Bombing of Berlin in World War II

Bombing of Berlin in World War II

Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany, was subject to 363 air raids during World War II. [Taylor References Chapter "Thunderclap and Yalta" Page 216] It was bombed by the RAF Bomber Command between 1940 and 1945, and by the USAAF Eighth Air Force between 1942 and 1945, as part of the Allied campaign of strategic bombing of Germany. In 1945 it was also attacked by aircraft of the Red Air Force as Soviet forces closed on the city.


When World War II began in 1939, the president of the United States (then a neutral power), Franklin D. Roosevelt, issued a request to the major belligerents to confine their air raids to military targets. [President Franklin D. Roosevelt [ Appeal against aerial bombardment of civilian populations] , 1 September 1939] The French and the British agreed to abide by the request, which included in the provision that "upon the understanding that these same rules of warfare will be scrupulously observed by all of their opponents". [Taylor References Chapter "Call Me Meier", Page 105]

The United Kingdom had a policy of using aerial bombing only against military targets and against infrastructure such as ports and railways which were of direct military importance. While it was acknowledged that the aerial bombing of Germany would cause civilian casualties, the British government renounced the deliberate bombing of civilian property, outside combat zones, as a military tactic. [A.C. Grayling, "Among the Dead Cities" (Bloomsbury 2006), Page 24.] This policy was abandoned on 15 May 1940, two days after the German air attack on Rotterdam, when the RAF was given permission to attack targets in the Ruhr, including oil plants and other civilian industrial targets which aided the German war effort, such as blast furnaces that at night were self illuminating. The first RAF raid on the interior of Germany took place on the night of 15 May - 16 May. [Taylor References Chapter "Call Me Meier", Page 111]

Between 1939 and 1942 the policy of bombing only targets of direct military significance was gradually abandoned in favour of a policy of "area bombing" - the large-scale bombing of German cities in order to destroy housing and civilian infrastructure. Although killing German civilians was never explicitly adopted as a policy, it was obvious that area bombing must lead to large-scale civilian casualties.

There were a number of reasons for this policy change:
* The free use of indiscriminate bombing of cities by Germany - Warsaw in 1939, Rotterdam in 1940, Belgrade in 1941 and above all the bombing of British cities ("the Blitz") in 1940-41 - hardened British attitudes towards bombing Germany.
* Following the fall of France in 1940, Britain had no other means of carrying the war to Germany as British public opinion demanded.Fact|date=February 2008
* After the entry of the Soviet Union into the war in 1941, bombing Germany was the only contribution Britain could make to meet Joseph Stalin's demands for action to open up a second front, to relieve pressure on the German-Soviet front.
* Finally, with the technology available at the time, the precision bombing of military targets was only possible by daylight (and difficult even then). Daylight bombing involved unacceptably high losses of British aircraft. Bombing by night led to far lower British losses, but was of necessity indiscriminate.

1940 to 1942

Before 1941, Berlin - 950 kilometres from London - was at the extreme range attainable by the British bombers then available to the RAF. It could only be bombed at night in summer when the days were longer and skies clear - which increased the risk to Allied bombers. The first RAF raid on Berlin took place on the night of 25 August 1940, but the damage was slight. During 1940 there were more token raids on Berlin, all of which did little damage. The raids grew more frequent in 1941, but were ineffective in terms of hitting important targets. The head of the Air Staff of the RAF, Sir Charles Portal, justified these raids by saying that to "get four million people out of bed and into the shelters" was worth the losses involved. [Grayling, 47] [Taylor References Chapter "Call Me Meier", Page 114 ]

On 7 November 1941 Sir Richard Peirse, head of RAF Bomber Command, launched a large raid on Berlin, sending over 160 bombers to the capital. More than 20 were shot down or crashed, and again little damage was done. This failure led to the dismissal of Peirse and his replacement by Sir Arthur Harris, a man who believed in both the efficacy and necessity of area bombing. Harris said: "The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind." [Robin Cross, "Fallen Eagle" (London, John Wiley and Sons 1995), 78]

At the same time, new bombers with longer ranges were coming into service, particularly the Avro Lancaster, which became available in large numbers during 1942. During most of 1942, however, Bomber Command's priority was attacking Germany's U-boat ports as part of Britain's effort to win the Battle of the Atlantic. During the whole of 1942 there were only nine air alerts in Berlin, none of them serious. [Reinhard Rürup, "Berlin 1945: A Documentation" (Verlag Willmuth Arenhövel 1995), 11] Only in 1943 did Harris have both the means and the opportunity to put his belief in area bombing into practice.

The Battle of Berlin

:"Main article Battle of BerlinThe Battle of Berlin was launched by Harris in November 1943, a concerted air attack on the German capital, although other cities continued to be attacked to prevent the Germans concentrating their defences in Berlin. Harris believed this could be the blow which broke German resistance. "It will cost us between 400 and 500 aircraft," he said. "It will cost Germany the war." [Grayling, 62 ] By this time he could deploy over 800 long-range bombers on any given night, equipped with new and more sophisticated navigational devices such as H2S radar. Between November and March 1944 Bomber Command made 16 massed attacks on Berlin.

The first raid of the battle on the night of 18 November–19 November 1943. Berlin was the main target, and was attacked by 440 Avro Lancasters and four de Havilland Mosquitos. The city was under cloud and the damage was not severe. The second major raid was on the night of 22 November 1943–23 November 1943. This was the most effective raid by the RAF on Berlin. The raid caused extensive damage to the residential areas west of the centre, Tiergarten and Charlottenburg, Schöneberg and Spandau. Because of the dry weather conditions, several firestorms ignited. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was destroyed. Several other buildings of note were either damaged or destroyed, including the British, French, Italian and Japanese embassies, Charlottenburg Palace and Berlin Zoo, as were the Ministry of Munitions, the Waffen SS Administrative College, the barracks of the Imperial Guard at Spandau and several arms factories. [ RAF Campaign Diary December 1943] ]

On 17 December, extensive damage was done to the Berlin railway system. By this time cumulative effect of the bombing campaign had made more than a quarter of Berlin's total living accommodation unusable. There was another major raid on 28 January 1944–29 January 1944, when Berlin's western and southern districts were hit in the most concentrated attack of this period. On 15 February - 16 February important war industries were hit, including the large Siemensstadt area, with the centre and south-western districts substaining most of the damage. This was the largest raid by the RAF on Berlin. Raids continued until March 1944. [ RAF Campaign Diary January 1944] ] [ RAF Campaign Diary February 1944] ]

These raids caused immense devastation and loss of life in Berlin. The 22 November 1943 raid killed 2,000 Berliners and rendered 175,000 homeless. The following night 1,000 were killed and 100,000 made homeless. During December and January regular raids killed hundreds of people each night and rendered between 20,000 and 80,000 homeless each time. [Grayling, 309-310] Overall nearly 4,000 were killed, 10,000 injured and 450,000 made homeless. [Rürup, 11]

Despite the devastation they caused, however, these raids failed to achieve their objectives. German civilian morale did not break, the city's defences and essential services were maintained, and war production in greater Berlin did not fall: in fact German war production continued to rise until the end of 1944. Area bombing consistently failed to meet its stated objective, which was to win the war by bombing Germany until its economy and civilian morale collapsed.

The 16 raids on Berlin cost Bomber Command more than 500 aircraft, with their crews killed or captured, which was a loss rate of 5.8%, well above the 5% threshold that was considered the maximum sustainable operational loss rate by the RAF. [Grayling, Page 332, footnote 58] Daniel Oakman makes the point that "Bomber Command lost 2,690 men over Berlin, and nearly 1,000 more became prisoners of war. Of Bomber Command’s total losses for the war, around seven per cent were incurred during the Berlin raids. In December 1943, for example, 11 crews from No. 460 Squadron RAAF alone were lost in operations against Berlin; and in January and February, another 14 crews were killed. Having 25 aircraft destroyed meant that the fighting force of the squadron had to be replaced in three months. At these rates Bomber Command would have been wiped out before Berlin." Daniel Oakman " [ Wartime Magazine: The battle of Berlin] " on the Australian War Memorial website]

It is generally accepted that the Battle of Berlin was a failure for the RAF, with the British official historians claiming that "in an operational sense the Battle of Berlin was more than a failure, it was a defeat".

March 1944 to April 1945

Big Week (Sunday, 20 February–Friday, 25 February 1944) had bolstered the confidence of U.S. strategic bombing crews. Until that time, Allied bombers avoided contact with the Luftwaffe; now, the Americans used any method that would force the Luftwaffe into combat. Implementing this policy, the United States looked toward Berlin. Raiding the German capital, USAAF reasoned, would force the Luftwaffe to battle. Consequently, on 4 March, the USSTAF launched the first of several attacks against Berlin. Fierce battles raged and resulted in heavy losses for both sides; 69 B-17s were lost but the Luftwaffe lost 160 aircraft. The Allies replaced their losses; the Luftwaffe could not. *Russell, Edward T. (1999). [ The U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II: Leaping the Atlantic Wall Army Air Forces Campaigns in Western Europe, 1942-1945] , [ Big Week] Air Force history and museums program 1999, [ Federal Depository Library Program Electronic Collection] ( [ backup site] ) ]

At the tail end of the Battle of Berlin the RAF made one last large raid on the city on on the night of 24/25 of March loosing 8.9% of the attacking force, [ RAF Campaign Diary March 1944] ] but due the failure of the Battle of Berlin, and the switch to the tactical bombing of France during the summer months in support of the Allied invasion of France RAF Bomber Command left Berlin alone for most of 1944. Nevertheless, regular nuisance raids by the both the RAF and USAAF continued, including the Operation Whitebait diversion for the bombing of the Peenemünde Army Research Center.

It was not until early 1945 that Berlin again became a major target. As the Red Army approached Berlin from the east, the RAF carried out a series of attacks on cities in eastern Germany, swollen with refugees from further east, in order to disrupt communications and put more strain on Germany's dwindling manpower and fuel resources.

Almost 1,000 B-17 bombers of the Eighth Air Force, protected by P-51 Mustangs attacked the Berlin railway system on 3 February 1945 in the belief that the German Sixth Panzer Army was moving through Berlin by train on its way to the Eastern Front [Taylor References Page 215] . The raid killed between 2,500 and 3,000 people and "dehoused" 120,000. This was one of the few occasions on which the USAAF undertook a mass attack on a city centre. Lt-General James Doolittle, commander of the USAAF Eighth Air Force, objected to this tactic, but he was overruled by the USAAF commander, General Carl Spaatz, who was supported by the Allied commander General Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower and Spaatz made it clear that the attack on Berlin was of great political importance in that it was designed to assist the Soviet offensive on the Oder east of Berlin, and was essential for Allied unity.Addison p. 102, gives the political background to the raid] Beevor, p. 74. claims 3,000]

In the raid Kreuzberg (the newspaper district), Mitte (the central area) and some other areas such as Friedrichshain were severely damaged. Government and Nazi Party building were also hit, including the Reich Chancellery, the Party Chancellery, the Gestapo headquarters, and the People's Court. The Unter den Linden, Wilhelmstrasse and Friedrichstrasse areas were turned into seas of ruins. Among the dead was Roland Freisler, head of the People's Court.

There was another big raid on 26 February 1945Davis p. 511 ] which dehoused another 80,000 people. Raids continued until April, when the Red Army was outside the city. In the last days of the war the Red Air Force also bombed Berlin, as well as using Ilyushin Il-2 and similar aircraft for low-level attacks from 28 March onwards. By this time Berlin's civil defences and infrastructure were on the point of collapse, but at no time did civilian morale break.

Up to the end of March 1945 there had been a total of 314 air raids on Berlin, with 85 of those coming in the last twelve months [Bahm, Karl. "Berlin 1945: The Final Reckoning", (MBI Publishing/Amber Books, 2001). ISBN 07603-1240-0. Page 47.] Half of all houses were damaged and around a third uninhabitable, as much as 16 km² of the city was simply rubble. Estimates of the total number of dead in Berlin from air raids range from 20,000 to 50,000: current German studies suggest the lower figure is more likely. [Rürup, 13] This compares to death tolls of between 25,000 and 35,000 in the single attack on Dresden on 14 February 1945, and the 40,000 killed at Hamburg in a single raid in 1943. The relatively low casualty figure in Berlin is partly the result of the city's distance from airfields in Britain, which made big raids difficult before the liberation of France in late 1944, but also a testament to its superior air defences and shelters.

Berlin's defences

The Nazi regime was acutely aware of the political necessity of protecting the Reich capital against devastation from the air. Even before the war, work had begun on an extensive system of public air-raid shelters, but by 1939 only 15% of the planned 2,000 shelters had been built. By 1941, however, the five huge public shelters (Zoo, Anhalt Station, Humboldthain, Friedrichshain and Kleistpark) were complete, offering shelter to 65,000 people. Other shelters were built under government buildings, the best-known being the so-called Führerbunker under the Reich Chancellery building. In addition, many U-Bahn stations were converted into shelters. The rest of the population had to make do with their own cellars. [This section is based on Rürup, chapter 1]

In 1943 it was decided to evacuate non-essential people from Berlin. By 1944 1.2 million people, 790,000 of them women and children, about a quarter of the city's population, had been evacuated to rural areas. An effort was made to evacuate all children from Berlin, but this was resisted by parents, and many evacuees soon made their way back to the city (as was also the case in London in 1940-41). The increasing shortage of manpower as the war dragged on meant that female labour was essential to keep Berlin's war industries going, so the evacuation of all women with children was not possible. At the end of 1944 the city's population began to grow again as refugees fleeing the Red Army's advance in the east began to pour into Berlin. The "Ostvertriebene" (refugees from the East) were officially denied permission to remain in Berlin for longer than two days and were housed in camps near to the city before being moved on westwards; it is estimated less than 50,000 managed to remain in Berlin. By January 1945 the population was around 2.9 million, although the demands of the German military were such than only 100,000 of these were males aged 18-30. Another 100,000 or so were "fremdarbeiter" or forced labor, mainly French and Russians.

Berlin's air defences were built in two rings, a "flak" area 65 km across and a searchlight ring roughly 95 km across. The key to the flak area were three huge flak towers ("flakturm") which provided enormously tough platforms for both searchlights and 128 mm anti-aircraft guns as well as shelters ("Hochbunker") for civilians. These towers were at the Berlin Zoo in the Tiergarten, Humboldthain and Friedrichshain. The flak guns were increasingly manned by the teenagers of the Hitler Youth as older men were drafted to the front. By 1945 the girls of the League of German Girls (BDM) were also operating flak guns. After 1944 there was no fighter protection from the Luftwaffe, and the flak defences were increasingly overwhelmed by the scale of the attacks.




* Addison, Paul, & Crang, Jeremy A. "Firestorm", Pimlico 2006,
* Beevor, Antony. "Berlin: The Downfall 1945", Penguin Books, 2002, ISBN 0-670-88695-5
* Caldwell, Donald & Muller, Richard (2007). "The Luftwaffe over Germany: Defense of the Reich". London: Greenhill Books. ISBN 978-1-85367-712-0
* Craven, Weslet and Cate, James. (1951). "Army Air Forces in World War Two, Vol.III, Europe:Argument to VE-Day. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
* cite book | last = Grayling | first = A. C. | authorlink = A. C. Grayling | year = 2006
chapter = | title = Among the Dead Cities | publisher = Bloomsbury | location = London | id = ISBN 978-0-7475-7671-6

* Richard B. Davis; " [ Bombing the European Axis Powers. A Historical Digest of the Combined Bomber Offensive 1939-1945] "(pdf) (Alabama: Air University Press, 2006) Part V 1945
* Staff. [ RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary November 1943] , Retrieved 31 July 2008
* Staff. [ RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary December 1943] , Retrieved 31 July 2008
* Staff. [ RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary January 1944] , Retrieved 31 July 2008
* Staff. [ RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary February 1944] , Retrieved 31 July 2008
* Staff. [ RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary March 1944] , Retrieved 31 July 2008
* Staff. [ RAF Battle Honours including Berlin 1940-1945] , Retrieved 31 July 2008

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