Churchill, Arthur Harris and Decisions to Bomb Germany
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.'”
7 thoughts on “Churchill, Arthur Harris and Decisions to Bomb Germany”
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
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.
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.
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.
“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….”
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.”
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.”