"Strategic Bombing" in WWII, was it appropriate? Was it effective?Just looking at a question about the technology in WWII and how it affected the war and I wondered what people's opinions were...

"Strategic Bombing" in WWII, was it appropriate? Was it effective?

Just looking at a question about the technology in WWII and how it affected the war and I wondered what people's opinions were about the Allied bombing of Europe and Japan during WWII.

The British were the first to resort to what was really "area bombing," where they knew they weren't hitting the target but just bombing a city.  We also participated in these massive raids despite knowing that our targeting was ineffective.  By the end of the war, the Allies fire bombed several cities in Europe and in Japan killing millions of civilians in those cities.

Was this right?  Was it wrong?  Why?  And did it help to end the war in any way?  How or why not?

Asked on by kapokkid

11 Answers

kapokkid's profile pic

kapokkid | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

If we are going to argue that somehow fire-bombing entire cities and using nuclear bombs on Japan is somehow an even retaliation for an attack on a military base that was only unprepared because FDR and others wanted an attack to happen so they could unite the US politically behind the war...  Well, I don't know the point of the discussion.  Given that we'd been planning on a war with Japan since the early 30's and finally had our chance, it is hard to look at anything we did as "retaliation."  The only reason Pearl Harbor wasn't on alert was because officials decided not to put it on alert.

And the Norden bombsight was far from accurate.  Account after account from bombardiers makes it clear that they knew they were almost never hitting their targets.  Though it may have been the most accurate at the time, it was generally ineffective.

As I noted previously, German war production increased steadily until mid to late 1944, so the idea that we were slowing military production is simply not true.  The psychological part is also not certain as many have argued that in cities like London or elsewhere in Europe, the bombing served more to unite the populace and give them a real hatred of the enemy that wouldn't have existed otherwise.

Lastly, how is fire-bombing any less cruel than the ways that the SS were killing all the enemies of the state?  When you get burning phosphorous on your skin and then leap into the river and it only burns hotter...  Or being trapped in a cellar and being baked alive, asphyxiated if you were lucky, having your eyes melt out of your skull and literally run down your face because you were looking the wrong way when the A-bomb went off...  I just don't think trying to determine levels of barbarism is really a good way of justifying one way of massacre over another.

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lrwilliams | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

I would agree that the dropping of the atomic bombs was more to send a message to the world that we had the capability and were not afraid to use it. I believe that Japan would have surrendered shortly even without the two bombs.

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usbummer | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted on

I, too, find this question difficult to answer. The Americans generally bombed during day-light hours and sort-of targeted military targets because of our Norden bomb-sight. (The most accurate in the world at that time). The British, without that bomb-sight, took over bombing at night. Since they could not visually see a target, they did most of the area (strategic) bombing. There are exceptions to this statement, such as the fire-bombings of Dresden (which killed as many or more than the a-bombs did).

I seriously doubt the necessity of using the a-bomb on Japan. We knew at the time that Japan was sending messages through what they thought was a neutral Soviet Union. These messages dealt with seeing if the USSR would inquire on Japan's behalf what type of surrender terms we would demand. We knew this before the a-bombings because we had broken the Japanese code (by 1942), and we could read everything they sent. Which begs the question, why did we bomb? To save American lives? I doubt that an invasion of Japan would have been necessary. If we had assured Japan that they could keep their emperor in some kind of figurehead capacity, they might have surrendered (barring a military coup to prevent it). This condition was obviously acceptable to the US as that is exactly what happened.

I tend to believe that we bombed them basically to try to intimidate the Soviet Union. They had agreed at Yalta to declare war on Japan within three months after the surrender of Germany (May 7). We wanted their help if an invasion of Japan, which was scheduled for 1946, was necessary. But with the bomb their help was no longer necessary and we didn't want to surrender to the Soviet Union anymore territory as a prize of war than we had to. An early and fast defeat of Japan would accomplish that task.

Are such bombings effective? I believe so. After all, the destruction of the German and Japanese cities not only helped to destroy those countries' ability to resist through the destruction of their military targets, but the killing of urban civilians helped to damage or destroy their middle classes as well.

Was it moral? No. Effective? Yes.

amy-lepore's profile pic

amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

There is strategy behind every move in times of war, and many times honor and morality are out the window in order to complete a mission.  The Japanese decided to bomb Pearl Harbor on a Sunday morning while the troops were sleeping...hardly honorable.  The retaliation on Japan was harsh, but ended the war with the Allies demanding surrender between bombing the cities of Hiroshima and  Nagasaki  ...otherwise, the kamazee (ms?) pilots would never have given up.  You could argue that the lives lost saved millions of others had the war continued.

As far as the strategic bombing in Europe, fear is an amazing tactic.  I am saddened by the loss of life and the loss of so many beautiful historic buildings and locations, however, this was a strategy meant to break the spirit of a tenacious people ruled by a madman.  What they were doing...killing an entire race of people in much more cruel ways than bombing...had to be stopped by any means.

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ask996 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

Posted on

The morality of war--at best it is difficult to rationalize. The loss of life that war entails would seem to argue against morality, but more rational approaches seem equally ineffective in that most people involved in the more rational (moral?) approaches are usually driven by their own agendas which are not necessarily based upon what is best for the greater number.

kapokkid's profile pic

kapokkid | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

In response to the idea of particularly the nuclear bombs shortening the war, if you read the accounts of the people who were commissioned by Congress to investigate the effects of strategic bombing as well as those of the nuclear bombs, they make it clear that they did little to shorten the war.  But of course there are also plenty of people paid by the army air force that argued otherwise!

The Japanese were ready to surrender for quite some time but had to work through the various bureaucracies within their government to make it happen.  The demands for unconditional surrender and that the Japanese abolish the position of emporer created massive problems within the government in terms of actually bringing about the surrender.

Also, those casualty estimates were raised massively after the war (and changed from the official estimates prior to the bomb being dropped) to make it more palatable that we dropped them.  Many suggest that the bombs were dropped to send a message to Stalin as militarily the targets were of almost no value.

It should also be noted that the "blitz" visited on London and other English cities came only after Churchill ordered the bombing of German cities and over the course of the war they suffered less than 10% of the civilian deaths that the Germans or Japanese suffered yet.

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bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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I have to agree with the previous posts: Militarily, the strategic bombing helped to end the war early and save thousands of servicemen's lives. This is particularly true concerning the atomic bombs over Japan, since estimates predicted 1 million casualties or more in the case of a land invasion of the islands. Morally, it is hard to defend the fire bombings over Dresden or the continual blitzkrieg inflicted upon London and other English cities.

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Difficult question with lots to consider. Obviously the fire bombing and destruction of cities such as Dresden is equally as reprehensible as the blitzing of cities in Europe. Obviously, as other editors have acknowledged, such tactics did indeed help the cause of the allies in damaging the opposition, but clearly such tactics do raise larger, moral issues.

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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As with the atomic bombing, in historical hindsight I think this was morally wrong to pursue strategic bombing on the scale the Allies did.  I also believe there was no way they would have been able to decide on any other course of action, so my judgement of them seems a moot point.

The campaigns today in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate the limitations of aerial bombing even with our modern smart weapons and guided missile technology - civilians still die and the wrong target is often hit.

In World War II, the bombs were much more inaccurate, and in the case of the ordinance we dropped on Dresden and Tokyo, designed to start firestorms that we knew would kill tens of thousands of civilians and refugees.  I don't know that I can argue the positive effect of ending the war sooner was worth the genocide that took place in order to do so.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I think it did help end the war.  I know that it reduced the German capacity to manufacture war materiel.  I believe that it also contributed a great deal to convincing the German people that the war was lost (so they didn't do any sort of post-war resistance).  (But I can't prove that.)

Clearly, the atomic bombs were instrumental in forcing Japan to surrender.  I consider that to be strategic bombing.

Morally speaking...  that's a really tough one.  I always ask my students to consider what set the strategic bombing apart, morally speaking, from the things that the Axis did.  They always have a hard time figuring out any way that it does.  I think it was morally very iffy.

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moustacio | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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There are some scholars who have argued that strategic bombing was indeed a mistake. Terror bombing was not only condoned by some as a moral travesty, the Allies were also seen as having lost all sense of the moral superiority which they had been fighting for and this meant that neither side had a clear moral ground in the war. It was also viewed to be a metaphysical mistake that would poison society in the long run, especially in Britain. Voices of moral protest were thus present in both the US and Great Britain. In addition, strategic bombing proved ineffectual in breaking either side or providing an easy victory - there simply were no short-cuts to victory as both sides fought on. In fact, such campaigns cost the Allies more in terms of manpower, money, industrial capability and resources than it had cost the enemy. An example of this was Dresden, which as an important railway marshalling centre for Germany, had been bombed specifically under the request of the Soviets. Despite the destruction of the city, the German army still fought on.

Nevertheless, strategic bombing in the Pacific did help to overwhelm Japan, shattering their air and industrial power and leaving their home islands utterly vulnerable. The Japanese were reduced to using stockpiles and the campaigns comprehensively crippled Japanese society. It also diverted very large amounts of German resources, such as air force fighters and ammunitions, away from the battle fronts, when they became essential as resources needed to defend German cities. The German air force was forced to defend the homeland and this only allowed German air power to be broken by the Allies, which made it possible for them to invade Europe in the first place. The expansion of German production was also contained through the use of strategic bombing campaigns, and Germany was forced to reorganise and increase their organisational, as well as, industrial capacity. If they were not under such immense pressures, the Germans could have been able to increase their industrial output.

Thus, framed in the context of their impact on the war as a whole, strategic bombing did not win the war by itself, but helped to put the Allies in an advantageous position.