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Debate still rages over the effectiveness of the Allied strategic bombing offensive in Europe.

Virtually from its beginning, the Allied strategic bombing offensive against Germany stirred controversy. Differing philosophies and forceful personalities finally put more than two decades of speculation about the effectiveness of heavy bombing to the test in the skies over Europe during World War II.

Could heavy bombardment from the air alone bring a foe to its knees? Could the morale of a civilian population and its workforce, the backbone of wartime production, be battered and broken by formations of high-flying four-engine bombers? While strategic bombing contributed to the ultimate triumph over the German Reich, it certainly did not bring about victory by itself. Bitter, costly lessons marked the trail of the Allied offensive just as clearly as a Royal Air Force (RAF) pathfinder. In the end, strategic bombing’s coming of age created just as many questions–military and moral–as it answered.

At times the United States and Great Britain were uneasy allies, and nowhere were the two countries’ divergent approaches more apparent than in the air. Arthur Travers “Bomber” Harris was appointed commander in chief of RAF Bomber Command on February 22, 1942. He was the principal proponent of night area bombing by formations of heavy bombers attacking large targets such as cities, which were almost impossible to miss, even at night. Great fleets of RAF Lancasters and Halifaxes would rain destruction on German industrial centers and on concentrations of civilians, who supplied the labor forces fueling German factories. Although they were subjected to searchlights, heavy flak and night fighter attacks, the RAF bombers and their crews were spared the vengeance of marauding Luftwaffe day fighters, which took a heavy toll on the Americans.

Theoretically, area bombing would accomplish several things. It would cripple German industry, destroy the great cities of the Reich in just retribution for the 1940-41 blitz against Great Britain and undermine the Germans’ will to continue the war.

In sharp contrast, the U.S. Eighth Air Force employed daylight precision bombing. General Ira C. Eaker, who later became commander of all Allied air forces in the Mediterranean, championed the strategy of heavily armed bombers defending themselves with concentrated, mutually supporting gunfire en route to and from key military and industrial targets. Waves of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators, using the top-secret Norden bombsight, would accurately hammer away at the enemy’s infrastructure.

Eventually, a round-the-clock bombing campaign–the Americans by day and the British by night–rained destruction on Germany. As the raids began to take their toll on German manufacturing capability, long-range Allied fighters were winning the war of attrition against the Luftwaffe fighter defenses. With the Soviet Red Army moving inexorably westward, it became necessary for Britain and the United States to demonstrate their support for Stalin’s offensive.

Dresden, Germany’s seventh largest city and an ancient cultural center, had been relatively untouched by the war. But as the Soviets neared, it was targeted for destruction, ostensibly so that it could not be used as a rail and communications center for German reinforcements.

On the night of February 13, 1945, the RAF sent two raids against Dresden. Eight hundred British planes dropped 650,000 incendiary bombs and high explosives, utterly destroying six square miles of the city. On the 14th and 15th, more than 1,000 American bombers, escorted by 900 fighters, attacked the city while it was crowded with refugees. Estimates of the dead range from 25,000 to 135,000. The exact number of casualties will never be known. A total of 27,000 houses and 7,000 public buildings were destroyed.

From the beginning, Bomber Harris had assured Prime Minister Winston Churchill that his plan for strategic bombing could win the war. In the end, Harris was wrong, and even Churchill began to distance himself from the doctrine. Harris remained resolute, stating, “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.” As for the Americans, General Carl Spaatz, commander of the U.S. strategic air forces in Europe, reiterated his nation’s doctrine of precision bombing but acknowledged that civilian casualties were inevitable.

The horrendous suffering Germany’s people endured gave them something in common with the citizens of London, Coventry and the many other British cities that had felt the sting of the Luftwaffe. Furious debate over the inhumanity of bombing civilian populations has continued for decades. Perhaps Civil War General William T. Sherman said it best: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” His words ring ever true against the backdrop of lives and treasure sacrificed on the pyre of Dresden.

Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II