A Brief History
On February 22, 1944, American bombers accidentally bombed the Dutch cities of Nijmegen, Arnhem, Enschede and Deventer, killing over 800 civilians in the Netherlands towns. In previous articles, we have discussed the tragedy of good guys accidentally killing good guys, a phenomenon called “friendly fire” incidents. While the United States military tries especially hard to avoid such incidents, including sometimes putting our own people in danger to minimize the possibility of killing innocent civilians, in war stuff happens, often bad stuff.
In February of 1944 the Netherlands were occupied by German military forces and had been since 1940. The bombing of Nijmegen was intentional, just not where the bombs landed. Part of an enormous bombing offensive mounted by the Allies (mainly British RAF and the USAAF) called ‘Big Week,’ the idea was to weaken German production of airplanes and generally undermine their war effort in preparation for the planned invasion of France in June of 1944 (D-Day). Targets in Germany were the primary targets, but sometimes cloud cover or other situations precluded bombing the primary target, and a secondary target was designated to be bombed instead. It so happens that Nijmegen had a railyard that was deemed an appropriate target by Allied planners, and the American bombers attacked. Additional motivation for dropping their cargo of bombs no matter what played on the minds of the bomber crews, notably the fact that returning to England with a load of bombs made for a dangerous landing, and the policy that a “bombing mission” only counted if bombs were dropped. This latter factor was important because bomber crews would be rotated out of combat once they completed 25 bombing missions, and crews were eager to reach their required number of missions and be done with it.
A large flight of 177 B-24 Liberator heavy bombers escorted by numerous American fighter planes flew from England with the mission of bombing Gotha, Germany. The secondary target assigned was another German city, Eschwege. If that secondary target was also unavailable, the flight commander or individual bombers would be responsible for picking some other appropriate target, preferably in Germany. Cloud cover bedeviled the bombers as soon as they reached altitude, and then they were hit by German fighters before even making landfall on the European continent. Many of the planes turned back, scrubbing the mission. About the time the bomb group entered German airspace, headquarters radioed that the raid was cancelled. Standard procedure was to seek an alternative target of opportunity, and the closest appropriate target was the railhead at Nijmegen.
As hard as it may be to believe, the American fliers did not know whether or not Nijmegen was a German or a Dutch city, nor were there any clear instructions about bombing occupied territory. A total of 14 of the big bombers dropped their loads of large and small bombs on Nijmegen, a city unprepared for the bombing because the man responsible for sounding the air raid siren inexplicably did not do so. While the train station was indeed successfully hit, many other bombs fell on civilian areas of the city, killing at least 800 civilians and probably many more. Actual numbers are difficult to come by due to people being buried in rubble and a reluctance of the Netherlands government to make a big deal out of the mistake once the country had been liberated. Similar tragedies occurred in 3 other Dutch towns, Arnhem, Enschede and Deventer. Some discrepancy exists over whether or not American pilots thought they were bombing German cities or if they knew they were bombing the Netherlands.
World War II bombing done from high altitude (20,000 feet or more) was notoriously inaccurate, and large flights of bombers could not be expected to drop all their bombs on a pinpoint area. A spread out formation meant a spread out pattern of bombs falling on the ground, usually over a wide area. Even today aerial attacks sometimes destroy unintended civilian structures and kill civilians by accident. Aerial bombardment is rough business and almost certain to create unintended consequences.
Today, with precision guided weapons our bombers normally drop fewer bombs but with far greater accuracy, and certain targets are purposely avoided to try to prevent civilian casualties and destruction of cultural structures without military value. Even then, intelligence/targeting failures or mechanical problems still result in the death and destruction of unintended targets. Imagine how bad this scenario would be if nuclear bombs were used!
Question for students (and subscribers): Is carpet bombing of cities ever morally permissible? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Astor, Gerald. The Mighty Eighth: The Air War in Europe as Told by the Men Who Fought It. Dutton Caliber, 2015.
Doyle, David. Consolidated B-24 Vol.1: The XB-24 to B-24E Liberators in World War II. Schiffer Military History, 2018.
The featured image in this article, a police photograph by Politie Nijmegen from 1945 showing parts of the centre that were mainly bombed in February ’44, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.