberate destruction of civilians. Why?

Video Transcript

Commentary: In the early months of the war, this was how Allied propaganda films portrayed the work of British Bomber Command – as a careful and precise operation.

Wartime propaganda film:

- You’ll find, I think, a decent photograph of the submarine yards there. 

- You know there was a very good one taken the other night, Monty. 

- Was there? 

- A bit further along. 

- This is the one. 

- That’s it, those are the submarine yards, just there. 

- Well chaps, this is your target for tonight. It’s the submarine and ship-building yards at Bremen. It’s a vitally important target, and it’s got to be hit hard.

Commentary: Before the war the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and the American President, Franklin Roosevelt, had made it plain that they felt the deliberate bombing of civilians was against the law. Roosevelt went so far as to call it ‘inhuman barbarism’. So these British bomber crews were ordered to attack only legitimate military targets. 

Wartime propaganda film: I got a bulls-eye with the last one.

Commentary: But in 1941 the Allied leadership learnt surprising news about this strategy of Bomber Command.  

Professor Tami Biddle: They do a very thorough photo reconnaissance evaluation in the summer of 1941, and what they discover is pretty horrifying. It says, basically, about one in five bombers is getting within five miles of its target. And that just sets everybody back on their heels. I mean, some people in Bomber Command just can’t believe it. When Winston Churchill is told he’s distraught. He really is. He’s completely distraught because he thinks: ‘God, I’ve invested a lot in this tool. I argued in 1940 that we should continue the war and that one of the reasons should be because we have this instrument - Bomber Command. And part of the war effort, a big part of the war effort, is going to rest on their shoulders and now I’m being told that this is what they’re actually achieving?’ What they decide is: ‘God, if this is the best we’re doing the only real choice we have is to fly to and hit targets that we can actually find. And the only targets that we can reliably find, night after night with average crews, are big conurbations - cities.’

Commentary: And so the task of British bomber crews, who operated from bases like this, suddenly changed. As an Air Ministry directive of February 1942 put it, ‘The primary objective of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular of the industrial workers.’ It was an instruction which, before the war, the British government would have considered against international law. The decision to start bombing cities coincided, a few weeks later, with the appointment of Arthur Harris as the head of Bomber Command. 

Professor Tami Biddle: Arthur Harris believed that everything that is important to a modern industrial state is concentrated in its cities. And what he needed to do was systematically go down the list of every German city and devastate it. And by the time he got eighty per cent of the way down the list the Germans would give up. He was absolutely convinced of this.

Wartime archive narration: From more than forty aerodromes 800 giant bombers - Wellingtons, Liberators, Lancasters, Forts - take off to complete the destruction of the vital Nazi seaport. Again the signal ‘on target’. And the city of Hamburg is fired by more bombs than fell on London in the eleven worst months of the Nazi air attacks.

Commentary: This was the destruction of Hamburg in the summer of 1943 – codenamed Operation Gomorrah. Around 50,000 Germans died, the vast majority of them civilians. All now part of deliberate British bombing policy.