Jun 2011 Journal

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Bombs and ethics

The bombing of Libya, following on from the ‘Shock and Awe’ bombardment of Iraq in 2003, has reopened the question of the morality of bombing when civilian lives are at stake. The moral issues raised by the Allied air offensive against Germany during the Second World War are still very much alive today, more than 60 years later, not least because of the scale of the casualties: it has been reliably estimated that some 600,000 German civilians were killed in the raids.

Attention today has tended to focus on the bombing of Dresden by the RAF and the USAAF. In four raids between 13 and 15 February 1945, involving some 3,600 planes including 1,300 heavy bombers, over 3,900 tons of explosive bombs and incendiary devices were dropped on the previously intact city, destroying its historic centre and causing large civilian casualties, now estimated at up to 25,000. The horrors of the raid, and especially the lethal firestorm that engulfed parts of the city centre, had an impact almost immediately. Winston Churchill, distancing himself from a raid that he had previously pressed for, ordered the cessation of the mass bombing of large German cities, thereby coming into conflict with the architect of the strategic bombing offensive, Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, known as ‘Bomber’ Harris.

It is often argued that the bombing of Dresden so late in the war contributed little of military value to the defeat of Germany, and that the toll of civilian lives and the destruction of the glorious city on the Elbe were in any case out of all proportion to any advantages that the Allies gained through the bombing. Such arguments have, however, been weakened by their use by unscrupulous commentators on the far right, including David Irving. At the most recent commemoration of the raid, a German neo-Nazi spokesman referred to Harris as ‘Butcher’ Harris, with the plain implication that the western Allies were as guilty of war crimes as the Nazis. This is all part of the far right’s long-standing and discreditable campaign to relativise the Holocaust - Dresden cancels out Auschwitz, as it were. Such contemptible exercises in political manipulation masquerading as moral outrage merit little further attention.

However, there is a moral case to be made against the bombing of German cities, and not only in the case of Dresden. By 1945, the bombing offensive seemed to have acquired a momentum of its own, being pursued almost for its own sake and irrespective of the military benefits that the raids might bring, which at that stage of the war were relatively small. How else can one explain the raid on Würzburg, the jewel of Franconia, on 16 March 1945 (almost a month after Dresden), which killed up to 5,000 people and destroyed the Residenz, the magnificent palace of the former Prince-Bishops? Or the lethal raid of 23 February 1945 on Pforzheim, a target of equally minor importance, which killed some 17,000 people, a full quarter of the town’s population?

Depictions of the Dresden raid in novels like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five have reinforced its image in the public mind as the raining down of an apocalyptic hail of destruction on a largely defenceless city. Bombing from a height of many thousands of feet bred a kind of moral indifference to its effects; it is hard to imagine British land forces attacking the city and killing thousands of civilians at close quarters. Bombing was a technological solution to the problem of destroying the enemy’s productive capacity, and one which tended to dehumanise the victims of the raids as secondary casualties, ‘collateral damage’ in the current euphemism.

On the other hand, it is harder to dispute the military justification of the bombing of Hamburg, which took place throughout the last week of July 1943 and killed some 46,000 people, making it the most costly of all in terms of the loss of life. Though the firestorm provoked by the raid of 27 July 1943 caused appalling scenes of carnage among the civilian population, memorably conveyed in Martin Middlebrook’s classic study The Battle of Hamburg (1980), the city’s industrial potential and its contribution to the German war effort were also hard hit; Hamburg contained essential armaments industries, as well as its port facilities, shipbuilding yards and submarine pens. Berlin, the nerve centre of the Third Reich and its military operations, was another obvious target for attack: apart from the damage to key facilities, the dislocation of systems by continuous air raids severely disrupted the smooth functioning of the Nazi machine.

A reasonable judgment on the Allied bombing of Germany can only be reached if one considers the military and strategic situation in which it was decided on and implemented. If, to take a fantasy scenario, the RAF had bombed Germany without declaration of war, raining bombs on a peaceful land governed by a democratic, non-Nazi regime, outright moral condemnation would be justified. But the real situation confronting Britain from 1940 on was very different. Once the Germans had occupied France and the Low Countries and had expelled British forces from mainland Europe, there was until D-Day in June 1944 no major land front on which British and German forces faced one another. The campaigns in North Africa, Greece and Crete, and Italy were, despite their strategic importance, not comparable to the Western Front of 1914-18 as the crucial land front on which the outcome of the war would be decided.

As the British could bring neither land nor sea power to bear on Germany itself, Churchill was forced to turn to air power, especially as in the Lancaster and Wellington bombers Britain had the necessary capacity to bring the war home to the enemy. The strategic air offensive aimed to destroy the enemy’s capacity to prosecute the war, as well as sapping the morale of the German population. Since accurate bombing of specific industrial targets was impossible in the 1940s – the British could only bomb by night, as their bombers were too vulnerable to fighters by day – the only way of achieving the strategic aim of the air offensive was to target larger areas, and that in turn inevitably meant incurring civilian casualties.

The killing of civilians was and is morally repugnant, but there has been no modern war (and precious few ancient ones) in which no civilians have died. War is in itself immoral; it is therefore only to be undertaken when clearly justified, and that was plainly the case with the war against Hitler. To equate the Allied bombing campaign morally with crimes like the Holocaust is for that reason alone completely misguided. Whereas the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews was conducted largely outside the German war effort, and indeed to some extent in conflict with its priorities, the Allied air offensive was a military campaign conducted as part of the war effort and intended to bring the war to a victorious conclusion as speedily as possible. The ‘Final Solution’ was conducted primarily by the SS and, though the German army was certainly involved in the mass murders, the machine of genocide was controlled by Himmler, to the virtual exclusion of the military high command.

The strategic bombing offensive, by contrast, was conducted on the British side by Bomber Command, an arm of the Royal Air Force, which was under the political control of the Air Ministry and the War Cabinet and whose operations were controlled militarily by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bomber Command carried out the bombing offensive as a military campaign. The offensive was not a battle between highly armed aircraft and defenceless civilians, for the British bombers had to fight their way to their targets against formidable forces of night fighters (the Kammhuber Line) and anti-aircraft guns. This was a military campaign, and the losses prove it: together, the RAF and the USAAF lost some 140,000 men in the bombing offensive. To kill millions of defenceless, almost entirely unarmed Jews required little more than units of highly trained cowards. To carry out sorties against German cities required fighting men and courage.

How much the bombing contributed to the ending of the war has been hotly debated. Plainly, it greatly hampered Germany’s essential war production. The strategic air offensive also effectively destroyed the German air force. This ensured the Allied air superiority that was crucial to the success of operations like the Normandy landings. To defend German cities against the aerial onslaught, the Germans were also forced to withdraw vital weaponry from the Eastern Front. The 88-millimetre gun, used with deadly effect as an anti-tank weapon in the East, was by late 1943 principally deployed as an anti-aircraft gun in Germany. As a defence against Allied bombers, Germany was forced to build fighters, thereby sacrificing the production of the bombers that had wrought such havoc on the Soviet forces in 1941/42. The air war over Germany contributed very significantly to the defeat of Nazism, and that must be taken into account alongside the civilian casualties it cost.

Anthony Grenville

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