Advance to Barbarism, FJP Veale
The exclusion of non-combatants from the scope of hostilities is the fundamental distinction between civilized and barbarous warfare.
Sennacherib, the great king,
And their small cities, which were beyond numbering I destroyed, I devastated, and I turned into ruins. The houses of the steppe, (namely) the tents, in which they lived, I set on fire and turned them into flames.
Over the whole of his wide land I swept like a hurricane. The cities Marubishti and Akkuddu, his royal residence-cities, together with small towns of their area, I besieged, I captured, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire.
In the course of my campaign, Beth-Dagon, Joppa, Banaibarka, Asuru, cities of Sidka, who had not speedily bowed in submission at my feet, I besieged, I conquered, I carried off their spoil.
As for Hezekiah the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke: forty-six of his strong, walled cities, as well as the small towns in their area, which were without number, by levelling with battering-rams and by bringing up seige-engines, and by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels, and breeches, I besieged and took them.
I captured their cities and carried off their spoil, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire.
Furthermore, 33 cities within the bounds of his province I captured. People, asses, cattle and sheep, I carried away from them as spoil. I destroyed, I devastated, and I burned with fire.
The cities which were in those provinces I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire. Into tells and ruins I turned them.
…strong cities, together with the small cities in their areas, which were countless, I besieged, I conquered, I despoiled, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire, with the smoke of their conflagration I covered the wide heavens like a hurricane.
Veale continues his examination of the Advance to Barbarism, focusing first on the World War II bombing of areas outside of the battlefield and culminating in the carpet bombing of German cities. This bombing marked the complete repudiation of one of the cornerstones of the concept of civilized warfare: warfare should be the concern only of the armed combatants engaged; non-combatants should be left outside of the scope of military operations. It marked the return, or advance as Veale puts it, to a form of warfare for which Sennacherib the Assyrian was well known.
May 11, 1940
Veale introduces J. M. Spaight and his book “Bombing Vindicated.” Spaight describes the awesomeness of this day, the “splendid decision” to bomb German targets well outside of the area of military operations. The next day, newspapers announced that “eighteen Whitley bombers attacked railway installations in Western Germany.”
Looked at from today’s eyes, there is nothing shocking in this statement; however, compared to what came before in European wars, this was news:
Western Germany in May 1940 was, of course, as much outside the area of military operations as Patagonia.
At the time the battle for France was in high gear, yet the pilots flew over these battlefields to reach their objective:
To the crews of these bombers it must have seemed strange to fly over a battlefield where a life and death struggle was taking place and then over a country crowded with columns of enemy troops pouring forward to the attack…Their flight marked the end of an epoch which had lasted for two and one-half centuries.
…against a background of prosaic twentieth railway installations we can imagine the grim forms of Asshurnazirpal and Sennacherib stroking their square-cut, curled and scented beards with dignified approval….
This was only the beginning, with the culmination to come in Dresden some five years later, but this is to get too far ahead in the narrative.
The entire reason for the development of Britain’s bomber command “was to bomb Germany should she be our enemy,” according to Spaight. Philosophically, this concept was offered as early as 1923, by Air Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard: “The Army policy is to defeat the enemy army; our policy is to defeat the enemy nation.” Not very European.
Spaight points out that this was also obvious to Hitler, which is one reason Hitler was anxious to reach an agreement with Britain to confine “the action of aircraft to the battle zones.” Spaight agrees that Hitler undertook civilian bombing only three months after the RAF began bombing the German civilian population.
Germany did not design its bombers for such use, instead designed to support ground troops:
“For Germany,” Mr. Spaight continues, “the bomber was artillery for stationary troops dug fast into the Maginot Line; for Britain, it was an offensive weapon designed to attack the economic resources of the enemy deep within his country.”
In order to establish the groundwork for this shift, in May, 1940 Churchill and his advisors extended the definition of military objectives to include…
…factories, oil plants, public buildings and any structure which contributed or was of use, if only indirectly, to the war effort of the enemy.
Railway installations, industrial zones, etc. The British Cabinet argued that these are used to support the military, therefore are fair targets. Of course, by this reasoning – and by including the word “indirectly” – virtually every resident of a warring nation could be a legitimate target.
However, even via this logic, bombing accuracy must be taken into account. There is no such thing as “collateral damage” when bombing an actual war zone – there is no collateral to damage. Even with modern accuracy, collateral damage is a given (and intended) – and with the technology of World War Two, collateral damage was more likely than damage of the purposeful sort.
May 14, 1940
…a date on which Hitler’s triumphal progress which, thanks to the outcome of events on that day he was able to continue for the following two years, came so near to being brought to an abrupt and final halt.
On May 10, the Germans invaded the West, in an offensive that stretched from the North Sea to Switzerland. On May 12, German General von Kleist occupied Sedan in the Ardennes, and the next day established a beachhead on the other side of the Meuse River – four miles deep and four miles wide.
Meanwhile, British bombers were flying overhead, on their way to targets far from the battlefield.
While this great conflict was raging along the Meuse, another conflict of a different kind was raging between the French and British High Commands.
The breakthrough by the Germans had been so swift that no heavy artillery was moved into place – artillery that might have cut-off the bridgehead established by the Germans. The French, believing that the purpose of heavy bombers was for long-rage artillery (just as the Germans designed)…
…clamoured for an immediate concentration of bombers for a mass attack on the crossings of the Meuse. They found however the chiefs of the R.A.F were reluctant to cancel the plans which they had made for large scale air attacks on German industrial centres in accordance with Air Marshal Trenchard’s conception of the role of the heavy bomber in warfare.
Whatever the merits of bombing German industrial centers, the French did not believe that the time to begin doing so was during the opening of a great land battle.
On the night of the 13th, German troops frantically repaired the Gaulier Bridge over the Meuse; on the 14th, the heavy tanks of the 1st Panzer Division under General Guderian crossed the river and raced along a route toward the English Channel.
“Upon the destruction of the Gaulier Bridge depends victory or defeat,” declared General d’Astiere de la Vigerie imploring that every available bomber should be assigned this vital task.
About 170 British and French bombers were sent; German anti-aircraft proved quite accurate – about 85 were shot down. Yet only one bomber needed to be successful; might the likelihood have improved with more thrown into the attack?
We now know that 96 heavy bombers were at this vital moment available to join the attack. While this supreme effort was being made to cut the communications of the German tank spearhead advancing toward the English Channel, these 96 heavy bombers were waiting passively on nearby airfields in preparation for a mass attack on the factories and oil plants in the Ruhr which had been planned to take place on the evening of the following day.
This attack, far from the front line, took place as planned. Ninety-six bombers took off, of which 78 were directed at oil plants. Of these, only 24 crews claim to have found them.
One extra load of bombs on the crossing over the Meuse by Sedan – let alone ninety-six loads – might have made all the difference between victory and defeat as General Billote pointed out at the time. Had the supplies of Guderian’s Panzers been cut off, he would soon have been brought to a halt from lack of petrol and then forced to surrender when his ammunition was exhausted.
Veale speculates that this might have brought the battle in the West to a rapid end: the German generals, hesitant to invade France in the first place, might have compelled Hitler’s retirement; the National Socialist party would have collapsed; Britain and France could have been in a position to dictate the terms of peace.
I cannot say if any of this would have happened – beyond the understanding that the German generals did not support this invasion. One thing I suspect is true: if the British were successful in blowing the bridge, the war in the west would have been much different.
From the “Splendid Decision” to Terror Bombing
On December 16, 1940, 134 planes took off for a nighttime raid on the town of Mannheim, with the object of the attack – according to Air Chief Marshal Pierse – “to concentrate the maximum amount of damage in the centre of the town.” So much for any semblance of military objectives.
From The Bansusan-Butt Report dated August 18, 1941:
The British Cabinet were horrified to learn that aerial photographs taken of the targets described as having been completely demolished disclosed that most of them showed no signs of damage; of all the aircraft credited with having bombed their targets, only one-third had, in fact, bombed within five miles of them.
Within five miles – a rather generous standard. Only one-third – a rather criminal rate. Even this loose definition of “military objectives” was not enough:
…early in 1942 – the exact date, it now appears, was March 30th, 1942 – Professor Lindemann submitted a Minute to the War Cabinet in which he urged that bombing henceforth should be directed against German working-class houses in preference to military objectives.
He estimated that 50% of the houses in German towns of 50,000 and more would be destroyed.
The first application of this plan was executed on March 28, 1942 (this presents some conflict in the dates), with the attack of Lilibeck by 234 aircraft.
The focus of the attack was the Altstadt composed of medieval houses with narrow, tortuous streets; some 30,000 people lived in an area of two square kilometres.
The climax, of course, was Dresden.
The climax of the offensive was reached on the night of February 13th, 1945 when a mass raid by several thousand heavy bombers was directed against Dresden.
The Associated Press at the time had no difficulty in calling it, according to Veale, a deliberate terror bombing…as a ruthless expedient to hasten Hitler’s doom.
From The Times, immediately after the bombings:
“Dresden, which had been pounded on Tuesday night by 800 of the 1,400 heavies sent out by the R.A.F. and was the main object of 1,350 Fortresses and Liberators on the following day, yesterday received its third heavy attack in thirty-six hours. It was the principal target for more than 1,100 United States 8th Army Air Force bombers.”
The focus of the attack was the Altstadt – the beautiful center of the city so well-known to western travelers – palaces, art galleries, museums and churches. No military objectives nearby.
With fires raging from the first wave, a second wave descended on the city. No air raid shelters; the public buildings swollen with refugees stood between the falling bombs and the ground. The city was covered with black smoke – making it difficult, I imagine, for the pilots to see even what they were bombing. It mattered little, as the point wasn’t military.
The city burned for days.
The city was swollen by hundreds of thousands of women and children, escaping the horrors of Stalin’s armies from the east – escaping the murder, rape and arson. Western reconnaissance planes certainly saw the dense crowds moving westward.
So enormous were the number of bodies that nothing could be done but to pile them on timber collected from the ruins and there to burn them. In the Altmarkt one funeral pyre after another disposed of five hundred bodies or parts of bodies at a time. The gruesome work went on for weeks.
Estimates of the dead range from 100,000 to 250,000.
The war, by now, had already been won. The only military question left was where the line between east and west would be drawn. Apparently it was desirous to aid Russia in the placement of the line.
I hope someday, through my work in my Timeline to War, to have a comprehensive picture of events leading up to the Second World War – I imagine this will be a never-ending task. One of the puzzles to piece together as relates to German and British bombing of the other will be…who started it? Not that it matters to me greatly, as two immoral wrongs cannot make a moral right.
Veale addresses this question:
In passing it may be observed that the question which air offensive was a reprisal for which has now long ceased to be a subject for dispute.
From the book “The Royal Air Force, 1939 – 1945,” Veale finds:
…the destruction of oil plants and factories was only a secondary purpose of the British air attacks on Germany which began in May 1940. The primary purpose of these raids was to goad the Germans into undertaking reprisal raids of a similar character on Britain. Such raids would arouse intense indignation in Britain against Germany and so create a war psychosis without which it is impossible to carry on a modern war.
Probably future historians will agree with the learned authors of the official history of the British strategic air offensive that the Second World War was not won by British terror bombing. On the other hand, terror bombing, officially adopted in March 1942, was the only logical outcome of Churchill’s “Splendid Decision” of May 1940.
Future historians might also conclude that the “Splendid Decision” prolonged the war in the West by five years.
The lesson that could have been drawn from the Battle of Britain was that long range terror bombing offers a low likelihood of military advantage. In this regard, General JFC Fuller wrote:
“This lesson was lost on the British Air Force which continued to hold that ‘strategic bombing’ was the be all and end all of air power. This fallacy not only prolonged the war, but went far to render the ‘peace’ which followed it unprofitable to Britain and disastrous to the world in general.”
This lesson remains lost on those who choose air power over a distance of thousands of miles as the weapon of choice.