World War II – 80 years ago, the British started carpet bombing German cities

Bremen in 1944 after being bombed by the British Royal Air Force (picture alliance / Heritage Images)

“The German air force opens the decisive battle against England. The German squadrons rush to England without stopping. They bomb London day and night with millions of kilos”, reported the German newsreel on the “Battle of Britain” during the second war. worldwide. Following the victory over France, German bombers launched massive air strikes against military and civilian installations on the British Isles starting in the summer of 1940. Cities such as London and Coventry were deliberately targeted and more than 40,000 civilians died in the attacks.



“The morale of the enemy civilian population” to the goal

Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force found that their bombers lacked the accuracy needed to destroy strategic targets such as German airports or weapons factories. Only one in five attacks were successful, reason enough for the London Air Department to change tactics. On February 14, 1942 the “Area bombing directive no. 5” was issued:

“They will be allowed to use their armed forces without restrictions. The decision is to focus operations on the morale of enemy civilians, especially industrial workers ”.

The next day, Charles Portal, Chief of Staff of the British Air Force, clarified the statement: “It should be clear that the targets are built-up areas and not, for example, shipyards or aircraft plants. This needs to be clarified if it has not already been understood ».

“Bomber Harris”: “The Germans sow wind, now they will reap the storm”

The execution was entrusted to Arthur Harris, the supreme commander of the British bomber fleet. The first attacks in Essen in early March were followed by others in other cities in the Ruhr area as well as in Cologne, Düsseldorf and Hamburg:

“The Nazis started the war with the childish idea that they could bomb anyone but no one would bomb them,” explained Arthur Harris, nicknamed “Bomber Harris”. He justified the carpet bombing with previous German air raids on Rotterdam, London and Warsaw: “The Germans have sown wind and now they will reap the storm. Cologne, Lübeck, Rostock are just the beginning.”

the how

British Air Force officer Arthur Harris (left), who became known as “Bomber Harris”, in a meeting (undated photo). During World War II, Harris had German cities bombed across the board with the aim of “wearing out the morale of the German people”. (Photographic alliance / dpa)

Thomas Mann’s Lübeck badly damaged

One of the cities Harris mentioned was Lübeck, the hometown of Nobel laureate Thomas Mann. On 29 March, 200 British airmen dropped some 400 tons of bombs, two thirds of which were incendiary. They caused devastating damage, more than 300 people lost their lives and the historic center was largely destroyed. Shortly thereafter, Mann addressed German listeners from exile:

“Did Germany think she should never have to pay for the misdeeds her leadership in barbarism allowed her to do? Old Lübeck suffered during the recent British raid on Hitler Land. It’s my hometown and I don’t like it. But I’m thinking about Coventry and I don’t mind the lesson that everything has to be paid for. ”

“To make it impossible for you to continue the war”

The air raid on Lübeck was followed by countless others to break the people’s will to persevere. A leaflet launched en masse on the German Reich justified the procedure:

“Why are we doing this? Not for revenge, even if we don’t forget Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry. We are bombing Germany to prevent you from continuing the war. What you have experienced will not be comparable to what is to come.

Were the carpet attacks legitimate?

What followed were Allied attacks on some 150 cities with over half a million deaths. But the hoped-for effect of the so-called morale bombardment did not materialize. Massive blows against densely populated urban centers could wear down the local population and impress the world public, but the Germans did not rise up against the Nazi regime, but continued the war to the bitter end. In addition, the British aviation suffered significant losses, almost half of the aviators did not return. The military advantages and the international moral and legal assessment of the carpet bombings are therefore still controversial today.

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