Did Winston Churchill influence the decision to bomb German cities so badly at end of World War II? What role did he have in appointing Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris to lead Bomber Command? Did he give a secret order to “bomb the hell out of them”? Did he exhibit this attitude in his speeches? (Updated and reposted, 31 May 2018.)
“Bomb the hell out of them”
General Harris was a military appointment, though supported by Churchill. For many months after Russia was attacked, bombing was the only “second front” Britain could offer. The Allies were losing everywhere and Stalin was clamoring for the Anglo-Americans to attack. Efforts to bomb Germany continued through early 1945.
I can find no reference to the quotation, “bomb the hell out of them.” But Churchill felt entirely within rights to bomb them back after attacks on London, Coventry and other cities. London was suffering nightly bombing raids in September 1940. Churchill gave an order for 100 heavy bombers to attack Berlin. “Let ’em have it,” he said. “Remember this. Never maltreat the enemy by halves.”
He was also responding to his fellow citizens. Recalling in his war memoirs a visit to a devastated part of London, he wrote: “When we got back into the car, a harsher mood swept over this haggard crowd. ‘Give it ’em back,’ they cried, and, ‘Let them have it too.’ I undertook forthwith to see that their wishes were carried out; and this promise was certainly kept.”
On the other hand, alone among Allied leaders, Churchill said, after being shown the results of one particularly gruesome raid, “Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?” He said the decision to bomb Dresden was “a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.” Neither Roosevelt nor Stalin ever expressed qualms about the practice.
It is important to remember that the request to bomb Dresden, and several other targets, was made by the Soviet high command. Deputy Prime Minister Attlee authorized the Dresden raid while Churchill was en route to Yalta in February 1945. Stalin’s first question to Churchill upon his arrival in Yalta was, “Why haven’t you bombed Dresden?”
A good documentary on Harris, which plays history mostly straight, was produced by the BBC some years ago and is viewable on Youtube.
For more on bombing, scroll to comments below and see also “The Myth of Dresden and ‘Revenge Firebombing.'”