'If We Did Anything Questionable in the War, We Should Have the Maturity to Admit It and Learn from It': The Area Bombing of Civilians by the Allies in the Lead-Up to 1945 Went beyond the Limits of a Just War, Argues A C Grayling. If Historians Refuse to Accept This, They Are Irresponsible and Wrong

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Did America and Britain commit a war crime by bombing civilian populations in the cities of Germany and Japan during the Second World War? I examine this question in my book Among the Dead Cities, and unequivocally answer "yes". This has caused a predictable outburst of controversy among historians who believe they own the war and who, besides resenting any trespass on their terrain, are not predisposed to thinking in these terms about any aspect of our endeavours in 1939-45.


I have always accepted this was a just war for the Allied side, against dangerous and wicked aggressors. Losing it would itself have been a crime, as well as a disaster. And yet, if we did do anything questionable in the course of that war, we should have the maturity and courage to acknowledge it, and learn from it, because we are still fighting wars, and may have to fight yet more.

My critics focus on three areas. They defend the bombing campaign against Germany by saying that it hampered the Nazi war effort because it kept troops, guns and aircraft on the home front, thus weakening the eastern and western military fronts, and slowed industrial production. Second, they say that to describe area bombing of civilians as a war crime is to make a judgement of hindsight, using concepts--particularly that of the "war crime"--which did not come into existence until later. Third, because most of them have touched on the bombing controversy in their own books, they say that my discussion contains nothing new.

They are wrong on all counts. Consider the last point first. A vigorous debate about bombing had started as early as 1899, when the Hague Conference outlawed throwing grenades from balloons--even before manned flight began. The experience of the First World War, in which German Zeppelins and Gothas bombed a number of English towns, made international fears about bombing so acute that during the Geneva disarmament conferences of the 1920s and 1930s some delegates went so far as to suggest banning flight itself. Historians of the Second World War ignore this background, because it places Allied decisions taken during the war in an exposed position: the planners of area bombing well knew what they were doing.

The historians also often ignore the fact that during the first three years of war the British government publicly forswore any plans to bomb civilian populations, and changed tack only in February 1942, when whole urban areas were nominated as primary targets. They ignore the Morgenthau Plan for a divided, de-industrialised, wholly rural postwar Germany. The bombing campaign served this aim by destroying the libraries, schools, universities, archives, concert halls, art galleries, studios, monuments and architectural treasures that sustained German culture. They also ignore the popular anti-bombing campaign in Britain itself, and play down Winston Churchill's own ambiguous attitude--and his eventual serious doubts--about its legitimacy.

My book is the first to bring these points together.

Now to the first question: that the bombing kept substantial German forces stuck on the home front. This argument is a fine example of why historians need logicians to get among them. The claim is true, but the same effect would have been achieved if, instead of being targeted indiscriminately at cities, the bombing had been directed at transport links, major factories, airfields, harbours and, above all, oil plants. This is just what, in the European theatre, the United States Army Air Forces did, and it was USAAF tactical (as opposed to area) bombing that had a real effect on Germany's war effort, as the postwar bombing surveys of the UK and US governments found. Moreover, area bombing of cities did not harm civilian morale in Germany: it strengthened it, an effect that many in Britain recognised from their own experience of the Blitz.


Those who manned the searchlights and 88mm anti-aircraft guns in Germany were boys and older men; on the day Berlin fell in 1945 Germany still had ten million men between the ages of 18 and 35 booted and fully armed in service on the eastern and western fronts. …