From “Collateral Damage” to Deliberate Mass-Murder of Civilian Populations 

Text Box:  

The ancient Baroque city of Dresden lying in ruin

Ostensibly, Nazis’ brutality and disrespect for human life were exactly what the allies were fighting against. However, for Britain, USA and Soviets as well as Germany, civilians and combatants alike were targets, not only in Nazi bombings of London, but in retaliatory area bombings of German cities by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and US Army Air Force (USAAF).

When Soviet tanks rolled into Berlin, 85% of the buildings were destroyed by allied bombing, streets obstructed by the debris. In the fierce street fights of the Battle for Berlin, the 1st and 2nd Soviet tank armies were ordered forward at any cost, regardless of casualties. Stalin  wanted victory now. The streets blocked by collapsed buildings made tanks easy targets for Faustpatrone. The casualties were extreme: 2, 156 tanks lost in Berlin and suburbs. There should not have been even 30% of this number of tanks brought into the city; the Text Box:  

Spring 1945.  Read Army is using a compelling argument for an unconditional Surrender of all German forces in Berlin.

street fighting should have been resolved by methodical sniping. Yet, Stalin did not care: his war machine was churning up nearly 14,000 tanks and Self-propelled pieces of heavy artillery a year. He did not care about tanks, or tank crews for that matter. The crews did not care about the city, the “Layer of the Beast.” Stalin demanded the Red Army bring Wehrmacht to its knees. The pockets of resistance in the buildings were suppressed with tanks and artillery, including the highest calibers, often fired point-blank, leveling the buildings from which the tanks were fired upon, regardless of the possible “collateral damage,” civilians.

This was not much different from German deployment of the monster-size 54 cm Karl-Geräte howitzers with their 2,170 kg shells to level buildings during Warsaw uprising in August 1944. 

 Allied bombing by the end of war reached unprecedented proportions, such as destruction of the city of Dresden in February of 1945, or Hamburg in July 1943. Hamburg's shipyards, U-boat pens, oil refineries and the dynamite factory were legitimate, prized targets for allied air force, especially after the continued bombing of London by Luftwaffe. The allied raid on Hamburg, called Operation Gomorrah, resulted in one of the greatest firestorms raised by the RAF and USAAF in WW-2, killing 42,600 German civilians and wounding 37,000, and practically ruining the entire city of Text Box:  
August 1944. German Bombardment of Warsaw by 54-60 cm howitzers’ 2 ton shells.
Hamburg. The bombing of Hamburg produced impressive results. Tiger tank production was disrupted, and the manufacture of 88-mm guns, the most potent dual-purpose artillery piece (an air-defense and anti-tank heavy gun) was “set back for months.” Some 62 percent of the population was made homeless causing more difficulties.  It is little known that in the “Operation Gomorrah” – the firestorm attack on Hamburg – the British used for the first time the “Window” technique, developed by mathematicians to defeat German formidable air defenses based on the massive Radar installations, Kammhuber Line in particular: first, single British bombers would go into German airspace dispatching chaff, clouds of aluminum foil, decoy that appeared on German radar screens as streams of bombers. Luftwaffe fighters scrambled to intercept, only to find empty space while the real stream of bombers was hundreds of miles away, beyond their range. British held off the use of “Window” until a strategic attack on Hamburg, so as to prevent Luftwaffe from adopting the technique. After a few such strategic raids, Luftwaffe was left with little fuel.

Post-war popular legends, historical revisionism and propaganda made allied strategic bombing the moral cause célèbre, which includes debates by commentators and historians as to whether the bombing was justified, and whether its outcome constituted a war crime.

Text Box:  

Hamburg in ruins after Operation Gomorrah.

While it is easy to take an emotional stance, identifying with the victims of bombings, or to take the opposite view – identifying with the air crews who were risking their lives in bombing missions, there is only one uncontrovertibly moral position: it is a citizen’s duty to watch and control the elites, the greedy, barbaric beasts craving more and more power and money for gratification of their lowest instincts.

The bombing of Hamburg was no less justified than the bombing and shelling of Warsaw by Luftwaffe and Wermacht, which destroyed large parts of the city in 1939, and destroyed it completely in 1944, the bombing of London and Coventry, or a complete destruction of Stalingrad, a modern industrial Russian city on the Volga river, where up to 40,000 civilians died in German bombings. The concept of “total war,” certainly not new, was extensively explored in the book Der Totale Krieg, 1935 by Erich Ludendorff, (the very same general who advised the Keiser of Germany’s defeat in November 1918.)

In a total war, the differentiation between combatants and civilians is blurred or non-existent, as nearly every human resource, civilians and soldiers alike, can be considered to be part of the belligerent effort.[1] Germany officially embraced “total war,” as a total effort of its entire population in Joseph Goebbels' Sportpalast speech of 18 February, 1943 under the slogan of “Totaler Krieg – Kürzester Krieg" (Total War – Shortest War):

“If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even yet imagine? – Ja (Yes)! Zieg Heil!”[2]

 The onset of extreme cruelty in bombing civilian “targets” can be traced to the destruction of the city of Coventry, where 60,000 buildings were leveled or severely damaged by German Luftwaffe. Coventry Cathedral was leveled and burned. The most severe attack occurred on the evening of 14 November 1940. Joseph Goebbels later used the term Coventriert (“Coventrated”) to describe utter destruction of the enemy’s towns. That just did it. It can be said that the bombing of Coventry was a turning point in the British air strategy, as RAF now felt morally free to drift away from precision attacks on strictly military targets towards “area bombing” of whole cities. The doctrine of “strategic bombing” was now on the loose and employed by all sides to the conflict. The Empire was about to strike back, and the science fiction by George Lukas and the 1980’s film pale in comparison with the horrific reality of the strikes.

Heinkel He 111While Luftwaffe had twin engine bombers Heinkel He 111, delivering 2,000-4,000 pound bombs in wave after wave air blitz that lasted hours, the bombers flying back and re-arming on the airfields in France, RAF set its sights higher. It was being rearmed even at the cost of under-supplying other branches of the British military. When it struck back, it did so by armadas of 500 or more 4-engine, long-range bombers, Avro Lancaster and USAAF B-17 “Flying Fortress,” dropping 3,000-6,000 pound “block-buster” bombs. Such armadas were accompanied by swarms of fighter planes, each plane having its own time slot and position in the formation.

The number of estimated 250,000 civilian casualties in Dresden was first floated by Goebbels; it is a historic mythology, as is an assertion that the city had no military installations or targets. Frederick Taylor, a British historian, and lecturer at Oxford University, stated that Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda leaked to the press the presumably official Dresden Police report on casualties… doctored with an extra zero, to make the “total” dead to be 202, 040, ten times greater than in reality.[3]

Colonel Harold E. Cook, a US POW held in central Dresden the night before the attacks, later said, “I saw with my own eyes that Dresden was an armed camp: thousands of German troops, tanks and artillery and miles of freight cars loaded with supplies supporting and transporting German logistics towards the east to meet the Russians.”[4] In 1944, the official German Army High Command's Weapons Office report listed 127 medium-to-large factories and workshops in Dresden, which supplied the army with materiel, employing some 55,000 workers[5], so the Allied bombing of Dresden was not exactly “unjustified.[6]” What was unjustified, was the “area bombing” (the predecessor of “carpet bombing”) turning the entire center of a city into a hellish inferno, a bombing tactic which can be traced back to the bombing of Guernica, Spain by Luftwaffe in 1937.

Text Box:  

Stalingrad:  Children’s fountain still standing amidst the devastation. 
The Brits did not start the ugly business of war. It can be said they tried to buy peace, selling Czechoslovakia to Hitler to appease him. They just wouldn’t be outdone in this dirty business, once the war was unleashed. After the German bombing of Coventry, the concept of “area bombing” was gradually adopted by the RAF. On 14 February 1942, “Area Bombing Directive” (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.[7] [See also, Davis, P.20]  Whenever conditions ruled out attacks on the “primary targets,” the directive authorized strikes on “industrial centers” of Hamburg, Bremen, Hannover, Frankfurt, Mannheim, Stuttgart [Davis, P.20] and Berlin, which simply meant bombing the hell out of civilians. Any noticeable “moral opposition” to “area bombing” did not arise until years after the war was over. In fact, Americans developed a sense of national pride and enthusiasm out of the country’s bad habits of bombing cities into oblivion. “Blockbuster,” originally used to refer to a bomb of 4,000 pounds or more required to level a city block, is widely used (70 years after the war) to indicate a wildly popular or successful movie or Broadway show.[8]


All rights reserved ● Copyright ©  2011, Eric Ross, Ph.D.



[1] Edward Gunn. "The Moral Dilemma of Atomic Warfare", Aegis: The Otterbein College Humanities Journal, Spring 2006, p. 67.

[3]  Taylor, Taylor, Frederick (2004). Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945. NY: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-000676-5; p. 370

[4] Miller, Donald L. Masters of the Air - America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, Simon and Schuster. , 2006; p. 435.

[5] Taylor, Bloomsbury 2005, p. 169.

[6] Ross, Stewart Halsey (2003). Strategic Bombing by the United States in World War II: The Myths and the Facts. McFarland & Company, ISBN 978-0-7864-1412-3

[7] Levine, Alan J. (1992). The Strategic Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945. Greenwood. ISBN 9780275943196;  p. 36.