Origins and World War One
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The Origins of
Aerial Bombing

The bombing that took place during World War Two has had a huge impact on the world’s remembrance and commemoration of the events of 1939-45 and beyond.

Before exploring the impact on civilians and the peace movements that were formed as a result of the horrors of WWII, we first wanted to explore the origins of aerial warfare.

WWII has been called the bombing war, but the origins of aerial warfare predate even World War One. The first bomb dropped from the air was in 1911 in the Turkish-Italian War. In 1912 in the Moroccan War, the French and Spanish also used aerial bombing against the population.

The Great War

WWI was a war that was total, bringing devastation to the homes of civilians. Whilst most of the fighting during WWI took place on land and sea, some strategic bombing was used. The first use of strategic bombing from the air took place on the 6th August 1914 (the same date as the bombing of Hiroshima just 31 years later) on the Belgian city of Liege from Germany. Throughout WWI, all the capital cities of major countries fighting the war (except Rome and Washington) were targeted.

A leaflet about The Western Front.

Western Front Booklet. ‘The Western Front’ (part IV) booklet from April 1917, produced by the War Office and includes drawings by Muirhead Bone. Bone was Britain’s first official war artist and was sent to the front for the first time in 1916.
Credit: The War Office

An illustration of a airplane workshop taken from a leaflet about The Western Front.

Western Front Booklet page.
Credit: The War Office

At the start of the war, German Zeppelins (big air ships) indiscriminately dropped bombs on cities in Britain and France. The Kaiser initially banned bombing in London, fearing that his royal relatives might get injured, but this was then lifted in May 1915 after the Royal Naval Air Services began bombing in Germany. The first attacks on England took place on the 19th January 1915. In Britain the fear of the Zeppelin being used as a weapon of war caused a great deal of fear and distress. By 1916, it was abandoned as a method of aerial warfare as it was not effective, but ‘Zeppelinitis’ continued.

A zeppelin from the First World War.

A Zeppelin.
Credit: E.G Rowell


On the 16th December 1914, the Northern towns of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool were bombed by German aircraft causing 592 casualties, 137 of which were civilians. This caused a public outrage towards the German Navy for targeting civilians and towards the British Royal Navy for failing to prevent it.

In retaliation to the German bombing, Britain and her allies dropped 660 tons of bombs on Germany, more than twice what Germany dropped on England. The Royal Naval Air Service undertook the first Entente strategic bombing missions on the 22nd September 1914 on mainly Zeppelin bases in Germany, so no civilians were targeted directly at this point. This would not be the case during the 1930s and WWII as aerial warfare technology and thinking developed.

A poster encouraging people to "remember Scarborough" and sign up to the army.

Remember Scarborough Poster.
Credit: © IWM Art. IWM PST 5109

Developments Through World War I

Specialised bomber aircraft

At first, bombs would be dropped by hand and aimed with the naked eye, but by the end of the war bombsights were made for greater accuracy

Air raid warnings and shelters were introduced

Anti-aircraft artillery designed

The war in
the air:
and hysteria

World War One had set the scene for the bombing hysteria that dominated political thought and impacted popular culture throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Many populations across Europe feared that any future wars would involve aerial bombing that targeted civilians. This fear inspired literature and films such as H.G Wells, The War in the Air, and the film Things to Come in 1936.

A poster showing several falling bombs.

PPU Graphic
Credit: Peace Pledge Union

A page from a booklet that shows several airplanes dropping bombs.

Peace Pledge Union Leaflet. Peace Pledge Union (PPU) 1930’s leaflet (front cover and inside) showing photos comparing the use of planes between those working for peace and those working in wars. The PPU is a pacifist campaigning organisation and has been promoting pacifism since 1934.
Credit: Peace Pledge Union

Due to this fear and bombing scares that took place, and to build upon the peace process that had been started with the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, there were some attempts at disarmament. Pacifist peace campaigners hoped this fear would be enough to lead to international agreement on the use of bombing.

The 1922 Washington Disarmament Conference drew up The Hague Rules for Air Warfare in 1923, which declared that bombing would be governed by two principle articles. One outlawed any bombing deliberately intended to destroy civilian property or kill non combatants. The other restricted bombing only to known identifiable military objectives in the immediate vicinity of a land force. But no state ratified them.

Some states, such as Britain, used aerial bombardment to maintain order in their colonies. They would not sign up to a treaty that could stop them from doing this.

The spanish
Civil War

The Spanish Civil War was fought between 1936 to 1939 between the Popular Front government of the Second Spanish Republic and the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco. Due to the rising tensions across Europe, both sides were supported either directly or indirectly by other powers. Atrocities were committed by both sides, including mass executions, and it’s estimated that 500,000 people were killed. Both sides also committed indiscriminate air raids on cities that targeted civilians. Of these, the bombing of Guernica has become the most famous.

Image of a bombed building in Guernica, Spain

Ruins of Guernica.
Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25224

Deaths Due to Aerial Bombing During the Spanish Civil War

1st April 1937
26th April 1937
16th – 19th March 1938
25th May 1938
31st May 1938
La Garriga
28th – 29th January 1939

The Bombing of Guernica

The city of Guernica (Gernika in Basque) in Northern Spain was aerial bombed on the 26th April 1937. The attack was carried out by the Nazi German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Facist Italian Aviazione Legionaria on the direction of the Spanish Nationalist rebel leader General Franco.

The bombing caused approximately 153 deaths, but at the time, the Basque government claimed 1654 had died. Three quarters of buildings were damaged. The bombing had the intended effect; it broke morale in Guernica and allowed Franco to capture Bilbao and cement his victory in Northern Spain.

The attack was described at the time as ‘unparalleled in military history’ because of the targeting of civilians, and was one of the first aerial bombings that captured global attention. This was mainly due to a British journalist, George Steer, who reported the involvement of Germany in an article in The Times newspaper. The article went global, as it meant that the official position of neutrality Germany had previously declared in the civil war was a sham, and it violated the Non-Intervention Pact that European powers had signed. It also showed that Germany would be willing to use aerial bombing against civilians as a tactic of war – confirming the worst fears of populations across Europe.

The bombing inspired artist Pablo Picasso to create his famous Guernica. The artwork raised a global consciousness around the horrors of war and until recently had been on display as a tapestry at the United Nations building in New York to remind politicians of the devastation caused by conflict.

Destroyed streets in Guernica, Spain.
Civilians attempting to soft through rubble in Guernica, Spain.
A destroyed building in Guernica, Spain.

Damage caused by the aerial bombardment in Guernica.
Credit: Photos by Faustino Pastor Gurrutxaga

The Basque Children

As a result of the bombing of Guernica, on the 21st May 1937 around 4,000 Basque children were evacuated from Spain and brought to the UK on the SS Habana. After the war, some were repatriated back to Spain, but around 250 settled here in the UK. The Peace Museum has worked with the Basque Children of ‘37 Association on a previous exhibition telling the story of these children and those who helped them.

Basque Children of '37 Association UKopen_in_new
A drawing of the destruction of Guernica by a young child.A drawing of the destruction of Guernica by a young child.A drawing of the destruction of Guernica by a young child.A drawing of the destruction of Guernica by a young child.A drawing of the destruction of Guernica by a young child.A drawing of the destruction of Guernica by a young child.
A drawing of the destruction of Guernica by a young child.A drawing of the destruction of Guernica by a young child.A drawing of the destruction of Guernica by a young child.A drawing of the destruction of Guernica by a young child.A drawing of the destruction of Guernica by a young child.A drawing of the destruction of Guernica by a young child.

Drawings by children documenting their experiences of the bombing.
Credit: Reproduced by permission of STORIEL – Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery

japanese War

As well as the horror of aerial warfare in Spain, aerial bombing was also used by Japan in 1937 and continued into WWII.

The Chinese cities of Nanking and Guangzhou were bombed causing many casualties. China had also been bombed earlier in 1931 and 1932.

After the failed attempts at limiting aerial warfare in the early 1930s, Spain and Japan still did not encourage any outlawing of the aerial bombardment of cities. These events, and many others like them, therefore paved the way for WWII to become ‘The Bombing War’, affecting millions of people globally – that continues to this day.


“The bomber
will always
get through”
A photograph of Stanley Baldwin.

Stanley Baldwin.
Credit: George Grantham Bain collection at the US Library of Congress

Stanley Baldwin, who later became Prime Minister, declared “the bomber will always get through” in a speech in 1932. His words were based on a theory by Italian General Giulio Douhet, who argued that regardless of air defences, in any future war a sufficient bomber aircraft would always be able to get through to destroy cities. Baldwin also said “you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy”.

This dominated the thinking about war in the 1930s, and many politicians and military leaders felt that the only way to win a future war would be to completely destroy the enemy’s military and industrial capacity from the air. Civilians would also become targets. Aerial warfare could shorten a war by using technology instead of long trench warfare like WWI.

Preparations began for air raids as early as the 1920s, and the British government had established a committee on Air Raid Precautions in May 1924. In Britain, this preparation and increased civil defence was unwelcomed by pacifists who saw them as proof that the government was preparing for war and militarising the nation. The ‘No More War’ movement encouraged members to commit acts of civil disobedience against civil defence measures. By 1937 the National Peace Council were investigating air raid precautions.

It is clear that by the late 1930s, many felt Europe was heading for a war, and that such a war would be a war of bombs and civilian collateral damage.

What do you think?
Did it become inevitable?