I've been reading Respectful Insolence for quite a while now, but I somehow missed Orac's post critiquing Richard Dawkins' comments on Arthur Harris and the bombing of civilians in the Second World War, and how the development of precision-guided munitions ("smart bombs") reflects a change in the moral zeitgeist since then. Fortunately, Jonathan Dresner pointed out it to me; unfortunately (and unusually), I think Orac is wrong. That's ok: he's got more important things to do with his time than studying the history of strategic bombing, such as surgery and medical research. But since he brought the subject up …
The bit of Dawkins' piece to which Orac takes exception is basically the following:
Smart bombs are designed, at least in part, to minimize collateral damage. Obviously Air Marshall [sic] Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, architect of the Dresden raid, didn't have at his disposal the technical know-how to make smart bombs. That's not the point. My point is that, even if he could have used smart bombs, he wouldn't have wanted to. The whole rationale and purpose of Bomber Harris was to kill civilians.
Orac responds with a summary of how the "bomber dream" (Martin Middlebrook's term) developed after the First World War:
But back in the 1930's and 1940's, there were a number of fervent and influential believers that bombing alone could win wars with minimal casualties by destroying the enemy's industrial capacity and "de-housing" armaments workers. Indeed, the very development of strategic bombing was at least in part a reaction to the horrors and mass slaughter that characterized trench warfare during World War I.
I don't really like the term "bomber dream", because as Merlin might have said: though it was a dream to some, it was a nightmare to others! Although there was certainly a desire to minimise military casualties relative to the First World War scale, this did NOT necessarily imply that there would not be huge civilian casualties. The point was to avoid a long, drawn-out war of attrition, by striking at the most vulnerable part of the enemy nation. As the late war had apparently shown that on the ground, defence had the upper hand over offence, the answer seemed obvious, at least to the airminded: ignore the enemy army entirely and instead attack the vulnerable civilians from the air. Ideally, this would lead to the fabled "knock-out blow" (my preferred alternative to "bomber dream"), a quick victory after a sudden, brief, probably one-sided but certainly intense, strategic bombing campaign. There would be far fewer military casualties than in the First World War, but far more civilian ones.
This campaign was thought likely to attack one, or perhaps both, of two broad objectives. The first was essential infrastructure, such as docks, railways, food stores, power stations, government buildings, etc. The second was the civilian population. Note that I do not mention factories, despite their importance as targets in the Second World War, because destroying factories was something that would only be useful in a long war. There was some talk of bombing munitions factories, to disrupt mobilisation, or aircraft factories to help win the air war, but more often these were seen as wasteful diversions from the main effort.
The point of attacking infrastructure was to paralyse and starve the nation, preventing it from functioning. The point of attacking civilians was to demoralise and kill them, leading to panic and flight. Either way, the victim country would hopefully be forced to ask the aggressor for terms, after only a few days or weeks of war.
But this would not be bloodless, particularly if civilians were attacked directly. Here's what Lord Thomson, Air Minister in the 1924 Labour government, thought would happen in the next war:
Both victors and vanquished would be left with ruined cities, widespread distress among the masses of the people, hospitals filled with the maimed and mutilated of all ages and both sexes, asylums crowded with unfortunate human beings whom terror had made insane.1
By 1937, the Committee of Imperial Defence was calculating probable compensation payments on the basis of 1.8 million casualties in the first two months of war, including 600,000 deaths.2
No. The bomber may have been a dream weapon to air force commanders, but it was a nightmare to many civilians. It turned them into "The 'Front-line Troops' of the Future", as the subtitle of a 1927 book put it.3
Now, for Orac's comments on how the theory failed to live up to the reality:
Before and during the early phase of World War II, bombing was even viewed as less horrific than battles like the Battle of the Somme, with its hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded in a single bloody battle. Unfortunately, as first practiced during an actual war, strategic bombing in Europe failed to live up to the bomber dream. It was incredibly wasteful, inefficient, and bloody. Hundreds of bombers dropping thousands of tons of bombs and killing thousands of civilians as "collateral damage" were needed just to destroy a relatively few strategically important targets because bomb accuracy was so poor.
This is partly right. Bombing certainly turned out to be wasteful and inefficient at the start of the war. But the surprise was not that bombing turned out to be bloody; the surprise was that it wasn't very bloody at all — not compared with the pre-war predictions, anyway.4 If those predictions had been correct, multiple infernos on the scale of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo would have taken place in September 1939. Even during the eight months of the Blitz, British civilian deaths due to bombing amounted to just 43,000 — less than a tenth of the 1937 CID prediction, and that for only two months of raids. It took years of wartime experience to develop the aircraft, the skills and the doctrine to carry out truly devastating raids.
Finally, Orac explains how area bombing was adopted because of technological and operational limitations:
Thus, in practice, the reason the strategic bombing strategy adopted was not so much to target civilians intentionally, but rather because the technology of the time was so crude that large numbers of bombs had to be dropped to have any chance of destroying important military or industrial targets at all. In essence, the only thing that bombers of the time could be reasonably assured of hitting was a city, and sometimes even then their bombs fell on farm fields miles away. Thus, the use of area bombing and incendiaries was adopted because of the inadequacy of the technology of the time, and the collateral damage was rationalized as an acceptable cost. Even so, it's rather hard to imagine that even a bomber dream true believer like Harris would not have enthusiastically embraced a technology that would have allowed the high precision targeting of industrial and military targets that his bombers could not achieve.
It's certainly true that the strategy of area bombing was largely driven by necessity, as Orac says. But it's not true that civilian casualties were 'rationalised as an acceptable cost'; at least, not by Harris. They were an integral part of his strategy. We know this because he said so. A BBC broadcast about a Bomber Command raid on Leipzeig in October 1943 led to complaints from the public about its mealy-mouthed references to the targeting of marshalling yards. Harris's response was to demand that the Air Ministry issue a clear statement of, and justification for, his strategy:
The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive and the part which Bomber Command is required by agreed British-US strategy to play in it, should be unambiguously and publicly stated. That aim is the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilised community life throughout Germany.
It should be emphasised that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.5
He made similar statements more informally as well, for example telling 'his American counterpart' (Eaker) that
You destroy a factory and they rebuild it. In six weeks they are in operation again. I kill all their workmen, and it takes twenty-one years to provide new ones.6
These quotes show that 'de-housing' was as much a euphemism for the killing of workers, who of course tended to be asleep in their houses at night when the bombers came, as it was an objective in itself. (Some people would have been in public air raid shelters, but no country could protect more than a small fraction of its population in this way.) The only out here is that Harris speaks only of workers, and not of the other civilians who lived in their houses, such as children, or housewives or the elderly. But of course, killing or maiming such people also contributed to 'the disruption of civilised life' and 'the breakdown of morale'.
Now, it could perhaps be argued that Harris was just making a virtue out of necessity: given that his bombers couldn't accurately hit a designated target, maybe it's unsurprising that he might claim that it was better anyway to destroy whole cities, than to undertake surgical strikes. It's even plausible that somebody with such a proud, stubborn personality would demand public validation of such self-deception, rather than just getting on with it and hoping nobody would notice.
But I don't think so: he'd been here before. Harris's first experience with carrying out a bombing campaign was in Iraq, in the early 1920s, where the RAF was pacifying that unruly area by air control methods. He commanded a squadron of transport aircraft, but was so keen to get in on the action that he got his men to cut holes in the nose of their Vickers Vernons to drop bombs out of. In March 1924, he wrote a report on the effectiveness of bombing villages with incendiaries:
Where the Arab and Kurd had just begun to realise that if they could stand a little noise, they could stand bombing …, they now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know that within forty-five minutes a full-sized village (vide attached photos of Kushan-Al-Ajaza) can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape.7
The problems which, two decades later, forced Bomber Command to switch to area bombing did not apply here. There were no enemy fighters and no anti-aircraft guns, only scattered ground fire. Harris's bombers could take their time and attack from low level during daylight, so accurate bombing was possible. But instead of attacking specific targets — a tribal leader's compound, perhaps, or livestock, or wells maybe — they went in for wholesale destruction. This is of a piece with his later, wartime strategy.
So I don't think we can assume, as Orac does, that if Harris had had smart bombs, he would have used them to avoid killing civilians in favour of precision attacks on factories. More likely, he would have used them to surgically destroy block after block of worker's houses, with the workers and their families inside. On the other hand, Dawkins is wrong to say that Harris's 'whole rationale and purpose' was to kill civilians. It wasn't. He wanted to kill cities, and civilians were just a part of that, along with factories, infrastructure, the whole lot.
To put it another way: by definition, there was no collateral damage at Dresden.
- Thomson, Air Facts and Problems (London: John Murray, 1927), 26-7.
- Tom Harrisson, Living Through the Blitz (London: Harmondsworth, 1990), 26.
- E. F. Spanner, Armaments and the Non-Combatant: To The `Front-line Troops' of the Future (London: Williams and Norgate, 1927).
- Actually, it wasn't so surprising, because the Spanish Civil War had already hinted at this — but that's another story.
- Air Marshal Arthur Harris, 25 October 1943; quoted in Mark Connelly, Reaching for the Stars: A New History of Bomber Command in World War II (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001), 115. Emphasis added.
- Quoted in Donald Bloxham, "Dresden as a war crime", in Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang, eds., Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945 (London:Pimlico, 2006), 189.
- Quoted in Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing (London: Granta, 2002), section 113.
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License. Terms and conditions beyond the scope of this license may be available at airminded.org.