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Strategic bombing during World War II

Strategic bombing during World War II was greater in scale than any wartime attack the world had previously witnessed. The strategic bombing campaigns conducted by Nazi Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Empire of Japan used conventional weapons, incendiaries, and nuclear weapons.

Before the outbreak of the war, Luftwaffe General Walther Wever had advocated for the creation of a strategic bombing capability for the German armed forces, possibly in reference to Hitler's stated desire in Mein Kampf to attack the Soviet Union-General Wever advocated for the so-called Ural-Bomber project, which resulted in the design of the four engined Dornier Do 19, and the adaptation of the Junkers Ju 89, also a four-engined aircraft, as strategic bombers. Wever's death in June 1936, however, resulted in the cancellation of the Ural-Bomber concept, with Luftwaffe generals Ernst Udet and Hans Jeschonnek advocating medium bomber production instead, citing that each heavy bomber built would use up the resources to build at least two medium bombers.

The war started on 1 September 1939 with German aerial bombing of civilians in the Polish town of Wielun. From the beginning of the war the Luftwaffe engaged in massive air raids against Polish cities, bombing civilians, hospitals, and refugees. The city of Frampol was bombed by the Luftwaffe and was 90% destroyed as a form of live experiment; a similar fate befell Polish Wieluń.

The president of the United States (then a neutral power), Franklin D. Roosevelt, issued a request to the major belligerents to confine their air raids to military targets. The next day French and the British agreed to abide by the request which included the provision that "upon the understanding that these same rules of warfare will be scrupulously observed by all of their opponents". Berlin waited until the 18 September before agreeing to the request.

The United Kingdom had a policy of using aerial bombing only against military targets and against infrastructure such as ports and railways which were of direct military importance. Whilst it was acknowledged that the aerial bombing of Germany would cause civilian casualties, the British government renounced the deliberate bombing of civilian property, outside combat zones, as a military tactic. This policy was abandoned on 15 May 1940, two days after the Rotterdam Blitz , when the RAF was given permission to attack targets in the Ruhr, including oil plants and other civilian industrial targets which aided the German war effort, such as blast furnaces which at night were self-illuminating. The first RAF raid on the interior of Germany took place on the night of 15 May16 May. Britain tried to protect France from German attack by drawing German air resources away. The effect of these bombings were terror, although it had not been their initial purpose. Germany started bombing targets on the British mainland six weeks after the victory in France.

On 24 August, 1940, German aircraft over London dropped bombs in the east and north east of the city causing widespread devastation and severe civilian casualties. A period of reciprocal retaliation began, mainly focused on industrial areas. The Germans never developed a fleet of heavy strategic bombers and after the start of German invasion of the Soviet Union most Luftwaffe bomber fleets were used to support the German army's efforts on the Eastern Front. Although the raids in support of the army were tactical ones, Soviet civilian casualties in Luftwaffe raids on cities that the Germans intended to capture could be very high.

On 14 February , 1942, Directive No. 22 was issued to bomber command. Bombing was to be "focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular of the industrial workers." Factories were no longer targets.

In February 1942, the British abandoned attempts at strategic precision bombing and with the issuing of the area bombing directive to the RAF, put most of their strategic bombing efforts into night time area bombardment and the "dehousing" of the German workforce. This strategy remained in place until the last month of the war in Europe, but as the electronic technology used to find targets improved later directives put more emphasis on the strategic precision bombing of targets such as oil, communications, U-boat, tank and aircraft factories, confining dehousing to raids when the weather made the primary targets hard to destroy.

The United States Government entered the war intending to use strategic daylight precision bombing, which was used with mixed success in Europe and never officially abandoned as a policy. But the weather over Germany, particularly in the winter months, often caused primary targets to be obscured by cloud, in such instances the USAAF's secondary targets were often located in city centres and bombed using imprecise bombing methods such as H2X radar. For example on 15 February 1945 the centre of Dresden was bombed using H2X because the primary target, the synthetic oil plant near Leipzig, was obscured by cloud. When the USAAF anticipated cloudy conditions over the target they frequently used a mix of high explosive and incendiaries bombs that were closer to the RAF city busting mix than that usually used for precision attacks. Over Japan, because of the jetstream, strategic precision bombing proved to be impractical and the United States abandoned the policy in favour of a policy of area bombardment.

In World War II, strategic aerial bombardment claimed the lives of over 160,000 Allied airmen in the European theatre, 60,595 British civilians and between 305,000 and 600,000 German civilians, while American precision bombing, fire bombing and atomic bombing in Japan killed between 330,000 and 500,000 Japanese civilians.


The September Campaign

From the beginning of the war the Luftwaffe engaged in massive air raids against Polish cities, bombing civilians, hospitals, and refugees. Cities like Warsaw, Wieluń, Frampol and many others were devastated by indiscriminate German air bombardments, often targeting civilians. In the case of Frampol, the city was destroyed as a test case to determine the effects and accuracy of bombardment.

The first bombs released on Germany during World War II were dropped by a single Polish PZL.23 Karaś of the 21st squadron on a factory in the Silesian town of Ohlau, today Olawa. Even though the Polish Air Force had a small fleet of modern medium-range bombers such as the PZL.37 Łoś, before the full scale of German war atrocities became known, Polish officers were reluctant to order strategic bombardment of targets in Germany for humanitarian reasons. Shortly after, in a period of a few days, Luftwaffe numerical and technological superiority took its toll on the Polish Air Force and such operations were impossible.

Rotterdam Blitz

During German bombing of Rotterdam 800 to 900 people were killed and 80,000 made homeless. Around 2.6 square kilometres (1 square mile) of the city was almost levelled. 24,978 homes, 24 churches, 2,320 stores, 775 warehouses and 62 schools were destroyed.

The German attack (The Blitz)

The British had been deeply psychologically affected by the German strategic bombing campaign of World War I. It was the first time in hundreds of years that London had been successfully attacked by an enemy. In the interwar years, British calculations of the likely effect of a strategic bombing from the data gathered during the German campaign suggested a strategic attack on an enemy's cities using the latest generation of bombers would knock an enemy out of the war without the need for the stalemate of trench warfare. In addition, it was widely believed there was no defense against bombers (hence the famous statement by Sir Stanley Baldwin that "the bomber will always get through.") This, and the fact British bombers lacked the range and numbers to inflict a telling blow on Germany, had been important factors in the British adoption of appeasement of Adolf Hitler during the 1930s. The destruction to London from a strategic bombing campaign using conventional bombs and poison gas was expected to be catastrophic.

When the war broke out in 1939, Britain's RAF had just 488 bombers of all kinds , mostly obsolete, with only about 60 of the capable new Vickers Wellington: many of the remainder had insufficient range to reach the Ruhr (let alone Berlin), had negligible defensive armament, and could not carry a useful payload. In any case, there were no effective bomb sights, very few bombs of a size that could cause significant damage, and even such obvious things as maps of Europe for navigating to and from the target were in very short supply. Furthermore, the sheer difficulty of navigating, by night, long distances to accurately attack small targets was severely underestimated.

Germany, in contrast, had abandoned plans to produce strategic bombers. With German technical resources already hard pressed to supply other needs, with Luftwaffe doctrine geared to close support of the army, and with the benefit of practical experience in Spain, German planners focused on tactical bombers to act as airborne artillery for the army, and fighters to protect them. When the fighting for Western Europe began in earnest, all three major powers (Britain, Germany and France) concentrated on daylight tactical bombing. German Stukas and medium bombers were highly effective in the military support role; the Armee de l'Air, torn by political intra-service conflict and a lack of logistical preparation, was largely unable to employ its large numbers of modern aircraft; and the British found bravery was no substitute for proper training, doctrine, and equipment—British bomber losses in the defense of France were catastrophic, and the results negligible. In that first year of the war, strategic bombing was almost forgotten. It was in a sense, however, the calm before the storm.

Due to mounting losses sustained in the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe began to use increasing numbers of bombers at night. In the week beginning 12 August 1940 the Luftwaffe flew less than a quarter of their bomber sorties at night, by the last week of August over half were flown at night. On 19 August Hermann Göring ordered a large night attack on Liverpool, and told his commanders they were free to decide on any targets apart from London and Liverpool. Despite this, London had already been bombed, over 60 civilians being killed in Croydon on 15 August. There were further minor attacks on London at night in August, on the 18/19, 22/23, 24/25, 25/26 and 28/29. It was in light of these attacks, and the heavier German bombing of other British cities that killed over 1,000 civilians in August, that RAF Bomber Command mounted its first raid on Berlin on the 25/26 August, with targets including Tempelhof airfield and the Siemens factories in Siemenstadt. This was politically embarrassing for Göring as he had boasted of the Luftwaffe ability to protect major German cities. Under pressure from his senior commanders, notably Kesselring, and believing the RAF to be much weaker than it was, Goering ordered the focus of the Luftwaffe campaign to switch to London, in the hope that the "last remaining" RAF fighters would be drawn in to a larger battle which the Luftwaffe could win with superior numbers. The heavy attacks on London began on 7 September, with more than 300 bombers in the afternoon, and another 250 in the night. By the morning of the 8 September, 430 Londoners had been killed. The Luftwaffe issued a press notice announcing they had dropped more than 1,000,000 kilograms of bombs on London in 24 hours. Many other British cities were hit in the nine month Blitz, including Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Belfast, Cardiff, Kingston upon Hull and Coventry. The given aim was strategic—to destroy ports and industrial installations—but there is no room to doubt destroying the will of ordinary people to fight was a major factor, perhaps the major factor.

Gradually, in the face of heavy losses to fighters, the Luftwaffe resorted to night bombing. Targeting had been a problem in daylight; by night, it was basically impossible, with accuracy being approximately "one city". British civilian casualties were heavy. The expected collapse in civilian morale, however, did not eventuate; indeed, it is widely believed the bombings had the opposite effect.

Over the next year, an escalating war of electronic technology developed. German scientists improvised a series of radio navigation aids to help their navigators find targets in the dark and through overcast, while the British raced to develop countermeasures (most notably airborne radar, as well as highly effective deceptive beacons and jammers).

Despite causing a great deal of damage and sorely trying the civilian population, the defenses gradually became more formidable, and the need to divert as many squadrons as possible to the Eastern Front saw the Blitz gradually fade away into mere nuisance raids.

The British response

Britain started the night strategic bombing campaign, which built up from Bomber Command's tiny beginnings in 1940 to truly massive strength by the end of the war.

According to James M. Spaight, the principal Assistant Secretary of the Air Ministry and an author of several books on bombing, the strategic bombing was started by the British, and:

"It was a splendid decision. When Churchill began to bomb Germany, he knew that the Germans did not want a bombing war. Their air force, unlike that of the British, was not made for heavy bombs. Churchill went on bombing, even though he knew that reprisals were unavoidable."

Spaight not only calls the May 1940 decision to start strategic bombing "splendid", he also calls it "heroic".

The purpose of the British strategic bombing campaign became to break the morale of Nazi Germany and force its surrender.

The first deliberate "terror bombing" German targets was the December 16, 1940 bombing of Mannheim.

On 14 February, 1942, Directive No. 22 was issued to bomber command. Bombing was to be "focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular of the industrial workers." Factories were no longer targets.

The effects of strategic bombing were very poorly understood at the time and grossly overrated. Particularly in the first two years of the campaign, few understood just how little damage was caused and how rapidly the Germans were able to replace lost production—despite the obvious lessons to be learned from the United Kingdom's own survival of the blitz.

Mid-way through the air war, it slowly began to be realized the campaign was having very little effect. Despite an ever-increasing tonnage of bombs dispatched, the inaccuracy of delivery was such any bomb falling within five miles of the target was deemed a "hit" for statistical purposes, and even by this standard, as the Butt Report made clear many bombs missed. Indeed sometimes in post raid assessment the Germans could not decide which town (not the installation in the town) had been the intended target because the scattering of bomb craters was so wide.

These problems were dealt with in two ways: first the precision targeting of vital facilities (ball-bearing production in particular) was abandoned in favour of "area bombing" – This change of policy was agreed by the Cabinet in 1941 and in early 1942 a new directive was issued and Air Marshal Arthur Harris (commonly known as "Bomber" Harris) was appointed to carry out the task – second as the campaign developed, improvements in the accuracy of the RAF raids were joined by better crew training, electronic aids, and new tactics such as the creation of a "pathfinder" force to mark targets for the main force.

"Bomber" Harris, who ran the bombing campaign, said "for want of a rapier, a bludgeon was used". He felt that as much as it would be far more desirable to deliver effective pin-point attacks, as the capacity to do so simply did not exist, and since it was war, it was necessary to attack with whatever was at hand. He accepted area bombing, knowing it would kill civilians, because it was a choice of area bombing or no bombing at all, and area bombing would mean dropping large quantities of bombs into an area full of activities and industries being harnessed for the German war effort.

During the first few months of the area bombing campaign, an internal debate within the British government about the most effective use of the nation's limited resources in waging war on Germany continued. Should the Royal Air Force (RAF) be scaled back to allow more resources to go to the British Army and Royal Navy or should the strategic bombing option be followed and expanded? An influential paper was presented to support the bombing campaign by Professor F.W. Lindemann, the British government's leading scientific adviser, justifying the use of area bombing to "dehouse" the German workforce as the most effective way of reducing their morale and affecting enemy war production.

Mr. Justice Singleton, a High Court Judge, was asked by the Cabinet to look into the competing points of view. In his report, that was delivered on 20 May 1942, he concluded that "If Russia can hold Germany on land I doubt whether Germany will stand 12 or 18 months’ continuous, intensified and increased bombing, affecting, as it must, her war production, her power of resistance, her industries and her will to resist (by which I mean morale)". In the end, thanks in part to the dehousing paper, it was this view which prevailed and Bomber Command would remain an important component of the British war effort up to the end of World War II. A very large proportion of the industrial production of the United Kingdom was harnessed to the task of creating a vast fleet of heavy bombers—so much so other vital areas of war production were under-resourced. Until 1944, the effect on German production was remarkably small and raised doubts whether it was wise to divert so much effort – the response being there was no where else the effort could have been applied to greater effect.

The disruption of the German transportation system was extensive. Despite German efforts to minimize loss of industrial productivity through dispersal of production facilities, as well as the extensive use of slave labour, the Nazi regime experienced a decline in the ability to supply materiel. Furthermore, the Luftwaffe had been significantly weakened in the course of their defensive efforts so that by mid 1944, the Allies experienced day-time air dominance for the balance of the war, which would be critical to the Allied success in the Normandy Campaign and subsequent operations to the end of the war.

US bombing in Europe

In mid 1942, the United States Army Air Forces arrived in the UK and carried out a few raids. In January 1943, at the Casablanca Conference, it was agreed that RAF Bomber Command operations against Germany would be reinforced by the USAAF in a Combined Operations Offensive plan called Operation Pointblank. MRAF Sir C Portal was charged with the "strategic direction" of both British and American bomber operations. The text of the Casablanca directive read: "Your primary object will be the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.", At the beginning of the combined strategic bombing offensive on 4 March, 1943 669 RAF and 303 USAAF heavy bombers were available.

In Europe, the American Eighth Air Force conducted its raids in daylight and their heavy bombers carried smaller payloads than British aircraft in part because of their heavier (as needed) defensive armament. USAAF leaders firmly held to the claim of "precision" bombing of military targets for much of the war, and energetically refuted claims that they were simply bombing cities. In reality, the day bombing was "precision bombing" only in the sense that most bombs fell somewhere near a specific designated target such as a railway yard. Conventionally, the air forces designated as "the target area" a circle having a radius of 1000 feet around the aiming point of attack. While accuracy improved during the war, Survey studies show that, in the over-all, only about 20% of the bombs aimed at precision targets fell within this target area. .In the fall of 1944, only seven per cent of all bombs dropped by the Eighth Air Force hit within 1,000 feet of their aim point.

Nevertheless, the sheer tonnage of explosive delivered by day and by night was eventually sufficient to cause widespread damage, and, more importantly from a military point of view, forced Germany to divert resources to counter it. This was to be the real significance of the Allied strategic bombing campaign—resource allocation.

U.S. operations began with 'Pointblank' attacks, designed to eliminate key features of the German economy. These attacks manifested themselves in the infamous Schweinfurt raids. Formations of unescorted bombers were no match for German fighters, which inflicted a deadly toll. In despair, the Eighth halted air operations over Germany until a long-range fighter could be found; it proved to be the P-51 Mustang, which had the range to fly to Berlin and back.

With the arrival of the brand-new Fifteenth Air Force, based in Italy, command of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe was consolidated into the United States Strategic Air Forces (USSTAF). With the addition of the Mustang to its strength, the Combined Bomber Offensive was resumed. Planners targeted the Luftwaffe in an operation known as 'Big Week' (20 February - 25 February 1944) and succeeded brilliantly - losses were so heavy German planners were forced into a hasty dispersal of industry and the day fighter arm never fully recovered.

On 27 March, 1944, the Combined Chiefs of Staff issued orders granting control of all the Allied air forces in Europe, including strategic bombers, to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, who delegated command to his deputy in SHAEF Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder. There was resistance to this order from some senior figures, including Winston Churchill, Harris, and Carl Spaatz, but after some debate, control passed to SHAEF on 1 April 1944. When the Combined Bomber Offensive officially ended on 1 April, Allied airmen were well on the way to achieving air superiority over all of Europe. While they continued some strategic bombing, the USAAF along with the RAF turned their attention to the tactical air battle in support of the Normandy Invasion. It was not until the middle of September that the strategic bombing campaign of Germany again became the priority for the USSTAF.

The twin campaigns—the USAAF by day, the RAF by night—built up into massive bombing of German industrial areas, notably the Ruhr, followed by attacks directly on cities such as Hamburg, Kassel, Pforzheim, Mainz and the often-criticized bombing of Dresden.


Strategic bombing has been criticized on practical grounds because it does not always work predictably. The radical changes it forces on a targeted population can backfire, including the counterproductive result of freeing inessential labourers to fill worker shortages in war industries.

Much of the doubt about the effectiveness of the bomber war comes from the oft-stated fact that German industrial production increased throughout the war. While this is true, it fails to note production also increased in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, Canada and Australia. And, in all of those countries, the rate of production increased much more rapidly than in Germany. Until late in the war, industry had not been geared for war and German factory workers only worked a single shift. Simply by going to three shifts, production could have been tripled with no change to the infrastructure. However, attacks on the infrastructure were taking place. The attacks on Germany's canals and railroads made transportation of materiel difficult.

The attack on oil production, oil refineries and tank farms was, however, extremely successful and made a very large contribution to the general collapse of Germany in 1945. In the event, the bombing of oil facilities became Albert Speer's main concern; however, this occurred sufficiently late in the war that Germany would soon be defeated in any case. Nevertheless, it is fair to say the oil bombing campaign materially shortened the war, thereby saving many lives.

German insiders credit the Allied bombing offensive with severely handicapping them. Speer repeatedly said (both during and after the war) it caused crucial production problems. Admiral Karl Dönitz, head of the U-Boat arm, noted in his memoirs that failure to get the revolutionary Type XXI U-boats (which could have completely altered the balance of power in the Battle of the Atlantic) into service was entirely the result of the bombing. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, however, concluded the delays in deploying the new submarines cannot be attributed to air attack.

Effect on morale

Although designed to "break the enemy's will", the opposite often happened. The British did not crumble under the German Blitz and other air raids early in the war. British workers continued to work throughout the war and food and other basic supplies were available throughout.

In Germany, morale did not effectively break down in the face of the bombing campaign, which was far more extensive and comprehensive in effect, scope and duration than that endured by Great Britain. Additionally, the Germans clearly differentiated between behavior and morale: behavior was more or less unchanged; as with Japan, there were no riots in Germany demanding national capitulation and German workers, with stoicism, maintained industrial production as high as they could; German civilian morale, too, was strained by the bombing but remained intact right to the end of the war. Many German civilians, mostly women and children, had evacuated the cities by the latter stages of the war. Those who were workers were replaced in some, but not all, factories by prisoners or forced laborers with low morale, who were severely punished by their SS guards if their work performance faltered; most surviving German industrial workers, however, continued to work at their factories and remained at their posts (while most forced laborers were confined to factories within the precincts or within the vicinity of the concentration camps that housed them).

Allied bombing statistics 1939–45

RAF Bombing Sorties & Losses 1939–45
Sorties Losses
Night 297,663 7,449
Day   66,851    876

RAF & USAAF Bomb Tonnages on Germany 1939–45
Year RAF Bomber
Command (tons)
US 8th Air
Force (tons)
1939          31
1940   13,033
1941   31,504
1942   45,561     1,561
1943 157,457   44,165
1944 525,518 389,119
1945 191,540 188,573
Total 964,644 623,418

Bombing Effort,
entire European Theatre
Tons Percent
8th Air Force (including fighters) 692,918
9th Air Force 225,799
12th Air Force 207,367
15th Air Force (including fighters) 312,173
1st Tactical Air Force 25,166
Total USAAF 1,463,423 52.8
Bomber Command 1,066,141
Fighter Command 3,910
2nd Tactical Air Force 69,138
Mediterranean Command 167,928
Total RAF 1,307,117 47.2
Grand Total 2,770,540 100.0


Japanese bombing

Japanese strategic bombing was independently conducted by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service and the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service. Bombing efforts mostly targeted large Chinese cities such as Shanghai, Wuhan and Chonging, with around 5,000 raids from February 1938 to August 1943 in the later case.

The bombing of Nanjing and Canton, which began on 22 and 23 September 1937, called forth widespread protests culminating in a resolution by the Far Eastern Advisory Committee of the League of Nations. Lord Cranborne, the British Under-Secretary of State For Foreign Affairs, expressed his indignation in his own declaration. «Words cannot express the feelings of profound horror with which the news of these raids had been received by the whole civilized world. They are often directed against places far from the actual area of hostilities. The military objective, where it exists, seems to take a completely second place. The main object seems to be to inspire terror by the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians...»

There were also air raids on Philippines and northern Australia (Bombing of Darwin, 19 February, 1942). The Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service used tactical bombing against enemy airfields and military positions, as at Pearl Harbor. The Imperial Japanese Army Air Service also attacked enemy ships and military installations.

United States strategic bombing of Japan

Conventional bombing damage to Japanese cities in WWII
Japanese city % area
Yokohama 58%
Tokyo 51
Toyama 99
Nagoya 40
Osaka 35.1
Nishinomiya 11.9
Shimonoseki 37.6
Kure 41.9
Kobe 55.7
Omuta 35.8
Wakayama 50
Kawasaki 36.2
Okayama 68.9
Yawata 21.2
Kagoshima 63.4
Amagasaki 18.9
Sasebo 41.4
Moji 23.3
Miyakonojō 26.5
Nobeoka 25.2
Miyazaki 26.1
Ube 20.7
Saga 44.2
Imabari 63.9
Matsuyama 64
Fukui 86
Tokushima 85.2
Sakai 48.2
Hachioji 65
Kumamoto 31.2
Isesaki 56.7
Takamatsu 67.5
Akashi 50.2
Fukuyama 80.9
Aomori 30
Okazaki 32.2
Ōita 28.2
Hiratsuka 48.4
Tokuyama 48.3
Yokkaichi 33.6
Ujiyamada 41.3
Ōgaki 39.5
Gifu 63.6
Shizuoka 66.1
Himeji 49.4
Fukuoka 24.1
Kōchi 55.2
Shimizu 42
Omura 33.1
Chiba 41
Ichinomiya 56.3
Nara 69.3
Tsu 69.3
Kuwana 75
Toyohashi 61.9
Numazu 42.3
Choshi 44.2
Kofu 78.6
Utsunomiya 43.7
Mito 68.9
Sendai 21.9
Tsuruga 65.1
Nagaoka 64.9
Hitachi 72
Kumagaya 55.1
Hamamatsu 60.3
Maebashi 64.2
The United States strategic bombing of Japan took place between 1942 and 1945. In the last seven months of the campaign, a change to firebombing tactics resulted in great destruction of 67 Japanese cities, as many as 500,000 Japanese deaths and some 5 million more made homeless. Emperor Hirohito's viewing of the destroyed areas of Tokyo in March 1945, is said to have been the beginning of his personal involvement in the peace process, culminating in Japan's surrender five months later.

Conventional bombing

The first U.S. raid on the Japanese main island was the Doolittle Raid of 18 April, 1942 when sixteen B-25 Mitchells were launched from the USS Hornet (CV-8) to attack targets including Yokohama and Tokyo and then fly on to airfields in China. The raids were military pin-pricks, but a significant propaganda victory. Launched prematurely, none of the attacking aircraft reached the designated post mission airfields, either crashing or ditching (except for one aircraft, which landed in the Soviet Union, where the crew was interned). Two crews were captured by the Japanese.

The key development for the bombing of Japan was the B-29 Superfortress, which had an operational range of 1,500 miles (2,400 km); almost 90% of the bombs dropped on the home islands of Japan were delivered by this type of bomber (147,000 tons). The first raid by B-29s on Japan from China was on 15 June, 1944. The planes took off from Chengdu, over 1,500 miles away. This first raid was also not particularly damaging to Japan. Only forty-seven of the sixty-eight B–29s that took off hit the target area; four aborted with mechanical problems, four crashed, six jettisoned their bombs because of mechanical difficulties, and others bombed secondary targets or targets of opportunity. Only one B–29 was lost to enemy aircraft. The first raid from the east was on 24 November, 1944 when 88 aircraft bombed Tokyo. The bombs were dropped from around 30,000 feet (10,000 m) and it is estimated that only around 10% of the bombs hit designated targets.

The initial raids were carried out by the Twentieth Air Force operating out of mainland China in Operation Matterhorn under XX Bomber Command. Initially the Twentieth Air Force was under the command of Hap Arnold, and later Curtis LeMay. This was never a satisfactory arrangement because not only were the Chinese airbases difficult to supply via - materiel being sent over "the Hump" from India, but the B-29s operating from them could only reach Japan if they traded some of their bomb load for extra fuel in tanks in the bomb-bays. When Admiral Chester Nimitz's island-hopping campaign captured islands close enough to Japan to be within the range of B-29s, the Twentieth Air Force was assigned to XXI Bomber Command which organized a much more effective bombing campaign of the Japanese home islands. Based in the Marianas (Guam and Tinian in particular) the B-29s were now able to carry their full bomb loads.

Unlike all other forces in theater, the Bomber Commands did not report to the commanders of the theaters but directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In March 1945, they were placed under the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific which was commanded by General Carl Spaatz.

As in Europe, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) tried daylight precision bombing. However, it proved to be impossible due to the weather around Japan, as bombs dropped from a great height were tossed about by high winds. General LeMay, commander of XXI Bomber Command, instead switched to mass firebombing night attacks from altitudes of around 7,000 feet (2,100 m) on the major conurbations of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe. Despite limited early success, particularly against Nagoya, LeMay was determined to use such bombing tactics against the vulnerable Japanese cities. Attacks on strategic targets also continued in lower-level daylight raids.

The first successful firebombing raid was on Kobe on 3 February 1945, and following its relative success the USAAF continued the tactic. Nearly half of the principal factories of the city were damaged, and production was reduced by more than half at one of the port's two shipyards.

Much of the armor and defensive weaponry of the bombers was removed to allow increased bomb loads; Japanese air defense in terms of night-fighters and anti-aircraft guns was so feeble it was hardly a risk. The first raid of this type on Tokyo was on the night of 23 February–24 when 174 B-29s destroyed around one square mile (3 km²) of the city. Following on that success 334 B-29s raided on the night of 9 March10 March, dropping around 1,700 tons of bombs. Around 16 square miles (41 km²) of the city was destroyed and over 100,000 people are estimated to have died in the fire storm. The destruction and damage was at its worst in the city sections east of the Imperial Palace. It was the most destructive conventional raid in all of history. The city was made primarily of wood and paper, and Japanese firefighting methods were not up to the challenge. The fires burned out of control, boiling canal water and causing entire blocks of buildings to spontaneously combust from the heat. The effects of the Tokyo firebombing proved the fears expressed by Admiral Yamamoto in 1939: "Japanese cities, being made of wood and paper, would burn very easily. The Army talks big, but if war came and there were large-scale air raids, there's no telling what would happen."

In the following two weeks, there were almost 1,600 further sorties against the four cities, destroying 31 square miles (80 km²) in total at a cost of 22 aircraft. By June, over forty percent of the urban area of Japan's largest six cities (Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe, Osaka, Yokohama, and Kawasaki) was devastated. LeMay's fleet of nearly 600 bombers destroyed tens of smaller cities and manufacturing centers in the following weeks and months.

Leaflets were dropped over cities before they were bombed, warning the people and urging them to escape the city. Though many, even within the Air Force, viewed this as a form of psychological warfare, a significant element in the decision to produce and drop them was the desire to assuage American anxieties about the extent of the destruction created by this new war tactic.

A year after the war, the United States Army Air Forces's Strategic Bombing Survey (Pacific War) reported that they had underestimated the power of strategic bombing combined with naval blockade and previous military defeats to bring Japan to unconditional surrender without invasion. By July 1945, only a fraction of the planned strategic bombing force had been deployed yet there were few targets left worth the effort. In hindsight, it would have been more effective to use land-based and carrier-based air power to strike against merchant shipping and begin aerial mining at a much earlier date so as to link up with the effective Allied submarine anti-shipping campaign and completely isolate the island nation. This would have accelerated the strangulation of Japan and ended the war sooner. A postwar Naval Ordnance Laboratory survey agreed, finding that naval mines dropped by B-29s had accounted for 60% of all Japanese shipping losses in the last six months of the war. In October 1945, Prince Fumimaro Konoe said that the sinking of Japanese vessels by U.S. aircraft combined with the B-29 aerial mining campaign were just as effective as B-29 attacks on industry alone, though he admitted that "the thing that brought about the determination to make peace was the prolonged bombing by the B-29s." Prime Minister Baron Kantarō Suzuki reported to U.S. military authorities that it "seemed to me unavoidable that in the long run Japan would be almost destroyed by air attack so that merely on the basis of the B-29s alone I was convinced that Japan should sue for peace."

Nuclear bombing

Nuclear bombing damage to Japanese cities in WWII
Japanese city % area
Hiroshima 90%
Nagasaki 45%

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nuclear attacks during World War II against the Empire of Japan by the United States under US President Harry S. Truman. After six months of intense firebombing of 67 other Japanese cities, on 6 August, 1945, the nuclear weapon "Little Boy" enriched uranium bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, followed on 9 August, 1945 by the detonation of the "Fat Man" plutonium core nuclear bomb over Nagasaki. These are the only uses of nuclear weapons in warfare.

As many as 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki may have died from the bombings by the end of 1945, roughly half on the days of the bombings. Since then, thousands more have died from injuries or illness due to radiation. In both cities, the overwhelming majority of the dead were civilians.

On 15 August, 1945, Japan announced its surrender to the Allied Powers, signing the Instrument of Surrender on 2 September which officially ended World War II. Furthermore, the experience of bombing led post-war Japan to adopt Three Non-Nuclear Principles, which forbid Japan from nuclear armament.



Further reading

  • Alan J. Levine, The Strategic Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 (1992)
  • [British] Air Ministry. The Rise and Fall of the German Air Force. New York: St. Martin's, 1983. official RAF history
  • Thomas Coffey. Decision over Schweinfurt. New York: Doubleday, 1977.
  • Thomas Coffey. Hap. New York: Viking Press, 1982. biography of Hap Arnold AAF
  • Wesley F. Craven and Cate James Lea. The Army Air Forces in World War II. 8 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948- 1958. official AAF history
  • Arthur Harris. Bomber Offensive. London: Collins, 1947, memoir
  • Max Hastings. Bomber Command. New York: Dial, 1979.
  • Lee Kennett . A History of Strategic Bombing. New York: Scribner's, 1982.
  • Martin Middlebrook and Everitt Chris. eds. The Bomber Command War Diaries. London: Penguin, 1990.
  • Alfred Mierzejewski. The Collapse of the German War Economy, 1944-1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
  • Alan Milward. The German Economy at War. London: University of London Press, 1965
  • Stewart Halsey Ross, 2003. Strategic Bombing by the United States in World War II. The Myths and the Facts.. Jefferson, North Carolina/London: McFarland & Co, Inc.
  • Anthony Verrier. The Bomber Offensive. New York: Macmillan, 1968.
  • Charles Webster and Noble Frankland. The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany. 4 vols. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1961. official British history
  • Russell Weigley . Eisenhower's Lieutenants. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.


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