Churchill, Arthur Harris and Decisions to Bomb Germany

Churchill, Arthur Harris and Decisions to Bomb Germany

Q: Churchill’s involvement

“Did Win­ston Churchill influ­ence the deci­sion to bomb Ger­man cities so bad­ly at end of the Sec­ond World War? 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.)


A: Quote unsubstantiated

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.”

“Serious Query”

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?”

More information

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.'”

9 thoughts on “Churchill, Arthur Harris and Decisions to Bomb Germany

  1. By the time the Blitz began the RAF had already bombed cities and towns in Ger­many for four months, as A.J.P. Tay­lor con­firmed in 1961. J.M. Spaight con­firmed Churchill began civil­ian bomb­ing in World War II on 11 May 1940.

    The RAF began civil­ian bomb­ing four months before the Blitz? That would be before Churchill became PM. Churchill start­ed bomb­ing the day after he became PM? Where exact­ly does A.J.P.T. say that? The Luft­waffe began bomb­ing Rot­ter­dam on 10 May the day the war in the West start­ed, and had destroyed the entire city cen­ter by the 14th. (F.J. Mole­naar, De luchtverdedig­ing mei 1940, The Hague: 1970; “First offi­cial list of vic­tims of Rot­ter­dam bomb­ing pub­lished after 82 years” in Dutch­News, 12 April 2022.)

    Bomb­ing Vin­di­cat­ed (Lon­don: Geof­frey Bles, 1944): “Anoth­er entry in the World War sweep­stakes. See a British func­tionary (he was Prin­ci­ple [sic] Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of the Air Min­istry) glee­ful­ly admit to the planned bomb­ing of non-com­bat­ant tar­gets, and how this was sup­pos­ed­ly a won­der­ful advance in inter­na­tion­al con­duct (it was sup­posed to “short­en the war” and allow him to look Rus­sia in the face). It became a “splen­did deci­sion” (p. 74) to vio­late inter­na­tion­al law! He seems to be say­ing that it was OK as long as it was done in a cold, pre­med­i­tat­ed fash­ion (an arti­fact of ful­ly judaized, freema­son­ic Eng­land). He also says this had been planned from the ear­li­est stages of the war — and how dare the Ger­mans com­plain about it! Must be read to be believed.” —JR’s Rare Books and Com­men­tary (no date).

    “Planned bomb­ing” is not bomb­ing; all sorts of dooms­day plans exist­ed. Since Rus­sia was a Ger­man ally until 22 June 1941, 1940 would seem an odd time for Britons to wish to look Rus­sia in the face. Spaight claims all this was to ensure a “ful­ly judaized, freema­son­ic Eng­land.” Oh dear… JR’s adds: “This book, pub­lished dur­ing WW II, is now almost impos­si­ble to find.” Can’t imag­ine why…. —RML

  2. “It only became a big deal in ret­ro­spect, and even this was main­ly due to the gross exag­ger­a­tion of the casu­al­ty fig­ures by David Irv­ing in his book on the sub­ject.” Recog­nis­ing that esti­mates are esti­mates, can you ratio­nalise the cur­rent­ly accept­ed num­ber of mor­tal­i­ties in Dres­den with a) the image of the cen­tral fire­bombed city and b) with the not much low­er accept­ed num­ber at Pforzheim, it seems to me impos­si­ble that the dense­ly packed refugee city should see so low a deaths per sq km.

    That quote is not from my post. Where is it from? I am not acquaint­ed with the fig­ures Irv­ing cit­ed. Wikipedia’s exten­sive arti­cle cites 25,000 deaths based on “Dres­den His­tor­i­cal Com­mis­sion” (PDF). Abschluss­bericht der His­torik­erkom­mis­sion zu den Luftan­frif­f­en auf Dres­den zwis­chen dem 13 un 15 Feb­ru­ary 1945 (retrieved 13 July 2023).” Nor do I know what con­clu­sions can be drawn from one pho­to of a small area. RML

  3. The firestorm attack caused a tor­na­do of fire which is what hap­pened at Dres­den. Mos­qui­to pathfind­er planes would mark the area with flares to lead the huge bomber for­ma­tions to the tar­get. Some say the Gestapo files archive at Dres­den was the real tar­get or to impress com­rade Uncle Joe, our CCCP com­mu­nist ally. Butch­er Har­ris as he was called by his own bomber crews intend­ed to “dehouse” and kill as many civil­ians as pos­si­ble no mat­ter what the cost in air­craft crew or civilians.
    Impress­ing Stal­in or destroy­ing the Gestapo files (why?) were not the rea­sons (the Sovi­ets demand­ed the attack), but noth­ing author­i­ta­tive that I’ve read dis­putes your descrip­tion of the effects. -RML

  4. Pro­fes­sor Addi­son (below) is the dis­tin­guished author of Firestorm: The Bomb­ing of Dres­den in 1945, Churchill on the Home Front and Churchill: The Unex­pect­ed Hero. I cer­tain­ly agree that Churchill was a prod in all aspects of win­ning the war, as well as the only allied leader to express moral qualms about Dres­den. Roo­sevelt could eas­i­ly have stat­ed sim­i­lar qualms to “cov­er” him­self, but nev­er did as far as I know.

  5. I’ve no doubt Hugh Lunghi’s account of pro­ceed­ings at Yal­ta is cor­rect, but he didn’t know the back sto­ry. The British and U.S. air staffs had agreed by the end of Jan­u­ary 1945 on a plan, pro­duced in response to prod­ding from Churchill, for the bomb­ing of Dres­den, Leipzig and oth­er cities in east­ern Ger­many, with the aim of assist­ing the advance of the Red Army. Dres­den had long been on Harris’s list as one of the 63 Ger­man cities he intend­ed to raze to the ground, but in the end, iron­i­cal­ly, he bombed Dres­den because he was ordered to do so. There was a gen­er­al con­sen­sus among the British and Amer­i­cans that they must employ their air forces to assist the Russ­ian advance and, sub­ject to agree­ment with the Rus­sians on the bomb lines, the plan for the bomb­ing of Dres­den had only to be signed off at Yalta.

    The Russ­ian request to bomb Dres­den could there­fore be read­i­ly accept­ed because it had already been agreed between the British and the Amer­i­cans. At the time the plan was approved at Yal­ta it was a com­mon sense strate­gic deci­sion and there was no rea­son to sus­pect that it would be con­tro­ver­sial. Due part­ly to a press brief­ing a few days after­wards, at which the allied spokesman appeared to say that the bomb­ing of Dres­den marked the begin­ning of a new pol­i­cy of “ter­ror bomb­ing,” and part­ly to Goebbels’ pro­pa­gan­da, it became a sym­bol of ter­ror bomb­ing and exposed what was frankly the hyp­o­crit­i­cal allied claim that the strate­gic bomb­ing offen­sive was only direct­ed at mil­i­tary tar­gets. Evi­dent­ly it was this poten­tial row about the true aims of bomb­ing pol­i­cy that prompt­ed Churchill’s orig­i­nal memo on the sub­ject, which the Air Staff regard­ed as an attempt to dis­tance him­self from blame. I think it can be more fair­ly regard­ed as a sign of his ambiva­lence about the moral­i­ty of area bomb­ing, but moti­va­tion of course is hard to prove. 

    The main point is that at the time the deci­sion to bomb Dres­den was no big deal and was part of a wider plan for the bomb­ing of oth­er tar­gets in east Ger­many. It only became a big deal in ret­ro­spect, and even this was main­ly due to the gross exag­ger­a­tion of the casu­al­ty fig­ures by David Irv­ing in his book on the subject. 

    Dres­den was bombed because the British, the Amer­i­cans and the Rus­sians were all try­ing to win the war. It was a tragedy and by today’s stan­dards a hor­rif­ic war crime, but all-out wars debase and degrade human­i­ty to the point at which war crimes are inevitable. That, at any rate, is how I see it.

  6. Fas­ci­nat­ing detail; I nev­er knew nor thought of the fact that Attlee, not Churchill, had autho­rized the Dres­den raid. But I had heard of the quote by Churchill “Are we beasts? Are we tak­ing this too far?” Churchill did what was nec­es­sary. FDR, of course, was ruth­less when it came to Japan­ese Intern­ment or Nazi sabo­teurs. FDR was not going to take any chances. Of Stalin’s ruth­less­ness I need make no com­ment. Next to Hitler Stal­in was one of the most bloody-mind­ed and ruth­less dic­ta­tors in his­to­ry. Churchill, at least had moral qualms. But as a great war leader he knew he had a respon­si­bil­i­ty to 1) end the war as soon as pos­si­ble; and 2) save the lives of his own civil­ians and sol­diers first. It is only log­i­cal that a gen­er­al or war leader will first think of his own side and then to the safe­ty and com­fort of the ene­my. Gen­eros­i­ty begins, quite often, only with capit­u­la­tion and dis­ar­ma­ment. In war you must destroy the ene­my or his abil­i­ty to fight to win and there­fore save lives by short­en­ing the war.

  7. “War means fight­ing and fight­ing means killing.” —Lt. Gen­er­al Nathan Bed­ford For­rest. For­rest was a man of action, not words. Churchill was, of course, a man of both words and action: “In war: Resolution….”

  8. John (below): good ques­tion. Wikipedia is as good as its sources and only as com­plete as they allow it to be. Hugh Lunghi, Russ­ian lan­guage inter­preter to British Chiefs of Staff, was a close observ­er at Yal­ta. I pub­lished his account in “Trou­ble Tri­umvi­rate: the Big Three at the Sum­mit,” Finest Hour 135, Sum­mer 2007. Lunghi writes:

    “Stal­in, with his Deputy Chief of Staff, Gen­er­al Antonov—I watched and heard them both—asked us and the Amer­i­cans to bomb lines of communication—roads and rail­ways. They want­ed to stop Hitler trans­fer­ring divi­sions from the west to rein­force his troops in Sile­sia who were block­ing the Russ­ian advance on Berlin. We our­selves had passed intel­li­gence about the troop move­ments to the Rus­sians. They claimed they had it from their own sources. The road and rail net­work, against which con­tin­gency plans had already been dis­cussed by the RAF months pre­vi­ous­ly, was the target—not the city, and not civil­ians as such. One of the intend­ed con­se­quences would be the jam­ming of road and rail com­mu­ni­ca­tions by refugees. Togeth­er with oth­er towns, Antonov stressed the impor­tance of Dres­den as a rail junc­tion. The fol­low­ing day at the Chiefs of Staff meet­ing in Stalin’s Yusupov Vil­la, the ques­tion of liai­son for ‘bomb lines’ was dis­cussed. Antonov again pressed the sub­ject of lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and entrain­ment, specif­i­cal­ly via Berlin, Leipzig and Dres­den. The lat­ter he again referred to as an impor­tant rail junc­tion. The Sovi­et Air Mar­shal Khudyakov added his exper­tise to the same requests. I inter­pret­ed our assent. The U.S. Army Air Corps Major-Gen­er­al Kuter also agreed. The bomb­ing mis­sion by the RAF and the USAAC was a mil­i­tary suc­cess, but trag­i­cal­ly inflict­ed great loss of civil­ian refugee life which Churchill lat­er deeply deplored.”

    At the Fifth Churchill Lec­ture in Wash­ing­ton in 2006, which I pub­lished in Finest Hour 137, Win­ter 2006-07, Sir Mar­tin Gilbert explained that the first Sovi­et request on Dres­den arrived before Yal­ta, and that at Yal­ta, Stal­in asked Churchill why it hadn’t been bombed. This was like­ly the con­ver­sa­tion Hugh Lunghi observed. Churchill cabled Attlee in Lon­don, who respond­ed that the attack had been ordered. This was actu­al­ly con­firmed by Gen. Antonov’s deputy, by then very aged, who was among the audi­ence when Gilbert lec­tured on the sub­ject years lat­er in Moscow. Sir Mar­tin stat­ed: “It is curi­ous that when the request came…Churchill and Air Mar­shal Por­tal were in flight on their way to the Yal­ta con­fer­ence. So the request was dealt with by Churchill’s excel­lent deputy Clement Attlee, lat­er the Labour Prime Min­is­ter, and by the deputy chiefs of staff and approved. It was the 16th or 17th item of the things that they had to approve that day.”

    Sir Mar­tin lat­er added: “On learn­ing of the effect of the Anglo-Amer­i­can raid on Dres­den on 13/14 Feb­ru­ary 1945, Churchill min­ut­ed: ‘It seems to me that the moment has come when the ques­tion of bomb­ing of Ger­man cities sim­ply for the sake of increas­ing the ter­ror, though under oth­er pre­texts, should be reviewed….The destruc­tion of Dres­den remains a seri­ous query against the con­duct of Allied bomb­ing.’ Churchill’s minute crit­i­cal of the bomb­ing of Dres­den was issued on 28 March 1945. Three days lat­er the Air Staff agreed that ‘at this advanced stage of the war’ there was “no great or imme­di­ate addi­tion­al advan­tage to be expect­ed from air attack on ‘the remain­ing indus­tri­al cen­tres of Germany.’” 

    Of course one can dis­miss Lunghi’s tes­ti­mo­ny, as the Wiki edi­tor evi­dent­ly does, but I knew him per­son­al­ly and did not find him giv­en to imag­i­na­tive sto­ries. And not all the Stal­in-Churchill con­ver­sa­tions are in the offi­cial record. See also my 2017 lec­ture in Nashville, “The Myth of Dres­den and Revenge Firebombing.”

  9. You state, “It is impor­tant to remem­ber that the bomb­ing of Dres­den, and sev­er­al oth­er tar­gets, was request­ed by the Sovi­et high com­mand.” I was not aware of this. Where is the hard evidence? 

    From Wikipedia: “Dur­ing the Yal­ta Con­fer­ence on 4 Feb­ru­ary, the Deputy Chief of the Sovi­et Gen­er­al Staff, Gen­er­al Alek­sei Antonov, raised the issue of ham­per­ing the rein­force­ment of Ger­man troops from the west­ern front by paralysing the junc­tions of Berlin and Leipzig with aer­i­al bom­bard­ment. In response, Chief of the British Air Staff Por­tal, who was in Yal­ta, asked Bot­tom­ley to send him a list of objec­tives to dis­cuss with the Sovi­ets. Bottomley’s list includ­ed oil plants, tank and air­craft fac­to­ries and the cities of Berlin and Dres­den. A British inter­preter lat­er claimed that Antonov and Joseph Stal­in asked for the bomb­ing of Dres­den, but there is no men­tion of these requests in the offi­cial record of the con­fer­ence and the claim was assessed as pos­si­ble Cold War propaganda.”

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