War in the Air

The U.S. military said it killed 11 people in a helicopter attack on a group of men seen planting a roadside bomb north of Baghdad on Tuesday, but police and residents said the dead were farmers, women and children. The U.S. military acknowledged that five women and one child were among those killed but blamed militants for using their home as a safe haven to escape attack by U.S. forces. It said a known member of a roadside bomb cell was also killed.

Didn’t all those years of only vaguely discriminate bombing in World War 2 eventually just show that you had to put enough boots on the ground to get anywhere? Germany was beaten in the land battles at Kursk, Stalingrad, Leningrad, Moscow, Normandy, Berlin and during the Bagration Offensive. Butcher Harris kept claiming that Germany would crumble and surrender but no matter how many tens of thousands of civilians were killed in a single night, cor blimey if those bally Bosch didn’t just keep on fighting! What jolly bad sports. It’s not like the Brits had the pulling-together example of the Blitz to learn from or anything.

The US-UK city bombing killed between 300K and 600K Germans, overwhelmingly civilian, with no evidence that it usefully hastened the end of the war. Just think how different things might have been if all those city bombers had instead been targetting railway lines, roads, and concentration camps.

Area bombing was never really about strategic goals – it was a terror weapon. Area bombing targetted entire urban centres for annihilation. It is the explicit targetting of civilians and pre-figured the city killing strategy of nuclear warfare. Only the most deluded believed it was superior (morally or tactically) to precision strikes. By the end of the way most of the US and UK generals did indeed know this. Nevertheless, Harris was allowed to continue his rampages (after all, US industry was making so many of these and it would have been a terrible shame to let them go to waste). Only the most Wellsian believed that aerial warfare could win the war – many believed it could shorten it. Precision bombing of military and industrial facilities would have been more effective. However, these were usually quite well defended and the casualty averse UK and US forces therefore the easy targets of night raids on lightly defended cities.

The classic book on this matter is Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945. Taylor’s thesis? Late-stage city bombings were designed to both appease Stalin and to warn him that the Western Powers would use scorched earth tactics were the Red Army to advance past Berlin.

It was actually Fred Lindmann in 1942 who proposed to “dehouse” the German population. Harris seized on the paper and used it as justification right through until 1945. It was a controversial policy even during the war. It was notable that as news of the carnage in Dresden emerged, even Churchill scrambled to distance himself from the strategy. Harris responded to this by repeating his claim that bombing would shorten the war, and his famous quip that all the cities in Germany were not worth the life on one British soldier.

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