Area bombardment

Area bombardment

Aerial area bombardment is the policy of indiscriminate bombing of an enemy's cities, for the purpose of destroying the enemy's means of producing military materiel, communications, government centres and civilian morale. It differs from the use of bombs to destroy military targets.

The practice came to prominence during the Second World War with the use of large numbers of unguided gravity bombs, often with a high proportion of incendiary bombs, to effect indiscriminate bombing of the target region - either to destroy personnel and/or materiel, or as a means to demoralize the enemy (see terror bombing). The high explosive bombs were often on timers and used to intimidate or killfiremen putting out the fires caused by the incendiaries. This, in high enough concentration was capable of producing a firestorm effect. [Harris, Arthur "Bomber Offensive; (First edition Collins 1947) Pen & Sword military classics 2005; ISBN 1-84415-210-3]

Initially, this was effected by multiple aircraft, often returning to the target in waves. Nowadays, a large bomber or missile can be used to create the same effect on a small area (an airfield, for example) by releasing a relatively large number of smaller bombs.

The terms carpet bombing and saturation bombing are also used.


The first instances of aerial bombing of cities occurred during the First World War with bombing attacks by Zeppelins over England. They were ineffective, but generated a wave of hysteria, partially attributed to media. This revealed the tactic's potential as a weapon that was of use for propagandists on both sides. Attacks continued and were also joined by heavier-than-air craft. These were relatively minor raids by later standards but had the effect of diverting resources of guns and aircraft to defence of the realm.

During the inter-war period the use of aerial bombardment was developed as part of British colonial policy, with Hugh Trenchard as its leading proponent. In Iraq, around 1924, the techniques of 'Air Control', as it was called, were developed, which included target marking and locating, as well as formation flying, by the Trenchard school which included Charles Portal, Arthur Harris, and Sidney Bufton.

These early developments of aerial warfare led to two distinct branches in the writings of air warfare theorists: tactical and strategic air warfare. Tactical air warfare was developed as part of a combined arms attack which would be developed furthest by the Germans and led to their early success in World War II with the use of the Luftwaffe as a major element of Blitzkrieg. Leading theorists of strategic bombing at this time were the Italian Giulio Douhet, the Trenchard school in Britain and Billy Mitchell in the United States. These theorists believed that aerial bombardment of an enemy's homeland would be an important part of any future war. Not only would such attacks weaken the enemy by destroying important military infrastructure, they would also break the morale of the civilian population, forcing their government to capitulate. Although area bombing theorists acknowledged that measures could be taken to defend against bombers (using fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery), the maxim of the day remained "the bomber will always get through". Theorists argued it would be necessary to develop a fleet of strategic bombers in peace time, both to deter a potential enemy, and in the case of a war to be able to deliver devastating attacks on the enemy while sustaining relatively few friendly casualties before victory was achieved. [Alf Wilkinson " [ Bomber Theory: Air Power Between Two World Wars] "]

The Japanese used aerial bombardment in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

During the Spanish Civil War, the bombing of Guernica by German units including the Condor Legion, under Franco-Spanish command, resulted in extensive destruction of the small town and casualties from 500 to 1500. Though the figures remained small, weaponry was steadily improving, already suggesting what was to come.

World War II

Area bombing in WW2 began with tactical German bombings of Warsaw, Frampol and Wieluń during September Campaign in Poland. Warsaw was partially destroyed (10% of all buildings) and two towns were heavily damaged. It is believed that Frampol had no targeted industry and was not stationing military units.

Some historians believe that, in the case of Frampol, the "Luftwaffe" conducted the bombing in order to research how effective aerial bombardment could be.

In the book, "Eyes on the Sky", Wolfgang Schreyer writes:

"Frampol was chosen as an experimental object, because test bombers, flying at low speed, weren't endangered by AA fire. Also, the centrally placed town hall was an ideal orientation point for the crews. We watched possibility of orientation after visible signs, and also the size of village, what guaranteed that bombs nevertheless fall down on Frampol. From one side it should make easier the note of probe, from second side it should confirm the efficiency of used bombs."

The fall of Poland did not end the war and after the "Sitzkrieg", combat continued. Germany attacked through the Lowlands, bombing Rotterdam after the Dutch refused to agree to terms. The bombing sent a powerful message and, as pre-war experts had predicted, aerial bombardment demonstrated its potential as a tool of persuasion. Peace was arranged.

Even after the evacuation at Dunkirk, the United Kingdom resolved to keep fighting. With the Battle of Britain came the Blitz, which ended when Germany decided instead to launch its massive campaign against the Soviet Union. During this time, the Allies fine-tuned the strategy of area bombardment. Without forces on continental Europe, the area bombardment campaign became central to its war effort. However, Luftwaffe air superiority across Western Europe meant that the Royal Air Force's bombers could only operate over Germany at night, while the United States Army Air Forces came in at very high altitude during the day. Precision bombing at night and at high altitude in the daytime was impossible; a discovery that led both air fleets further away from precision bombing as a war-winning strategy.

The purpose of the area bombardment of cities was laid out in a British Air Staff paper, dated September 23, 1941: :"The ultimate aim of an attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this, we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger. The immediate aim, is therefore, twofold, namely, to produce (i) destruction and (ii) fear of death." [ [ Bomber Command and Ethics] (PDF) page 13]

This directive is also documented in the April 5, 1945 response of Chief of Air Staff Charles Portal to Churchill's letter on area bombing, written after Churchill had expressed his concern, in a telegram initially sent on 28 March 1945 but that was withdrawn, redrafted and resubmitted on 1 April 1945: [ [ Churchill's redrafted letter on area bombing] ]

:"The primary object of the Combined Bomber Offensive laid down in the Casablanca directive of the 21st January, 1943, was “the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic systems and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”" [ [ Area Bombing: Note by Chief of the Air Staff] 5 April 1945 (Catalogue ref: CAB 120/303) Chief of Air Staff Charles Portal response to Churchill's letter on area bombing"] This response goes on to assure Churchill: :"We appreciate the importance of refraining from the unnecessary destruction of towns and facilities which will be needed by our own troops or for Allied reconstruction purposes."

Professor Lindemann was liked and trusted by Winston Churchill. Churchill appointed him the British government's leading scientific adviser with a seat in the Cabinet. In 1942, Lindemann presented the "dehousing paper" to the Cabinet advocating the area bombardment of German cities in a strategic bombing campaign. It was accepted by the Cabinet and Air Marshal Harris was appointed to carry out the task. It became an important part of the total war waged against Germany. Professor Lindemann's paper put forward the theory of attacking major industrial centres in order to deliberately destroy as many homes and houses as possible. Working class homes were to be targeted because they had a higher density and fire storms were more likely. This would displace the German workforce and reduce their ability to work. His calculations showed that the RAF's Bomber Command would be able to destroy the majority of German houses located in cities quite quickly. The plan was highly controversial even before it started, but the Cabinet thought that bombing was the only option available to directly attack Germany (as a major invasion of the continent was almost two years away), and the Soviets were demanding that the Western Allies do something to relieve the pressure on the Eastern Front. Few in Britain opposed this policy, but there were three notable opponents in Parliament, Bishop George Bell and the Labour MPs Richard Stokes and Alfred Salter.

Though it was never explicitly declared, the nearest the British got to a declaration was in an Air Ministry area bombing directive issued to RAF Bomber Command on 14 February 1942, which said "You are accordingly authorised to use your forces without restriction", and listing a series of 'Primary targets' which included Essen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf and Cologne. 'Secondary targets' included Braunschweig, Lübeck, Rostock, Bremen, Kiel, Hanover, Frankfurt, Mannheim, Stuttgart and Schweinfurt. It stated that "Operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civilian population and in particular, the industrial workers". Lest there be any confusion, Sir Charles Portal wrote to Air Chief Marshall Norman Bottomley on the 15 February "..I suppose it is clear that the aiming points will be the built up areas, and not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories"

The first true practical demonstrations were in the night from 28 to 29 March 1942, when 234 aircraft bombed with incendaries the ancient Hanseatic port of Lübeck (Main article Bombing of Lübeck in World War II). This target was picked not because it was an important military target, but in fact because it was unimportant, lightly defended and, in Harris' words 'built more like a fire lighter than a city'. The ancient timber structures burned well, and the raid destroyed most of the town centre. A few days later, Rostock suffered the same fate.

However, the most startling, awesome examples of "area bombing" were the 'Thousand Bomber Raids'. Bomber Command was able by organization and drafting in as many aircraft as possible to assemble very large forces which could then attack a single area, overwhelming the defences. The aircraft would be staggered so that they would arrive over the target in succession, the "bomber stream".

On 30 May 1942, between 00:47 and 02:25 hours, in Operation Millennium 1,046 aircraft dropped over 2,000 tons of high explosive and incendaries on the medieval town of Cologne and burned it from end to end. The devastation was total. The fires could be seen 600 miles away at an altitude of 20,000 feet. Three thousand three hundred houses destroyed, 10,000 damaged. Twelve thousand separate fires raged destroying 36 factories, damaging 270 more and leaving 45,000 people with nowhere to live or work. Only 384 civilians and 85 soldiers were killed, but thousands left the city. Bomber Command lost 40 aircraft.

Two further Thousand-bomber raids were executed over Essen and Bremen, but neither so utterly shook both sides as the scale of the destruction at Cologne. The effects of the massive raids using a combination of Blockbuster bombs (to blow off roofs) and incendiaries (to start the fires) created firestorms in some cites. The most extreme examples of which were caused by Operation Gomorrah, the attack on Hamburg, (45,000 dead), attack on Kassel (10,000 dead), the attack on Darmstadt (12,500 dead), the attack on Pforzheim (21,200 dead), the attack on Swinemuende (23,000 dead) and the attack on Dresden (35,000 dead). US bombers operating in the Pacific War created the same firestorms in the readily flammable Japanese cities such as Tokyo (120,000 dead). Towards the end of the war the use of napalm bombs increased.

RAF Bomber Command

Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, the Americans, due to their inability to gain the upper hand against a guerrilla war conducted by the Vietcong, resorted to area bombing the forests and villages with Napalm and Agent Orange, in order to deprive the Vietcong of their jungle cover, but to no avail. Also, as troops were being removed, saturation bombing campaigns occurred to try and destroy more surface area than conventional bombing campaigns. The rules of engagement said villages were never to be bombed, but critics say that wayward bombs did hit villages.

First Gulf War

Precision bombing in the sense of tactical bombing had been the case from the start of aerial use of bombs. It was in the Second World War that the use of precision bombing for strategic targets was developed (see Dambusters and Tallboy bomb). The developments in guided munitions meant that the Coalition forces in the First Gulf War in 1990 were able to use them extensively, although the majority of bombs dropped in that conflict were still conventional, unguided bombs. This has not ended aerial area bombardment completely, because it has been used several times since as a means of softening up front line enemy positions.

Aerial area bombardment and international law

International law up to 1945

International law relating to aerial area bombardment before and during World War II rests on the treaties of 1864, 1899, 1907 which constituted the definition of most of the laws of at that time — which, despite repeated diplomatic attempts, was not updated in the immediate run up to World War II. The most relevant of these treaties are the Hague Conventions of 1907 because they were the last treaties ratified before 1939 which specify the laws of war on aerial bombardment. Of these treaties there are two which have a direct bearing on this issue of bombardment. These are "Laws of War: Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague IV); October 18 1907" [ Laws of War: Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague IV); October 18 1907] available from the Avalon Project at the Yale Law School, entered into force: 26 January 1910.] and "Laws of War:Bombardment by Naval Forces in Time of War (Hague IX); October 18 1907" [ Laws of War: Bombardment by Naval Forces in Time of War (Hague IX); October 18 1907] , available from the Avalon Project at the Yale Law School, ] . It is significant that there is a different treaty which should be invoked for bombardment of land by land (Hague IV) and of land by sea (Hague IX). [ International Review of the Red Cross no 323] cites: Charles Rousseau, References p. 360. "the a nalogy between land and aerial bombardment".] Hague IV which reaffirmed and updated Hague II (1899) [ Laws of War: Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague II); July 29 1899] , available from the Avalon Project at the Yale Law School, entry into force 4 September 1900] contains the following clauses:quotation|Article 25: The attack or bombardment of towns, villages, habitations or buildings which are not defended, is prohibited.
Article 26: The Commander of an attacking force, before commencing a bombardment, except in the case of an assault, should do all he can to warn the authorities.
Article 27: In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps should be taken to spare as far as possible edifices devoted to religion, art, science, and charity, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not used at the same time for military purposes.
The besieged should indicate these buildings or places by some particular and visible signs, which should previously be notified to the assailants.

In 1923 a draft convention, promoted by the United States was proposed: "The Hague Rules of Air Warfare", December, 1922-February, 1923", [ The Hague Rules of Air Warfare] , 1922-12 to 1923-02, "this convention was never adopted"'.] There are number of articles which would have directly affected how nations used aerial bombardment and defended against it; these are articles 18, 22 and 24. It was, however, never adopted in legally binding form. [ Rules concerning the Control of Wireless Telegraphy in Time of War and Air Warfare] , from the International Committee of the Red Cross's [ section on international humanitarian law] verified 26 February 2005]

The subordination of the law of air warfare to the law of ground warfare was arguably established by the Greco-German arbitration tribunal of 1927-30. It found that the 1907 Hague Convention on "The Laws and Customs of War on Land" applied to the German attacks in Greece during World War I: [ [ Laws of War: Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague IV); October 18 1907] available from the Avalon Project at the Yale Law School, entered into force: 26 January 1910] This concerned both Article 25 and Article 26.

The U.S. Air Force Law Review argues that "if international law is not enforced, persistent violations can conceivably be adopted as customary practice, permitting conduct that was once prohibited" [Jefferson D. Reynolds. "Collateral Damage on the 21st century battlefield: Enemy exploitation of the law of armed conflict, and the struggle for a moral high ground"." Air Force Law Review " [ Volume 56, 2005] "(PDF) Page 57/58] Even if the Greco-German arbitration tribunal findings had established the rules for aerial bombardment, by 1945, the belligerents of World War II had ignored the preliminary bombardment procedures that the Greco-German arbitration tribunal had recognized.Javier Guisández Gómez " [ The Law of Air Warfare] " 30 June 1998 International Review of the Red Cross no 323, p.347-363]

In response to a League of Nations declaration against bombardment from the air, [ Protection of Civilian Populations Against Bombing From the Air in Case of War] , Unanimous resolution of the League of Nations Assembly, 30 September 1938, verified 26 February 2005 ] a draft convention in Amsterdam of 1938 [ Draft Convention for the Protection of Civilian Populations Against New Engines of War. Amsterdam, 1938] , verified 26 February 2005] would have provided specific definitions of what constituted an "undefended" town, excessive civilian casualties and appropriate warning. This draft convention makes the standard of being undefended quite high - any military units or anti-aircraft within the radius qualifies a town as defended. This convention, like the 1923 draft, was not ratified, nor even close to being ratified, when hostilities broke out in Europe. While the two conventions offer a guideline to what the belligerent powers were considering before the war, neither of these documents came to be legally binding.

After the war the judgement of the Nuremberg Trials, [ "Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 1 Charter of the International Military Tribunal"] , proceedings of the Nuremberg Trials, available from the Avalon Project at the Yale Law School, verified 26 February 2005.] the records the decision that by 1939 these rules laid down in the 1907 Hague Convention were recognised by all civilised nations, and were regarded as declaratory of the laws and customs of war. Under this post-war decision, a country did not have to have ratified the 1907 Hague conventions in order to be bound by them. [ Judgement: The Law Relating to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity] , available from the Avalon Project at the Yale Law School, verified 26 February 2005.]

In 1963 the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the subject of a Japanese judicial review in "Ryuichi Shimoda et al. v. The State". The review draws several distinctions which are pertinent to both conventional and atomic aerial bombardment. Based on international law found in Hague Convention of 1907 "IV - The Laws and Customs of War on Land" and "IX - Bombardment by Naval Forces in Time of War", and the "Hague Draft Rules of Air Warfare of 1922–1923" the Court drew a distinction between "Targeted Aerial Bombardment" and indiscriminate area bombardment, that the court called "Blind Aerial Bombardment", and also a distinction between a defended and undefended city. : Paragraph 6] "In principle, a defended city is a city which resists an attempt at occupation by land forces. A city even with defence installations and armed forces cannot be said to be a defended city if it is far away from the battlefield and is not in immediate danger of occupation by the enemy." : Paragraph 7] The court ruled that blind aerial bombardment is only permitted in the immediate vicinity of the operations of land forces and that only targeted aerial bombardment of military installations is permitted further from the front. It also ruled that, in such an event, the incidental death of civilians and the destruction of civilian property during targeted aerial bombardment was not unlawful. : Paragraph 10] The court acknowledged that the concept of a military objective was enlarged under conditions of total war, but stated that the distinction between the two did not disappear. : Paragraph 9] The court also ruled that when military targets were concentrated in a comparatively small area, and where defence installations against air raids were very strong, that when the destruction of non-military objectives is small in proportion to the large military interests, or necessity, such destruction is lawful. paragraph 10] So in the judgement of the Court, because of the immense power of the bombs, and the distance from enemy (Allied) land forces, the bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki "was an illegal act of hostilities under international law as it existed at that time, as an indiscriminate bombardment of undefended cities". : Paragraph 8]

Not all governments and scholars of international law agree with the analysis and conclusions of the Shimoda review, because it was not based on positive international humanitarian law. Colonel Javier Guisández Gómez, at the International Institute of Humanitarian Law in San Remo, points out:This leaves the legal status of aerial bombardment during World War II ambiguous and open to other interpretations, for example one of the reasons given by John R. Bolton, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, for the USA not agreeing to be bound by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is that

International law since 1945

In the post war environment, a series of treaties governing the laws of war were adopted starting in 1949. These Geneva Conventions would come into force, in no small part, because of a general reaction against the practices of the Second World War. In 1977 Protocol I was adopted as an amendment to the Geneva conventions.

The International Court of Justice gave an advisory opinion in July 1996 on the "Legality of the Threat Or Use Of Nuclear Weapons".] International Review of the Red Cross no 323, p.347-363
*Joan T. Phillips. " [ List of documents and web links relating to the law of armed conflict in air and space operations] ", May 2006. Bibliographer, Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center Maxwell (United States) Air Force Base, Alabama.
*Jefferson D. Reynolds. "Collateral Damage on the 21st century battlefield: Enemy exploitation of the law of armed conflict, and the struggle for a moral high ground"." Air Force Law Review " [ Volume 56, 2005] "(PDF) pp. 4-108
*Charles Rousseau, "Le droit des conflits armés" Editions Pedone, Paris, (1983)

Further reading

*cite book| last = Grayling| first = A. C.| authorlink = A. C. Grayling| year = 2006| title = Among the Dead Cities| publisher = Walker Publishing Company Inc.| location = New York| id = ISBN 0-8027-1471-4
*Gene Dannen. " [ International Law on the Bombing of Civilians] "
*Sherwood Ross. " [;jsessionid=Ghnf6snwpKN25PLvNs8zNvQDtSXN2pgwTcR4f5YB7W0LdQ183Ghv!68860294!509813057?a=o&d=5009994090 How the United States Reversed Its Policy on Bombing Civilians] ", The Humanist, Vol. 65, July-August 2005
*R.J. Rummel. [ Was World War II American Urban Bombing Democide?] Casablanca directive
* Spaight. James M. ["Bombing Vindicated"] G. Bles, 1944. ASIN: B0007IVW7K (Spaight was Principal Assistant Secretary of the Air Ministry (U.K))
* Kevin Young, [] "The Path to Hiroshima and Nagasaki - Targeting Civilians", CounterPunch, August 9-10, 2008


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