1. WHO STARTED IT?
THE ORIGINS OF unrestricted bombing are not obscure. The bombing of civilian populations to disrupt production and undermine morale had been begun by the Germans with the Zeppelin raids of 1915 onwards and supplemented later by the day and night raids of the Gothas. The shock of these raids lingered in Britain in both the public and the official mind. Indeed it was these raids, provoking as they did a demand for reprisals on German cities, which did much to stimulate the formation in 1918 of the Royal Air Force, to carry the war to the enemy. And it was this argument—the ability to hit direct at the means and will of an aggressor nation to wage war— to which R.A.F. leaders continually returned when under pressure between the wars. Strategic bombing was fundamentally the R.A.F.'s reason for existence. Yet it was a method of warfare which, in its fully unrestricted sense, Britain could never start. Public and world opinion would never stand for it. Public opinion, perhaps, might somehow be moulded or silenced, but world opprobrium was something we couldn't afford. We could never enter into conflict with a major European power without the moral and material support of the English-speaking world.
Hitler was under no such inhibitions. He controlled public opinion, or could mould it by propaganda, and for world opinion he cared little. Yet even Hitler, surprised and perhaps dismayed by the emotional rallying to Britain's cause in America after the first bombing attacks by the Luftwaffe, tried to find an excuse.
For the first few months of the war, Britain had taken the greatest care to avoid air action which might result in the loss of enemy civilian life. This was a political decision, as much expedient as humanitarian when one bears in mind the much greater strength of the German bomber force. But even in this period we recognised two basic truths—first, that when the shooting started we should be forced, for reasons of self-defence, to make a determined attempt to destroy vital German military and industrial targets by bombing, and not be squeamish about the inevitable civilian casualties that would result; and second, that our restraint in the meantime was unlikely to influence Hitler one jot. This was the lesson of Warsaw, and later of Rotterdam. When the Commander of Warsaw refused to surrender, Hitler ordered continuous large-scale air attacks on the city; the same thing happened at Rotterdam, where nearly a thousand people were killed by bombing. We knew well enough what to expect.
It has since been suggested that the bombing of Rotterdam, which was regarded as one of the major German atrocities, for which the German people must one day expect to pay, was all a hideous mistake; and it is clear that General Schmidt, the local German army commander, did his best to call if off, and did in fact succeed, by the use of warning flares, in stopping about half the bombers. The evidence strongly suggests that Goering himself intervened, because he was determined not only to hasten the Dutch surrender but to issue a timely warning to the Allies in the shape of the destruction of an Allied town: but this is speculation. What is certain is that the mistake could not have occurred had the intention not been there all along. Schmidt's orders from the headquarters of the German Eighteenth Army, issued on the evening of 13th May 1940, were ruthless and clear: "Resistance in Rotterdam will be broken with every means; if necessary destruction of the town will be threatened and carried out."1 At 10.30 next morning the "complete destruction" of the city was duly threatened; at 13.30, while negotiations for the surrender were in progress, the bombers went in.
1 History of the Second World War, Vol. II—"Grand Strategy" (H.M.S.O.).
Our own expectations of aerial bombardment rose steeply with the fall of France. "As our enemies still reject peace," said Hitler on 6th June 1940, after Belgium and Holland had surrendered and with French resistance ceasing, "they shall have war of total annihilation." He could only be referring to Britain. It was clear now to even the most optimistic politician that unrestricted bombing was and would be an integral part of Nazi war policy when it suited them, and from this point on, while Fighter Command prepared for the onslaught to come, Bomber Command was allowed to attack selected military and industrial targets in Germany.
The first bombs to be dropped on central London since 1918 fell on the night of 24th August 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain. The British Government, reacting immediately, ordered a heavy raid on Berlin the following night as a reprisal. Eighty-one aircraft set out, and although the specified targets were military and industrial, most of the bombs, inevitably for that period, fell wide of their targets, and there were civilian casualties. The effect of this reprisal raid is uncertain. The Nazis were super-sensitive about the raining of bombs on German soil, and it has been suggested that the raid on Berlin was an important factor in the decision, taken in the next few days, to switch the main weight of the Luftwaffe attack from airfields to London. If so, it had a decisive effect on the battle, which up to that point had been in the balance. But it seems more likely that the Germans were forced to change their tactics through their own prohibitive losses, and that this switch demanded the less precise objectives offered by London and other large cities.
Before the war the Nazis had firmly believed that Britain, through fear of the air war that would result, would never enter into major conflict with Germany. When it became evident that this was wishful thinking, it was thought that England could be intimidated by mass air attacks.1 Operation "Sealion", the plan for the invasion of Britain, depended for success on the prior destruction of the Royal Air Force, and when it was clear, at the end of the second phase of the Battle of Britain, that R.A.F. resistance had still not been swept away and that the invasion would therefore have to be postponed, the Nazi leaders were not unduly depressed. While the threat of invasion was maintained, Britain was to be brought to the point of surrender by the bombardment of her capital city.
This was in line with the successful pattern of previous campaigns, in which the Polish and Dutch armies had capitulated after the bombing of main centres of population and the Danish Government had capitulated at the threat of it.
1 General Adolf Galland, The Battle of Britain (Forces Aeriennes Francaises).
On 2nd September, in an order to the Luftwaffe, Hitler directed that attacks should now be made on the populations and defences of the larger cities, particularly London, by day and night. The R.A.F. raid on Berlin of a week earlier provided him with a useful pretext, and he decided to announce the impending assault on Britain's civil population in a speech at the Berlin Sports Palace two days later, placing the blame for the resort to all-out air warfare firmly on Britain. However, a single R.A.F. raid on Berlin seemed a flimsy excuse for a punitive war on an entire population, so Hitler decided to fabricate a picture of British atrocity bombing in the war so far, claiming that it had gone on for many months, and investing one particular incident with as much infamy and notoriety as possible —the alleged bombing of the town of Freiburg in southwestern Germany on 10th May 1940.
In the course of this speech Hitler developed his theme. "For three months I did not reply," he said, "because I believed they would stop, but in this Mr Churchill saw a sign of our weakness. The British will know that we are now giving our answer night after night." Secure in the belief that he had overwhelming air superiority, he promised that British towns and cities would be "wiped off the map". His speech was followed three days later by the first of a series of the biggest air attacks of the war on London. Even the German News Agency admitted that much of the bombing was indiscriminate. "Bombs", it said, "fell all over the place." The German newspapers, too, acknowledged that the bombing of London was not of a purely military character. And the German propaganda services let themselves go. The bombardment of London was compared with the catastrophe of Sodom and Gomorrah. The day of judgment had broken over the British Empire, the German sword in the sky had struck at the heart of the island, the hour of military vengeance had come. Sneering at the reported singing of "There'll always be an England" in a London night club after a raid, one broadcast offered a flat contradiction. "We can tell them that the German air arm will see to it that there won't be an England, because this is only the beginning, and other cities will get their turn."1
Amidst all these threats there were solemn assurances on wave-lengths beamed at neutral audiences that the raids were confined to legitimate military objectives and were anyway of a retaliatory nature. Hitler returned to the subject many times. "We did not want the war in the air either," he said on 11th December 1940, "but having accepted it we shall continue it to the end ... this great strategist Churchill had the idea of starting unlimited warfare at night. He started it with Freiburg and then he went on." Again on 1st January he repeated his story, hoping perhaps to square himself with neutral audiences. "In May," he said, "England began her attacks on Freiburg ... for months I watched this inhuman cruelty ... now, however, this war will be waged to the end. ... We are not talking useless phrases but are in deadly earnest when we affirm that for every bomb ten or, if necessary, a hundred will be dropped in its place." All this was justified, so the story went, first and foremost by the infamous Freiburg raid, the so-called start of unrestricted air warfare.
The truth was that the bombs which fell on Freiburg on 10th May 1940 had been dropped in error—by German planes. They were Heinkel 111's, briefed to bomb the airfield at Dijon, but they lost their way in cloud and attacked what they thought was an alternative target.2 It turned out to be Freiburg. Fifty-seven people were killed. The Germans checked the bomb fragments and thus discovered the culprits for themselves. All Hitler's accusations against us for firing the first shots in the war on civilians stemmed from this trumped-up piece of propaganda based on evidence which he and all the other Nazi leaders knew from the start to be false. It was for the bombing of Freiburg by German planes that Britain was to have her cities wiped off the map in so-called reprisal raids.
1 B.B.C. Monitoring Service.
2 The Destruction of Dresden, by David Irving (Kimber).
Why did Hitler and his propagandist teams bother to dream up the chimera of Freiburg? Although R.A.F. bombing was still directed in theory against precise military and industrial objectives and could not be seriously challenged, in practice it had caused civilian casualties, and since a pretext was needed it was the obvious target for a specious and scurrilous attack by Hitler. Why wasn't this enough? The most compelling answer may be that Britain had to be blamed for indulging in this kind of warfare from the very beginning: Hitler was still smarting under the opprobrium of Rotterdam and something had to be found to ante-date it.
To prove that Britain started unrestricted bombing remained a Nazi obsession to the end of the war, and they clung with pathetic faith to their mendacious Freiburg story. As late as June 1943 Goebbels was still plugging it when, in an address at a mass funeral of air raid victims at Wuppertal, he brought out the old accusation. "A long chain of human suffering in all German cities blitzed by the Allies", he said, "has borne witness against them and their cruel and cowardly leaders— from the murder of German women and children in Freiburg on 10th May 1940, right up to the present day."
This repeated insistence on the myth of Freiburg underlines the weakness of the Nazi case even in their own eyes. But the full hypocrisy of their position is best illustrated by an instruction Hitler gave to Brauchitsch, Raeder, Goering and Keitel on 9th October 1939, when stressing the importance of capturing bases in the Low Countries from which to mount a strategic air offensive against Britain. "The ruthless employment of the Luftwaffe", he wrote, "against the heart of the British will-to-resist can and will follow at the given moment." The switch to an attack on the morale of the British people was a part of the plan, clearly foreshadowed eleven months before it was begun.