While teaching at UCLA, I heard a student ask one of my teaching assistants why the United States dropped The Bomb on Japan and not on Germany. The T.A. immediately responded, “Another example of racist America.” A doctoral student, he did not seem to know that Germany surrendered more than two months before we had even test-exploded an atomic bomb. Later, I learned that he also did not know that the Manhattan Project was conceived for producing an atomic bomb for use against Germany, not Japan, and that the Allies killed far more German civilians in the bombings of German cities than in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Although this information had little effect on the T.A.—he was a confirmed Maoist—I think it would on most students, if only the information were made available to them. While American college students have been subjected to readings, lectures, and discussions about the dropping of the atomic bomb since junior high school, I have rarely found a student who could tell me about the more devastating firebombing of the Fatherland.
Britain led the way. Refusing to fly daylight bombing missions because of the greater exposure to German interceptors and antiaircraft artillery fire, the RAF bombers flew only at night. Unable to precision-bomb in the darkness, they practiced indiscriminate saturation bombing and intentionally targeted civilian areas. The Krauts would be terrorized into submission! All German cities of 50,000 or more were subjected to a combination of high-energy and incendiary explosives. British commander Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris told his RAF pilots in February 1942: “It has been decided that the primary objective of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and, in particular, of industrial workers.” He was not called “Butcher Harris” for nothing.
Harris first unleashed his terror from the skies in March 1942 on the German port of Lübeck, dropping tons of incendiaries and killing hundreds of civilians. Two months later, Harris sent 900 bombers in several waves to firebomb Cologne. Eight square miles of the city were obliterated, and thousands were killed.
The U.S. Army Air Corps 8th Air Force arrived in England during the summer of 1942. The 8th’s commander, Gen. Carl Spaatz, was shocked by Harris’s strategy, saying American bombers would fly only during the more dangerous daylight hours to enable his pilots to pinpoint military targets and minimize civilian casualties. Spaatz thought what the British were doing could be considered a war crime. The British fumed, and Air Marshal John Slessor declared, “War without allies is bad enough—with allies it is hell.”
At the Allied conference at Casablanca in January 1943, the United States continued to insist on precision bombing only, causing Prime Minister Winston Churchill to be angered by our “most obstinate perseverance.” Nonetheless, German cities were bombed round the clock—Americans hitting industrial sites, rail yards, fuel-storage facilities, and other military targets by day, while the British bombed the most densely populated residential areas of cities by night.
In late July 1943, for several nights running, the RAF dropped tons of incendiaries on Hamburg, including phosphorous and napalm. The resulting fires superheated the air to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit and generated winds of more than 150 mph. The Germans called it Feuersturm. Much of the city was incinerated. People were literally sucked into the firestorm as if swept skyward by a tornado. British intelligence estimated that 44,600 civilians and 800 soldiers were killed. Later reports by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey suggested that upward of 100,000 Germans were killed, nearly all of them civilians.
Other German cities followed, including Berlin, Leipzig, Frankfurt, and Munich. By 1944, the 8th Air Force, although still practicing precision bombing during daylight hours, was dropping not only high-energy explosives but incendiaries, killing civilians by the thousands. The greatest holocaust occurred at Dresden in February 1945. Known as Elbflorenz—Florence on the Elbe—the city was a center of German art and culture. A similar city in Japan, Kyoto, was off-limits to American bombing. Although some have argued that Dresden was a legitimate military target, there is little justification for the claim other than the rail yards, which American precision bombing could easily destroy—and did—using HE explosives.
Dresden was bursting with people as streams of German civilians, fleeing the Russian advance from the east, poured into the city. The RAF struck on the night of February 13, dropping tons of HE explosives to rip buildings open and expose wooden studs and beams. Then came tons of incendiaries. The resulting Feuersturm exceeded even that of Hamburg. Temperatures exceeded 1,500 degrees F, and winds equaled the most powerful hurricanes. Over half of the city’s houses were destroyed, and a quarter of its industrial buildings. At least 80 percent of everything left standing was severely damaged.
The loss of life, nearly all civilian, probably exceeded 100,000. Estimates vary wildly from a low of 35,000—British historians like to argue for such an improbable figure—to a high of a half-million. Because the city was crowded with hundreds of thousands of refugees and because so many were simply incinerated, an accurate count is impossible. Kurt Vonnegut, an American POW in Dresden, said that 135,000 corpses were found in basements and underground shelters. The firestorm had sucked all the oxygen out of the air, and those underground had suffocated. Vonnegut and other POW survivors of the holocaust were given the job of hauling the bodies to huge funeral pyres where the corpses were burned to prevent spread of disease.
More than 600,000, possibly as many as a million, German civilians were killed in Allied bombings during World War II. Few will discuss or debate the issue on college campuses this year or hear their professors lecture on the Hamburg or Dresden firestorms. But, then, I guess we can’t call those bombings racist.