British bombing of population targets- strategic question

Recent WWII shows have pointed out the decision of the British command to bomb German population targets over more military targets…

Is there a good document that shows why?

While this is a deep moral question, I’m leaning in more of a strategic look back instead of the good moral question of why. As part of the Battle of Britain, it’s always said that the German error to bomb London (which lead to the bombing of Berlin, which lead to a concentration of bombing of population centers…) was a massive “blessing” to the British military- as they were on the ragged edge of losing the battle based on ground losses.

Which tells me that the British leadership actually knew that good, targeted, bombing can lead to massive military problems in being able to wage a war.

So if they knew that, why would they change focus from military and industrial targets to populations? Seems odd that the one thing that saved the British from defeat would be the wrong choice to apply to the enemy.

On a related note- when did German industry move underground to be more robust to bombing?


I don’t know of one document; but I recommend Richard Overy’s The Bombing War:Europe 39-45. ISBN 978-0141003214.
The real strategic reason for switching to ‘area bombing’ was that they couldn’t do anything else. The technology couldn’t reliably hit a target as small as a factory in daylight, let alone at night. The advocates of strategic bombing didn’t want to admit it couldn’t do what they had claimed so it was easier to cut the strategy to fit the ability.


It makes sense that it would be “A” reason. But actually knowing how ineffective bombing of populations are, it’s a pretty peculiar choice to make. Especially when they also know how effective bombing of military related sites are.

That reason sounds more like- just have to bomb something, so lets to the easy target. Which is both wasteful of the bombs, planes, and men and incredibly morally questionable.

But just on the strategic side- it seems to me that finding a way to be effective on a military target is the far better choice, given what they knew first hand from the Battle of Britain.


Great question!
I don’t know the perfect answer but I know that the strategy of ‘Bomber’ Harris was very much different than the 8th division of the USAAF. Eventually they were both drawn into a mass murdering airwar, together destroying many cities, Dresden being infamous, killing thousands of people and destroying the most beautiful city in Germany, for no real military reason.

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And honestly, that’s the really confusing part- why in the world did they do that, when they new perfectly well how ineffective it was against the British??? Let alone how effective the original bombing during the BoB was- had it not been for the accidental bombing of London (and I do really believe it was a mistake) then the back and forth between Berlin and London- Hitler would not have focused on London, and the odds would have changed a lot.

I know it’s hindsight, but some of the choices that were made were incredibly confusing, let alone horrific.


The tragedy of war, I’m affraid…though all parties were known to bomb civilian targets, it became a sort of up bidding that culminated up to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Never forget :pray:

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This has been a subject of debate ever since the end of the Second World War.

There is no definitive answers as to why the decision was made but one of the prevailing thoughts was that if you destroyed the housing and business districts of manufacturing centres the civilian populace would move to safer areas and therefore deny the enemy a labour force. However it does not explain why cities with no military or manufacturing value were attacked and bombed repeatedly.

The unfortunate thing is the only real effect the bombings had was to move everything underground and as far as the labour force went they had an unlimited supply of workers from the camps that they could literally work to death.


Also Arbeitseinsatz was imposed on many men from countries that were occupied. Especially in my own country, The Netherlands. Bomber Harris always kept stating that the main reason for bombing civilians was to break moral, but during the Blitz he already could have known this was to no avail. German civilians were sceptical of the war in 1939 but only became more resolved to support the war more and more as bombing became more intense. Hamburg was a game changer for instance.


In comparing the Luftwaffe anti-RAF campaign with the strategic bombing campaign you are comparing a tactical operation with a strategic.
In 1940 the anti-RAF campaign was relatively effective in weakening the RAF in a pre-invasion tactical sense. However it made little difference to UK war production.
Also the myth of the Blitz Spirit is just that; the official documents show that the German bombing of civilians had a significant negative effect on morale and on war production.
So when Bomber Harris was making his plans in 1942 it was reasonable to believe a linear increase in the scale of bombing would have a linear effect on civilian morale, which would have broken German civilian morale; in reality it turned out to be a non-linear relationship.
The objective of the strategic bombing campaign was to reduce Germany’s war fighting capacity. In this it was very successful: a huge proportion of the German war budget was dedicated to Air Defence in later half of the war; the Luftwaffe in '44 had massively reduced in bomber force and pulled back from France to facilitate strategic bombing defences such that it made no significant contribution to opposing D-Day; the resources used to move factories underground and build bomb shelters would otherwise have been available to strengthen the Atlantic Wall; it delayed by months the deployment if the V2 and Me262; more 88mm barrels were worn out on air defence than were deployed as AT guns; and it did produce significant disruption of German war fighting ability.
Rather than comparing the RAF strategic bombing campaign with the Luftwaffe it is perhaps better compared with the Kriegsmarine U-Boat campaign. While the RAF was trying to bomb Germany into submission the Kriegsmarine was trying to starve Britain into submission.


Thanks for the explanation, and the suggestion that the popular history does not tell the whole story.

I do want to point out that this wasn’t the moral question, it was the strategic one based on the popular history from the BoB. So while the comparison to starve Britain is an apt comparison- the question was more about conclusions drawn from German bombing of England and how they applied to any bombing of Germany.


Bringing this topic back up, since it was very much covered in the WAH series.

It’s kind of nuts to me that the British leadership very much knew and understood that the bombing of civilians didn’t hurt, but actually hardened their moral- yet still pressed on with bombing civilians.

We can discuss about the morality of this- and WAH is doing a great job bringing that up. But it’s also a rather significant waste of resources where the opposite outcome is already known. With a pretty fixed amount of bombers and crews, the fact that they decided to use them in a manner where they already knew that it would harden the resolve of the German citizen… I don’t know how to conclude that without a lot of contempt.

Carpet bombing was and still is used today as a method of terror, physiological torment and affects morale. While in the grand scheme carpet bombing was a massive failure at time time but ended up being a win of sorts after the war.

What I mean by that is it took sometimes 30 years to repair infrastructure and remove the signs of war and survivors of the carpet bombings had PTSD(although most called them night terrors at that time as PTSD was unknown) and these survivors swore to never see something like this happen ever again and for the most part were successful through politics and remembrance.

Recent events have shown a new generation what a scorched earth policy looks like and the ensuing chaos that it causes yet much like the WW2 bombings people have become more patriotic, stoic and even militant reflecting the events of WW2 civilians endured and survived.

History teaches us lots but that doesn’t mean we’ll learn from them……

I see your point, and I agree that the people who lived through that would do what they could to prevent future bombing like that.

But there’s no way that was taken into account during the war. What they wanted to accomplish they already knew that the desired effect would end up being the opposite, yet they still did it. Not only is there the morality of randomly killing civilians, it was a waste of limited resources.

True but the relationship is never like the percentage models in Strategy games. It is more like generating chances. Had Stauffenburg or any other attempt to kill Hitler succeeded we would have been talking whether the bombing was one of the causes. There only need to be a limited number of people in the right places to stop Hitler.

Japan surrendered after the prospect of a nuke every 3 days.

Also my (great) grandparents were delighted to see utterly arrogant German self proclaimed Uberhumans being scared to death and crying which was a consolence for their morale and they could find some food when clearing out the rubble as forced labor. Help was on the way but only arrived in 13 April 1945 in the form of Patttons Army. And many Germans still kept ignoring thei obvious hopeless situation.

The Allies were thinking 1918 when Germany :de: gave up after obviously had lost. Germany was the only power to fight on till the end.

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Given there were numerous assassination plots, even before there was significant strategic bombing of Germany, it’s difficult to see bombing as a significant factor.
Germany fought beyond reason because the nazi regime mirrored the internal psychosis of Hitler. The Nazi regime was not a rational government; it had more in common with a religious cult with Hitler as it’s prophet.
Germany didn’t fight to the bitter end; they surrendered eight days after Hitler was dead.
Japan had the cult of the Emperor, but the cult focus was separated from government policy and the Emperor was not psychotic.
In terms of the allies was there a huge difference between Hitler’s fighting on in 1945 and Churchill’s in 1940?

The one thing that I’m not sure about is what other options the Allies had to bomb. Again, the angle I’m looking at this is limited resources- so what else could have been done instead of less effective bombing of civilians?

The goal should have been to shorten the war, not just beat the Germans into long term submission- unless that was the only thing that could be done. And if it were- would it have been better to build planes that would directly support the ground work- since that was slogging along in many places?

Another way of putting the question- how many Allied foot soldiers died or were injured because of lack of air support due to the bombing of civilians? By now, Bomber Harris was pretty contempt of the ground effort, when his work was not all that effective.

Well, the “why” was they couldn’t hit individual factories, so they aimed at cities, claiming this would deprive the factories of workers, and thus… uh… something. This was codified in the “Area Bombing Directive” of February 14th, 1942 (replacing a policy that factories in France were primary targets).

It was explicit policy to kill civilians under the cover of attacking “the morale of enemy civil population and in particular industrial workers.”

But to answer your specific question, making killing civilians in as large a quantity as possible was the only possible actual target from an RAF Bomber Command (especially through mid-1943) that had trouble finding, much less bombing, German cities in the dark.

The Germans didn’t start moving production under ground (and only in fits and starts) when the USAAF started regularly obliterating factories.

Your point just asks my question again, in a different form. If they can’t hit the side of a barn so they just use a mass carpet bombing technique that they actually KNOW it won’t actually hurt morale- then why waste resources?

One of the things that is crazy to me is that the Mosquito was well into service by now- when they further decide to carpet bomb when they admit that it’s the wrong thing to do- and it’s pretty effective at accurate bombing thanks to its capabilities. Change tactics and maybe you actually shorten the war.

There is no real satisfactory answer to your question. We have books, personal notes, historical footage and first hand accounts on both sides to help us with the answers but all we can come up with is prevailing thoughts of the allies which was to pound the Germans into submission, demoralize the soldiers and to slow the German war machine.

-pounding the Germans into submission actually had the opposite effect in that it made them more stubborn and willing to endure. There is a lot of information about this out there.

-demoralizing the German troops. This actually had some success from late late 1943 onwards as German troops got word their towns and families were in danger and dead or injured many Of the regular German troops were known to of deserted or went AWOL to protect their families. While it did have an effect on the morale on German troops it wasn’t enough to affect their fighting capability.

-slowing or stopping the German war production. This had negligible results as the Germans went underground and had an near inexhaustible supply of workers from the various camps and would literally work them to death as they could easily be replaced. What ended up slowing the war production was lack of materials as many factories operated right up to the very end.

I doubt you will ever get a satisfactory answer as to why the allies carpet bombed Germany and all we have is theories and suppositions to go on.

I think the effect of the Nuclear bomb on Japan’s will to carry on is hugely overrated. It didn’t help, but a much bigger factor was probably the Soviet invasion of Manchuria. That started on August 9th, the same day as the bombing of Hiroshima. Japan surrendered on August 15th and officially signed surrender on september 2nd. While the Pacific war had gone decisively in favour of the Americans by the summer of 1945, the Japanese still controlled a massive empire in China and they weren’t losing there yet. It is not unthinkable they would have withstanded those nuclear bombs if there was a chance they could have kept their empire in China. With the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, that hope was lost and signing surrender was the only thing left to do.