Area bombing

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B-29 bombers bombing Japan
During the bombing of Berlin, the horizontal stabilizer of a US bomber is smashed by a bomb from an aircraft flying overhead

As carpet bombing and carpet bombing , the bombing of large areas is the strategic air war called with a variety of bombs, some in which no points, but target zones, whether you want to hit military or civilian. The main means of attack are bombers , especially heavy strategic bombers ; The main targets of attack are towns and cities. The death of civilians is often accepted with approval ( collateral damage ) or is even the explicit target of the attack. In the case of area bombing, the intention is, for example, to destroy an industry that is important to the war effort, to smash the enemy’s massed positions and / or to weaken the loyalty of the population of the enemy country in order to be able to win a war by means of a political revolution.


The history of aerial bombardment is closely related to the history of modern aerial warfare , the beginnings of which lie essentially in the First World War . For the first time in this war, in addition to long-range guns from warships and on land (for example the Paris gun ), the newly developed bomber planes and military airships were used to attack targets in the enemy hinterland. In addition to attacks on military targets, attacks to terrorize the hostile civilian population were also increasingly used as a means of waging war. Among other things, London was a frequent target of German bomber and zeppelin attacks .

The experiences of the First World War and the development of aviation in the period after it made it clear that aircraft would play an important tactical and strategic role in future wars. As early as 1921, in his book Luftherrschaft , the Italian General Giulio Douhet described the bombing of civilians and industrial plants as inevitable as a means of future warfare. The book caused a sensation in the military circles of all major nations and was particularly significant in the United States and the United Kingdom Influence on the future development of the air force and its tactics. In the Trenchard Doctrine of the British Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard , established in 1928, offensive strategic aerial warfare was established as the operational doctrine of the Royal Air Force in future wars against industrialized countries .

Air strikes on inhabited areas as a means of counterinsurgency , often with the aim of intimidating hostile civilians and sometimes using chemical weapons and incendiary bombs , were launched in the interwar period by the British in Iraq, the French in Syria, the Italians and Spanish in Africa and the Japanese in China. The German air raid on Gernika in the Spanish Civil War in 1937, which the Germans tried to justify as a tactical attack to destroy a bridge, is considered the first area bombing in Europe since the First World War .

Second World War

Rotterdam after the destruction and clearing of rubble

The bombing of cities was used as a means of warfare right at the beginning of the Second World War during the attack on Poland by the German Air Force on September 1, 1939 against Wieluń with 87 German dive fighters. 70 percent of the city was destroyed. This was followed by the attack on Frampol on September 13, 1939 and then the battle for Warsaw in combination with artillery fire by the army. When heavy bombardment with high explosives by the German Luftwaffe in the Dutch city of Rotterdam on May 14, 1940 814 inhabitants died.

After the Franco-German armistice at Compiègne , the British military leadership relied on strategic air warfare based on the Trenchard Doctrine in the absence of other military options. According to this doctrine, the United Kingdom had equipped its air force with long-range bomber units since the mid-1930s. This enabled the British military leadership to quickly take advantage of this strategic option in the spring of 1940.

However, frequent large-scale attacks by the Royal Air Force did not occur until after the German air raids on the British Isles as part of the Battle of Britain . The German air strikes originally followed a three-stage attack plan. Their goal was the absolute control of the air over large parts of south and south-west England as a prerequisite for the planned invasion of England ( Operation Sea Lion ). The first stage of the plan provided for attacks on airfields and radar control stations (sector stations), the second attacks on centers of British air armaments. The third stage provided direct tactical air support for the planned invasion. Stage three was not implemented, stage two only partially. Instead, in response to a British night attack on Berlin, on September 7, 1940, the Luftwaffe began the so-called lightning bolt in England with a daytime attack on London , which killed 43,000 people by May 1941, almost half of them in London. The aim of the attacks was primarily to terrorize the civilian population, although industrial targets such as the port facilities in London's East End were also attacked. One of the most famous attacks of this phase was the air raid on Coventry on November 14, 1940. Coventry was targeted because of its importance for British air armaments (Rolls-Royce aircraft engine factories). In the area attack by the German Air Force, 568 of 328,000 inhabitants died. The severe German attacks by the Blitz sparked calls for retaliation in the UK. They were therefore a reason for the strong expansion of the area bombing of German cities.

USAAF aerial photo of the extensively destroyed downtown Braunschweig from May 12, 1945.

It is still controversial today whether precise bombing could have prevented the extensive destruction of inhabited urban areas. The state of the art at the time led to a certain scattering of the bombs during risky daytime attacks. The initial German air sovereignty, which forced the Royal Air Force into night raids, made precise bombing of individual targets impossible. Against the background of various scientific studies by research institutions of the British Air Ministry on the accuracy, weapon production, the risk of loss and the "effectiveness" of British air strikes that had already taken place, the British military decided to drop more incendiary bombs and air mines over densely built-up urban areas in Germany to start such a firestorm . This strategy was laid down on February 14, 1942 in the Area Bombing Directive developed by the Chief of the British Air Force, Charles Portal . In the files accompanying these guidelines, Portal noted: "It is clear that the target points should be the settlement areas and not, for example, shipyards or aerospace industries." The implementation of this strategy fell to the head of the RAF Bomber Command , Air Marshal Arthur Harris . This was commissioned by Prime Minister Winston Churchill , the chairman of the war cabinet, to conduct the moral bombing according to the directive. This was to break through targeted attacks on the civilian population, especially the industrial workers, their morale and weaken their will to resist.

The Area Bombing Directive represented a significant change in policy. As a result, high losses of the German civilian population were no longer simply accepted, but became the actual target of the air raids. To implement this strategy, first all German cities with over 100,000 inhabitants, and later all over 15,000 inhabitants, were recorded in a detailed target list sorted by priority. The British Bomber Command chose its targets from this list. This list also made it possible to flexibly assign alternative destinations if, for example, a destination could not be reached due to unfavorable weather conditions. Procedures such as the stream of bombers , target marking by scout planes and precise radio navigation are closely linked to the Royal Air Force's bombing war against Germany. According to various sources, between 420,000 and 570,000 civilians were killed in the British air war against Germany. The losses of the attacking Royal Air Force were also very high. Of the 125,000 soldiers deployed, 55,000, or 44%, fell during the attacks. About 60,000 people died in the German air raids on the United Kingdom by 1945.

Scout planes

Scout planes flew in front of and in the aircraft formation. Their task was to lead the association to the target and to identify and mark the target. While the expected flying machines took over the Erstmarkierung who had the Association flying machines the task, the target mark changed regularly to a potentially enveloped by darkness, smoke and fire destination point again for the approaching bombers to be clearly defined.

The Pathfinder Force of the RAF Bomber Command (later No. 8 (Pathfinder Force) Group ) was established in August 1942. The 8th Air Force followed in 1943 with the 482nd Bombardment Group (Pathfinder) . The light ammunition of the scout planes used in groups to mark targets during night attacks was nicknamed "Christmas trees" by the German population.

On the German side, Kampfgruppe 100 carried out all route and target markings during the air raid on England and the air raids on Moscow . In April 1943 the I. Gruppe / KG 66 was established as a scout association. It was stationed in France and carried out route and destination markings during air raids on England (e.g. company Steinbock ).


This form of warfare was controversial in the UK. The Anglican Bishop George Kennedy Allen Bell , a member of the House of Lords , spoke out against Churchill's policies several times and described the area bombing as "barbaric". The answer was outraged protests from politicians and private individuals.

Cologne 1945

The first attack carried out under the Area Bombing Directive was the air raid on Lübeck on March 29, 1942 . This was followed by air raids on the Ruhr area and, in May 1942, the first so-called " thousand bomber attack " on Cologne ( Operation Millennium ). In Operation Gomorrah in July and August 1943, Hamburg was the target of the most casualty air raids on Germany during the war. This and the air raids on Dresden in February 1945 by the Royal Air Force were perfected area bombings with 40 to 60 percent stick bombs . The desired firestorms therefore claimed very many lives. The largest British air raid in terms of percentage of human casualties was the air raid on Pforzheim on February 23, 1945 , which then had a population of 65,000. Of these, 20,277 residents (31.2%) were killed in a single 22-minute British air raid. Other particularly severe attacks, in which firestorms caused extremely high casualties, were the air raid on Darmstadt on September 12, 1944 (12,300 dead) and the air raid on Kassel on October 22, 1943 (10,000 deaths).

After the decision to launch a combined bomber offensive by the United States and the United Kingdom at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, units of the United States Army Air Forces ( 8th and later also 15th Air Force ) bombed German targets with high-explosive bombs during the day, but focused on them on war-important industrial targets and the transport network.

The expected collapse in morale occurred neither during the Battle of Britain nor until shortly before the end of the war on the German side. German armaments production increased continuously from 1942 to 1944 despite bombings.

A special form of passive air defense was the construction of dummy installations . During the Second World War z. B. About a third of the 1.5 square kilometer built-up factory premises of the Kruppschen Gussstahlfabrik in Essen, mainly plants in the outer area, completely destroyed, another third partially. In order to avert and deceive Allied air raids, a mock-up of the cast steel factory was created on the Rottberg near Velbert from 1941 , the so-called Krupp night glow system . Initially, it attracted a few attacks, but lost its effectiveness from 1943 onwards as the aviators were better able to orient themselves, including the introduction of radar . During the first attack on the actual cast steel factory in March 1943, the Allies dropped 30,000 bombs, which also bombed surrounding housing estates and thus civilians.

In Asia, too, there were area bombings during the Second World War, in particular the USA on Japan from 1944 to 1945. In two heavy air raids on Tokyo on February 25 and March 9, 1945 by the United States Army Air Forces more than died 100,000 people. In particular, the large-scale use of the newly developed napalm bombs for the first time contributed to this . This led to large-scale fires and firestorms in the densely built-up Japanese cities with their houses, mostly built in traditional Japanese timber construction.

Later wars

Boeing B-52 bombed during the Vietnam War

Extensive area bombing, mainly carried out by Boeing B-29 units of the United States Air Force , probably killed over a million people , particularly in North Korea , during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 . The country was almost completely destroyed at the end of the war. During the Vietnam War , the United States destroyed cities in the Mekong Delta in the south and north of Vietnam through area bombing ; the so-called Ho Chi Minh Path was also bombed, and the long-range Boeing B-52 bomber was used in particular . Operation Rolling Thunder from 1965 to 1968 and Operation Linebacker II in December 1972, with which the North Vietnamese were to be "bombed back" to the negotiating table, became particularly well known .

In the Second Gulf War , the United States Air Force was able to carry out air strikes with greater precision. As a result of great and rapid superiority, clearly outlawed area bombings against civilians have now been avoided.

In the war in Afghanistan since 2001 , the almost simultaneous coupling of massive, but (thanks to technical improvements in target acquisition and bombs) more precise area bombing with the dropping of CARE packages triggered worldwide protests, as it was feared that the population could confuse duds and aid packages are coming. The village of Tarok Kolache was completely destroyed by a bombardment on October 6, 2010.

Assessment under international law

The Hague Land Warfare Regulations dealing with bombardments dates back to 1907 and does not explicitly mention the concept of air raids. However, Article 25 states there, "It is forbidden to attack or shoot at undefended cities, villages, dwellings or buildings by whatever means ".

Even under international humanitarian law that is valid today , extensive bombing of civilians or targets that are unacceptable to civilians is clearly to be regarded as a war crime, since after the experience of the Second World War, area bombing was comprehensively re-regulated and limited in the Geneva Agreement in 1949. In particular, Article 51 of Additional Protocol I ( 1977 ) defines the following acts (among others) as war crimes:

  • an attack by bombing - regardless of the methods or means - in which several clearly separated individual military targets in a city, village or other area in which civilians or civilian objects are similarly concentrated are treated as a single military target,
  • an attack which is likely to cause loss of life among the civilian population, wounding of civilians, damage to civilian objects or several such consequences together that are disproportionate to the expected concrete and immediate military advantage.


  • Jörg Friedrich : The fire. Germany in the bombing war 1940–1945. Propylaea, Berlin et al. 2002, ISBN 3-549-07165-5 .
  • Jörg Friedrich: Yalu. On the banks of the third world war. Propylaea, Berlin 2007, ISBN 978-3-549-07338-4 .
  • Eckart Grote: Target Brunswick. 1943-1945. Air raid target Braunschweig. Documents of Destruction. Heitefuß, Braunschweig 1994, ISBN 3-9803243-2-X .
  • Peter Guttkuhn: 28./29. March 1942: ... and Lübeck was to die ... In: Vaterstädtische Blätter. Vol. 33, 1982, ISSN  0724-1410 , pp. 3-6.
  • Erich Hampe : The civil air defense in the Second World War. Documentation and experience reports about structure and use. Bernard & Graefe, Frankfurt am Main 1963.
  • Rudolf Prescher : The red rooster over Braunschweig. Air protection measures and aerial warfare events in the city of Braunschweig from 1927 to 1945 (= Braunschweiger Werkstücke. 18, ISSN  0175-338X ). Orphanage printing house, Braunschweig 1955.

Web links

Wiktionary: area bombing  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Giulio Douhet: The Command of the Air. New imprint. Translated by Dino Ferrari. Air Force History and Museums Program, Washington DC 1998, ISBN 0-16-049772-8 , pp. 9, 10, (Original title: Dominio dell'Aria. American original edition: Coward-McCann, New York NY 1942).
  2. Joachim Trenkner: Destroyed target. In: Die Zeit , 07/2003, ( online ).
  3. ^ Wolfgang Dierich: The Air Force Associations 1935-1945. Outlines and short chronicles - a documentation. Special edition. Heinz Nickel, Zweibrücken 1993, ISBN 3-925-480-15-3 , p. 140.
  4. ^ Wolfgang Dierich: The Air Force Associations 1935-1945. Outlines and short chronicles - a documentation. Special edition. Heinz Nickel, Zweibrücken 1993, ISBN 3-925-480-15-3 , p. 131.
  5. 25 tons of bombs wipes Afghan town off the map Wired, January 19, 2011, accessed December 25, 2015
  6. Article 51 of Additional Protocol I on