Churchill – on the ‘terror’ bombing of Germany

Berlin, December 1943: victims of a bombing raid are laid out for identification and burial in a gymnasium decorated with Christmas trees

Berlin, December 1943: victims of a bombing raid are laid out for identification and burial in a gymnasium decorated with Christmas trees

An Avro Lancaster of No. 300 Polish Bomber Squadron RAF flying over the smoke-covered target area during a daylight attack on the oil refinery and storage depot of Deutsche Vacuum AG at Bremen, Germany, by 133 Lancasters of No. 1 Group and 6 De Havilland Mosquitos of No. 8 Group.

An Avro Lancaster of No. 300 Polish Bomber Squadron RAF flying over the smoke-covered target area during a daylight attack on the oil refinery and storage depot of Deutsche Vacuum AG at Bremen, Germany, by 133 Lancasters of No. 1 Group and 6 De Havilland Mosquitos of No. 8 Group.

Still from film shot in an Avro Lancaster by the RAF Film Production Unit, during a daylight attack on the Luftwaffe airfield and signals depot at St Cyr, France, by aircraft of No. 5 Group. A 4,000-lb HC bomb ('Cookie') and a smaller 500-lb MC bomb are seen just after they were released over the target.

Still from film shot in an Avro Lancaster by the RAF Film Production Unit, during a daylight attack on the Luftwaffe airfield and signals depot at St Cyr, France, by aircraft of No. 5 Group. A 4,000-lb HC bomb (‘Cookie’) and a smaller 500-lb MC bomb are seen just after they were released over the target.

On the 23rd February Sir Arthur Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command had gone to dinner with Winston Churchill at the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers. John Colville, Churchill’s Private Secretary had then asked him about the recent raid on Dresden:

Before dinner, while waiting in the Great Hall for the P.M. to come down, I asked Sir Arthur Harris what the effect of the raid on Dresden had been. “Dresden?” he said. ”There is no such place as Dresden.”

Though the obliteration of Dresden later became a topic which aroused widespread indignation, it was not at the time regarded as different from previous “saturation” bombing attacks on Hamburg, Cologne and, above all, Berlin.

A principal reason for the Dresden raid was the intelligence report, received from the Russians, that one or possibly two German armoured divisions had arrived there from Italy on their way to reinforce the defence of the eastern front.

Churchill was on his way back from Yalta when the raid took place and since it was in accord with the general policy of bombing German towns massively, so as to shatter civilian morale, I do not think he was consulted about the raid. He never mentioned it in my presence, and I am reasonably sure he would have done so if it had been regarded as anything at all special.

Dresden had gained some attention in the days since the raid because of the efforts of Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister. His press release for 16th February had argued that:

they desire to obliterate and annihilate the German people and all its remaining possessions

See John Colville: The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955

An overview of the widespread destruction in the centre of Dresden.

An overview of the widespread destruction in the centre of Dresden.

Goebbels, master of ‘the big lie’, began spreading rumours that a quarter of a million Germans, or even more, had died in the raid. He had successfully started a controversy that was to continue for decades. In fact the most accurate local figures compiled by the Dresden police put the figure at around 25,000, an official estimate that did not become available in the west for many years.

Whether or not Churchill was responding directly to the German propaganda being reported in the international press, he certainly began to recognise that the policy of bombing Germany needed to be reviewed. On the 28th February he drafted a memorandum:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests than that of the enemy.

The Foreign Secretary has spoken to me on this subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.

In response to this draft, Sir Arthur Harris, wrote to the Air Ministry, on the 29th:

I … assume that the view under consideration is something like this: no doubt in the past we were justified in attacking German cities. But to do so was always repugnant and now that the Germans are beaten anyway we can properly abstain from proceeding with these attacks. This is a doctrine to which I could never subscribe.

Attacks on cities like any other act of war are intolerable unless they are strategically justified. But they are strategically justified in so far as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers. To my mind we have absolutely no right to give them up unless it is certain that they will not have this effect. I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.

The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden, could be easily explained by any psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses. Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East. It is now none of these things.

As a consequence of this and other comments from senior Allied commanders, Churchill issued a revised memorandum on 1st April:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of the so called ‘area-bombing’ of German cities should be reviewed from the point of view of our own interests. If we come into control of an entirely ruined land, there will be a great shortage of accommodation for ourselves and our allies. … We must see to it that our attacks do no more harm to ourselves in the long run than they do to the enemy’s war effort.

Berlin, February 1945.

Berlin, February 1945.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason M. Pilalas February 28, 2015 at 10:46 pm

It is easy after the fact to be appalled at the loss of life, especially civilians, in war. That is amplified the further one is from the scene and the times. It also is increased in the closing stages of a war, when restraint might preserve lives until the shooting stops. I am inclined to leave the judgements on what happened to those who were contemporaneous to the events. Good intelligence on which to base targeting is a fragile and imperfect thing. Harris was a single-minded and stubborn man, but Bomber Command was a blunt and imperfect instrument too. It is much easier to be brilliant with full knowledge afterwards, but the winners need not feel guilt. Imagine a German victory.

Calendar Cat February 28, 2015 at 8:26 am

There was no 29 February in 1945, so Harris can’t have written anything “on the 29th”. Unless you meant 29 March?

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