Upon the breakout of World War II, there were those in military’s around the world that thought aerial power could be a decisive factor throughout the war. The ability to cripple a nations homeland would be essential to winning the war. Aerial power was one way to do this without having troops on the ground. This chart shows the allied aerial bombings of German cities during World War II.
The prevailing thought was that aerial bombings could destroy military installations on the home front to hamper the enemy military effort. In addition, by targeting transportation lines, factories and industrial centers, this could cripple the war effort. Lastly, the psychological effort could reduce morale on the citizens as they watched their homeland crumble.
From the onset of the war the Axis powers utilized aerial bombings to level their opponents. The Germans brutally bombed Polish cities and in their onslaught targeted both military and civilian sites. Similarly, the Japanese bombed Chinese cities and civilian targets throughout. The Allies surely repaid Japan in full with the devastating bombing of Japan later in the war.
Strangely, international law did not outlaw aerial bombardments of civilian populations.
Allied Aerial Bombings of German Cities in World War II
On the allied side, aerial bombings were initially limited to military sites. Military bases, docks and shipyards (to target U-boats) were all targeted to hamper the German war effort. When Britain was reeling during the blitz (Battle of Britain) in desperation they began bombing the airfields in the city of Berlin. The strategy worked, as an infuriated Hitler changed course and began bombing British civilian centers. This proved critical as the British Royal Air Force (RAF) was allowed to regroup and recover from the blitz onslaught.
Soon the targeted allied bombing campaigns became less restrictive. Military targets turned into industrial targets, which eventually turned into a “de- housing” campaign to inflict terror on German citizens. The RAF and US Army Air Forces (USAAF) began the practice of area bombing. The aim was to destroy everything within a specific area – even including civilian residential buildings.
After slow initial progress, the allied bombing campaigns eventually proved quite successful by 1944. They succeeded in crippling German production and severely hampered their war machine. The allies also proved quite successful in killing German citizens in these raids.
Over 400,000 total German citizens were killed during allied aerial bombings in the war. The worst of them are included in the chart. The firebombing of Hamburg killed the most in one city with 45,000-53,000 citizens killed. The destruction of Dresden has also been written about at length, and was the inspiration behind Kurt Vonnegut’s classic, Slaughterhouse-Five.
Despite the obvious moral implications of knowingly and intentionally killing civilians via the bombings, there were no war crimes issued against the allies. As Germany had an integrated, national air defense system, from an international law perspective, every city was defended and thus could be subject to attack.
Sources: War History Online