A Brief History
On October 22, 1943, 569 bombers of the Royal Air Force dropped firebombs on the German city of Kassel, population around 240,000, killing 10,000 and making another 150,000 homeless. The firestorm that resulted from the bombing destroyed the city center and burned for 7 days. Important military targets were virtually untouched. American and British (Allied) bombing of cities, especially bombing raids with incendiary devices meant to cause massive “firestorms” have become a topic of contention as a military tactic, and is sometimes referred to as “terror bombing.” So what is firebombing cities? A legitimate military tactic or a mere act of terrorism?
Kassel had a prewar population of close to 240,000 people, and was home to important war supporting industries, including Henschel factories (Tiger tanks and locomotives), Fieseler Aircraft factory, motor transport factory, engine factory, railway yards, and important military headquarters. Other important government buildings and courts were also present. Obviously, these targets would be legitimate missions for bombing attacks. Unfortunately, Allied bombing in 1943 was not all that accurate, and with effective German anti-air defenses, the British RAF was forced to do their bombing at night, meaning only broad areas could be targeted, and not specific precision targets.
On the night of October 22-23, 1943, 569 British bombers, mostly Lancaster heavy bombers, dropped 460,000 magnesium fire sticks among the 1800 tons of bombs dropped on the city center. The massive ensuing fire resulted in a conflagration known as a “firestorm,” a fire so large and hot that it produces its own cyclonic winds, winds so strong they can actually drag people and objects into the fire. Actual tornadoes can develop during a firestorm. During the Kassel raid, 90% of the city center was destroyed, the industries escaped damage, and by 1945 only about 50,000 people remained in the city. Other raids followed all the way until late March, 1945, but the firestorm raid of October 22-23, 1943 was the largest the city endured.
The vast majority of the people killed in the firestorm were civilians, with the second largest group being hospitalized wounded German soldiers. Although the Kassel firestorm killed fewer people than other famous fire raids such as Hamburg and Tokyo, an incredible 23 square miles of the city was destroyed, more than other fire bombing targets. The Allied tactic of targeting large cities and population centers was supposed to displace workers (it didn’t work) and demoralize the population (bombing never stopped the population from being committed to fighting, neither the British during the “Blitz,” nor the Germans and Japanese). Notable firestorm attacks with resulting massive civilian casualties included cities such as Hamburg (the original firestorm raid of July 27, 1943 in which 46,000 were killed) and Tokyo (100,000 dead and 16 square miles burned out), as well as Dresden, Germany, a city that was supposedly an “open” city not dedicated to the war effort (February 13-14, 1945, 25,000 dead and 8 square miles burned). The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August of 1945 are also considered firestorm raids and killed mostly civilians (as many as 60,000+ dead in Hiroshima and half that in Nagasaki).
Since World War II, “terror bombing,” alternately called “carpet bombing,” “area bombing” or “city bombing” has drawn much criticism from humanitarians and measures to restrict the bombing of population centers have been taken. Revisionist historians have sometimes labeled American and British bombers as war criminals and terrorists. Proponents of “strategic bombing” have fiercely defended the tactic, claiming there was no technology at the time to allow for the targeting of precision military and industrial targets while keeping “collateral damage” to a minimum. These bombing proponents also point out the fact that the Germans and Japanese had indiscriminately bombed civilians prior to the Allied practice of city bombing. The debate over the use of atom bombs over Japan centers on whether or not those bombs were really necessary. Apologists claim the US could have just as easily dropped the bombs on places where not many people would be killed, as a demonstration of the power of the new weapons, while those advocates of nuclear warfare claim only by hitting actual cities would the Japanese get the clue and quickly surrender, supposedly avoiding thousands and thousands of Allied casualties an invasion of Japan would result in. (The number of Allied and Japanese casualties in a theoretical invasion of Japan is also hotly debated.)
Question for students (and subscribers): Obviously, the use of nuclear weapons pretty much automatically results in massive civilian collateral damage, and if we are willing to use nukes, why would using fire bombs be any different? Why would carpet bombing be any different? Or should the use of nuclear weapons as well as bombing of civilians in any form be erased from the military repertoire? If so, how could that be accomplished when all sorts of countries (North Korea and Iran, notably) lust after developing nuclear weapons? Please feel free to offer your opinions on the subjects of firebombing, nuclear weapons, and the bombing of cities, both historically and in the modern context in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Charles River Editors. The Firebombing of Dresden: The History and Legacy of the Allies’ Most Controversial Attack on Germany. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
Charles River Editors. The Firebombing of Tokyo: The History of the U.S. Air Force’s Most Controversial Bombing Campaign of World War II. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of two people observing fires ravaging the Bettenhausen district after bombing, is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a21897.