A Brief History
On May 17, 1943, the famous 617 Squadron of the RAF conducted a raid against dams on the Eder, Mohne, and Rohr rivers in Germany, using brilliantly designed special “bouncing bombs.” An incredible achievement in ingenuity and bravery, the 19 Lancaster bombers destroyed 2 dams and damaged a third, but lost 8 aircraft in the process, a measure of just how daring this raid really was. Here we list 10 of the most spectacular bombing raids of all time (but specifically of World War II), some famous and some infamous.
10. Dresden Firebombing, February 13-15, 1945.
Commemorated in the Kurt Vonnegut novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, massive air raids, the first raid consisting of 722 heavy bombers of the RAF and another 527 heavy bombers of the USAAF (plus well over 700 US P-51 Mustang fighters), destroyed the City of Dresden by a fiendish mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs, blowing and burning the city to rubble. Despite the war winding down and Dresden supposedly being a non-military city, the allies destroyed about 1600 acres of the heart of the city, killing about 25,000 people in the process. Most of those killed were civilians, making this raid possibly the most controversial bombing raid of the European theater. Nazi claims of 500,000 people killed, and other estimates as high as 200,000 dead have been refuted by recent investigation. Still, a beautiful city of dubious military value at that point in the war was gutted, and the debate continues. To make matters worse, the Czech city of Prague was accidentally bombed by 60 American B-17’s. On February 14th alone, there were 2100 US planes over eastern Germany! Incredibly, only 6 British bombers were lost and only 1 American bomber was lost. Of those British bombers, 3 were lost by being hit by bombs dropped from other bombers. Allied planners have fiercely defended the choice to bomb Dresden, pointing out various military facilities or installations of military value.
9. Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.
The Japanese opened hostilities with the US by an unannounced attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii against US ships, planes and shore facilities. Employing 6 aircraft carriers launching 353 airplanes and 5 midget submarines launched by larger subs, the Japanese managed to sink 4 of the 8 battleships in the harbor and damage the other 4, sink 2 other ships and damage another 9 ships, destroy 188 airplanes and damage another 159, kill 2403 Americans and wound another 1178. Japanese losses were a relatively minor 29 aircraft destroyed with the loss of 65 airmen and sailors. All 5 midget subs were lost. This uneven score makes this surprise attack one of the most successful bombing missions of all time, and yet what the Japanese did not accomplish, failing to sink the US aircraft carriers and destroy the maintenance docks, torpedo storage, and fuel reserves, had more of an impact on the war than what they actually did destroy.
8. Fire Bombing of Tokyo, March 9-10, 1945.
In the deadliest single raid against the Japanese capital, 279 (of the 334 that took off) US B-29 bombers blasted Tokyo with mostly incendiary bombs, both napalm and napalm/phosphorus types. Burning the largely wooden city to the ground killed as many as 100,000 people and15.8 square miles of the city destroyed. in just this one raid, making it possibly the most deadly and destructive bombing raid in history. The city of Tokyo was targeted numerous other times, with as many as 200,000 total killed and a million made homeless. The US lost 14 bombers.
7. Adlertag (Eagle Day), August 13, 1940.
Nazi leader Adolf Hitler ordered his air force (Luftwaffe) to destroy the British RAF in an aerial campaign of bombing that would draw the RAF fighters into the air where they could be destroyed. This campaign was kicked off with what was to be a spectacular German victory called Eagle Day, but resulted in failure to destroy the RAF, which continued to successfully defend Britain through the entire war. Adlertag was the beginning of what is known as The Battle of Britain. In attacks against numerous targets, the Luftwaffe employed their entire repertoire of bombers and fighters, while the RAF used mostly Hurricane and Spitfire fighters in defense. German losses were about 48 aircraft lost and another 39 severely damaged, while the British lost 14 fighters and 11 bombers, with a further 47 planes destroyed on the ground. In the war of attrition that followed, Germany could not sustain the losses in aircraft and aircrew while the RAF could and did. The Luftwaffe had around 2000 aircraft (about 1000 each of bombers and fighters) with at least 300 partaking in attacks on Eagle Day, while the RAF could only field about 675 aircraft of all types.
6. Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki, August 9, 1945.
Although the success of the Hiroshima Atomic Bombing was encouraging, the weapon dropped on Nagasaki was an entirely different type, utilizing Plutonium in an implosion type of detonation with a significantly more powerful explosion, about 21kt vs. 16kt for the Hiroshima bomb. Bad weather, a faulty fuel pump, failed rendezvous with an accompanying B-29 all made the harrowing mission that much more dangerous as running out of fuel became a primary concern. Poor visibility resulted in a change of targets, but the alternate target, Nagasaki, was also under cloud cover. Rather than scrub the mission and try to return to base carrying the heavy weapon (10,300 pounds), quite possibly resulting in having to ditch the plane, bomb and all, made for the hard decision to defy orders and drop the bomb using radar aiming with no visual sight of the target. The bomb was successfully detonated and the bombers escaped the blast, but the aiming point was missed by at least 2 miles, reducing the damage and death to a still incredible 30,000 to 40,000 people killed in an instant, with many more thousands dying later of injuries, burns, and radiation.
5. Operation Carthage (Gestapo Headquarters Raid), March 21, 1945.
In an effort to free prisoners of the Gestapo (German secret police) in Copenhagen, Denmark before the Nazi’s could execute them all in the face of advancing allied armies, 18 British Mosquito light bombers were sent to destroy the Gestapo headquarters building in a precision attack. Another 30 American P-51 Mustang fighters would provide escort and suppression of enemy anti-aircraft fire during the raid. While the bombing of the headquarters went well, with 18 prisoners (resistance fighters) freed, collateral damage included the death of 125 Danish civilians (86 school kids) as well as 8 Danish prisoners and another 47 Danes working in the building. German losses were 55 men. Allied losses included 6 aircraft and 10 aircrew (9 killed, 1 captured), making this a particularly dangerous raid for the Mosquitoes. A similar raid against Gestapo headquarters in Aarhus, Denmark took place on October 31, 1944, when 25 Mosquitoes hit the Gestapo building, killing about 200 Gestapo personnel and perhaps 30 Danes, but destroying a large quantity of Gestapo files.
4. Ploesti Raid (Operation Tidal Wave), August 1, 1943.
With petroleum supply and refining being a critical cog in the German war machine, it made sense for the Allies to target oil and fuel production sources. Ploesti, Romania, was a primary source of petroleum products for Germany and thus became a high priority target of Allied bombers. When 177 B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of the USAAF set out on a major raid on August 1, 1943, the aircrew knew they would be facing fierce defenses. Little did they realize that the raid would be the costliest in American aviation history, with 53 bombers destroyed, 55 more damaged, and 660 men lost (440 killed and 220 captured or missing). The horrible day is remembered as “Black Sunday” by US aviators, 5 of whom earned the Medal of Honor on that raid. German losses were a paltry 3 fighter planes and only 16 men killed. Within a few weeks of the raid, output of petroleum products was actually higher than before the bombing! One of the B-24’s that made it back to base was found to have 365 bullet holes in it.
3. Operation Chastise, May 16-17, 1943.
Utilizing highly specialized cylindrical bombs carried horizontally in a special carriage that rotated the bombs backwards at over 500 rpm, allowing them to skip across the reservoirs’ surface and then rolling down the face of the dam, staying up against the structure until reaching the prescribed depth and then blowing up, this mission was a technical masterpiece. Perfect altitude was maintained by special synchronized spotlights, and only after much debate and discussion about the allocation of resources was the raid finally approved. Heavy defenses cost the bombers dearly, with 53 men lost with the 8 bombers destroyed. The versatility of the Lancaster heavy bomber was showcased by this raid, as well as other raids where the “Lanc’s” dropped enormous bombs (10,000 and 20,000 pounders) that no other bomber of the time could have delivered.
2. Doolittle Raid, April 18, 1942.
After the devastating sneak attack against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the US military in the Pacific was reeling, as was the shocked and furious American public. With one Japanese success after another, the US finally mounted an offensive action by flying 16 stripped down B-25B Mitchell twin engine medium bombers off the deck of the USS Hornet, something that had never been done at that time. The bombers, led by the famous military and civilian pilot Jimmy Doolittle, bombed Tokyo and other Japanese cities causing light damage, but giving America a tremendous boost in morale. At the same time, the Japanese public and military were dealt a crushing blow in morale, and for the rest of the war numerous Japanese fighter planes were diverted from front line theaters to defend the homeland against potential future raids. The dangerous nature of the raid, accepted as a possible suicide venture, is demonstrated by the loss of 15 of the 16 bombers, and the deaths of 7 of the 80 airmen involved. (3 died in action, 4 died in captivity, 3 of which were executed). Another 4 crewmen lived out the war as POW’s.
1. Atomic bombing of Hiroshima, August 6, 1945.
As no bomber had ever dropped an actual Atomic Bomb, not even in practice, the crew of the B-29 “Enola Gay” had to hope the scientists had calculated correctly that they could release the weapon and escape the blast area before being incinerated. With no fighter escort and flying in broad daylight, the Enola Gay and its chase planes (another 2 B-29‘s) were also highly susceptible to interception. As it was, the bomb was delivered precisely on target with devastating results, virtually destroying the city and killing as many as 100,000 people. Both B-29’s returned safely, but with constant reminders the rest of their lives of the death and devastation they had delivered that fateful day.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other raids would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Murray, Iain. Bouncing-Bomb Man: The Science of Sir Barnes Wallis. Haynes Publishing, 2010.
Spender, Nick. The Story of The Dambusters: An all new full colour comic strip version. Nick Spender, 2014.