Death from the sky

The terrifying spectacle of mass bombings of cities is one of the defining features of the Second World War. From the devastation of British towns in the Blitzkrieg to the levelling of German urban areas in the relentless day and night bombings of the final years of the war, terror from the skies ensured war directly affected civilians like never before.

The air war reached its apogee in furious firestorms sweeping through Hamburg, the destruction of Dresden and its architectural treasures and finally in with Hiroshima and Nagasaki crushingly annihilated after being targeted with nuclear bombs.

But the Second World War was not the first conflict in which airborne explosives played a part. It was not even the first conflict to witness large scale bombing of urban areas.

The first record of bombs falling from the sky comes as early as 1812. In the face of the French onslaught, the Russians were throwing everything they had at the invaders. This included sending manned balloons into the air and tossing explosives on Napoleon’s troops. There is no historical record of this having any decisive military impact, but it would certainly have made a startling sight.

Wilbur Wright is quoted as saying that the invention of manned aircraft would render future wars impossible. The first inkling that this was an staggeringly false prediction came in the Italian takeover of Libya in 1912, when Italian pilots tossed explosives from their planes. The technology was rudimentary – the pilots had to rip the pins out of the bombs with their teeth before sending them crashing to earth – but was a sign of things to come.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and both the allied and axis forces had a desperate need to gain the upper hand against the other in the grinding, trench locked combat of the First World War. This desperation manifested itself in a number of military innovations – the tank, submarine and plane would all come into their element over the course of the conflict.

London’s devastation in the Blitz was shadowed in German air raids over the course of the First World War. At first, the capital was menaced by Zeppelins. These vast air ships had the advantage of being able to deliver a terrifyingly large payload as they silently floated over the city. But they were also lumbering and impossibly fragile – essentially a massive bag of highly flammable hydrogen gas – and made excellent targets for the nascent British fighter planes.

They would be replaced by the first purpose built bombers – the German Gothe. Squadrons of Goethe planes would stalk London’s streets and terrorise the population with bombing raids. Liverpool Street station and Oxford Street were both hit, and the impact on morale was many times greater than either the casualty figures or damage to property or infrastructure warranted.

The Royal Air Force was finally established in June 1918, and would be part of joint exercises with the French and American air forces to attack German cities. Bonn, Stuttgart, Koblenz, Cologne and Saarbrucken would all be hit during a total of 675 raids.

There were 746 German casualties, including both military and civilian deaths. The Air Ministry estimated that £1.2 million worth of damage was inflicted. The bombing had been largely indiscriminate, with the British Air Minister quoted as saying:

“I would not mind a few accidents due to inaccuracy”.

This came at an almost unbearable cost – he RAF alone lost 352 aircraft and 264 members of aircrew. With new planes costing between £1,400 and £6,000, the cost of lost aircraft probably exceeded the damage inflicted.