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Strategic bombing

Strategic bombing aims to bypass an enemy's frontline defenses and instead attack the economic foundations that underpin the war effort: mines, factories, infrastructure, and cities.

From quite early in World War I, aircraft were used to drop improvised explosive packages on the enemy. Within a year or so, specialized aircraft and dedicated bomber squadrons were in service on both sides. This was tactical bombing: it had the aim of directly harming enemy troops, strongpoints, or equipment, usually within a relatively short distance of the front line. Eventually attention turned to the possibility of causing indirect harm to the enemy by systematically attacking vital rear-area resources. This was the beginning of strategic bombing.

The distinction between tactical and strategic bombing is easily blurred. Strategic bombers usually attack targets such as factories, railroads, communications facilities, oil fields and cities, while tactical bombers attack troop concentrations, airfields, ammunition dumps, and the like. Strategic bombers tend to be large, long-range aircraft; tactical bombers are mostly relatively small. However, the distinction does not lie in the aircraft type used or the assigned target, it lies in the purpose of the attack. Tactical bombing aims to defeat armies or air forces. Strategic bombing aims to defeat nations. The use of nuclear weapons usually falls into the category of strategic bombing, perhaps as the ultimate form thereof, but in general the term refers to conventional bombing from aircraft or cruise missiles.

History and origins

In the period between the two world wars, military thinkers from several nations advocated strategic bombing as the logical and obvious way to employ aircraft. Domestic political considerations saw to it that the British worked harder on the concept than most. The British military and navy flying services of the Great War had been merged in 1917 to create a separate air force, which spent much of the following two decades fighting for survival in an environment of severe government spending constraints. Royal Air Force leaders, in particular Air Chief Marshal Trenchard, believed that the key to retaining their independence from the senior services was to lay stress on what they saw as the unique ability of a modern air force to win wars by unaided strategic bombing. The prevailing strategic dogma was that "the bomber will always get through". Although anti-aircraft guns and fighter aircraft had proved effective in the Great War, it was accepted that there was little warring nations could do to prevent massive civilian casualties from strategic bombing. High civilian morale and retaliation in kind were seen as the only answers.

In Europe the air power prophet General Giulio Douhet asserted that the basic principle of strategic bombing was the offensive and that there was no defense against carpet bombing and poison gas attacks. Douhet's apocalyptic predictions found fertile soil in France, Germany and America where excerpts from his book The Command of the Air (1921) were published. These visions of cities laid waste by bombing also gripped the popular imagination and found expression in novels such as Douhet's The War of 19-- (1930) and H.G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1929) (filmed by Alex Korda as Things to Come (1936)).

Pre-war planners, on the whole, vastly over-estimated the damage that a handful of bombers could do, and underestimated the resilience of civilian populations. Jingoistic national pride played a major role: for example, at a time when Germany was still disarmed and France was England's only European rival, RAF chief Trenchard boasted that "the French in a bombing duel would probably squeal before we did." Partly because a repeat of the bloody stalemate of trench warfare was unthinkable, the expectation was that any new war would be brief and very savage. A British Cabinet planning document in 1938 predicted that, if war with Germany broke out, 35% of British homes would be hit by bombs in the first three weeks. (This type of expectation should be kept in mind when considering the conduct of the European leaders who appeased Hitler in the late 1930s, by the way.)

Curiously, the rhetoric of RAF leaders was not matched by military capability: when the war broke out in 1939, Britain had just 488 bombers of all kinds, mostly obsolescent, with only about 60 of the capable new Vickers Wellington: many of the remainder had insufficient range to reach the Ruhr (let alone Berlin), had negligible defensive armament, and could not carry a useful payload. In any case, there were no effective bomb sights, very few bombs of a size that could cause significant damage, and even such obvious things as maps of Europe for navigating to and from the target were in severe shortage.

Germany, in contrast, had abandoned plans to produce strategic bombers. With German technical resources already hard pressed to supply other needs, with the Luftwaffe being part of the German army, and with the benefit of practical experience of modern war in Spain, German planners focused on tactical bombers to act as airborne artillery for the army, and fighters to protect them. When the fighting for Western Europe began in earnest, all three major powers (Britain, Germany and France) concentrated on daylight tactical bombing. The German Stukas and medium bombers were highly effective; the French Air Force, torn by political intra-service conflict, was largely unable to employ its large numbers of modern aircraft; and the British found that bravery was no substitute for proper training, doctrine, and equipment - British losses in the defense of France were catastrophic, and the results negligible.

In that first year of the war, strategic bombing was almost forgotten. It was in a sense, however, the calm before the storm.

After the fall of Europe came the Battle of Britain. The major part of the battle (up until about September 1940) was almost entirely tactical: the Luftwaffe aimed to prepare the way for an invasion by ground troops (or else destroy the ability of the RAF to resist and perhaps bring about a negotiated peace on favourable terms). Not realizing how close they had already come to success, the Germans switched away from attacking airfields and strictly military targets to simply bombing cities, in particular London. Many other British cities were hit, including Liverpool, Bristol, Belfast, Cardiff, and Coventry. The ostensible aim was strategic - to destroy ports and industrial installations - but there is no room to doubt that destroying the will of ordinary people to fight was a major factor too, perhaps the major factor.

Gradually, in the face of heavy losses to fighters, anti-aircraft guns, and accidents, the Luftwaffe resorted to night bombing. Targeting had been a problem in daylight; by night it was much more so, and British civilian casualties were heavy. The expected collapse in civilian morale, however, did not eventuate.

Over the next year, an escalating war of electronic technology developed. The defenders struggled to develop countermeasures (in particular, airborne radar), while German scientists improvised a series of radio navigation aids to help their navigators find targets in the dark and through overcasts. Also the work of code breakers at Bletchley Park allowed the British to overhear virtually all of German transmissions and thus allocate their limited defenses to maximum effect. Despite causing a great deal of damage and sorely trying the civilian population, the defenses gradually became more formidable, and the need to divert as many squadrons as possible to the Eastern Front saw the Blitz gradually fade away into mere nuisance raids.

The British retaliation

Britain retaliated with its own night strategic bombing campaign, which built up from tiny beginnings in 1940 to truly massive strength by the end of the war. The effects of strategic bombing were very poorly understood at the time and grossly overrated. Particularly in the first two years of so of the campaign, few understood just how little damage was caused and how rapidly the Germans were able to replace lost production - despite the obvious lessons to be learned from England's own survival of the Blitz.

Mid-way through the air war, it slowly began to be realized that the campaign was having very little effect. Despite an ever-increasing tonnage of bombs dispatched, the inaccuracy of delivery was such that any bomb falling within five miles of the target was deemed a "hit" for statistical purposes, and even by this standard, many bombs missed.

These problems were dealt with in two ways: first the precision targeting of vital facilities (oil production in particular) was abandoned in favour of "area bombing" - a euphemism for simply aiming at entire cities in the hope of killing workers, destroying homes, and breaking civilian morale. Secondly, efforts were made to improve accuracy by crew training, electronic aids, and the creation of a "pathfinder" force to mark targets for the main force.

A very large proportion of the industrial production of the United Kingdom was harnessed to the task of creating a vast fleet of heavy bombers - so much so that other vital areas of war production were under-resourced, notably the development of effective tanks and above all the provision of long-range aircraft to safeguard Atlantic shipping from submarine attack. Until fairly late in the war - about 1944 - the effect on German production was remarkably small and nowhere near enough to justify the colossal diversion of scarce Commonwealth resources. The effect on German allocation of forces, however, gradually became significant: every extra anti-aircraft battery and night fighter squadron was one less to fight Russian forces on the Eastern Front.

Mid-way through the war, the United States Army Air Force arrived to begin its own strategic bombing campaign, which was conducted in daylight. The American heavy bombers carried much smaller payloads than British aircraft (because of the need for defensive armament) but were generally able to deliver them somewhat more accurately. USAAF leaders firmly held to the claim that they were conducting "precision" bombing of military targets for much of the war, and energetically refuted claims that they were simply bombing cities. In reality, the day bombing was "precision bombing" only in the sense that most bombs fell somewhere in or near the desired city, whereas the night bombing campaign rarely achieved even that. Nevertheless, the sheer tonnage of explosive delivered by day and by night was eventually sufficient to cause widespread damage, and, more importantly from a military point of view, force Germany to divert resources to counter it. This was to be the real significance of the Allied strategic bombing campaign - resource allocation.

The twin campaigns - the US by day, the Commonwealth by night - built up into massive bombing of German industrial areas, notably the Ruhr, followed by attacks directly on cities such as Hamburg and the more often-criticized bombing of Dresden.


Despite its popularity with the military and politicians, strategic bombing has been criticized on practical grounds because it does not always work reliably, and on moral grounds because of the large civilian casualties that result.

For instance, the Strategic bombing survey conducted by the United States after World War II determined that German industrial production in aircraft, steel, armor, and other sectors had risen during the war despite strategic bombing. The attack on oil was more successful and contributed to the general collapse of Germany in 1945. That collapse in 1945 was so total that the survey concluded it was impossible to know what portion to attribute to the bombing and what to other factors.

Although designed to "break the enemy's will", the opposite often happens. The British did not crumble under the German Blitz and other air raids early in the war. British workers continued to work throughout the war and food and other basic supplies were available throughout.

Because of the controversial nature of deliberately bombing civilian targets, the United States military has in more recent wars attempted to minimize negative publicity. During the Gulf War, for example, US weapons were touted for their precision which reduced civilian casualties. The use of language in describing such bombing campaigns during that war was also altered for propaganda reasons; thus the term collateral damage was used as a vague, less sinister sounding, term to describe the loss of life that resulted from strategic bombing.

With the advent of precision-guided munitions, many feel that strategic bombing will become more common and more effective. Exactly how precise so called precision munitions are, is also open to question. However, others predict that 21st century warfare will be often asymmetrical, and therefore strategic targets will be often non-existent.

Among the most controversial instances of strategic bombing are: