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RAF ‘area bombing’ begins with Mannheim

mannheim bombing
Operation ABIGAIL RACHEL. Annotated vertical aerial photograph taken during the first concentrated night attack on Mannheim, Germany. Incendiary fires (‘1’) can be seen burning in various places, including the Lindenhof and Schwetzingerstadt districts, and also in the vicinity of the Hauptbahnhof (‘3’) and the marshalling yards (‘4’). A large fire appears well alight in the Heinrich Lanz AG works (‘2’). The River Rhine is at lower left.

The British government had been reluctant to launch general “area bombing” of industrial targets in Germany. The accelerating pace of the Luftwaffe raids on Britain, “the Blitz”, had now hardened attitudes. After the devastating raids on Coventry and Southampton in particular, the decision was made to widen the range of acceptable targets. Operation Abigail Rachel, the bombing of Mannheim, was the first of these.

The Air Situation report for the week reported:

The outstanding event of the week was the heavy and successful attack on Mannheim on the night of the 16th-l7th December…

the sole objective was the industrial centre of Mannheim on which 108 tons of high explosive and over 13,000 incendiary bombs were dropped. Countless fires were started and aircraft which arrived late in the night reported that many blocks in the Western and South-Eastern areas were ablaze. Aircraft visited the town on the two following nights and reported many fires still burning after the previous attacks, and smoke hanging over the town.

See TNA CAB/66/14/17

In fact the bombing was widely dispersed and only 34 people were killed. There was no comparison with the large scale raids by the Luftwaffe – which were now killing hundreds each time they attacked the industrial cities of the Midlands and northern England.

RAF Bomber Command was on a steep learning curve. They, and later the USAAF, would be visiting Mannheim over 150 times during the course of the war. The 108 tons dropped on December 16th night were merely a hint of the 25,000 tons yet to be dropped on the city. By 1943 the RAF would be capable obliterating a large part of the city in just a couple of raids. The last major raid, in March 1945, would start a huge firestorm.

Aerial image of effects of bombing on Mannheim
One of the RAF Photographic Reconnaissance Unit images taken during daylight on the 17th with annotations of damage to individual buildings.
The Heinrich Lanz plant, bottom left was noted as being hit and \’ showing no activity\’. This tractor and agricultural engines manufacturer was to suffer 90% damage during the war. The postwar business was rebuilt and later became part of the U.S. company John Deere.
Bomber crews
Bomber crews attend a briefing by the squadron commander, 15 December 1940.

On the very same day the War Cabinet was considering a report on the effectiveness of British bombing in general. In response to the widespread devastation of British cities the press were raising the question as to whether the RAF was hitting back hard enough.

The report sought to paint a balanced picture based on different reports from air crew, reconnaissance and intelligence. However the ‘Adverse’ reports were mostly from the evidence of those who had observed the effects on the ground. The ‘Aerial Attache’ at different British Embassies in neutral countries were hard at work trying to discover what visitors to Germany had seen:

BERLIN Press Correspondents of American papers report that, up to the 16th October, the material damage caused by the R.A.F. in Berlin was negligible, but their nuisance value considerable. (A.A., Berne.)

An American journalist, who left Berlin about the 11th November, states that British bombs are still far too light and frequently do no damage when they fall on concrete roofs. (British Minister, Sofia.)

Mr. Warren, of the United States Department, who had been inspecting United States Missions in Europe, states that the damage is not so great as believed in England. He considers our aircraft too few and bombs too light. Moreover, though carefully aimed, the latter fall wide, probably owing to the height at which aircraft fly to avoid the barrage. (British Minister, Bulgaria.)

The Swedish Consul-General at Hamburg was recently taken round the docks for four hours and saw little damage. Impression in Stockholm is that material damage is not heavy. (A.A., Stockholm..)

An experienced German pilot in October states he had to spend continuous nights in the cellar of his house near the Tempelhof. He did not, however, regard the bombardment as effective in view of the small size and weight of the bombs dropped, but admitted that the parachute flares used were effective in lighting up a large area for a sufficiently long time to enable accurate bombing to take place. (Secret Service Source.)

The Air Ministry tried to put a positive gloss on this:

From a close examination of all the evidence available on the results of our raids over both Germany and Italy, the Air Staff conclude that, while exaggerated claims have been made in the Press, the effect of our bombs on Germany has been greater relatively to the size of the force at our disposal than the results of the German attacks on this country.

Air Ministry, December 16, 1940.

See TNA CAB/66/14/13

Handley Page Hampdens
Handley Page Hampdens in flight, seen from the ventral gun position of one of the aircraft, 1940.

2 thoughts on “RAF ‘area bombing’ begins with Mannheim”

  1. The report the Cabinet considered was regarding previous bombing raids on Germany.

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