November 17, 2002

Question -- Was Churchill '...

Question -- Was Churchill 'an Enthusiastic Proponent of Bombing Civilians'?: And further, did he favor "bombing poor and working-class neighborhoods"? That's what L.A. apocalypt Mike Davis is apparently claiming in a new book, according to this O.C. Weekly cover story entitled "The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy Against Mike Davis." I am very interested in criticism and defense of Mike Davis, and will be revisiting this article in the near future, but for now, I'd like to ask you knowledgeable Churchill-heads and WWII historians out there -- what of this claim? Please leave a note in the comments, and hopefully within a few days I'll actually be able to read it.

Posted by at November 17, 2002 09:44 PM

Churchill did in fact deliberately target civilian neighborhoods. The reason though is fairly simple and quite frankly one with which I (sadly) agree. As long as German citizens were immune from the horrors of war, they would (a) continue to believe the German propaganda that the war was going smoothly and without contest, and (b) consequently continue to support and enable the war effort without question or dissent. The bombing of Germany's infrastructure (factories, roads, railroads, etc.) was left, for the most part, to the Americans.

Posted by: greg at November 18, 2002 01:03 AM

I think post #1 is basically right, but overstates the degree to which there was much "targeting" going on by the RAF. I'm sure there are people who know more on this topic than I do, but my understanding was that the RAF's Bomber Command realized by 1941 that they could only survive in the skies over Germany *at night*, and thus were limited to area-bombing (i.e., "I think we're over the Ruhr, so if we drop the bombs now, we'll probably hit something ..."). I don't think they were particularly capable of targeting "poor and working-class neighborhoods" even had that been the intent (and in any case, from a strictly military point of view, targeting the homes of the people who are working in munitions factories makes a lot of sense). On the other hand, by 1943, when the RAF sort-of-accidentally figured out how start firestorms (Hamburg), nobody, Churchill included, felt particularly squeamish about it (and of course, the firestorm didn't make any distinctions between working-class and upper-class neighborhoods that I'm aware of ... ). 'Bomber' Harris argued that he could end the war if he had the planes to incinerate one German city a month; he never got them, but that was a strategic decision - to build tanks and landing craft for D-Day, rather than bombers - rather than a moral one.

Posted by: Nat Justice at November 18, 2002 04:07 AM

There was a blood-thirstyness between the Brits and the Germans that was second only to the Russian/German firestorm. That had to contribute to some of Churchill's strategy.

Remember too that for most of the war up till 43-44, that German bombers, V-1 and V-2s were killing more civilians in London than the Wermacht were killing Tommies in the field. The public was crying for vengance.

Posted by: Michael at November 18, 2002 07:43 AM

I'm not sure whether civilians were deliberately targeted: would not surprise me - especially the first reprisal bombings against Berlin following the start of the Blitz (German bombing of british cities) which had the deliberate intent of showing the german people that, yes, we could bite them back and hit them in their heartland. But for the most part the target was German Industry - docks, factories, war production centers, [famously] dams - which were surrounded by the homes of working-class people that, well, worked there.

There were no commutes in those days: people lived where they worked.

The doodlebugs (V1's) and V2 rockets that the germans later deployed were deliberately aimed at civilians, to the extent that they could be aimed at all - they were fired in the direction of a city, but fell to earth when their fuel ran out.

Posted by: Trevora at November 18, 2002 07:53 AM


Posted by: Garrison at November 18, 2002 08:54 AM

When "Bomber" Harris announced the new policy to the British people he said, "They have sown the wind. Now they shall reap the whirlwind." The policy was indeed one of vengeance, coupled with morale-obliteration. Ask any survivor of the Blitz and they will tell you how justified they felt it was. The British, historically, have been ruthless when attacked. I'm not sure that's a bad thing.

Posted by: Iain Murray at November 18, 2002 09:05 AM


Posted by: Trevora at November 18, 2002 09:27 AM

Tyrannical regimes target civilians with impunity, without debate or regret.

I remember a line from M*A*S*H, something about how guns and bombs and antipersonnel mines have more power to maim than the doctors had power to save.

And that's the way it is with democracies...we always have less power to save than the dictators have power to destroy.

Now Churchill's the bad Sherman, Patton, and Paul Tibbetts before him. I guess some "intellectuals" worship so greatly at the altar of uniformity that even an occasional war tactic can smack of fascism. Apparently uniformity of thought is more important than survival, even under threat of tyranny.

Anyway, Churchill was out of power soon after VE Day. Yeah, how goofy Democracy ruminates, hedges, and occasionally goes in circles...but when it turns into the wind, the jig is up.

Churchill knew that (paging Neville Chamberlin) and he was also correct on the Iron Curtain. And he did what he had to do.

Posted by: Joe Baby/Moronwatch at November 18, 2002 09:56 AM

Whether justified or not, the British definitely targeted civilians. In fact, this was one of the arguments between the Americans and the British. The Americans felt the war would be prosecuted more effectively by focusing firepower on military and industrial targets, but the British felt otherwise.

As Garrison says: Dresden.

(And, yes, Coventry. Like I said, it might have been justified, but it *did* happen.)

Posted by: Kevin Drum at November 18, 2002 10:52 AM

Sorry for the length of the following excerpts.

The relevance to the _intent_ to bomb civilians may be limited, but I think that WWII bombing was a very blunt instrument; I remember reading that the average bomb didn't land within half a mile of its target. The author of the following article claims this applies only to American crews, although s/he doesn't give equivalent statistics for the RAF as a whole:

"Using tactics devised from pre-war experiments it was standard USAAF practice to fly over hostile territory in large tight formations relying upon the massed machine guns of the formation for defense. Only the bombing leader or his deputy would use their Norden bombsights with the remainder of the formation, dropping their bombs upon sight of the leader’s weapons leaving the aircraft..

It was therefore not surprising that only 31% of American bombs would fall within a radius of 1000ft of the target. Further factors were thought to be due to inaccurate settings on their bombsights and higher than specified manufacturing tolerances."

The following article from the BBC website has a very good analysis (IMHO) of the thinking behind the use of the air forces and the reasons they were used to target civilians (primarily: it was total war, and they weren't good enough in winter to hit anything smaller than a city: "An investigation revealed that just one in five aircraft put its bombs within five miles of its target"); well worth a read.

The above doesn't, of course, deal solely with Churchill, so here's the infamous "gas the uncivilized tribesmen" quotation, to give an idea of his personal feelings towards bombing:

"All quotes in the excerpt are properly footnoted in the original book, with full references to British archives and papers. Excerpt from pages 179-181 of Simons, Geoff. *IRAQ: FROM SUMER TO SUDAN*. London: St. Martins Press, 1994:

Winston Churchill, as colonial secretary, was sensitive to the cost of policing the Empire; and was in consequence keen to exploit the potential of modern technology. This strategy had particular relevance to operations in Iraq. On 19 February, 1920, before the start of the Arab uprising, Churchill (then Secretary for W would entail *the provision of some kind of asphyxiating bombs calculated to cause disablement of some kind but not death...for use in preliminary operations against turbulent tribes.*

Churchill was in no doubt that gas could be profitably employed against the Kurds and Iraqis (as well as against other peoples in the Empire): *I do not understand this sqeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.* Henry Wilson shared Churchills enthusiasm for gas as an instrument of colonial control but the British cabinet was reluctant to sanction the use of a weapon that had caused such misery and revulsion in the First World War. Churchill himself was keen to argue that gas, fired from ground-based guns or dropped from aircraft, would cause *only discomfort or illness, but not death* to dissident tribespeople; but his optimistic view of the effects of gas were mistaken. It was likely that the suggested gas would permanently damage eyesight and *kill children and sickly persons, more especially as the people against whom we intend to use it have no medical knowledge with which to supply antidotes.*

Churchill remained unimpressed by such considerations, arguing that the use of gas, a *scientific expedient,* should not be prevented *by the prejudices of those who do not think clearly*. In the event, gas was used against the Iraqi rebels with excellent moral effect* though gas shells were not dropped from aircraft because of practical difficulties [.....]"

Again, sorry for the lengthy excerpts, especially if you've seen all this before.

I guess my take on Davis' comments, for what it's worth, is that Churchill was not squeamish about using force, and was actually fighting a total war (as opposed to commenting on it from the moral high ground afforded by sixty-odd years of hindsight).

Posted by: Sebastian at November 18, 2002 02:15 PM

"Bomber" Harris has been repeatedly charged with war crimes for the RAF blind night bombing, which was also safer than the daytime raids conducted by the USA.

To claim the USA was deliberately bombing civilian targets is an ourtright lie as I'm sure one or two posts from ex 8th Air Force guys will tell you. The horrendous loss of life by our flyers in these daytime raids speaks volumes. Of course sometimes these missions had to just dump bombs when they were jumped by a hundred or so ME-109s and couldn't get to a target.

I was in Germany in 1946 through 1948 as a dependent child and I will certify that almost all cities were flattened IN GERMANY, ITALY, FRANCE, AND BELGIUM. In our zone only Heidelberg was unscathed; as I recall only the cathedral in Cologne was left standing. Therefore it is obvious that civilians were targeted. Yet it was these same German civilians who were working in the war effort, and all of them were Nazis; just check the old newsreels and you'll see entire populations "zieg heiling" their asses off. They only got nice when they lost. In fact if you'll do some reading you'll discover that as early as 1947 they were blaming Americans for their problems as if they had no responsibility for the war at all.

I think you're getting a lot of revisionistic history in the making here.

Posted by: Howard Veit at November 18, 2002 02:55 PM

Howard, I wouldn't be so sure about your blanket accusation of all the Germans being Nazis...

50 years from now, will people look at the 100% vote for Saddam Hussein and conclude that all Iraqis were Ba'ath psychos?

That is not to say that the two situations are completely analogous. Hitler definitely was the head of a police state, but he took the reins of that state through ways that were at least marginally, though manipulatively, democratic, whereas Saddam is simply a simplistic strongman thug in the basest sense of the word.

But still it would be helpful to remember that Nazi Party membership made up only a tiny fraction of the German people. Even among the actual armed forces, the Wehrmacht army regulars weren't ideologically committed to Nazism anymore than a normal German citizen was. It doesn't mean they loved Jews and thought Germans were no better than any other "race," but it does mean that they were not so fervently committed to and willing to carry out the plans of Adolf Hitler as those who can rightfully be referred to as Nazis.

Posted by: Russell at November 18, 2002 04:33 PM

Why limit the discussion of civilian targeting to Britain and Churchill? The firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were U.S. efforts -- and an argument can be made that each was profound overkill.

Brigadier General Bonner Feller described the air Tokyo firebombing as “the most ruthless and barbaric killings of non-combatants in all history.” General Dwight D. Eisenhower decried Truman's decision to drop the A-bomb: "Japan was at the moment seeking some way to surrender with minimum loss of 'face'… It wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing."

For additional context, note the following from a July 11, 1999 Washington Post story by Michael Dobbs: "It is true that the United States has made a lot of progress over the years in using technology to limit the impact of warfare on civilians. When the United States and Britain destroyed Dresden in 1945, a third of a million people were killed. A million or so Vietnamese died as the result of the bombing of North Vietnam. Historically, however, the United States has resisted any restrictions on the use of air power, its single greatest technological advantage in waging war. This is the reason Washington refused to ratify the 1977 protocols to the Geneva Convention outlawing the 'indiscriminate' use of air power, even though it accepts their spirit."

I guess I can agree with other posters here that it's ridiculous -- whether in hindsight or contemporaneously -- to judge war in the context of politesse and clean hands. But not because I think "all's fair in war." To the contrary, I think NOTHING is fair in war. War is an ugly, vicious, destructive zero-sum game -- for combatants and non-combatants alike.

Unfortunately, it's too easy to forget that, as we sit safely in our living rooms watching modern technology bring far-away images of "smart bombs" raining down on anonymous targets. Jesus Christ, war is not a PlayStation2 game. You're goddamned right civilians get killed. That's one of many, many, many reasons to avoid it all costs.

Posted by: Mark at November 18, 2002 04:38 PM

In Harold Evans' 'The American Century' (which just happens to be handy) has a quote from Churchill asking 'Are we taking this too far? Are we beasts?' in reference to the 1943 bombing of industrial centers in Ruhr. I imagine a text devoted to Churchill expanding on that quote would give you the answer to your question.

In reference to the previous post, 'The American Century' also explains that the firebombing Dresden was mostly the responsibility of the British,though some American planes were involved (on the order of 10%). The Japanese assaults are, of course, the results of American bombers.

Posted by: Kevin Kramer at November 18, 2002 05:09 PM

I think concidentally, German tabloid Bild recently called Churchill a war criminal:

Posted by: Steve Thompson at November 18, 2002 08:03 PM

I don't believe anybody has liked to it yet but you can find John Sutherland's piece here. The September 20 piece doesn't make a lot of sense.

Paul Brennan’s summary of this matter is correct. Mike Davis does argue that Winston Churchill was a proponent of bombing civilian neighborhoods in Germany, particularly in industrial neighborhoods that Churchill viewed as having at least once been to sympathetic to the communists, but Davis puts more of an emphasis on arguing that Churchill did this because he believed it would turn those being bombed into enemies of Hitler. The idea may have been good in theory but in practice Davis says it just made the bombed more supportive of the Nazis. (IMHO the U.S. has used similar logic with regards to the people of Cuba and Iraq, and faced similar results.)

I’m no expert on this subject but it is worth noting that in additional to original research Davis cites Wings of Judgment: American Bombing in World War II by Ronald Schaffer and Bombing to Won: Air Power and the Coercion in War by Robert Pape as being books where similar arguments about Churchill’s bombing dispositions are made.

As Veronique De Turenne made clear in “Is Mike Davis' Los Angeles All in his Head?" from nearly four years ago, Davis in the past has acted in ways that would be frowned upon by ethical journalists. At the same time, the “debunkings” that I have seen of Davis’ previous work is that the would be debunkers confuse their not agreeing with Davis’ interpretations of facts with Davis being incorrect about facts.

One thing that Brennan doesn’t make clear and Davis fudges on in his comments to Brennan is that Dead Cities and Other Tales isn’t a unified work but rather a collection of articles and essays that Davis has written since 1990. Some of them have been published elsewhere and some haven’t, most but not all of them are about urbanity and/or the west of the U.S. “Cosmic Dangers on History’s Stage?” from 1996 looks at recent debates and developments within the field of natural sciences, for instance.

One other thing, is that Davis says he has written seven books in Brennan’s piece but by my count his total is six.

Posted by: micah holmquist at November 19, 2002 08:15 AM

In Paul Johnson's Modern Times (pp 369-370, etc, look at the index under "Churchill, and use of terror bombing), he makes a very solid case that, yes, Churchill and the British government supported bombing to break the morale of the Germans.

He also claims that by the end of 1941, victory was "inevitable in the long run. The utilitarian rationale for attacks on cities had disappeared; the morale case had always been inadmissible. But by this time the bomber force was in being, and the economy geared to producing large numbers of long-range Lancasters." (pg. 403)

Johnson specifically notes the contrast with Churchill's remarks during World War I on the coarsening effects of war, and how war led to all the most educated and civilized nations engaging in the most barbaric practices. He goes on to note how extended total war made the previously unthinkable routine, with little complaint from any side. By the end of the war, Churchill, but indeed nearly everyone on the Allies' side, was, if not enthusiastic, at least casually acceepted "bringing the war to ordinary Germans," with little thought or concern.

It goes to show that, as William Tecumseh Sherman both said and demonstrated, war is hell.

Paul Johnson is a respected conservative historian, and Modern Times is possibly the conservative interpretation of the history of the twentieth century, ranking 11th on the National Review's top 100 non-fiction books of the 20th century. It's an interesting critical evaluation of the events of the century-- nearly every public figure comes in for criticism, and there are a lot of very intriguing theses that Dr. Johnson puts forth. (I mention his conservative status merely to point out that the targeting of civilians is well-known across the spectrum, and not the imagination of just radical leftists.)

Posted by: John Thacker at November 19, 2002 09:38 AM

I'm interested in Johnson's claim that by the end of '41 victory was inevitable in the long run. That's pretty easy to see in retrospect, but if I had been a Brit back then I'm not so sure I would have suggested "pulling punches" at that time - without magical prescient knowledge that the war would be won before Germany would figure out that Enigma had been cracked, and improve it, or develop nuclear weapons... (Note that this is aside from the question of whether the attacks on cities were actually effective and/or moral.)

Posted by: brian at November 19, 2002 11:33 AM

That's an intriguing article about Davis; makes me want to read the new book. A number of the criticisms of Davis over the years have hit home (Jon Wiener's defense of the man was nearly as inept as his defense of Michael Bellisles), but I think he's an interesting historian capable of producing stimulating work, even if he makes mistakes and comes to his projects from an ideological perspective that isn't the same as mine.

More to the point: his comment about Churchill is accurate.

Posted by: Jesse Walker at November 19, 2002 11:46 AM

H. Veit - Cologne was a different story, as there was house to house fighting there in early 1945. Street fighting will reduce a city to ruble far more effectively than bombing from above.

Posted by: Pete Stanley at November 19, 2002 12:48 PM

Greg is slightly off. Area bombing wasn't conducted in order to make a psychological point so much as the RAF could not survive in daylight over German and had no other way to strike at Germany for quite a while. The idea was to de-house worker and help cause the Nazi war machine to grind to a halt by depriving it of workers.

As the war went on the British developed more accurate radar and other bombing systems.

For that matter, in October, 1943 the Eighth Air Force was forced to call off attacks because it could not accept the losses sustained by its attempts at daylight precision bombing ("precision" here being a term of art). The development of wing tanks for escort fighters, especially the Mustang, allowed us to destroy the Lufwaffe and carry out more effective attacks.

Since the declassification of the ULTRA intercepts in the early nineties, claims that the U.S. had feasible and serious alternatives to atom bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki tell you more about academic fashions than anything else. Bruce Lee's "Marching Orders" discusses the intercepts in great detail, and among several good works on the projected invasion of Japan and the reason for dropping the bombs, Richard Frand's "Downfall" are recommended.

Posted by: Alex Bensky at November 19, 2002 01:39 PM

Charles Maier:

"Bitburg history...confuses the formal, logical dependence of victim and victimizer (there can by definition exist no perpetrator without a victim), with a shared responsibility for the wrong committed. As Primo Levi has written, both victim and perpetrator seek to deny the memory of the crime: 'we are confronted with a paradoxical analogy between the victim and the perpetrator... but the offender, and only he, has set and triggered it, analso suffers, as indeed he or she suffers, even after many years.'"

Charles Maier. The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity. 1998: Cambridge. Harvard University Press. Pg 14.

Posted by: Chris Bray at November 20, 2002 07:11 PM

To put that a little more simply, boo-fucking-hoo. I love the argument above that most Germans weren't Nazis, and most -- including Wehrmacht troops -- weren't committed to the Final Solution. Would have been news to a whole lot of Eastern European Jews.

The Germans: A tiny corps of fanatics who took over half of Europe and murdered millions of human beings, but entirely without the knowledge or participation of most of their innocent population. Adenauer tried this; Ernst Nolte tried a different angle. They didn't get away with it. But, then, that was a different time, with different values.

Christopher Browning's "Ordinary Men," by the way, is a quick read that neatly covers the category of purportedly non-fanatical Germans who cheerfully killed innocent Jews when ordered to do so.

It would have to be Mike Fucking Davis who advanced this line of horseshit, too. Good fucking god.

Posted by: Chris Bray at November 20, 2002 07:21 PM

Check out vol 12 of the video series 'The World at War' narrated by Olivier. It's one of the best in the series, and is devoted to the RAF and American (daylight) bombing of Germany, with interviews with Arthur "Bomber" Harris, and somewhat surreal commentary by Jimmy Stewart, a bomber himself. The video is a little creepy but has absolutely amazing footage.

Posted by: gregor at November 23, 2002 09:34 AM

Let's see...hmmm...London is wasted, Coventry destroyed, missiles landing everywhere launched against British civilian targets and Churchill is supposed to do what? Tell his military to use a scapel, just hit military targets? How many books have you read on WWII? Hitler deliberately housed military targets in civilian areas--counting on the fact that the British were a bit touchy about killing 'innocents.' the time the Brits got around to effectively mounting bombing attacks on Germany they had taken such a pounding that the gloves were off. The Brits wanted blood--and this was war, not a Noam Chomsky seminar. The very fact that Churchill could even pause to ponder the morality of indiscriminate bombing speaks highly of his principles. The German people backed Hitler to the hilt, now it was theieview" value=" Preview " />

t their horrendous inhuman behavior towards all--from China, Korea, etc. (PS Matt--more POWs were slaughtered by the Japanese Army than all the civilians COMBINED in Hiroshima, et al. Did you know that?)

Posted by: John at November 23, 2002 05:10 PM

Russell: Actually, there was quite a lot of support for Hitler and National Socialism in the German Army. It got played down afterwards, but it was real.

Mark: Eisenhower decried the use of the A-bomb years after the war, when he was going for a 'two-fer' as a great peacemaker as well as war hero, but my attempts to find any record of his opposition to atomic bombing DURING THE WAR have so far come up short.

Chris Bray: You're exactly right. The Nazi regime had widespread support in Germany, and the people didn't oppose what was being done.

On the main point: the British Army never recovered, emotionally, from the horrendous casualties of WWI. They refused to learn how to fight a modern ground war, and quite predictably got smashed in almost all combat against the Wehrmacht till the combination of the US, USSR and Britain meant they would win by sheer weight. Even then, they were scared almost witless at the thought of actually returning to the continent, and tried to call of D-Day almost to the end.

So there they were, after Dunkirk, faced with the prospect of air war or surrender. Lacking long range fighters, they went to night bombing because it was all they could survive. Lacking any precise navigation and bombing capability, they went to city bombing.

And in the end, bombing worked. The city targeting was never very effective militarily, but Goering said the reason the Red Army beat the Wehrmacht was lack of tactical air on the eastern front. The Luftwaffe had the fighters, but they were in Germany, trying to defend against bombers. Starting in 1944, navigation and airborne radar had improved to the point that the RAF could and did hit railyards, and that eventually paralyzed the German war economy.

All very sad, and with hindsight we could have done much better -- but we didn't have hindsight then.

So the RAF bombed cities full of civilians, quite deliberately, and Churchill approved it. But the idea of hitting specific neighborhoods it bosh. For a long time, the RAF couldn't even hit the right city reliably.

Posted by: Stephen M. St. Onge at November 24, 2002 03:18 PM
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