War crimes from the air

Der Spiegel has a lengthy article based upon a new book by historians Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer called Soldaten (no English version yet, unfortunately). It's based on the transcripts of secret recordings made of the conversations of German POWs captured by British and American forces in the Second World War. They would have talked about many things, but the article focuses on the war crimes which the soldiers, sailors and airmen discuss quite candidly among themselves, as perhaps they never did again in their lives. It's quite horrifying reading. But as far as the German army is concerned, the details of the war crimes committed in the East and elsewhere, while shocking, aren't all that new. It's more unusual to see evidence of the war crimes carried out by the men of the Luftwaffe. I've extracted those particular transcripts from the article.

This conversation was recorded on 6 March 1943. Budde, a pilot, talks about operations over Britain:

Budde: "I flew two spoiling attacks. In other words, we shelled buildings."

Bartels: "But not destructive attacks with a specific target, like what we did?"

Budde: "No, just spoiling attacks. We encountered some of the nicest targets, like mansions on a mountain. When you flew at them from below and fired into them, you could see the windows rattling and then the roof going up in the air. There was the time we hit Ashford. There was an event on the market square, crowds of people, speeches being given. We really sprayed them! That was fun!"

Bäumer and Greim, also pilots, perhaps also on the same date?

Bäumer: "We had a 2-centimeter gun installed on the front (of the aircraft). Then we flew down low over the streets, and when we saw cars coming from the other direction, we put on our headlights so that they would think another car was approaching them. Then we shot them with the gun. We had a lot of successes that way. It was great, and it was a lot of fun. We attacked trains and other stuff the same way."

Greim: "We once flew a low-altitude attack near Eastbourne. When we got there we saw a big castle where there was apparently a ball or something like that being held. In any case, there were lots of women in nice clothes and a band. We flew past the first time, but then we attacked and really stuck it to them. Now that, my dear friend, was a lot of fun."

Pohl, another pilot, on 30 April 1940. This time the target is Poland:

Pohl: "I had to drop bombs onto a train station in Posen (Poznan) on the second day of the war in Poland. Eight of the 16 bombs fell in the city, right in the middle of houses. I didn't like it. On the third day I didn't care, and on the fourth day I took pleasure in it. We enjoyed heading out before breakfast, chasing individual soldiers through the fields with machine guns and then leaving them there with a few bullets in their backs."

Meyer: "But it was always against soldiers?"

Pohl: "People too. We attacked convoys in the streets. I was sitting in the 'chain' (a formation of three aircraft). The plane would wiggle a little and we would bank sharply to the left, and then we'd fire away with every MG (machine gun) we had. The things you could do. Sometimes we saw horses flying around."

Meyer: "That's disgusting, with the horses…come on!"

Pohl: "I felt sorry for the horses, not at all for the people. But I felt sorry for the horses right up until the end."

These conversations remind me of British press reports during the Blitz, of German aircraft flying low and strafing towns. I was a bit sceptical of these; they seem more plausible now.

But they also remind me of accounts by German civilians of being strafed by low-lying Allied aircraft, for example during the Dresden raids of February 1945. In an appendix to his book Dresden, Frederick Taylor fairly convincingly argues that these are mistaken (possibly misinterpretations of a dogfight between USAAF and Luftwaffe fighters over the city).

But Allied fighter-bombers did range over much of Germany at a low level during the last months of the war, shooting up anything that moved. Is it likely that British and American (and Canadian and Australian and...) pilots were immune to the same psychological impulses which led their German counterparts to take pleasure in shooting civilians to pieces? Or do we believe that the corruption of moral values and strictures by the Nazi regime was responsible for the criminality of their armed forces? (And maybe it's not either/or, and maybe there's a continuum of barbarism. Or just a continuity.)

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26 thoughts on “War crimes from the air

  1. Justin

    The winners of the war get to write the history and call what they did necessary to end the war. Curtis LeMay said "had the U.S. lost the war, he fully expected to be tried for war crimes".

  2. Post author


    Yes, I was going to ask in the post if Allied pilots might have been more restrained, given that they knew their gun cameras would record what they shot at. But then I watched the video in the post and they're shooting up towns. So I'd guess not.

    The one you link to is perhaps a bit different in that it was apparently shot over Japan (from the carrier strikes at the end of the war, presumably). Racist attitudes towards the Japanese made the slide into barbarism easier. But that's only a matter of degree. (Also, did the USN have better gun cameras than the USAAF or what? The quality is so much better than the film from Germany!)


    That's a fair question. At the very least, that points to a sick culture, though -- they're not making up stories about how many girls they've slept with but how many they've raped and killed (for example). And the transcript of Pohl's conversation above seems to me to be free of that, in the way he describes his movement from disgust to pleasure. He seems to realise he's not supposed to like it, and that he has to make excuses to his listeners. It seems truthful to me.

    Still, cross-checks would certainly be a good idea.

  3. Richard J

    Racist attitudes towards the Japanese made the slide into barbarism easier

    Oh yes, John Dower's War Without Mercy makes the explicitly racist nature of American anti-Japanese propaganda startlingly apparent.

    And I think Alan's point is a good one, but, in my experience, young men bullshit to conform to perceived social norms (of their peer group, if not wider society...)

  4. I'm not suggesting that the evidence is without any substance, but some of the details (e.g. the streak of misogynistic delight in gunning down "lots of women in nice clothes") seem informed by dark fantasy. Certainly they suggest an unpleasant culture.

  5. Cody Williams

    I'd like to point out that the footage of the Japanese pilot in his parachute is not from a strafing attack but is most likely the pilot shooting film of the bailed-out japanese airman for kill confirmation. Pilots did this whenever possible because it made it much easier to verify kill claims. This is by no means saying that parachute strafings didn't happen, because they most certainly did by pilots of all sides, but that isn't the case here.

    There are two ways to look at this footage-first is that once the allies had obtained air superiority over Europe it became nearly impossible for the Germans to move ANYTHING during daylight hours, which severely hampered troop and supply movements, helped immobolize and contain the German armies, and considerably shortened the duration of the ground war. Many lives were probably saved as a result of these attacks. Also, ground attack duties were extremely dangerous for pilots, with many more losses coming from ground attack than air combat.
    Secondly, there were undoubtedly many civilian casualties as a result of these attacks, especially on the Eastern front where distinctions between troop columns and refugee columns in the German retreat from Poland weren't readily made. I remember a quote from a Russian ground-attack pilot that his contributions had undoubtedly helped destroy the Third Reich but that also "our hands are stained with blood to the elbows." Modern war is truly hell.

  6. Richard J

    Cody> my understanding of gun cameras was that they were linked to the trigger - ie the default was that they ran only when guns were firing - if that's not the case, I'm happy to e corrected on the technicalities of how they worked in practice...

  7. Cody Williams

    Richard, as I understand it most Allied fighters could turn on the gun camera separately. I know that the P-51 and P-38 for example have separate switches in the cockpit for just the camera, and the Spitfire has a switch on the control column that could turn on the camera without firing the guns. I was actually reading a German pilot's account yesterday of being shot down by P-51's, and as he was floating down in his parachute a P-51 was heading directly for him. Just as he was preparing to be blown to bits the P-51 veered away at the last second and the pilot waved to him as he went past, this was definitely the "camera pass" I was talking about.

    In contrast to this I have also read about U.S. Navy gun camera footage of Japanese sailors in lifeboats being strafed and blown to bits being shown in newsreels back home. This kind of footage tends to be overlooked these days, maybe it's easier to pretend that "we didn't do things like that."

  8. Errolwi

    Cody, have you seen the Damien Parer news reels of Timor and Bismarck Sea? There are acts best described as questionable shown, and a telling voice-over.

  9. Christopher

    A lot went on in WW2 which would not be classified as ethical. On the matter of Luftwaffe pilots yes they did. The Luftwaffe was the youngest and therefore the most 'Nazi' of the German military. Other countries ethical systems would have had some impact but even then would not have stopped individuals committing atrocities.

  10. Neil Datson

    By chance I've just been reading Omer Bartov's book, Hitler's Army, which is about the Nazisification of the German Army, and its complicity in war crimes and civilian murder in the East.

    Surely there are several strands here, some mentioned above.

    1 The peer group identity / pressure. (Which as Alan notes, may result in tasteless but hollow boasting.)

    2 Fear and adrenalin. Surely anybody who's ever used a gun for any reason can testify to the latter? Giving a gun to any young man is likely to make him excited. Having only used guns for wholly legitimate game shooting etc, I can all too easily imagine at least being strongly tempted to use the power of a fighter bomber inappropriately.

    3 Rascism, and associated contempt for other peoples. This is where it gets really strong. Such as with late nineteenth century colonialists, through to recent reports of US atrocities in Afghanistan. In the case of the British in India when they were suppressing the mutiny, rascist attitudes were at least endorsed right through to the top. In the case of the Germans on the Eastern front rascist attitudes were actively encouraged. I'd contend that having total power over vulnerable prisoners or civilians encourages and promotes any pre-existing contempt, and so makes atrocities even more likely. (What I'm trying to suggest here is that it would be pyschologically easier to slaughter sheep en masse than to slaughter tigers en masse.)

  11. Ian Evans

    My mother described the experience of being strafed in 1940, in one of the South Coast seaside towns (could well have been Eastbourne, though I have a feeling it was Brighton). Having spent time in Germany in '38 and '39, she didn't give the pilot any benefit of doubt that he might have been chasing an RAF aircraft.
    In a variation on the theme, one of the Tuskegee airmen describes attacking a town in Sicily when a wedding party came into his sights. He kicked hard on the rudder and managed to miss them.

  12. Richard J

    I stand happily corrected!

    One question that does strike me - why does shooting bailed out pilots feel instinctively 'wrong' in a way that machine gunning soldiers fleeing a burning tank doesn't? Objectively, both are fairly equivalent in terms of attacking someone temporarily hors de combat, but veterans seem far more open about the ubiquity of the latter practice.

  13. Christopher

    Perhaps because bailed out pilots or aircrew are perceived to be helpless. They cannot escape or evade which is a possibility for tank crewman.

  14. One question that does strike me - why does shooting bailed out pilots feel instinctively 'wrong' in a way that machine gunning soldiers fleeing a burning tank doesn't?

    Perhaps it depends on who is doing the machine-gunning. A pilot might feel sympathy for his fellow aviator on the grounds of There But For the Grace of God Go I. The infantry, on the other hand, rarely seem to have extended the same consideration to tank crews, finding the tank an inherently 'unfair' weapon (in the same way that snipers, and sometimes MG crews, were habitually shot on discovery regardless of whether they'd surrendered).

  15. Peter Seymour (77 years old)

    I clearly remember my mother telling me about when she was chased down the High Street, Upper Edmonton, London by a strafing Luftwaffe plane, from which she managed to hide in a shop doorway. The wooden frame of which was splintered by its bullets. More recently I met a fellow (who like myself, spent his boyhood in Lower Edmonton) and he recalled a plane strafing a street, he and other children were playing in, but having heard and seen it coming, (he was about nine years old) he dodged to one side as the bullets shot up the ground near him.

  16. Post author


    Thanks for this -- it confirms the general trend. There must be accounts from the time too (apart from the press ones, such as I note in the post) -- air-raid victims with bullets wounds would presumably stand out, though on the other hand ARP services would have been geared towards high explosive and incendiary attacks.

  17. Nick sclensky

    The topic if airmen shooting at civilians reminds me if a story my mother told. During the war my mother was in Germany. She was about 10 years old and had caught measles. When an air raid alarm sounded, no one wanted her in the shelter, so my mother and grandmother were told to go hide in the forest. On the way there a British plane spotted them and started to shoot at the two of them. They survived because they hid behind a tree and had to move around the tree to shelter from the repeated attacks that this brave man made against a women and a little girl.
    A similar story happened in the Karlsruhe
    area to my other grandmother who said that a allied plane (she didn't say which) made repeated passes down a street shooting civilians . My grandmother said she ducked from door to door with her shopping to avoid the repeated attacks. So this is just two stories of allied airmen enthusiastically shooting at civilians and i bet there are many more.

  18. Markus

    I guess it's an old topic, but this seems to be one of the few threads that actually discuss this.
    My grandpa was strafed working in a field with his sisters in bavaria. (But not hit). When he first told me the story I was like "no way, why would they shoot farmers". But hearing that the Luftwaffe was on the hunt for civilians in England, and sure as hell on the Eastern Front (because of course racism was much higher towards Slavic people), that makes a lot more sense. Revenge is sweet, unfortunately.
    Nonetheless, I think that is a subject that is overlooked. Of course there is a good chance to think that a convoy of fleeing people could also be a marching division from some distance. But a small group in a field? A single girl on a bike? That is a war crime. That is basically execution of civilians.
    Imagine your sister or your child is shot to pieces by a plane in open field, and the pilot loses control and crashes but survives and you are standing in front of him.
    I actually think it is rather ridiculous that German Wikipedia has an extra article for "Fliegermorde" (pilot kills) as a war crime, when soldiers or sometimes civilians lynched parachuted pilots. However the English strafing article is just a list of the fighters that were most effective on all side.

  19. Post author

    Thanks for your comment, Markus. I like keeping comments on these old posts open for this very reason -- it's often fruitful to return to an old topic with fresh eyes and think about it some more! And ten years later, I fear we (meaning, mainly, Anglophone historians) do still tend to minimise Allied war crimes while still (rightly) holding Axis forces to account for their war crimes. There are signs of change, however: I'm thinking particularly of Luke Truxal's fascinating research on USAAF targeting of Romanian refugees in support of Soviet ground offensives in 1944, some of which you can see here.

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