Volcanic warfare — II

Quite some time ago I promised to write more about J. M. Spaight's Volcano Island (published in 1943 but written late in 1942). I probably should do that at some point. Such as now.

Here I want to look at what he has to say about area bombing. He quite unapologetically uses this phrase, even calling one section 'The legitimacy of area bombing'.1 Given the opprobrium which now attaches to the term, it is a little startling to see it used in a defence of British bombing policy. It does seems to have been used more descriptively during the war, at least at first. The very earliest use I've been able to find was in the British press in December 1940, and referred to the resumption of German 'Blitz' tactics:

The return to mass raiding was not carried out on anything like the 'Coventrating' manner -- there was no attempt at area bombing of the different London districts, all of which had their share at varying periods of the night.2

However, 'area bombing' here apparently refers not to merely indiscriminate bombing (which the Gloucestershire Echo's headline asserts the Germans have admitted to). Instead it is concentrated in both time and space, as at Coventry (hence 'Coventration'), which actually describes what Bomber Command later tried to (and often did) achieve quite well. This might be an isolated example; the term doesn't seem to start cropping up again until late 1942, just about when Spaight was writing: in September the Devon and Exeter Gazette noted that 'The R.A.F. will continue its "area bombing" by night, while the famous Flying Fortresses will take up the attack by day with precision bombing'.3 By March 1943, Richard Stokes MP could ask in the House of Commons if 'instructions have been given to British airmen to engage in area bombing rather than limit their attention to purely military targets?' (only to be told by Sir Archibald Sinclair that 'The targets of Bomber Command are always military, but night bombing of military objectives necessarily involves bombing the area in which they are situated').4

To return to Spaight. Like the Gloucestershire Echo, he makes a distinction between area bombing and indiscriminate bombing, though he is more explicit in arguing that the former is more legitimate than the latter. After noting the declaration of both France and Britain on 1 September 1939 that their armed forces had been prohibited from bombarding 'any except military objectives in the narrowest sense of the word', Spaight suggests that

Germany's action in Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France could be pleaded as freeing the British Government, the co-belligerent of these countries, from the restriction voluntarily accepted in regard to bombing operation; and any possible doubt upon this score was set at rest by the Germans' deliberate attack on the civilian population of London in September, 1940. Actually, therefore, the Royal Air Force might legitimately have been empowered to adopt indiscriminate bombardment, by way of retaliation. A fortiori it was justified in the less drastic measure of resorting to the bombing of target areas.5

To his credit, Spaight doesn't leave it there, but tackles the problem head-on:

The practical question which arises in any consideration of the legitimacy of area-bombing is whether is whether the incidental destruction of civilian life and property, for such there must normally be, can be justified by the military advantage to the attacking belligerent of the effective destruction or reducing of the enemy's capacity to make war.6

He cites the example of the 1907 Hague Convention (IX, 2) which says that in naval bombardments of land targets 'an attacking commander is not responsible for damage unavoidably caused' and thinks that this supplies a precedent for aerial bombardment.7

The real question is whether the true purpose of the attack is to destroy or immobilise a war industry or activity in the area or whether it is simply terrorism and intimidation of the population.8

Well, quite. This question Spaight doesn't actually answer; but we may assume that he didn't think that the RAF was carrying out terror attacks. And, of course, in his lawyerly way he comes down on the side of area bombing being perfectly legitimate:

A sensible belligerent will not waste his bombs, which cost money, but if there is known to be in a certain area an objective or objectives whose destruction or damaging would be seriously detrimental to the enemy's war effort, and if, because of darkness, intense anti-aircraft fire or other reason, the only way to make sure of putting the objective or objectives out of action is to place a pattern of bombs over the area where it or they are known to be situated, it cannot be held to be contrary to international law to bomb that area, even though civilian life and property inevitably suffer.9

He points out again that Germany has itself carried out indiscriminate bombing, as well as the indiscriminate sinking of civilian ships, presumably using the same justification as he offers for area bombing: 'By parity of reasoning the bombing of target areas can obviously be justified'.10 Finally, if there is no other way that a military objective can be attacked than by area bombing, then it must be attacked regardless of the consequences for civilians in the surrounding area:

It has come to pass, it seems, that the effective destruction of an enemy's sources of munitionment can indeed be accomplished, but accomplished only at the cost of the incidental destruction of civilian property (and, to a less extent, life) on a scale which was not formerly contemplated [...] To wreck a submarine plant it is necessary that a substantial part of the town in which it is situated should be wrecked likewise. That development is deplorable, but modern war is full of terrible things.11

So Spaight first almost stoops to arguing that two wrongs make a right, since the Germans had bombed Britain indiscriminately, but this wouldn't quite work because he doesn't want to say that Britain is bombing Germany indiscriminately so instead he just uses it to prepare the ground. Nor does he argue that area bombing is a legitimate reprisal, perhaps because Germany had by and large stopped bombing Britain; the RAF was the aggressor now. As for the attempt to find a parallel in the Hague Convention's provision for naval bombardment, it's probably reasonable enough, as far as it goes. The international community had failed to reach any agreement regulating aerial bombardment before 1939, so all that could be done was to seek precedents in existing laws and cases. Spaight implicitly denies that the principle of distinction is breached in area bombing, as civilians are not targeted directly. But he really fails to address adequately the principle of proportionality, placing no limits on the incidental harm that can be caused to civilians in destroying military objectives. This, I think, is where his argument falls down; though, to be fair, proportionality was clearly defined in the laws of war until after 1945. The other problem is where he slides past any hint that the RAF was engaged in terror bombing; but in the section immediately following he does go on to talk about bombing and morale, so I'll look at that in the final part of this series. Hopefully it won't take another four months to write.


  1. J. M. Spaight, Volcano Island (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1943), 67. 

  2. Gloucestershire Echo, 9 December 1940, 4

  3. Devon and Exeter Gazette, 25 September 1942, 4

  4. HC Deb, 31 March 1943, vol. 388, col. 155

  5. Spaight, Volcano Island, 67. 

  6. Ibid., 67-8. 

  7. Ibid., 68. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Ibid., 69. 

  11. Ibid., 69. 

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