During 1943 the RAF’s Bomber Command fought three aerial campaigns in the night skies over Nazi Germany: the Battle of the Ruhr (March through June), the Battle of Hamburg (July 24–25 to August 2–3), and the Battle of Berlin (November 18–19 to March 1944). The Air Staff’s stated target in each case was the same: “The morale of the enemy civil population and in particular, of the industrial workers.” The British had arrived at this strategy after two discoveries made in 1941: that operations during the day were too costly, and that raids made at night could not hit anything smaller than a city—an August 1941 report revealed that fewer than one in three aircraft dropped bombs within five miles of the intended target. Bomber Command had therefore made a virtue of necessity by shifting to massive attacks on the civilian population, which it euphemistically termed “dehousing” raids.
The British did not revisit this decision, even after night navigation aids allowing bombers to hit within a few hundred yards of their targets became available. Indeed, the chief of Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Arthur T. Harris, dis missed the very idea of hitting specific tar gets as “panacea” bombing. But if Harris and his air staff had been less scornful of raids against industrial chokepoints, it might have hobbled the Nazi war economy in its first great campaign of 1943.
So argues economic historian Adam Tooze in his new book, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. In this unabashedly revisionist study, Tooze stresses not the strength of the German war economy but its weakness. On the eve of World War II, living standards in Germany were only half that of the United States (even in the midst of the Great Depression) and two thirds that of Great Britain. With few natural resources to draw upon, the Nazi war effort depended on a quick war and the ruthless exploitation of the countries it captured: not just their raw materials and manufacturing capacity, but also their populations in the form of conscripted labor. Even so, the viability of the Nazi economy depended primarily on scarcity management.
In no sector of the economy was scarcity management more critical than in the steel industry. Of almost equal importance was coking coal, because steel output was contingent on the supply of that vital raw material. Both resources came primarily from the Ruhr region of western Germany, the largest producer of coal and steel in Europe. From a targeting standpoint, the Ruhr offered a compact knot of over a dozen easy-to-hit cities that together comprised a major chokepoint in the German war economy: without sufficient steel, the Germans could not produce enough ammunition, tanks, U-boats, or artillery.
Until March 1943, German central planning had done an impressive job of expanding steel production to meet the growing needs of the Wehrmacht, now on the defensive in both the Eastern and Mediterranean theaters. Production had increased by 5.5 percent per month, and Minister of Armaments Albert Speer believed he could continue that trend for at least another year. The RAF raids on the Ruhr abruptly changed all that. For almost four months, hundreds of British heavy bombers attacked one city after another, dropping a total of thirty-four thousand tons of explosives, killing about fifteen thousand civilians, and wiping out the increase in steel production the Germans had painstakingly achieved. The Nazi war machine faced a shortfall of four hundred thousand tons per month, and the disruption cascaded through Germany’s economy in a subcomponents crisis as the supply of critical steel parts plummeted. Central planning could do nothing to halt the looming disaster. “Bomber Command,” Tooze writes, “had stopped Speer’s economic miracle in its tracks.”
But although the British understood the industrial importance of the Ruhr, Bomber Command remained wedded to a policy of striking as many large cities as possible. Even at the height of the Battle of the Ruhr, no more than half of British raids were actually directed at that region. And in July 1943 the British moved on to a series of attacks against Hamburg, culminating in the notorious raid of July 27–28, when a chance combination of circumstances created a massive firestorm that killed forty thousand civilians in a single night.
Bomber Command then turned to an eighteen-week campaign against Berlin. The German capital, however, was a larger target than Hamburg; it lay at the extreme range of British bombers, and RAF losses were far out of proportion to the damage inflicted. Moreover, even a successful campaign would have crippled manufacturing only in Berlin itself. In contrast, Tooze maintains, “shutting down the Ruhr and the transport links that connected it to the rest of Germany had the potential to disrupt production throughout the entire country….The Ruhr was the chokepoint and in 1943 it was within the RAF’s grip. The failure to maintain that hold and tighten it was a tragic operational error.”
Was the error avoidable? In defense of Bomber Command, it must be acknowledged that gauging the impact of the strategic bombing offensive was often a matter of little more than informed guesswork. German officials’ concerns over plummeting steel production were relayed in tele phone conversations and face-to-face meetings—but not in radio messages that the British could intercept. Even so, the Ruhr’s significance as a center of steel and coal production was world-famous, and reconnaissance photographs clearly indicated the level of destruction the RAF was inflicting on its cities.
Why then did Bomber Command not continue an aerial campaign that was plainly succeeding, even if it could not know the full measure of that success?
The Hamburg firestorm was partly responsible. Bewitched by that horrific but accidental conflagration, the British struck a number of cities in expectations of replicating the firestorm effect and hoped to destroy Berlin as thoroughly as Hamburg.
But the main problem was the unshakable faith in the British area-bombing policy itself. Harris continued to heap scorn on “panacea” targets; that is, as he put it, “targets which were supposed by the economic experts to be such a vital bottle neck in the war industry that when they were destroyed the enemy would have to pack up.” The Ruhr was precisely such a bottleneck, and Bomber Command came close to destroying it. But since Harris was not looking for such a result, he never saw how close he came to achieving it.
Originally published in the May 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.