World War II British and American Bombing Campaign

The Bombing Campaign

Commentary on the book "Among The Dead Cities" by A.C. Grayling; ISBN -10: 0-8027-1471-4 C 2006

I finished reading this book a few weeks after it was published in March of 2006. There are some factual errors (maybe proofreading, or typing, some are very obvious to WW II readers) the basic premise is that the "Area Bombing," "de-housing," "moral lowering," campaign - the words used the British Bomber Command at various times during the Second World War - was immoral and did not help the Allies win World War II. A surface examination of the topic shows that this premise is sustainable.

As in most things there are various degrees of truth.

Pre-War Fears

Prior to the war there was, as he talked about, great fear as to what fleets of aerial bombers could do. Watch the movie "Things to Come" and you will get a graphic Hollywood movie view of what bombing would do to cities - and in many German cities (and some British) what the ruins of the city looked like in the movie actually came true.

There was a general agreement among western nations that deliberately bombing cities would not be done - and both sides in the beginning of the war went to great lengths NOT to bomb non-combatants. The case of Rotterdam was mentioned in the book and it was later proven that most of the bombers were recalled by radio and did not bomb while the one KG group that did bomb the lead plane had a malfunctioning radio so did not hear the recall nor did the flight commander see the abort flares fired by the German troops due to the direction they flew into the target. German soldiers were already in the area where they bombed too! Then why did the Germans target the city? To force Holland to surrender quickly so the rest of the AG (Army Group) could sweep thorough the Netherlands and get behind the British. Any time you make a threat you have to be able to carry it out or else the threat does not mean anything.

Pre "Blitz" Bomber Attacks and Fighter Tactics

The British, and Germans, started out hitting tactical / strategic targets in 1940. However, the Germans were the first ones to find out that a tactical air force designed to support the field army - which is all what the Germans and British had - could not on its own fight into hostile airspace and return without exceeding a 10% loss rate or higher on each mission. As he stated, a 3.5% loss rate per mission is sustainable (just don't tell the aircrews) due to aircraft production and crew training limitations.

The Germans failed at daylight bombing over Southern England July - September 1940 during the "Battle of Britain" for the same reason the British did in 1941-42: lack of long range escorts and heavily armed bombers with enough bomb load to make precision industry bombing effective. Initial Luftwaffe Fighter command actually employed the correct tactics. Sending fighters out ahead and to the side of the bomber stream to intercept the British before they could attack. Once in a while a fighter squadron of the few British got thru and shot down bombers -- which caused bomber leaders to complain about lack of fighters near them and thus pulled the Luftwaffe fighters back to close escort where they were ineffective in blocking any attacks at all.

The US Army Air Force employed the same close escort tactics FIRST that the Germans employed at the end of the BoB and the bombers suffered. They switched to what the Germans started with in loose escort in early-mid 1944 and broke up the Luftwaffe attacks. The USA bomber losses went down.

Luftwaffe Night Bombing

The Luftwaffe switched to night bombing in order to carry on the fight. The high losses suffered in daylight attacks made it the only reasonable alternative due to Adolf Hitler's need for to always attack and to help prove his world propaganda by saying he is still attacking England. It forced the British to expend efforts in defending against it. In October of 1940 bombing was still seen as part of the pre-war mentality that attacking civilians would weaken resolve as espoused in "Things To Come" and would force capitulation.

Rhubarbs and Circuses

During 1941 the British raided into French and Belgium with fighter attacks - Rhubarbs- small number of bombers (sometimes only 1) -- Circuses - with massive fighter escorts. JG 26 and JG 2 defended against these raids (called Circus-01, 02 etc) yet the bombers were still shot down on many occasions. The British saw that even with hugh numbers of escorts around the bombers still resulted in the bombers being shot convinced Bomber Command that attacks against deep targets in NAZI controlled areas would not achieve the war aim of crippling their industry. They ignored the bad escort tactics employed by Fighter Command that were employed which allowed the Luftwaffe pilots to get to the bombers which was the real cause of the losses. The Luftwaffe largely ignored fighters since they were no able to bomb - thus no threat to the German occupiers.

Bomber Command To Night Attacks

Probability and Hitting a Target

With daylight losses seen as being forever very high British Bomber Command, like the Luftwaffe High Command before them, switched to attacking precision targets at night. As stated in the book, hitting precision targets at night was very, very, difficult. The Germans found this out which is why they developed the two beam system to guide their bombers to targets in England. Still, being over a target at 15 to 20 thousand feet at night and then dropping bombs to hit a single factory was just not possible given the technology they had. The only way to hit a specific target was drop enough bombs so that at least 5 to 10% of those dropped would hit it and knock it out - which means you need a LOT of bombs and bombers. To put this in perspective you would need 41 Boeing B-17s, each loaded with twelve 500 lb bombs, over the target in order to effectively get fifty 500 lb bombs onto the target to knock it out for any length of time. A Bomb Group normally has 3 squadrons of 18 planes each giving a total of 54 planes assigned to it. A BG could - and did - hit a single target and take it out - during the DAY. The main difference was that the B-17s bombed from 25 to 32 thousand feet thus scattering the bombs over a wider area. The lowest bombing altitude that I know that an attack was done at by B-17s was at 17,000 feet. (Ignore the Ploesti B-24 raid which bombed 50 to 800 feet AGL.)

B-24 bomb strike on a German Rail yard
Hitting a German rail yard from 24,000 feet.
Note the pattern of bombs hitting outside the target area due
to formation drop.

RAF Bombing Altitudes

Bombing done at a lower altitude is always more accurate. RAF night bombers were assigned altitudes was from 7 to 17 thousand feet. Compared to USAAF of 22 to 32 thousand feet it would seem the RAF would have been deadly accurate. But, this being night, and with cloud cover and darkness the accuracy was just not there initially. With the advent of H2S radar for ground map navigation, pathfinders to mark targets, the ability to hit specific targets at night was doable by all of the RAF by late 1943. The "Dambusters" raid in May 16/17 1943 showed that it was very feasible to hit specific targets.

When I talked to a "Master Bomber," Wing Commander Raymond B. Phillips, D.F.C. A.F.C. in 1997 (from Dunston in Lincolnshire) he stated that the standard rule that pilots followed was that bombers usually ignored orders concerning assigned bombing altitude. (He acted as a Master Bomber over Berlin on two raids - in his case dropping target flairs himself and guiding the bombers like a combo pathfinder / master of ceremonies.) Bombers often climbed as high as possible to avoid being dropped on by OTHER bombers. Other pilots and crew that I talked to stated they also ignored altitude orders. It is better to be above than below other bombers when dropping bombs!

The British, by tactics and necessity just like the Germans before them, switched to large scale night bombing due to inability to fight during the day with massed bombers.

Hitting Something is Better than hitting Nothing

After initial tries at hitting targets at night they made a conscious decision to target SOMETHING that they could hit - and the whole city was the target. This is the whole premise of the book: that the British (and later Americans vs Japan) deliberately targeted people and their possessions out of proportion to war's necessity. This is further exacerbated by stating that when Bomber Command COULD target at night with precision - and when could fly in daylight with sufficient escorts to be effective - they DID NOT stop targeting cities.

This is where Mr. Grayling comes in stating that the Allies should feel guilty about this aspect of the Bombing Campaign.

Halifaxes, Lancasters, Sterlings and the other bombers were not designed to drop above 18,000 feet. The bomb load that they carried precluded it. Thus, they were designed to fight low and at night. This increased accuracy. The bomb aimers still aimed their bombs, used the British equivalent to the Norden Bomb Sight that the USAAF used, and were fully capable of hitting really small targets - like that of a railway tunnel. The fact that they did not was simply a matter of policy of RAF Bomber Command.

The ministers in charge of the war got their information on the campaign from Bomber Command and there was no way to get any independent view of the bombing effectiveness except from them. Thus you have a case where the people who could have ordered them to start precision bombing where all the necessary technical solutions were in place had no information to back up that order with logic and reason.

Point Made

In Grayling's book one point he makes is that that when the British COULD switch from area bombing to precision bombing at night they should have I agree with him. The technical military necessity of bombing by area was no longer valid. As to whether the US and UK should feel guilty by targeting the workers I think not. The scope of "front lines" and helping the war effort started to be blurred in the the First World War and it became even more prevalent during the Second World War. The UK and the USA own internal propaganda encouraged people to act as if they WERE on the front lines. The US even equated working in factories to being a soldier in many posters. Thus the workers considered themselves as combatants. When you go to a TOTAL WAR economy everyone is a worker for the overall war effort and thus - in reality whether you like it or not - they ARE targets.

USAAF Hamburg & Dresden

The US Army Air Force when it targeted Hamburg and Dresden did not target the "city" as the primary aiming point. (Though one bomber pilot that i talked with stated that his group's target at Dresden was the city and they bombed the center of it.) In the raids the B-17s and B-24 bombers still had factories or rail yards in the cities as their primary targets. The US, even though in a joint raid, did not totally abandon their precision targeting doctrine.

In the book, and in other sources, when talking about factories in Dresden thereby making it a "legitimate" target they give what official German sources state as to the number of war related facilities that were there. However, remember, this was year 6 in Germany and with the loss of France, Italy and other areas every place that could be used to produce goods was used. And due to the US precision bombing efforts of assembly plants many sub-components were farmed out and dispersed to thousands of small "mom and pop" firms. Tailplanes for 109s were made in cabinet shops around Germany - thus in these stats the many "factories" really consist of these types of firms doing war work. Machine shops, garment shops, sewing shops etc were all "war industries" to the central German government. You have to look at the actual list, number of people employed, what they were producing to really tell what effort Dresden had in the overall German war machine. I've never seen this list.

USAAF and Japan

When the US started hitting Japan in the fall of 1944 - FROM CHINA - with B-29s they went in with the same tactic of precision bombing. The distance to the targets and the lower bomb load due to fuel needs and the supply problems showed that China was not a viable base. Once the Saipan and Tinian bases were built and attacks from there were started the same problem was shown to occur. Climbing to high attitude requires more fuel (even with the higher True Air Speed (TAS) gained) and the effect on specific targets could not be achieved unless multiple visits were done.

When the US 21st Bomb Wing started bombing Japan from Saipan and Tinian islands the industry was in fact dispersed in the same identical manner that Germany went to later in the war: thousands of small shops scattered around in every city and only assembly plants were easily found and targeted. However in Japan's case, the factories started the war in a dispersed pattern. Thus to really cripple the war industry targeting a whole city was in fact a military necessity.

Japan, like any industrialized nation, was dependent upon oil and the US submarine fleet had largely destroyed and isolated Japan from the oil fields in China, Southeast Asia, Borne, Indonesia and the other minor oil areas. This meant that crippling war capacity via transportation targets the "cottage" industries that allowed Japan to sustain the war was the only uses left for the large bomber fleet now available. Given the problems in destroying rail systems discovered by fighting Germany (usually rails were repaired within 24 hours, bridges in a week or so) so it required an almost daily visit to every target area to really cripple that system, bombing the cities to destroy the base industry was the only option left for the US planners.

The fact that the cities were mostly two story side by side wood buildings just allowed the firestorm method to be employed. The military result though was great - all the small industries were destroyed.

Campaign Effects on War Production

Graying in the book talks about the direct effect that he bombing campaigns had on the German ability to wage war and makes the case that since the Germans were able to continuously increase production with the American bombing of the cities by day and the British at night that it was a failure. However, the bombing of the cities by the British, and selected targeting of factories by the Americans, caused the Germans to disperse their factories - and even move them into underground facilities - which meant that they had to BUILD the factories and divert time and money to do so and rely even more upon the transportation system to ensure that everything got to where it was needed. Thus when the transportation system was systematically attacked starting in late 1944 the production failure was quick.

Flak, Troops, Support and Materials

In the book he talks that the people defending against the attacks, especially the anti-aircraft (FLAK) personnel were of marginal use to the military. The whole bomber defense system was very involved, technical and required great skill at all levels. True, hauling shells for the batteries could be done by 16 year olds, but radar controlled interconnection of the batteries, coordination, aiming skill, and the sheer numbers of people required means a LOT of "back end" support for it to work correctly - and they all have to be good at their part in order for it to work. Plus, at most you had maybe 30 minutes from first idea that a raid is coming toward you till bombs over you that is not much time to get people from where they are, to the guns, prep them, set up the fire control system, acquire targets and fire for the 10 minutes they are in range of any one battery.

German Flak Defense World War II

At the end of 1943 there were 2,132 heavy guns used in the defense of the cities. Fixed heavy caliber guns do not move around easily from point to point. That takes a lot of food, ammo, vehicles EVERYWHERE just in case it is needed. A battery (3 guns) could put up 3 rounds per gun a minute so in 10 minutes that is 90 rounds. There are cases where the bombers made three trips over the target before dropping (USA) so that means 270 rounds per battery - maybe more - that were fired. Sometimes up to 100 batteries were defending a target so that gets to 27,000 rounds of ammo at 100 cities that has to be there just in case. Storage, moving them cannot be done so 27,000 rounds stored in each city just in case is very inefficient. 2,000 AA guns used in tank defense / attack on the North Africa and Eastern Fronts would have a big impact on attacking tank crews.

The Germans later on employed "flak trains" to aid in mobile defense to catch bombers along expected travel flight paths when trying to avoid cities and you get even more people involved.


In the First World War Germany lost 70+ Zeppelins in raids. Most historians call it a failure and was not worth the effort the Germans put into it. They also used 4 engine Gotha V bombers to target England. At the end of the war there were some 25+ squadrons of English fighters defending England, plus AA batteries, shelters built, and much more materials and supplies used to defend against these raids. That means 250+ planes were kept from the front, pilots, crews, artillery, food, and lots of other military gear just in case a raid came. That is tying down a lot of men and equipment from where it was needed. If the Germans had just stopped raiding Britain with Zeppelins and used them in ocean warfare with the U-Boats and launched a raid every once in a while to keep the planes based in the UK there it would have been more effective. The point is that the defense has to expend a lot more to effectively counter an attack than the attacker has to expend. The US committed over 800,000 personnel all told to the 8th Air Force (not counting production transport, etc) but the Germans had to commit three to four times that number to counter the effects of the aerial campaign once you add in the FLAK, Fighter Command, supply, bomb repair, new factories, dispersion of factories, new coordination to keep existing factories running for of all those people needed from France eastwards to support the defense system. (WW II FLAK towers built in Berlin are now being retrofitted into apartments as of December 2005!)

This is a hugh amount of people and supplies diverted from where it could be better utilized.

Military Personnel for Flak

A standard field battery of 88s (5 guns) requires 125 men to support it. A standard rule in WWII for the Germans was that for every 1 on the front line firing 6 more were behind them (in uniform) to keep them supplied. Taking into account that these batteries were fixed thus cutting down the number of people per gun in half, at the end of 1943 you have almost 4,000 flak guns of all types in use at an average of 12 men per gun gives 48,000 men just to fire the guns. Take the 6 to 1 ratio of support required for a unit so you have 288,000 support personnel giving a total 336,000 men just to man and support the flak guns!

The ability of the Germans to get supplies quickly to a city after an attack is an example he uses as to the limited impact that bombing had on Germany. But this means those supplies had to be planned for, manufactured, stored - not used on the front - and enough of them stored everywhere to quickly get to the city within 8 hours (no more than 300 miles from a target.) This means at least 6 sets had to be stored around greater Germany at any one time. That is a lot material made and stored in case a big raid happened.

Once a raid occured then everyone had to be accounted for, repairs made, tracking of where those people went to (this is a totally watched society, every person who moved was reported as to where from and to so this was even more work to track people precisely so they when they were needed in a war industry they could be found.)

Just the building of shelters, training, air raid drills, disruption to industry has an effect. German workers left to go to shelters during a raid (slave labor was not allowed into shelters, hired foreign workers had the same air-raid rights as Germans) would disrupt it for hours. If they turned out 24 bombers a day just an air-raid would stop the production of two bombers. That in itself is something.

Errors in the book

Jacket Cover: Those are B-24s on a bomb run over Tours France in August 1944 (according to the US Air Force museum) not Lancasters. See my page on "Cross Eyed Charlie."

Pg 43: German attacked Russia on June 22, 1941 at 3:30 AM - not May 1941. Some books state June 21, 1941 which is also correct - depending where you are at. 22 June is the LOCAL date time along the Russian border that they attacked. In the US the day was still 21 June.

Pg 57: Bomb loads. A Lancaster could carry eighteen 500 pound bombs - 4 1/2 tonnes - or 14 1000lb iron bombs - 7 tonnes. Special versions of the Lancaster could carry a 22,000 "Tallboy" bomb. These were used on the Tirpitz, U-Boat pens, and other special targets. Photos and bomb loads of a Lancaster. A US B-17 could carry twelve 500 lb bombs or 6 1000 lb bombs. The number of bombs that any aircraft could carry was limited by the number of bomb shackels it had - not the lifting capacity of the plane.

Pg 59: 617 Squadron raid on the five different dam targets was by Guy Gibson V.C. (D.F.C. and others) and resulted in 8 planes being lost (1 crashed on the way there, 7 shot down by fighters and flak). Each Lanc has a 7 man crew. 53 were killed and three became POWs. Gibson was later shot down by a Luftwaffe nightfigher and killed over Holland while flying a Mosquito on a pathfinder mission - the last mission he was allowed to go on.

Extra Notes

Iwo Jima was invaded in February 19 of 1945 eight months after the Marshall Islands were captured. It's value was mainly to be a base for P-51 fighter escorts and as an emergency landing base. The 1st B-29 to landed there I think 5 days after the invasion. Some 150+ B-29s made emergency landings there after it's capture. There is a movie clip showing that first B-29 landing there.

Bombing rail and bridges prior to an invasion and just behind the front lines was long recognized as valid and effective. This was shown in Italy in mid 1943 when allied intercepts read a German report that due to sustained bombing no rail traffic below Naples was possible anymore. Prior to the June 6 D-Day in Europe Normandy was isolated from all road and rail traffic by the combined effort of the 8th and RAF as the book mentioned.

The ability to cripple German rail and communication lines from fall of 1944 onwards was for the same reason flak concentration went up in Germany after August 1944 - there was less land in German hands. This mean 3/4 of Italy, no parts of France, or Belgium had to be attacked anymore. The planes that had been attacking targets there on a regular basis now switched to Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and parts of Yugoslovia. This allowed sustained multiple concentrated attacks against a section of a country to wipe out whole sections of rail, and road bridges in that area at a single time.