The paradox of the Second World War was that the British Air Force (RAF) was responsible for the deaths of many more civilians in Western Europe than Hitler’s Luftwaffe. The head of Bomber Command in the RAF, Arthur Harris (also known as Bomber Harris), used to measure the success of his bombing campaigns by the number of acres that were burnt down or reduced to rubble. He had vowed that no German city or town would be left standing by the time the war ended.
In February 1942, the British cabinet passed the Area Bombing directive, which authorized the RAF Bomber Command to destroy the morale of the German population by orchestrating raids against the German industrial workforce and the civilian targets in German cities and towns.
At the start of his bombing campaign, Harris quoted the Old Testament: “The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”
In March 1942, the RAF sent 235 bombers to target the Renault factory at the outskirts of Paris that was being used by the Nazis to manufacture vehicles for military use. While wiping out the factory, the RAF bombers killed hundreds of French civilians. On 28 March, the RAF targeted the north German port of Lübeck with a mixture of high-explosive bombs and incendiaries. They burned the old town down.
When Hitler learned about the destruction of Lübeck, he was outraged. He said that the RAF was acting like terrorists. A Luftwaffe adjutant records Hitler as saying: “Now terror will be answered with terror.” He ordered the Luftwaffe to step up their campaigns against civilian targets in Britain. In April, the RAF carried out four devastating raids on Rostock causing massive civilian casualties. Goebbels described the campaigns of the RAF as “Terrorangriff” (terror raid).
In May 1942, Harris orchestrated his first thousand bombers raid in the city of Cologne. The devastation was overwhelming. Thousands of civilians died. The British newspapers cheered Cologne’s destruction. The headline in a major British Newspaper was: “Vengeance Begins!”
In the same month, the RAF raided Wuppertal and created their first firestorm. After the pathfinders had dropped their marker flares, the wave of bombers dropped their incendiaries. When the town was ablaze, they dropped their high explosive bombs which blew the buildings. The fire sucked the air from all around, asphyxiating many people. The tarmac on the streets melted and those who were trying to flee found their shoes getting stuck. To escape the inferno, many desperate citizens plunged into the river and drowned.
Before the D-Day invasion, the RAF conducted broad strategic bombing of several targets in France and Germany. In Western Europe, the most controversial raid of the war took place in February 1945: this was the bombing of Dresden, a joint operation of RAF and USAAF that created a massive firestorm in which more than 25,000 civilians perished.
The RAF continued to raid Germany even after it became clear that the German regime was falling. They bombed Pforzheim in February 1945, killing 32 percent of the town’s population. In March 1945, the RAF dropped its highest monthly weight of ordinance in the Second World War.
The American Air Force (USAAF) was as brutal as the RAF—to reduce their own casualties, the Americans made excessive use of high explosives, which resulted in massive loss of civilian lives. Unlike the Luftwaffe, the USAAF and RAF were not handicapped by the scarcity of bombers, high explosive bombs, and incendiaries. This enabled the allied side to orchestrate indiscriminate bombing campaigns without bothering about civilian casualties.
American Generals like Curtis LeMay were inspired by Arthur Harris’s strategy of using “terror bombing.” While talking about America’s bombing raids on Japan, LeMay bragged: “We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo that night of March 9–10 than went up in the vapor of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.” The British and the Americans were not fighting for moral values. They were fighting like barbarians.
In 1992, when Queen Elizabeth was unveiling a statue of Arthur Harris in London, she was jeered by protestors. Many protesters shouted: “Harris was a war criminal.”