One Hundred Years of Destruction

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…

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