The Strategic Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945

By Alan J. Levine | Go to book overview

3
The Reform of Bomber Command, 1942

During 1941 the RAF had been forced to acknowledge that Bomber Command was not succeeding at precision bombing at night. Since it usually could not single out a particular factory or installation in the darkness, it had backed, at first unwillingly, into area bombing.

At least for a time, it had to be content to attack the centers of German cities, which, with pending improvements of technique, it could hit. Unfortunately, although there were exceptions, the big industrial plants, especially those most important to the enemy war effort, were usually on the edges of cities or even outside them. In the heavily built-up centers of cities, any bomb was likely to cause damage, but these areas were usually residential and commercial, with some small industrial plants. Their destruction would have only a slow, indirect impact.

A policy of deliberate area attacks meant accepting the idea that large numbers of German civilians would be killed. It had always been clear that even the most careful and accurate precision bombing campaign must kill civilians simply because civilians worked in war plants. Not even the tightest bombing pattern could entirely avoid hitting homes or workplaces right next to a target. And even the most skillful force would occasionally make gross mistakes in aiming or dropping bombs. Even if perfectly aimed and released at the right moment, some bombs would go astray because their fins were warped or because their tails had snapped off on the way down. The idea of conducting a war with "surgical strikes" (to use an anachronistic and silly expression) that would entirely spare civilians was a fantasy. That was generally understood during World War II, if not later. But while most people felt that such incidental and unwanted deaths were morally acceptable, there were qualms about deliberately attacking civilians. These reservations were eroded, however, by the Nazis' indiscriminate bombing and their atrocities, and by the desperate situation of the Allies. There was to be far more unhappiness about the area bombing after the war than was

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