British Official Photo/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

A Royal Air Force Lancaster bomber during a night raid over Hamburg, Germany, 1943

A whole great city is ablaze. After two nights of intensive bombing with high explosives and incendiaries, several square miles burn for hours at hundreds of degrees Centigrade, an inferno consuming every living creature. At least 40,000 civilians—mostly women or girls, more than 10,000 of them children—die awful deaths.

This year marks the centenary of the founding of the Royal Air Force, commemorated by a flyby over Buckingham Palace of aircraft from Spitfires to F-35 Lightnings. The RAF was the first independent air force created by any country—the United States Air Force didn’t become a separate service until 1947—and the first inspired by the doctrine of “air power.” What that meant in practice found its apotheosis in the most distinctive British campaign of World War II, the “strategic bombing” of Germany. That city engulfed by firestorm wasn’t Aleppo or Sanaa, with whose horrors we lately have been harrowed, but Hamburg in July 1943.

That was less than forty years after Kitty Hawk, and both aviation and aerial warfare had developed with dramatic rapidity. The first small bombs were dropped in 1911, during the contemptible Italian war in what is now Libya. H.G. Wells’s 1908 future-shock fantasy The War in the Air had already envisaged New York reduced in a matter of hours to “a furnace of crimson flames, from which there was no escape.”

The Great War hinted that this was no mere fantasy. Even before Zeppelin airships began bombing London in 1915, the London popular press had whipped up hatred of the Germans much more bitter than it would in the next war. Demagogues like Pemberton Billing, elected to Parliament as “the first air member,” noisily advocated reprisals, and so did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After it had been reported that the Germans had bombed army hospitals in France, he wrote a startling effusion in The Times:

Two years ago you allowed me to plead in your columns for the bombing of the Rhine towns…. Now we have to deal with the bombing of hospitals. German prisoners should at once be picketed among the tents, and the airman captured should be shot.

As Richard Overy writes in RAF: The Birth of the World’s First Air Force, the creation of a separate air force “was a political decision, prompted by the German air attacks on London in 1917, not a decision dictated by military necessity.” The RAF played a significant part in the last great battles on the Western Front, as well as bombing German cities in a modest way, but the war ended within months of the creation of the new service. It had plenty of enemies—Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, chief of the Imperial General Staff, thought that “the sooner the Air Force crashes the better…. It is a wicked waste of money”—and peace raised the question of what its purpose was to be.

Almost at once came the answer: “air control” in distant lands. In May 1919 the RAF bombed Jalalabad and Kabul in the Third Afghan War, as the British called their latest—though not their last—attempt to subdue that unruly mountain kingdom. Bombers were used in Somalia and then Iraq, the country created by Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire. In 1920 widespread resistance to the British was briskly suppressed by Vickers Vernon biplanes, whose pilots included the young squadron leader Arthur Harris, bombing and machine-gunning villagers into submission. To stimulate public enthusiasm for the new force, an annual RAF tournament was held at Hendon aerodrome in north London, where in 1925 visitors could watch as aircraft dropped incendiary bombs on a model of an African village.

This was a great boon for the London government. The British had long been conquering, and when necessary disciplining, the empire with troops, which was expensive. Air control was far cheaper, “a great economy in maintaining order in these wild countries,” as Churchill put it. In the 1930s the RAF was used to subdue the Arab Revolt in Palestine, where Harris said that turbulent Palestinian Arabs should be dealt with by dropping “one 250 lb or 500 lb bomb in each village that speaks out of turn.”

And yet this defied official policy. Great Britain was a party to the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, which prohibited “aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing the civil population…or of injuring non-combatants.” The League of Nations had proclaimed that “the intentional bombing of civilian populations is illegal,” and in May 1939, the archbishop of Canterbury was assured by Sir Kingsley Wood, the air minister, that the government accepted that principle. When World War II began, Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister, told Parliament that, whatever others might do, the British would “never resort to the deliberate attack on women, children and other civilians for purposes of mere terrorism.”


If this wasn’t consciously mendacious, it was willfully blind. Fear of bombing was now universal, strengthened by an assumption that there was no defense against it. No one foresaw the advent of the fast monoplane fighter and radar, which would transform air war and win the Battle of Britain. The once and future prime minister Stanley Baldwin was derided for his fear-laden words in 1932—“the bomber will always get through”—but at that time Churchill was just as convinced that London would be laid to waste in the first weeks of war. Everything was conditioned by this belief: the frantic search for peace, appeasement, the Munich Agreement. Those Americans who sneer at the appeasers might think of London under the Blitz and ask themselves how many bombs have ever fallen on American cities.

It seemed that the only answer to being bombed was to bomb back. “The country who strikes first,” said one senior officer at the time the RAF was founded, “with its big bombing squadrons…will win the war,” and Sir Hugh Trenchard, the first head of the RAF, said in 1918 that bombing’s “moral effect”—in the sense of morale—was “far greater than the material effect.” In other words, “terrorizing the civil population” was always the purpose of the RAF and specifically of Bomber Command, which was formed in 1936. Even when daytime bombing of Germany led to unsustainable losses, faith in bombing persisted. Churchill’s famous tribute to the fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain (“Never in the field of human conflict…”) was almost an aside in a long passage extolling the bombers as the only means to victory.

Over the winter of 1940–1941 daytime bombing gave way to highly inaccurate bombing by night. On October 30, 1940, the War Cabinet had decided that “the civilian population around the target areas must be made to feel the weight of the war,” yet for all those odious words, bombing was mostly futile through 1941. In August, an independent survey by D.M. Butt, a senior official, found by scrutinizing aerial photographs that only one aircraft out of three was dropping bombs within five miles of its target.

During those years the British were sustained by two beliefs, both false. Economists and Treasury officials insisted that the supposedly autarkic economy of the Third Reich was so feeble that it must soon collapse. And senior airmen continually asserted that German morale was far inferior to that of the British: “London can take it,” but Berlin couldn’t. In reality, the German war-industrial economy had barely begun to flex its muscles in the first two years of the war, and German morale proved no weaker than British. In his short survey Aerial Warfare, Frank Ledwidge quotes the postwar British Bombing Survey Unit: “Insofar as the offensive against German towns was designed to break the morale of the German civilian population, it clearly failed.”

Faced with these failures, the campaign was suspended in November 1941; this amounted to a formal recognition, as its official historians wrote, “that the results which Bomber Command was achieving were not worth the casualties it was suffering.” At that point bombing could have been indefinitely halted, at least until means had been found to bomb military targets accurately. Instead the fateful decision was made by Churchill and the War Cabinet to increase greatly the night bombing campaign, with the deliberate aim of destroying entire cites and their inhabitants. In a private directive, the Air Ministry told Bomber Command that its attacks “should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular, of the industrial workers.”

To personify this change of direction, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, as he now was, was appointed head of Bomber Command in February 1942, to do to the Germans on a far vaster scale what he had once done to Iraqi and Palestinian villagers. On March 28, the RAF destroyed Lübeck, home of Thomas Mann (and the Buddenbrooks). Although this ancient Hanseatic port was of little strategic importance, it had the advantage of being, as Harris put it, “more like a fire-lighter than a human habitation.” That was followed by the thousand-bomber raid on the cathedral city of Cologne, more publicity stunt than serious war-making. Even then, aircrew casualties mounted until they were nearly unmanageable, although Harris was as thick-skinned about the numbers of his own men killed as about German civilians.

By 1943, the RAF had been joined by the US Eighth Army Air Force, stationed in bases in East Anglia like the ghostly one revisited after the war by Dean Jagger in Twelve O’Clock High. The Americans still believed they could bomb precise targets in daylight and that their Flying Fortresses, flying in tight formation and bristling with guns, would be able to defend themselves against fighters. This proved another misapprehension, and American casualties were also very heavy.


While Harris derided what he called “panaceas,” or attacks on specific targets, one such raid is indelibly engraved on the memory of my generation, which grew up after the war. On the night of May 16–17, 1943, nineteen specially equipped Avro Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron bombed three dams holding the water supply for the Ruhr. Two out of three were breached, but crucially not the third, and the breached dams were soon repaired. Eight aircraft were lost and fifty-three of 133 aircrew were killed. Many civilians were drowned, most of them Russian forced laborers, something not dwelt on in The Dam Busters (1955), the most famous of all British flag-waving movies. To this day, when England plays Germany at soccer, English fans will hum Eric Coates’s lugubrious “Dam Buster March.”

After the Ruhr, Hamburg, and Berlin, bombing reached a final crescendo. More bombs were dropped on Germany—and more civilians killed—in the eleven months from D-Day to VE-Day than in the previous four years, an orgy of destruction that culminated in the razing of Dresden in February 1945.

None of this happened without dissent. Indiscriminate bombing was criticized in the House of Commons by Richard Stokes, an eccentric patrician Labour MP who received endless dishonest replies from ministers, and in the House of Lords by the noble Dr. George Bell, bishop of Chichester. This is something in which an Englishman can still take pride: In the legislatures of how many other combatant countries was such criticism heard? Within government circles there were fewer moral qualms, but much agitation to use Bomber Command against militarily important targets. The late Solly Zuckerman, a scientist working in Whitehall, described in these pages how he had advocated a “transportation plan” to paralyze the German defense of France before D-Day by the accurate bombing of the railway network, a proposal Harris resented, as he did any distraction from the destruction of German cities and their inhabitants.1

After telling the Air Ministry to ignore “the sentimental and humanitarian scruples of a negligible minority,” Harris became ever wilder. He told Carl Spaatz, his American counterpart, that while Spaatz’s daylight attacks might destroy a factory, which the Germans could replace in a matter of months, Harris’s night raids would kill all the factory workers, who took twenty years to replace. Bombing would make an invasion of Europe unnecessary, he wrote to Churchill in November 1943: “We can wreck Berlin from end to end if the USAAF will come in on it. It will cost us 400–500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war.”

And yet Churchill himself blew hot and cold about bombing. He had always been conflicted over the barbarity of modern war, excoriating “the baby-killers of Scarborough” after German warships shelled that Yorkshire resort in December 1914 and killed a small number of civilians, and lamenting in 1930 the way that “war, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid,” with “chauffeurs pulling the levers of aeroplanes” and “entire populations, including even women and children, pitted against one another in brutish mutual extermination.”

By the summer of 1940 he was writing to Lord Beaverbrook to say that the only way Germany might now be defeated was with “an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers…upon the Nazi homeland.” But at times his conscience was troubled. In the summer of 1943 he was in the small cinema he had had installed at Chequers when the newsreel showed a blazing German city filmed from above. Churchill turned to his neighbor and said, “Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?” Just possibly he remembered the baby-killers of Scarborough, and wondered about the baby-killers of Hamburg.

His concerns returned again during the last months of the war, with its insensate carnage. On March 28, 1945, some weeks after the bombing of Dresden, he wrote:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror…should be reviewed…. The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.

Harris retorted that “the feeling, such as there is, over Dresden, could be easily explained by any psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses.” But his and the Air Ministry’s outrage at Churchill’s dishonest concern for his own reputation was understandable enough.

To have seen devastating bombing as the only way through was forgivable in the dire circumstances of 1940, but by the beginning of 1942, though victory was still a distant prospect, both Russia and the United States had joined the war against Germany and defeat was no longer feared. At that moment, Churchill was faced with the crucial choice whether to relax or increase so-called area bombing, understood as indiscriminate and invariably involving civilian casualties. He took the wrong path. But all his misgivings about bombing and Harris were stored up and found ignoble expression at the end of the war. Following his Dresden memo, Bomber Command wasn’t mentioned in his victory speech, and no campaign medal was struck for it. After all their sacrifices, the survivors were left to feel forgotten and almost despised.

Controversy about bombing continued after the war and was stimulated in 1961 by the formidable official history The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, 1939–1945 by Sir Charles Webster and Noble Frankland. Webster was a distinguished diplomatic historian, authority on the foreign policy of Lord Castlereagh, and an opponent of appeasement in the 1930s, while Frankland’s undergraduate career at Oxford had been interrupted by the war, in which he himself had won the Distinguished Flying Cross as a navigator in Bomber Command. Their four volumes were long in the making—Webster died shortly before publication—and not just because of the quantity of research. The Air Ministry and senior RAF officers fought a lengthy rearguard action, if not to suppress the book then to neuter it. Even Harold Macmillan, the prime minister, tried to help Harris, who wanted to block publication of critical letters from his superiors during the last year of the war, when he had become grossly insubordinate.

No history commissioned by the British government was ever going to condemn bombing outright, but the airmen were enraged enough by the ruthless objectivity with which Webster and Frankland described Harris’s failures. Bombing, they wrote, “did not produce direct results commensurate with the hopes once entertained.” The fact remained, they ruefully acknowledged, “that Berlin’s armament production steadily increased…until late in 1944.” More astonishingly still, as Benn Steil writes in The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War, “a remarkable 80 percent of the country’s industrial plant capacity remained intact. Germany exited the war with a greater functioning machine tool stock than it had on entering it.”2 It was quite a feat to kill 400,000 civilians while barely affecting the German war economy.

Since the appearance of his book The Air War in 1980, Overy has become a preeminent authority on the subject, while illustrating in himself the shifting debates it has inspired. From the dry detachment of that first study, his Bomber Command (1997), accompanying a television documentary sponsored by the RAF Staff College and Historical Society, extravagantly claimed that “Bomber Command made a larger contribution to victory in Europe than any other element in Britain’s armed services.” But by 2013, in his major work The Bombing War: Europe 1939–1945, he had again reversed his position, concluding that “bombing proved in the end to be inadequate in its own terms…and was morally compromised by deliberate escalation against civilian populations.” His latest book takes him back to the beginning, with a more nuanced appraisal.

Even the dwindling band who still defend the bombing campaign have been forced to concede that it failed on its own terms. Instead an argument has been advanced, by Overy in Bomber Command and now again by Ledwidge, that bombing at least diverted Germany’s weaponry and manpower from the great conflict on the Eastern Front. “Fully one third of German artillery,” Ledwidge writes, “especially the fearsome 88mm guns which were also lethally effective anti-tank weapons, was engaged in defending German airspace.” But this cuts two ways. British military-industrial resources were also decidedly finite. Although the figure is still disputed, bombing seems to have absorbed something between a quarter and a third of industrial war production, and every squadron of Lancasters built meant so many tanks, landing craft, escort vessels, and fighters not built, all weaponry of which the British were painfully short throughout the war. “Bombing in Europe was never a war-winning weapon and the other services knew it,” Overy decided five years ago. It may even have delayed victory.

By continuing to insist, quite falsely, that only military targets were being attacked, Churchill’s government showed its bad conscience. But were the British people really deceived? Millions of them saw a cinema newsreel in the summer of 1943 in which a city blazed below, while the voice-over intoned, “Hamburg is being liquidated. The second city of the Reich is being liquidated.” This left little to the imagination. For their part the Germans were for many years silent about British wartime bombing, a silence broken in 1999 by W.G. Sebald in his On the Natural History of Destruction, and then again in 2002 by Jörg Friedrich in Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940–1945, which was a best seller in Germany.3 Describing the horrors in those burning cities, Friedrich used language—Krematorien for the cellars in which victims died, Einsatzgruppe for Bomber Command squadrons—that echoed the terminology of the Shoah and seemed to imply a moral equivalence.

Not only was that repellent, there’s another side to the story of German suffering. The poet-singer Wolf Biermann recalls in a ballad being carried through the flames of Hamburg by his mother, in the year when his Jewish father was taken to Auschwitz to be murdered: “We accepted the English bombs as gifts from Heaven.” The distinguished Jewish scholar Viktor Klemperer survived the war in Dresden only because when he was about to be deported to his death in February 1945, the bombers destroyed documentary evidence of his identity. Nor were all Germans sunk in self-pity. As the Ruhr was blasted nightly, the security police were disturbed to learn of a ditty going round: “Lieber Tommy, fliege weiter./Wir sind alle Bergarbeiter./Fliege weiter nach Berlin,/Die haben alle ‘ja’ geschrien” (“Dear Tommy, fly further on. We’re all miners. Fly on to Berlin, where they shouted Yes.”)

Even now the story remains politically charged. In 2012 the queen opened the RAF Bomber Command Memorial, an ungainly construction at Hyde Park Corner. It had been promoted by an odd group of right-wing businessman, including a pornographer whose money came from magazines like Asian Babes and The Best of Mega Boobs, while tub-thumping Daily Mail columnists shouted that the Germans had got what they deserved.

The aircrew deserve better than such cheerleaders. Out of almost 125,000 who flew on active service, an awe-inspiring 55,573 were killed. No other branch of any of the British armed forces—or American, I think—sustained nearly 50 percent fatalities. For much of 1943 and 1944, no airman needed to be a trained statistician to work out his chances of surviving a tour of thirty sorties. And their routine might have been designed to drive men mad: it was the dissonance between the green peace of a Lincolnshire village on an English summer afternoon and then, twelve hours later, the horror of flying through “Happy Valley,” the ferocious flak belt around the Ruhr.

Years ago an older friend, a London publisher and sometime flight navigator, described to me the stomach-churning sight of nearby Lancasters blowing up or plummeting through the night sky, and the dread of being caught from behind by a night-fighter, or being “coned”—captured in the beams of three powerful searchlights that would hold a bomber in a moving cone of light to make it an easy target. Maybe I could add that my father’s brother, the uncle I never knew, was killed in the RAF in 1943. I do not think that his comrades in Bomber Command were war criminals, however it may be with those who led them.

But if their courage deserves all honor, their legacy is bitter. Hamburg and Dresden were followed by the incineration of Tokyo and then the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two decades later, a far greater weight of bombs was dropped on Vietnam than was used in all of 1939–1945, and yet again bombing failed: Vietcong morale was unshaken, and the Americans lost the war. Now Churchill’s “chauffeurs” sit in New Mexico, thousands of miles from the drones they direct to wipe out Taliban fighters, or maybe a wedding party, once again with little effect on winning a war. Rather than patriotic cheers, the centenary of the RAF might be an occasion for more somber reflection.