A Brief History
On March 16, 1945, less than a month before Allied armies captured the city, British Lancaster bombers dropped 1207 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the German city of Würzburg, killing 5000 people and destroying about 90% of the buildings, including many historic Medieval structures.
Despite the city being home to 40 hospitals and lacking war industries or military targets, the British bombing commanders decided to bomb the city for its strategic importance as a road and rail hub, and to destroy the morale of the German people. Despite its name, the German anti-aircraft aiming “Würzburg Radar” was not built in the city of Würzburg. Prior to the war, the city had a population of just over 100,000, but at the time of the attack about 80,000 residents remained. On April 6, 1945, the American Army occupied the city, finding less than 39,000 residents still there.
During the bombing campaign against Germany, American bombers conducted daylight raids and British bombers bombed at night. The Würzburg raid saw the Lancasters start dropping bombs at 21:25 hours and the raid lasted only 20 minutes. Luckily for the residents, ample warning was given prior to the bombing, allowing most citizens to survive the tremendous fires generated by the bombing. The elderly buildings were constructed largely of wood and burned readily.
Along with the 5000 killed, over 21,000 homes were destroyed, as was the Würzburg Cathedral (first built in 1040) and the Würzburg Residence, a palace completed in 1744, including its famous Hall of Mirrors. American Army soldiers immediately upon occupying the city went about conserving what buildings and treasures that could be saved.
Why would the British destroy an historical city of so little military value that late in the war, when only 3 weeks later it would be in Allied hands? Like the more famous Dresden bombing raid, there was little sentiment or empathy for the German people after the savage bombing of British, Dutch, Polish, and other cities by the Luftwaffe when the German Air Force had the upper hand. The Germans had made no distinction between military and civilian targets, and the use of area weapons such as the V-1 and V-2 (cruise missile and ballistic rocket respectively) against Allied cities and their civilian populations left little room for pity. Still, there were those that spoke against such murderous waste, considered by critics as vengeance rather than military necessity.
After the war, the Allied bombing campaign against Germany and Japan received much scrutiny and debate, with some alleging those campaigns constituted war crimes by the Allies. Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think? Was it right that Germany should “Reap the Whirlwind” as “Bomber” Harris said? Should the Americans and British have shown more restraint and moral judgement? Feel free to give us your opinion on the subject in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Berrinberg, Elisabeth von. The City in Flames: A Child’s Recollection of World War II in Würzburg, Germany. Berrinberg Publications, 2013.
The featured image in this article, an aerial view of the city center of the destroyed Würzburg in autumn 1945, is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.
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