On September 1, 1939 — the first day of World War II in Europe — President Franklin D. Roosevelt appealed to the warring nations to “under no circumstances undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations.” Just six years later, British and American Allied forces would carry out a bombing campaign of unprecedented might over Germany’s cities, claiming the lives of nearly half a million civilians. The Bombing of Germany examines the defining moments of the offensive that led the U.S. across a moral divide.
In the summer of 1942, the United States 8th Air Force saw its first action in the war when it bombed an occupied railroad yard in France. In broad daylight, the American B-17 “Flying Fortresses” successfully destroyed the military targets and avoided civilian populations. The rail yard was severely damaged and the bombers all returned safely, confirming the Americans’ belief that airpower had revolutionized modern warfare and that civilian casualties could be avoided through precision daytime bombing.
The British, too, had once focused exclusively on military targets but abandoned that policy after Germany's bombing of London in the fall of 1940 resulted in thousands of civilian deaths. In July of 1943 the British Royal Air Force targeted Hamburg, an industrial city of nearly two million people. Flying under the cover of darkness and dropping thousands of tons of high explosive bombs and incendiaries upon the population below, the RAF sought to break the will of the German people to fight. The assaults destroyed nearly 60% of the city, killed an estimated 50,000 civilians, and left nearly a million people homeless.
American airmen participated in the raids on Hamburg by targeting military sites. Flying in daylight to improve accuracy and reduce civilian losses, the Americans did the best they could to hit a shipyard and an engine factory despite visibility heavily degraded by smoke from the RAF’s fires. In October, the Americans’ faith in the daylight bombing strategy began to waiver after several air assaults deep into German territory resulted in the loss of more than 200 bombers and hundreds of American airmen.
Towards the end of 1943 the Allied forces intensified their efforts, bombing the German capital of Berlin heavily. The addition of agile, long-range fighters to the American forces — the P-51 Mustangs — would eventually transform America's bombing strategy; now, under the escort of well-armed fighter planes, American bombers once again flew deep into enemy territory. Despite the near destruction of several cities, Germany's will to fight proved relentless as the Luftwaffe introduced even more powerful anti-aircraft rockets, as well as the world’s first jet fighter, the Messerchmitt 262.
In February of 1945, under great pressure to bring the European war to an end, the American commanders finally agreed to bombard Berlin — foregoing the strategy of targeting only military sites. Home to nearly four million civilians, Berlin was nearly entirely destroyed. Author Don Miller described the raid as the crossing of “a moral threshold. And that moral threshold is, we will not deliberately bomb civilians… once we crossed the moral divide in Berlin, it made everything else, including the atomic bomb, a little bit easier.”
From International Emmy Award and Peabody Award-winning producer Zvi Dor-Ner (Israel’s Next War, House of Saud) comes The Bombing of Germany, a one-hour film that examines the defining moments of the U.S. bombing campaign. Weaving together veteran and historian interviews with archival footage of the bombing and its aftermath, The Bombing of Germany is a haunting reminder of the moral dilemma imposed by war’s strategic imperatives.
My American Experience
Were you there for the storming of Normandy beach? The Bombing of Germany? The Victory in the Pacific? Or perhaps your friends and relatives have passed on stories of their own World War II experiences that you would like to share.