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  • James Houser

July 24, 1943 - The Firebombing of Hamburg & the Rise of Air Power

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 24, 1943. At 00:57 hours, the first Allied bombs fall on the city of Hamburg, marking the beginning of Operation Gomorrah. Over the next week, the firestorm bombing of Germany’s second largest city results in a colossal amount of death and destruction – to little overall impact in the end. The bombing campaign, and its aftermath, are a product of a cultural belief in air power that persists to the present day.

Today’s post will not be a long narrative of the Allied bombing program. As I’ve done a few times before, I’ll be talking about war as a cultural phenomenon, carried out by people with certain beliefs and ideals about war and combat, and how those ideas translated into historical events. Today I will be talking about strategic bombing and “air power” as a phenomenon, and in particular how it has affected American views in the last hundred years.

The United States was the birthplace of flight, and even in its first few years the Wright Brothers’ magnificent invention had an ambiguous relationship with the military. Across the world, the notion of flying machines raining death from the sky conjured equal amounts of fascination, appeal and horror. While military leaders were at first dismissive of the new weapon, writers and observers allowed their imagination to run wild with the possible military uses of the weapon. Among them was the “Shakespeare of science fiction,” British author H.G. Wells – more famous for “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds.”

H.G. Wells encapsulated the fears of air power in his 1907 “invasion literature” novel “The War in the Air,” which envisaged a German airborne attack on America and the subsequent reaction – four years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, and seven years before World War I. In Wells’ novel, the German destruction of New York does not cow the Americans into submission, but only invigorates them to fight to the end. The subsequent war involves worldwide uses of weapons of mass destruction and a war with no victors but the total collapse of civilization. Wells had tapped a vein of fiction and fear that is still very alive today, and in 1913 he even predicted the coming of a single, city-destroying “atomic bomb” that would change warfare forever.

The United States discovered its air disciple in the 1920s. Colonel Billy Mitchell had commanded units of the infant American Army Air Corps in Europe during World War I, and he viewed the rise of the air power with the same mix of fascination and fear that most of the world did. Based on his experiences, and his meeting with other European air theorists like Italy’s Giulio Douhet and Britain’s Hugh Trenchard, Mitchell came to believe that air supremacy was not just a critical part of the future of war, or even the most important part – it would quickly become the only part. In his mind, the future of war was dominated by the Air Forces, with vast city-destroying armadas pounding enemy capitals to pieces within hours of a war beginning.

Billy Mitchell was a strident and outspoken figure, harshly critical and downright insubordinate. He was almost religious in his belief in air power, and his criticisms of American military policy were so blunt and insulting that he got himself court-martialed in the 1920s. The Mitchell Court-Martial was among one of the leading news stories of the age, and although he was convicted, his message had gotten out. Almost by his own downfall, he had helped secure a place in the future for American air power.

But how would that air power be directed? Every country in the world had seen the effectiveness of aircraft in World War I, but everyone had different ideas on what exactly it signified. The most radical adherents of air power – men like Douhet and Mitchell – believed that air power was the be-all end-all of future war. They not only believed that air power would be directed at the civilian population and cities of any combatant in a future war – they believed that it SHOULD be, because if it wasn’t, the enemy might do it first.

The same logic that would later govern the nuclear arms race also governed the air power race. One of Mitchell’s favorite talking points was how vulnerable the United States was to air attack, and how only a magnificently strong air force could protect America from an enemy air armada. Americans have always been subtly afraid of invasion – hence, walls and such – but Mitchell was now prophesying that American cities could be destroyed from the sky. In this, he invoked the vision of H.G. Wells, but without Wells’ pacifist tendencies.

The hardcore advocates of air power had a second argument, too – that the massive application of air power would make war unthinkable, or at least make them end quicker. Everyone had been appalled by the long agony of World War I: how nice it would have been for a short, terrible war that was over quickly than a long, agonizing war of attrition! The air power prophets promised that the short, terrible war would be possible with strategic bombing. Death from above wouldn’t just destroy enemy factories and armies – it would destroy the enemy’s will to resist. The prophets of air power didn’t just stoke their audiences with hell - the fear of destruction, they promised them heaven – a quick war and dominance over their enemies.

The United States military underwent vast budget cuts throughout the 1920s and 1930s, but thanks to the advocacy of Mitchell and other figures, the Air Force suffered less than other branches might – even though it was still a part of the Army. American fears and ambitions, though, set the Air Force on the path of the strategic bomber. Even as Germany geared its Luftwaffe towards a largely ground-support role of dive-bombers to clear the path for the Blitzkrieg, America focused on the B-17 Superfortress bomber, designed to launch a rain of bombs on an enemy city, fleet or army. The equipment was made for the theory and the dream of total destructive air power.

If Billy Mitchell and the Air Force had drastically oversold the potential of their favorite new weapon, it was understandable. In the tight budgetary age of the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, they had looked for any rationale to justify higher spending on air power at the expense of all else. In so doing, though, they had created a cultural touchstone in the minds of Americans for generations to come – air power as not only a great threat, but the solution to all problems. Even to this day, American dreams of magnificent machines of death, far away from the unpleasant sounds and blood of war, remain for some people the solution to every foreign policy issue.

The idea of destroying the enemy’s resources was not a new one to Americans. The advocates of strategic air power could look back to Grant and Sherman and their total war against the Confederacy, or the Army’s policy of buffalo-killing and crop-burning against the Indians. Americans have always been advocates of the destructive, total war that strikes at the enemy’s resources and very will as a means of victory, and we have always been most conscious of threats to our own resources and way of life. More than any other country, the terrors and the promise of strategic bombing fit American cultural ideas of warfare.

The first victim of American strategic bombing would, almost by chance, be Germany. As soon as Pearl Harbor happened, of course, Americans wanted to strike at Japan; much had been said in War Department halls about how the paper cities of Japan would “burn like a trash pile” throughout the 1930s. Japan, though, was out of range – for now. The British, though, had been launching raids on Germany since the war began, and soon the American bombers of the Eighth Air Force were paving their own runways in England to take the war to Germany as soon as possible. Would air power fulfill its promises and end the war – maybe even without a ground invasion?

Americans had great faith in the bomber. Propaganda posters, war footage, the very image of “Rosie the Riveter” and the magnificent achievements of American industry all placed the giant four-engine bomber in the forefront of the United States’ war effort in World War II. Not only were they the great defenders of America’s borders, but they had become the very instruments of war by the democracies. Built by the common man and crewed by the common man, they were pictured soaring into the air, flying in formation, being pieced together by patriotic workers – doing anything but dropping bombs.

But drop bombs they did – massive amounts. The B-17 held up to 4,800 pounds of bombs in its bay, and future models of bomber such as the enormous B-29 would hold more. These bombers would fly in mass formation over Germany and occupied Europe, dispensing their payloads at vast heights with limited accuracy. The Norden bomb-sight, a major Allied technological advance, allowed for more accuracy than other nations had – but in World War II, this was still not what the air prophets had promised.

Britain had been waging its own war from the air against Germany since 1939, and given how the Germans had indiscriminately bombed cities like Warsaw, Rotterdam, London and Coventry, no one felt too badly about paying like unto like. The British had made a practice of bombing at night, due to the high losses they had sustained from day bombing. The practice of night bombing, though, made accuracy even worse; by 1941, the British had resorted to near-indiscriminate bombings of German cities, without even pretending to look for an industrial or strategic target. This resulted in much higher civilian losses, but…nobody felt too bad. They were Nazis, after all. This sort of thing could be excused against the NAZIS, right?

The Americans, with their better bomb sights and without the burning desire of revenge for the Blitz, decided to bomb at day. Both Americans and British had bombed German cities for most of 1942 until they decided on the first of the enormous, thousand-bomber large-scale attacks. It was codenamed Operation Gomorrah, after the city in Genesis that is punished with fire by God, and was slated to start on July 24, 1943. The target would be Germany’s second-largest city of Hamburg.

At 00:57, the first Royal Air Force bombs hit the center of Hamburg, followed by an American daylight raid at 16:40. For the next several days, the attacks escalated, as Hamburg’s civilians started to live in the air-raid shelters and their firefighters were slowly winnowed down through attrition. As the British bombed by night and the Americans by air, the air defenses were battered into oblivion before the true gut-punch.

On the night of July 27, shortly before midnight, 787 British bombers plastered the center of Hamburg with incendiary bombs. The dray and warm weather, the concentration of blast and the degraded state of Hamburg’s fire departments created the first “firestorm” bombing in history. The intense heat of the firebombing created a fire of such intensity that it created and sustained its own wind system, resulting in a literal tornado of fire. The inferno at the center of Hamburg caused winds of up to 150 miles per hour and temperatures of 1470 F. Asphalt streets burst into flame, and more than eight square miles of Hamburg were virtually incinerated. Although the bombing continued for three more days, the vast majority of Operation Gomorrah’s 42,600 civilian deaths occurred on the night of July 27.

Operation Gomorrah certainly had an enormous impact on Germany. Even the Nazi leadership was shaken by the destruction of Hamburg, with 9,000 tons of bombs dropped on the unfortunate city and over 250,000 homes destroyed. Hamburg’s industry had been crippled, would never recover. It’s worth remembering, though, that the Allies purposely killed over 40,000 civilians to achieve this end. They were just Nazis, after all. Or at least, that’s a good way to justify it (substitute North Koreans, North Vietnamese, Iraqis, Libyans, etc.)

Never mind the fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and children who watched their family members with the flesh torn off their bones as they were sucked into the firestorm - at least one father vividly remembered his young child disintegrating into the swirling flames.

The head of Britain’s Bomber Command, Air Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, remarked after the Hamburg bombing ended that “The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everybody else and nobody was going to bomb them…they sowed the wind and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”

Harris’s attitude was shared by the American bomber command. As the price of air power mounted (being on a bomber crew had the lowest life expectancy of any American job in World War II), the United States grew more concerned with the safety of its own crews and less concerned with civilian losses. By 1944 and 1945, the Allies were routinely plastering German urban centers with little to no concern for the possible collateral damage – the most famous being the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, so vividly depicted by Kurt Vonnegut in “Slaughterhouse Five.”

And yet…

The Allied strategic bombing campaign was based on two goals: destroy German industrial production, and destroy the German people’s will to continue the war. In both these fields, it failed utterly. German production actually increased three to fourfold in the years of the Allied bombing campaign’s peak, only ending when the cities and factories themselves were captured. The Germans just moved their tank and aircraft production underground, or out of the cities. Furthermore, just as H.G. Wells had predicted all those years ago, the German people were not demoralized by the bombing. They did not turn against Hitler’s war. Instead, they were hardened to the effects of the apocalypse inflicted upon them from above, unified and embittered to resist to the end. The Allied bombing did not destroy the German will to fight – it strengthened it.

But just as in the Enlightenment, when pretty lines made for aesthetically pleasing warfare…or in medieval times, when honor was observed in spite of obvious practical issues during battle…so too did American culture latch onto air power in spite of any proven war-winning ability. Even the results of the atomic bombing of Japan was less due to air power and more due to Japanese strategic calculus – more on August 6. The twelve months of strategic bombing that preceded the attack on Hiroshima had certainly not eroded the Japanese will to fight – the atomic bomb changed everything, but only for a few years.

Americans have held onto their belief in air power as a trump card, an unbeatable hand, a power play ever since. We held onto it as our ace in the hole throughout the Cold War, arrogantly proclaiming we could blow people “to the stone age”, but these dark prophecies never came true. In North Korea, North Vietnam, Iraq from 1992 to 2002, and Libya, air power has always promised miracles and failed to deliver. It was supposed to end wars, make wars shorter, deliver America to world domination through industry, technology and the mythical power of the bomber. In every case, it has failed to deliver, and in every case, Americans have sidestepped the massive moral price.

The miracle machines of the air have, like the machine gun, the tank, poison gas, IEDs and land mines, not made war better or more elegant or more tolerable. They have just made war more distant, more inhuman, more mechanical – worse.

H.G. Wells had seen it coming – the futility, the destruction of civilization, the end of limits. In his preface to the 1941 edition of “The War in the Air,” as he watched the bombing campaign descend into darkness across Europe, he stated this his epitaph should be: “I told you so. You damned fools.”

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