How Britain Pioneered City Bombing

First published: 

The Blitz on London in 1940 came in response to the initiation of city bombing by Britain some months earlier. Few now accept this rudimentary fact, central to Britain’s role in initiating World War II. Britons nowadays – or, all of them that I ever talk to – just see the Blitz as proof of Hitler’s wickedness and do not acknowledge the cause-and-effect connection. Winston Churchill and the War Department set up a situation where London would be blitzed, without telling the people that Britain had started the process several months earlier. This had the effect of getting Britons into a mood for total war, without the traditional restraints of civilised ‘laws’ or conventions, restraints which had hitherto established that civilians would not as such be targeted:

‘The exclusion of non-combatants from the scope of hostilities is the fundamental distinction between civilised and barbarous warfare.’[1]

Britons should take a more responsible attitude, and understand that it was their country and no other which pioneered the bombing of cities in a way that was not mere ‘collateral damage’ but was the deliberate targeting of working-class homes. Lies are always created by those who wish to wage war and the worst one here ought surely to have become clear to the British people sixty years after the event. But no! One finds today as historian A.J.P. Taylor remarked,

‘ … the almost universal belief that Hitler started the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, whereas it was started by the directors of British strategy, as some of the more honest among them have boasted.’ [2]

One thing the British people do really, really enjoy is their hate-and-fear enemy image. Britain is one of the most militaristic nations which has ever existed and for its ‘moral’ well-being it always has to demonise whoever it is making war upon.

I here wish to argue that, if civilised life existed on earth, then the Nuremberg trials from 1946 onwards would have focussed primarily upon Britain’s role in initiating city bombing – town-and-village eradication with over one million tons of bombs dropped on Germany[3] – as well of course as the US nuclear incineration of two Japanese towns, which were a kind of logical development of what Britain had pioneered. Mortality of those two A-bombs was of a far smaller magnitude than what Britain had inflicted upon German cities.


936: ‘Bomber Command’ comes into existence, and long-range bomber planes start to be constructed. Its purpose was candidly described by J.M.Spaight of the Air Ministry: ‘The whole raison d’etre of Bomber Command was to bomb Germany should she be our enemy.’[4] So, those who wanted war started planning for it[5]. Germany and France had nothing resembling these bomber-planes.[6]  In 1918, the highly punitive Treaty of Versailles had forbidden war-shattered Germany from ever developing an ‘active defence,’ alluding to such things as searchlights, flak guns etc.

Hitler repeatedly sought to secure a truce in city bombing, and that in any future conflicts bombing should be confined to the narrow zone of military operation[7]. Existing conventions and laws of war did not specifically allude to air bombardment, and therefore he repeatedly made offers to restrict the conduct of war by ‘confining the action of war to the battle zones.’

The war of 1939 was ‘less wanted by nearly everybody than almost any other war in history,’ wrote A.J.P. Taylor. In September 1939 a state of war had been declared, but not much was happening, because Germany in no way desired war against Britain[8]. On 15th February, 1940, PM Neville Chamberlain in the House of commons affirmed, ‘Whatever the length to which others may go, H.M.Government will never resort to deliberate attack on women and children, and other civilians, for the purpose of mere terrorism,’ in a reply to Captain Ramsey[9] This reaffirmed his position given on 14th September[10]. City bombing, he emphasised, ‘was absolutely contrary to international law’[11]

1940: Churchill ousts Chamberlain as Prime Minister on May 10th, and on May 11th city-bombing begins[12]. On that night, the day after Churchill’s election, Bomber Command was first permitted to fulfil the purpose for which it was built. Newspapers merely reported that, that night, ‘eighteen Whitley bombers attacked railway installations in Western Germany.’ Winston Churchill and his advisors extended the definition of ‘military objectives’, which had been accepted for two and a half centuries to include factories, oil plants and public buildings – to include any town or village. They rendered the definition meaningless.

‘This raid on the night of May 11th, 1940, although in itself trivial, was an epoch-marking event since it was the first deliberate breach of the fundamental rule of civilised warfare that hostilities must only be waged against enemy combatant forces.’[13]

For 12th May, the War Cabinet minutes noted on ‘Bombing Policy,’ that the Prime Minister was ‘no longer bound by our previously-held scruples as to initiating “unrestricted” air warfare[14].’

On 25 August, 81 bombers made their night raids over Berlin, then on 6th September the Luftwaffe replied. Only after six surprise attacks upon Berlin in the previous fortnight did the Blitz begin, and thus Germany justifiably called it a reprisal. ‘The British people were not permitted to find out that the Government could have stopped the German raids at any time merely by stopping the raids on Germany,’[15] to quote professor Arthur Butz. They still have not found this out. Winston Churchill never gets the credit he deserves for establishing The Blitz. . The German bombs took some one-tenth of the lives of civilians as compared to the British offensive, and Britons do not seem very aware of this ten-to-one ratio[16].

The testimony of J.M. Spaight, who was principal Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Air during the war, is here crucial. His 1944 book Bombing Vindicated proudly defended city-incineration as pioneered by the RAF:

‘Because we were doubtful about the psychological effect of the distortion of the truth that it was we who started the strategic bombing offensive, we have shrunk from giving our great decision of May 11th 1940 the publicity which it deserved. That surely was a mistake. It was a splendid decision.’[17]

He emphasised that Hitler would have been willing at any time to have stopped the slaughter should the Brits agree: ‘Hitler assuredly did not want the mutual bombing to go on. …Again and again the German official reports applauded the reprisal element in the actions of the Luftwaffe… ‘If you stop bombing us, we’ll stop bombing you.’[18]

On 16th December 1940 a moonlight raid by 134 planes took out the defenceless city of Mannheim, focussing on its charming town centre. Flying high enough to be safe from the anti-aircraft flak, the night-time bomber pilot releasing his cargo never hears the mother’s scream, nor sees the child’s burning flesh. That was the real Holocaust, a word meaning, death by fire. RAF pilots would return home announcing the destruction of assigned ‘military’ targets. This charade continued until August 1941 when a shocked British Cabinet was shown aerial photographs of the undamaged targets[19]. ‘Of all the aircraft credited with having bombed their targets only one-third had in fact bombed within five miles of them’.[20]

Air Marshall Arthur Harris took over Bomber Command at High Wycombe on 22nd February 1942, a week after its primary focus had been defined as ‘the morale of the civilian population, and in particular industrial workers’ by an Air Staff directive. Harris was wont to boast, “I kill thousands of people every night." The Blitz ‘failed’, on his view, due to the ‘short-sightedness of the Luftwaffe chiefs in not providing themselves in peacetime with long-distance bomber planes designed for attacks on an enemy civilian population’, as had Britain, an omission which, he declared, ‘lost Germany the war.’ Thus in September 1940 the Germans found themselves with “almost unarmed bombers.’”[21] Germany lost the war because it had not planned for city bombing!

In March 1942 Churchill’s War Cabinet adopted the ‘Lindemann plan[22]’, whereby civilian targeting became official. Working-class homes were preferred to upper-class because they were closer together, and so a greater flesh-incineration-per-bomb could be achieved[23]. The Jewish German émigré Professor Frederick Lindemann[24], Churchill's friend and scientific advisor had by then become Lord Cherwell. He submitted a plan to the War Cabinet on March 30th urging that German working-class houses be targeted in preference to military objectives, the latter being harder to hit. Middle-class homes had too much space around them, he explained. He was not prosecuted for a ghastly new war-crime, hitherto undreamt-of. Thereby all cities and town over 50,000 inhabitants could be destroyed, or at least brought to ruin. The War Cabinet realised that no inkling of this must reach the public. [25]

The Lindemann plan swung into action on 28th March 1942 when the old port of Lubeck was attacked by 234 aircraft of Bomber Command. It had no military or industrial importance but was chosen because, as Air Marshall ‘bomber’ Harris remarked, the city was ‘built more like a firelighter than a human habitation.’ Its old mediaeval houses and narrow streets and its cathedral were erased, by ‘a first class success’ of the RAF. On 30 May 1942 a thousand aircraft dropped high explosive and incendaries on the medieval town of Cologne burning it from end to end. The devastation was total.

Other ‘first class-successes’ followed, culminating in the incinerations of Hamburg and the beautiful, baroque city of Dresden[26]. On July 27, 1943, ‘that night when the most densely populated parts of Hamburg became a roaring furnace in which thousands of men, women and children were throwing themselves into the canals in order to escape the frightful heat.’[27] Seven hundred Allied bombers arrived over the city at one o'clock in the morning, and dropped ten thousand tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs on several districts of the city. That night in this one raid alone, more than 45,000 men, women, and children were killed. It was bombed round the clock for four days, American planes by day and British by night. A firestorm of an intensity that no one had ever before thought possible arose. More than a million Germans fled into the surrounding countryside. These were people who had never voted for Hitler, nor had any means of removing him.

Spaight writing in 1944 enthused about how ‘today great four-engine bombers are tearing the heart out of industrial Germany’ and added, ‘Germany had nothing approaching them’[28] France and Germany had not prepared for city-bombing as had Britain. After Spaight’s perhaps unduly candid book,

‘…it was impossible for anyone, however credulous, to accept the repeated and solemn assertions of His Majesty’s Ministers in Parliament that the bombing of Germany was being carried out with strict regard to the dictates of humanity in accordance with the rules of civilised warfare[29]’.

Ministers had been lying through their teeth to Parliament, but this was no ordinary lie. It was the betrayal of the core principal on which civilised life depends – that civilians and civilian buildings shall not be as such subject to attack. Instead, terror was now coming from the sky, terror beside which the deeds of ordinary killers paled into insignificance. A thousand-year-old urban culture was annihilated, as great cities, famed in the annals of science and art, were reduced to heaps of smouldering ruins.

In the year 1940, British bombers ‘only’ unloaded five thousand tons of bombs onto German cities, whereas by 1944 they were sometimes exceeding that total in a single day. In the spring of ’44 German cities were being pounded with over one hundred thousand tons a month. German civilian deaths from British and American bombing of German cities have been estimated to have been around 600,000, and some 61 cities were turned to virtual rubble, while some 60,000 civilians were killed in the UK. Those cities had an estimated population of 25 million’[30] Germany was thereby reduced to a worse state than that produced by the 30 years’ war. In return the centres of London, Coventry and Portsmouth were attacked by German planes.

While this was going on, it was imperative to stifle public discussion, the Secretary for Air explained, lest public outrage undermined the morale of the bomber pilots.[31] But, despite official denials, anti-war protesters were gleaning some idea of what was happening. Vera Brittain declared in a wartime booklet that Britain’s present policy would ‘appear to future civilisation as an extreme form of criminal lunacy.’[32] Thus, one person managed to find adequate words for Britain’s war-policy.

What was the purpose of city-bombing? Its primary purpose was to goad the German people into reprisals – or, so an official HMSO document of 1953 averred:

If the Royal Air Force raided the Ruhr, destroying oil plants with its most accurately placed bombs and urban property with those that went astray, the outcry for retaliation against Britain might prove too strong for the German generals to resist.  Indeed, Hitler himself would probably head the clamour. The attack on the Ruhr, in other words, was an informal invitation to the Luftwaffe to bomb London.’[33]

The purpose was get their war on, which neither the German people nor the British wanted. Germany never wanted war against Britain and Hitler always professed his great admiration for Britain and the British Empire[34]. Germany sought and was refused peace-negotiations in July 1940[35]. The British view ‘surviving the Blitz’ as their finest hour, and have imagined that it was part of a plan to invade and occupy Britain[36]. It would be better to say that the cause of the Blitz lay in the British ardour for war, whereby they set out to generate the conditions that produced it.

After the war, terror-bombing was not a recognised term, it had officially never happened, still less had anyone heard of the Lindemann plan. The truth was suppressed for two decades, even though there was no legal machinery of censorship, and only emerged when it was mere ‘past history,’ in 1961. This posed a serious problem for the ‘trials’ held at Nuremberg: If the most obvious of Hitler’s crimes was his initiation of indiscriminate bombing in the Blitz, why was there no mention of this at Nuremberg? The truth, that this was a mere tiny fraction of what had been visited on Germany[37], and only came months later as a legitimate ‘reprisal,’ clearly could not be told to the British people[38].

Not until 1961 did C.P.Snow[39] reveal in his Harvard Lectures on Science and Government the existence of the Lindemann plan, and that it was ‘put into action with every effort the country could make:’ C.P.Snow’s explanation, about a diabolical plan which concentrated on working-class homes, ‘caused a sensation throughout the civilised world’[40], becoming immediately translated into every language on earth. Later that year, the official account of how the UK had developed terror-bombing in accord with the Lindemann plan[41] revealed the shocking death total of 60,000 RAF lives so lost. These disclosures induced widespread horror.[42]

In 1961 Labour MP Richard Crossman remarked upon the ‘screen of lies’ behind which the ‘terror bombing was carried out’ such that the War cabined ‘felt it necessary to repudiate publicly’ the policy of their order to bomb[43]. Ministers had proclaimed with absolute mendacity ‘We were not bombing women and children wantonly for the sake of so doing’ (Under-Secretary of Air), when that is precisely what they were doing – hundreds of thousands of women and children.


‘The stock apology then put forward was that it [British policy] was only a reprisal for the German bombing of Warsaw and Rotterdam. Mr Spaight dismisses this argument with the contempt it reserves. “When Warsaw and Rotterdam were bombed,” he points out, “German armies were at the gates. The air bombardment was an operation of the tactical offensive.”[44] Captain Liddell Hart accepts the same view. “Bombing did not take place, he writes, until the German troops were fighting their way into these cities and thus conformed to the old rules of siege bombardment.”’[45] ‘Bombardment’ was not illegal under the terms of Article 25 of the 1907 Hague convention. Nine hundred died with the tragically mistaken air raid on Rotterdam[46]. Citizens of Warsaw were given time to evacuate their city before any general bombardment[47]. To quote Dr Wesserle, who was in Prague when the US and UK bombed it,

“There can be no comparison between the brutality of the Anglo-American bomber offensive, on one hand, and the minimality of the German-Italian efforts, on the other.”[48]


The Hague Convention of 1923 (Articles 22, 23) proposed to outlaw indiscriminate urban bombing (‘aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorising the civilian population’) but alas, the five organising powers (Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the US) never signed it[49]. Britain’s Prime Minister affirmed to the House of Commons in 1938 that any such bombing would be an "undoubted violation of international law," then a resolution passed by the League of nations in September 1938, ‘The intentional bombing of civilian populations is illegal’ had been proposed by the British government and passed without dissent – who could object to such a self-evident truth? ‘…we have no intention of attacking the civil population as such’ said the British representative during an Anglo-French staff conversation on August 14, 1939, just before war broke out. Shortly after, the League of Nations unanimously passed a resolution affirming that such bombing was illegal. And yet, by 1943 Britain with America signed the Treaty of Casablanca, which encouraged the stepping up of city bombing – ‘morale bombing’ as it was called.

The dilemma, the schizophrenia, the failure of Nuremberg is summarised by three dates, dates engraved rather unforgettably in the memory of mankind: August 6th, august 8th and the 9th, 1945. The Nuremberg Charter, defining norms of international law relevant to warfare (‘planning and preparing a war of aggression’), was signed as the London Agreement on August 8th, 1945. They blow up one city, they blow up another city, and in between they sign the Nuremberg Charter!

American Century?

In a radio broadcast of 1st September 1939, two days before war broke out, Roosevelt called upon the European powers to make a promise, that ‘armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of undefended cities[50]. Alas the Americans were unable to take their own advice: the fire-bombing of Japan of March 9-10, 1944 killed near 100,000 Japanese civilians, more than died the next year at Hiroshima. In the war overall, the bombing of Japanese cities might have killed about 337,000.[51]

When, after the war, Churchill suggested to Stalin that they find ‘some unshattered town in Germany’ at which to meet, for the Potsdam conference in July 1945, that was not easy. Then, rather swiftly in March, 1946, Churchill discerned a newly-looming threat, at his Iron Curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri, and this he affirmed warranted the stockpiling of America’s newly-developed nuclear weapons[52].

One might have thought that the British War Ministry would have felt some shame over initiating the most frightful crime in the annals of recorded history, but apparently not: in 1946 a report on ‘Future Developments in weapons and Methods of Warfare’ was handed to the British Chiefs of Staff. ‘The most profitable objects of attack by the new weapons will normally be concentrations of population’ it recommended, including a blueprint of 58 large Soviet cities having populations of over 100,000. Henceforth it was to be a normal, bureaucratic activity to discuss and refine methods of city-extermination. In the next year, 1947, the first US Strategic Air Command forces came to Britain. Thus Britain contributed to the encirclement of Russia with nuclear bombers when the latter was still a smouldering wreck from WWII, having suffered a mortality of somewhere around twenty million, years before Russia was in a position to threaten anyone in return. 

Of the Korean war 1950-53, the former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay recalled that he asked if the Pentagon would let him ‘burn down’ five of the biggest cities in North Korea, claiming that it could be done in a few days. ‘Its too horrible,’ he was told. ‘Yet over a period of three years or so...we burned down every town in North Korea.’ [53] Three million Koreans died, to protect the world against an alleged ‘Yellow peril.’[54] Thus did the legacy of British city-bombing pass over to America.


In 1919-1920, the British developed the technique of bombing towns and villages, bombing Kabul, Afghanistan, and rebellious tribal groups along the border areas of India. And in the 1920s, the British intentionally bombed rebel villages in Somalia and Yemen and undertook an extended bombardment campaign against civilian populations in rebel areas in British-controlled Iraq for several years. The death toll from Germans bombing Guernica in 1937 was, according to David Irving, around ninety-eight.[55] 


For an excellent recent discussion of this topic, see

F.Veale, Advance to Barbarism, The Development of Total War from Serajevo to Hiroshima, IHR 1979, 176.
A.J.P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War,1972, 16.
W.G.Sebald, A Natural history of Destruction, 2003 (an odd translation of the German title, Luftkreig und Literatur 1999), 3.
J.M. Spaight, Bombing Vindicated, 1944, 60.
In 1936 Churchill remarked ‘Germany is getting too strong, we must smash her’ to the American military advisor General Wood: H.Barnes, Blasting the Historical Blackout, 1961, 24
Max Hastings, Bomber Command 1979, 50: the Lancasters were ‘heavy bombers which no other country in the world could match.’ Germany and France had lighter bombers ‘primarily for air support,’ or ‘tactical air power’.
Sir Basil Liddell Hart, The Revolution in Warfare, 1946, 86.
Hitler declared, ‘I want to live in peace with England and to conclude a definite pact; to guaruntee all the English possessions in the world and to collaborate,’ on 14 Aug 1939: Taylor (ref 2), 308. For his re-advocacy of this position at Dunkirk, see B.Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill, Germany’s generals, their rise and fall, with their own accounts of events 1939-45, 1948, 1970, 186.
A.Ramsey, The Nameless War 1952, 64.
The words were nearly identical: A.C.Grayling, Among the Dead Cities, was the Allied Bombing of Cities in World War II a Necessity or a Crime? 2006, 149.
For Those who Cannot Speak M. McLaughlin, Historical Review Press 1979 monograph, 24.
David Irving, The Destruction of Dresden, 1963, 1974, 19.
Veale (ref 1), 170
The Churchill War Papers, 1993 Ed M.Gilbert, Vol. I, 18.
Butz, The Hoax of the 20th Century, 1976, 70.
Of the 131 German towns hit by heavy strategic raids, 46 cities had half of their built-up area destroyed. Berlin had 6427 acres, Hamburg 620 acres, Duesseldorf 2003 acres and Cologne, 1994 acres destroyed. Whereas London had 600, Plymouth 400 and Coventry 100 acres destroyed.[16] A. Wesserle, The Journal of Historical Review, 1981, vol. 2, 381-384.
Spaight (ref 4), 74.
Spaight, 43.
Irving (ref 12), 32; Hastings (ref 6), 99.
Veale (ref 1), 180: the Bensusan-Butt Report..
A.T. Harris, Bomber Offensive, 1947, 42; summarised by Veale (ref 1), 174.
CP Snow Science and Government, OUP, 1961, 47-51.
Irving (ref 12), 220.
“Many of the most beautiful cities of Europe and the world were systematically pounded into nothingness, often during the last weeks of the war, among them: Wuerzburg, Hildesheim, Darmstadt, Kassel, Nürnberg, Braunschweig:” Dr Wesserle, ref. 16.
Veale (ref 1), 171.
Spaight (ref 4), 38.
Veale, 177
R. Harwood, Nuremberg, 1975, Historical Review Press, 61
Veale, 28.  Archibald Sinclair was then the Air Secretary.
V.Brittain, Seed of Chaos, what Mass Bombing Really Means, 1944, 116; Gaylor (ref.10), 183, 281. With this in the British Library is a fine collection (made by George Orwell) of anti-war pamphlets.
The Royal Air Force 1939-1945, Vol. 1 ‘The Fight at Odds,’ HMSO 1953, p.122.; Veale, 184.
For Hitler’s admiration of Britain and its empire, see:

During and after the war, it was hard to obtain an English translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, a central theme of which was Hitler’s ‘admiration for and longing for friendship with Great Britain:’ Ramsey (Ref 9), 49. Captain Arthur Ramsey, Conservative MP, found himself jailed for the duration of the war, accused (quite rightly) of undermining the war effort.

The two German peace offers to Britain came in October 1939, after defeating Poland, and in July 1940, after defeating France, both spurned: Captain R. Grenfell, Unconditional Hatred, German War guilt and the Future of Europe, NY 1954, 201.
For the but faintly-imagined and conditional German plan to invade Britain in the summer of 1940, see Hart (ref 7), pp.212-222; and his History of the 2nd World War 1970, pp.93-6.
Anglo-American strategic bombers dropped 2690 kilotons of bombs on Europe (1,350kt on Germany, 590kt France, 370 kt Italy, etc), while Germany dropped 74 kt of bombs including V-1 and V-2 rockets on Britain in WWII: a mere 5%, or one-twentieth as much: Dr Wesserle, Ref. 26.
Veale, 29, 32.
Snow, ref. 22.
Veale, 197.
C.Wester & N.Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive HMSO, 1961, Volume I.
Veale, 201, 197.
Sunday Telegraph, 1.10.61, Veale, 198.
Spaight, 43.
Hart (ref 7), 72; Veale, 171.
This was a mistake as Holland had surrendered:  Gaylor (ref 9), p.34; Irving (ref 12), 21.
David Irving: ‘In fact the bombardment of Warsaw did not begin until September 26, 1939, after all the military niceties had been observed: warning leaflets dropped on to the civilian population, open routes provided for the Polish civilians to leave before the timed hour of bombardment, a formal ultimatum to the commandant of the fortress Warsaw to capitulate before the bombardment began, which was rejected”.  Hitler’s War, 1977, 2001, 239
Wesserle, ref 16.
Grayling (ref 10), 143.
Gaylor (ref 9), p.149.
D.F.Fleming, The Cold War and its Origins, 1961, Vol. I, 349
[53]; R.Howe, Weapons, London 1981, 500.
Fleming (ref 52), 656.