As Operation Overlord approached there was intense debate within the senior Allied commanders about one aspect of the plan. Churchill’s scientific adviser Solly Zuckerman had devised the ‘Transportation Plan’ – the planned disruption of all rail traffic leading into northern France. The planned called for the diversion of the heavy bomber fleets of the RAF and the USAAF away from targets in Germany to hit railway targets in France.
The head of RAF Bomber Command Arthur Harris, and the head of the new US Strategic Air Forces in Europe, Carl Spaatz opposed the plan. They did not want to be diverted from their bombing of Germany, nor did they think the heavy bombers were suitable for hitting railway targets and would cause too many civilian casualties. The argument went round Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and went up to Churchill. Eventually the plan went ahead with careful monitoring of French casualties. Some of the earlier raids in March had been very accurate. Arguably, it was only a matter of time before a raid on a railway centre in a densely populated area would cause heavy ‘collateral damage’.
On the 21st April the La Chapelle marshalling yards in Paris were hit. 641 people were killed and 377 wounded, as bad a casualty rate as any during they London Blitz and worse than the number killed during the 1940 Coventry bombing.
Here are some details about the catastrophy. First, a night of utmost uproar. During 2 hours and 15 minutes, a mind-boggling racket. Everything was shaking in the apartment [located in the 7th arrondissement in the very heart of Paris]. At last I went down the stairs and tried to cheer up this excellent Mrs Dantin [the famously bad-tempered doorkeeper, an awful drunkard old lady] who was stricken with panic. The night sky was lighted with flares and fires, and you could see as in broad daylight. I called our warehouse right away, but there was no dial tone. I immediately thought of the worst.
Thus, I woke up at 5am and boarded the first Métro carriage which stopped at Jules Joffrin station. From there I reached, running more or less, the warehouse. Everything was burning. The Porte de La Chapelle was particularly knocked down. All the houses have collapsed on the ground. A bomb exploded over the Métro which is in shambles. From the Porte de La Chapelle to our warehouse [ca. 1 km], everything was flames and devastation. The bombing was very dense. Our warehouse offered a pitiful outlook. I immediately went to the basement where I knew several of our workers had sought refuge. It was intact, which immediately reassured me (…)
And voila. Here, air raid sirens after sirens, bombings after bombings. It’s non-stop! Again this morning, you could see the flying fortresses quite distinctly in the sky. I’m glad that you are over there in the peace and quiet of the province. Life here is becoming really difficult. Lots of people are leaving Paris. Several districts (the 14th arrondissement, the 18th arrondissement, the Plaine St Denis, etc.) were evacuated. In the Plaine St Denis, there were this morning 416 coffins. Several corpses still remain under the rubbles. An entire family, not far from our warehouse, met their end: father, mother, 6 children! Time bombs are still exploding. Fires are thanks God over. (…)
Contemporary French film of damage caused by the raid.
Through various channels the French protested to London. The argument about the use of heavy bombers, and whether it was necessary to support Overlord continued. In May Roosevelt intervened to support the necessity of SHAEF’s objectives and the planned bombing programme went ahead under Eisenhower’s authority. Eventually the Allies dropped more bombs on France than the Luftwaffe dropped on Britain. See Richard Overy: The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. Some argued that the French resistance was better placed to attack railway targets accurately – yet that route did not avoid terrible retribution against the local population.