Did the Allied Bombing Increase Germans Fighting Spirit?

In August 1944, Americans were asked about the impact of Allied bombing on Nazi Germany.

Top Image: Dresden, 1945, view from the city hall (Rathaus) over the destroyed city. Deutsche Fotothek Blick vom Rathausturm.

“If the [German military machine] can be destroyed or seriously damaged it must be obvious that her means to make war will be reduced. And in the process of destroying them the people can be given their first searing lesson, in the heart of their hitherto untouched homeland that crime doesn’t pay. This should reduce their will to fight. If, therefore, we can reduce the means to fight and the will to fight, the tasking of overpowering her is made easier or the time shortened. That, very simply, is the contention of the Air Forces.”
Assistant Secretary of War for Air, Robert A. Lovett, December 9, 1943.

During World War II, the Allies engaged in strategic bombing, a new feature of aerial warfare.  Their goal was to destroy the wartime economy, following the industrial web theory, the military concept that an enemy's industrial power can be attacked at nodes of vulnerability, and thus severely limit not only the enemy's ability to wage a lengthy war but also his morale and his will to resist. In the case of Germany, the goal was to destroy the Nazis’ Volksgemeinshcaft (people’s community) and to shatter the public solidarity with and loyalty to the Nazi regime. The bombing was part of demoralization efforts and it was hoped that it would lead to a home front collapse, similar to what had happened in 1918.

Starting in May 1940, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) carried out attacks from bases in eastern England throughout the war. The United States mobilized the home front to accelerate the production of planes and the training of bomb crews. Close to 300,000 different types of airplanes were built in America, including almost 100,000 bombers. At its peak, some 28,000 combat planes were flying and 1,300,000 men were in combat commands. In the spring of 1942, the US Eight Air Forces moved to bases in England and first attacked targets in France and the Netherlands starting in August 1942. Not until January 1943 did it conduct its first attack on Germany.

strategic bombing

Diagram showing the effects of strategic bombing on German morale in 1945. From the United States Strategic Bombing Survey Morale Division Reports.

The Allied had different approaches to bombing campaigns. The RAF conducted attacks at night and adopted a policy of area bombing of industrial cities using large numbers of incendiaries against predominantly residential districts. Using the Norden bombsight, the USAAF’s goal was to carry out “precision bombing” over selected industrial and communication objectives. Despite their use of the Norden Bombsight, American bombers were not able to achieve a high degree of accuracy because of strong anti-aircraft defenses and relatively poor navigation as well as clouds and industrial smog. American crews were often “blind bombing” through cloud cover. While accuracy improved during the war, Survey studies show that, overall, only about 20% of the bombs aimed at precision targets fell within any target area. In the fall of 1944, only seven percent of all bombs dropped by the Eighth Air Force hit within 1,000 feet of their aim point.

Early in the campaign, the allied casualties were extremely high, as the unescorted US bombers were no match for German fighters. After a series of disastrous raids, daylight bombing was temporarily suspended. They resumed in 1944 when P-51 Mustang and Republic P-47 fighters accompanied bombers, thus reducing the loss rate dramatically.

The Allies were very eager to measure the impact of bombing and they established the United States Strategic Bombing Surveys (USSBS) in November 1944. Its final report in September 1945 listed 2,700,000 tons of bombs dropped, more than 1,440,000 bomber sorties and 2,680,000 fighter sorties flown. More than 18,000 American and 22,000 British planes were lost or damaged beyond repair and 79,265 Americans and 79,281 British men were lost in air action.

What was the impact of the bombing campaigns and did they decrease the fighting spirit of the Germans?

Estimates rank the impact of the Allied bombing in Germany as follows: 305,000 -500,000 Germans dead with an additional 60,000 foreign workers and POWs, 780,000 wounded, and 1,865,000 destroyed homes. Close to 5 million people were evacuated, over 7 million were homeless and approximately 20 million had no access to basic utilities. Altogether, more than a third of the population had been physically affected in some way. Some missions were specifically targetting civilians, such as the July 1943 firebombing attacks on Dresden which resulted in the death of 50,000 civilian deaths.

The USSBS final report marveled that “the recuperative and defensive powers of Germany were immense; the speed and ingenuity with which they rebuilt and maintained essential war industries in operation clearly surpassed Allied expectations.” In the end, however, the Germans were unable to prevent the decline and eventual collapse of their economy.

While bombing campaigns had an impact on war time economy and prevented Germans from producing vital materials for its armed forces, the issue of morale was more complicated. Reducing German morale been an official goal of the RAF since 1940 and it remained a stated objective of the 1943 Operation Pointblank, the code name for the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive intended to cripple or destroy the German aircraft fighter strength. The bombing, however, failed to incite the anticipated panics, strike, or any type of organized dissent against the Nazi regime.

Civilians in cities targeted by Allies bombing adjusted to the almost permanent threat and losses. Early in the campaign, homeless people found accommodations with friends or family or moved into apartment and houses that had been taken from Jews. Canteens provided food and emergency workers and soldiers, as well as POWs and eastern European workers, helped with debris and repairs. Sections of cities were sealed to prevent the spread of disease.

As the air war intensified the situation became more difficult and food and shelter became scarcer. While the population grew increasingly frustrated with state and city officials and the lack of sufficient facilities, the only probable source of food, accommodation, medical assistance and employment was the regime. The Nazi party kept a tight grip on the country, however, brutally repressing the few examples of resistance in 1943-44. Looters were punished by death, and in 1944 Himmler announced increased penalties for anyone who slackened deliberately on air raid protection. Goebbels encouraged the German people to take reprisals against downed Allied airmen. Germans --civilians, policemen, members of the armed forces as well as Gestapo men -- did in a few cases, most famously in Russelheim, where six American airmen were killed. The perpetrators were later convicted and executed.

It is difficult to measure the air bombing’s impact on German morale. Germans’ main concerns were of physical and practical nature, not ideology. As they continued to endure the bombing, German civilians created new social bonds at the local and neighborhood levels, bonds that were stronger than the ones the Nazi ideology strove to create. That they never revolted against the party and continued to work can be explained by their physical and mental exhaustion, their fear of reprisals by the Nazi police state and the fear of what the Allies would do to them in case of defeat.


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Christelle Le Faucheur

Christelle Le Faucher, PhD, is a Research Historian in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. She came to the Institute in 201...
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