World War Two
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Germany invaded Poland on the 1st September 1939. Britain declared war on Germany on the 3rd September 1939 at 11.15am. Twenty two minutes later air raid sirens rang out across Britain.

The fear of aerial bombardment that had grown for the past twenty years was finally realised. The Battle of Britain began. Britain and Germany battled for supremacy of the skies over Britain - the first ever military battle of the sky. Bombing did not begin until 1940 in Britain, but was the precursor to much worse as the horror of war was realised across the world.

This section will explore the bombing of Britain, Germany and Japan, but millions of people worldwide experienced the horror of aerial bombardment.

A British poster from the Second World War encouraging people to protest against the use of bombs.

Northern Friends Peace Board poster 1930s. NFPB is a Quaker group that was set up in 1913 to “advise and encourage Friends in the North and through them their fellow Christians and citizens generally, in the active promotion of peace in all its height and breadth.”
Credit: Northern Friends Peace Board.

A german propaganda flyer from the war.
A german propaganda flyer from the war.
A german propaganda flyer from the war.

Three examples of airborne leaflet propaganda dropped by the Royal Air Force in Germany during WWII.
Credit: Royal Air Forceorough Poster.
Credit: © IWM Art. IWM PST 5109

The Blitz

The Blitz began in September 1940 as German Air Fleets began to attack London. From the 7th September, London was bombed for 56 out of 57 days and nights.

Bombs were also dropped on Liverpool port, Hull port, Bristol, Cardiff, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton, Swansea and the industrial cities of Birmingham, Belfast, Coventry, Glasgow, Manchester and Sheffield. Every bomb dropped not only caused vast damage and casualties, but incendiary bombs caused fires that could engulf cities.

A page from a leaflet describing air raid precautions.

A Peace Pledge Union Leaflet ‘Air Raid Precautions: A message to every house holder’, 1930s. This leaflet asks the question ‘Is your house safe against air attacks?’ Credit: Peace Pledge Union

An ARP logo pin badge.

ARP Badge. In 1936 the Home Office appealed through the Royal Mint for a designer to design a badge that would be given to volunteers who had helped in the different Air Raid Precautions services, like those who had volunteered in the first aid and medical services or as air raid wardens. Eric Gill’s design was chosen. Gill utilised large capital letters with a slightly more prominent ‘R’ and two interpoints (dots). Above the ARP initials Gill placed the standard Tudor crown.
Credit: Home Office and The Royal Mint.

The Bombing of Coventry

The raid on Coventry began on the 14th November 1940, aiming to destroy its capacity for war production. The citizens of Coventry suffered through the most concentrated attack on a British city of the war. The raid was in response to an attack on Munich by the RAF 6 days earlier. It lasted 11 hours with 500 Luftwaffe bombers dropping 500 tons of high explosive and 30000 incendiary bombs.

Officially, 554 people died. 43,000 homes were destroyed. St Michael’s medieval Church was ruined, along with hundreds of other shops and public buildings.

Much controversy was caused by the bombing of Coventry. Some historians have said that Winston Churchill knew of the attack but did not want to reveal that secret German communications were being cracked by codebreakers in Britain. The Luftwaffe actually filmed the attack and used the films as propaganda back in Nazi Germany.

Winston Churchill visiting Coventry after it was severely damaged in The Blitz.

Churchill visiting Coventry.
Credit: © IWM H 14250

The Bombing of Bradford

On the night of August 31st 1940 Bradford was bombed by the Luftwaffe. 116 bombs hit roads and buildings between Thornton Road and eastwards to Leeds road. The Lingards department store was hit on the junction of Kirkgate and Westgate in the city centre. On March 14th 1941 more Nazi bombers flew over Bradford.

Ports, industry and big cities had been targeted in an attempt to break British morale, as theories of aerial bombing thought democracies would be more vulnerable to aerial attack, breaking down morale because the public could voice their opinion and leading to a surrender. But civilians were either directly targeted or seen as collateral damage. 40,000 civilians died as a result of The Blitz.

The Blitz was not effective as it didn’t demoralise Britain into surrender or do much damage to the economy - war production actually increased.After the Blitz, the policy of RAF bomber command became an attempt to achieve victory through destruction of civilian will, communications and industry. The Luftwaffe took a cautious view of strategic bombing; they didn’t have a policy of terror bombing but felt strategic bombing could greatly affect the balance of power on the battlefield. But by 1942, the Luftwaffe officially adopted a policy of the deliberate bombing of civilians.

The Bombing
Of Germany

The RAF began bombing military targets in Germany in March 1940. In early 1942, Arthur Harris became the commander-in-chief of Bomber Command. Before this, there had been heavy losses of RAF bombers and inaccurate raids, and Harris wanted to bring in a new more efficient bombing strategy. In June, Churchill declared in the House of Commons:

As the year advances, German cities, harbours, and centres of war production will be subjected to an ordeal the like of which has never been experienced by any country in continuity, severity or magnitude”.

After this, British bombing against Germany became less restrictive, targeting industrial sites and then eventually civilian areas.

The 1,000 Bomber Raids

In May 1942 Cologne was targeted with as many available bombers Harris could mobilise. The city was devastated with the bombs causing thousands of fires.

Hamburg was targeted in July 1943 by RAF Bomber Command (including Polish squadrons). Codenamed Operation Gomorrah, the air raids lasted 8 days and became the heaviest assault in history of aerial warfare. It was later called the Hiroshima of Germany by British officials. 42,600 people were killed and 37,000 wounded. Many of the civilians who died, died trying to seek shelter in bomb shelters and cellars during a firestorm caused by the bombs. Industry was completely destroyed.Harris came up with the idea of the 1000 bomber raids, where the maximum number of bomber aircraft would be used at once. Not every raid had quite a 1000 bomber aircrafts, but they were used as a propaganda tactic to bring government and public support for these kinds of raids, as Harris believed they alone could destroy Germany’s will to fight and bring an end to the war.

Some people who tried to walk along, they were pulled in by the fire, they all of a sudden disappeared right in front of you”.

Ursula Gray, 1974

A pile of dead bodies in Dresden, Germany.

Dresden Victims.
Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-08778-0001

An aerial view of the destroyed streets of Dresden, Germany.

A Peace Pledge Union Leaflet ‘Air Raid Precautions: A message to every house holder’, 1930s. This leaflet asks the question ‘Is your house safe against air attacks?’ Credit: Peace Pledge Union

A Cause Célèbre

Dresden was targeted between the 13th to 15th February 1945. The RAF and USAAF (US) dropped more than 3900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city. 22,700 to 25,000 people were killed.

It has become one of the biggest controversies of the war, as it was mainly civilian targets and was more of a cultural landmark of little strategic significance than a tactical bombing. The justification given by Bomber Command was it would aid Soviet offensives in Germany and they felt it would have a detrimental effect on German morale.

It is not possible to describe! Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare!”

Lother Metzger, Survivor

Dresden was horrific by the nature in which many civilians died. Not many had air raid shelters, the largest was underneath the railway station but was already filled with 6000 refugees who had fled their homes as the Soviet army had advanced. Many had taken shelter in cellars, but the thick walls in cellars had been replaced with thin partition walls that could be knocked through easily as part of air raid precautions. All the cellars were set on fire because of the incendiary bombs, so people would run from one cellar into another. As a result thousands of bodies were found piled up in houses at the end of city blocks.

Dresden caused worldwide shock. Nazi Minister Joseph Goebbles wanted to use it as a pretext for the abandonment of Geneva Conventions on the Western Front, but in the end he used it for propaganda purposes. The propaganda was effective, as it influenced the attitudes of neutral countries, but also those in Britain. Dresden was largely responsible for the shift in UK attitude against this type of raid. Many felt these attacks had become largely irrelevant to the outcome of the war. It brought Arthur Harris into conflict with Churchill, who distanced himself from bombing. It has been largely remembered as terror bombing.

During The

After the horror of WWI, there were many active peace groups that campaigned against militarism. Groups such as the Peace Pledge Union and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (both exist to this day) called for international disarmament. Such groups continued to campaign during the war and individuals spoke out against the bombing of civilians.

A sandwich board from the war encouraging people to attend an event in protest of the war.

Sandwich board from The Fellowship of Reconciliation. Advertising a 1937 event on ‘Christ and Peace’, speakers include George Lansbury MP &  Ruth Fry. The Fellowship of Reconciliation founded in 1914 is an international movement of people who commit themselves to active nonviolence as a way of life and as a means of personal, social, economic and political transformation.
Credit: Fellowship of Reconciliation.

An anti-bombing poster.

Northern Friends Peace Board Poster.
Credit: Northern Friends Peace Board

Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain was born in 1893 and has become a well known author and pacifist. She published her 1933 memoir, Testament of Youth, which documented her experiences as a nurse during WWI and how this inspired her pacifism.

International Women’s Day: Vera Brittain open_in_new
A photograph of Vera Brittain.

Credit: By Noelbabar - Own work, Public Domain,

In the 1920s she regularly spoke for the League of Nations of Union and in 1936 spoke at a peace rally in Dorchester alongside other famous pacifists including Dick Sheppard and George Lansbury. She was a member of the Peace Pledge Union and the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. The start of WWII inspired her to write the series Letters to Peacelovers, raise money for the Peace Pledge Union’s food campaign and work as a fire warden. In 1944 she wrote the booklet Seeds of Chaos (also known as Massacre of Bombing).In this booklet she argued:

The public did not understand the true horror of the bombings because the press were concealing it and arguing it was vital to the war effort.
The policy seemed to change to saturation or cascade bombing where a huge number of bombs were dropped on a small area in a short period so there could be no defence, and the outcome was cities were set on fire.
There was never any certainty that bombing would shorten the war, using the example that one bombing raid could kill more and destroy more than a two week ground battle.
She questioned that it could break enemy morale and bring a quicker victory. Instead, this just sowed the seeds for revenge that would lead to a Third World War.
She argued that the trade impact of German industry being destroyed would not just affect Germany, but the rest of Europe after the war.
The pamphlet called for restrictions on the extent and intended targets of allied bombing, but did agree that Hitler must be defeated.

Some agreed with her, but she was widely criticised. News of her pamphlet even reached the US, where President Roosevelt issued a statement attacking her arguments. George Orwell reviewed the pamphlet in his column in the Tribune newspaper, calling her argument that the means of war should be limited whilst still agreeing Hitler needed to be defeated “sheer humbug”. She responded by saying it was perfectly possible to want to win the war but not agree to such bombing.

After the war, it was revealed that Brittain was included in the Nazi’s Black Book of 3000 people that they would arrest once they had successfully invaded Britain.

For the rest of her life, Brittain regularly wrote for Peace News and spoke in favour of anti-colonialism and nuclear disarmament.

To Nuclear

The War in the Pacific

Japan was an axis power, allied to Germany and Italy. In 1941 Japan became one of the main belligerents of the war after invading Thailand and attacking British colonies and US naval bases by the air. This included the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, officially bringing the US into the war. Atrocities were committed across Asia, and Japan fought the allies on both the land and sea. In 1942 the Allies began air raids using conventional and incendiary bombs over Japan.

These began with small targeted raids on military bases, but by June 1944 the US was able to use B-29 long range bombers to undertake a more extensive campaign.

Initially industrial facilities were targeted through precision bombing but by February 1945, bombers began night bombing against cities. This was justified by the allies as manufacturing was often done in small workshops and houses as opposed to big industrial factories. Japanese defences were unable to cope and so these raids caused widespread damage and the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

After several years of development, on the 16th July 1945 the Manhattan Project delivered on it’s aim to create an atomic bomb. The Trinity Test was the first of three bombs created and was tested in the desert of New Mexico by the United States Army. Less than a month later, the remaining two huge atomic bombs would decimate Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The US planned to invade Japan on the 1st November 1945 but had hoped the continuing air raids would force a surrender before this. After the Trinity Test was successful, President Harry S. Truman gave the order for the atomic bombs to be dropped. On the 6th August at 8.15am a uranium bomb nicknamed Little Boy was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, instantly killing 70,000 people. 20,000 were Korean slave labourers. 30,000 were civilians. 50,000 buildings were destroyed. Hiroshima was seen as a legitimate target by the US as it has army headquarters and 20,000 Japanese combatants were killed.

Three days later, on the 9th August at 11.02am, a second atomic bomb exploded in the city of Nagasaki. Nagasaki had been targeted earlier in 1945 with aerial bombs being dropped. Another city, Kokura, was the intended target of this raid, but the weather prevented it and instead the bombers flew to Nagasaki. The plutonium bomb named Fat Man immediately killed 35,000 people and destroyed the north of the city. Many of those killed were civilians who worked in munitions factories. 2000 Koreans were killed. Unlike Hiroshima where many soldiers were killed, only 150 were military personnel in Nagasaki.

Thousands more people died in the following years as a result of the atomic bomb. Many from cancers of the blood caused by the nuclear fallout. Nothing like it had ever been seen before.

The Soviet Union invaded Japanese territory on the same day as the bombing of Nagasaki and Japan surrendered on the 15th August 1945. The war officially came to an end on the 2nd September 1945. There has been much debate over whether the US had any justification to use such weapons of mass destruction and whether it was necessary to bring about an end to the war. But today, the atomic bombings of Japan remain one of the deadliest and destructive incidents in the history of warfare. Many believe that the use of such weapons is fundamentally immoral and could never be justified. Atomic bombings have not been used in combat since, but many countries continue to hold huge nuclear weapon stockpiles.

Today, many museums in Japan are committed to telling the stories of the Hibakusha - the survivors.

A mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion.

Mushroom Cloud caused by the atomic bomb.
Credit: Charles Levy - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

A scene of Hiroshima after it was devastated by a nuclear blast.

The Hiroshima Dome 1945.
Credit: Shigeo Hayashi.

A roof tile recovered from Nagasaki after a nuclear explosion.

Nagasaki Roof Tile.
Credit: The Peace Museum

A roof tile recovered from Hiroshima after a nuclear explosion.

Hiroshima Roof Tile.
Credit: The Peace Museum

These are roof tiles from Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombing.

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Silver Crane from Hiroshimaopen_in_new

Arguments Used to Support Bombing Before and During the War

Aerial bombardment could shorten a war by defeating the enemy quicker, opposed to long trench warfare like WWI

It could do this by knocking out enemy capacity for military production (by bombing factories and ports), supporting land armies during battles and by breaking enemy morale and ability to defend as invading armies approached

“The Bomber Would Always Get Through” argument - superior air technology could always get through to their target

Whole societies were now at war, so civilians would be at risk, but that was just the nature of war now.

Arguments Against

It did not shorten the war, the war still lasted 6 years. Bombing intensified towards the end of the war in late 1944 and 1945 when the allies were already beginning to advance on land

Huge naval battles and land battles still took place, like in WWI, with massive death tolls

It did not reduce the overall death toll and approximately 85 million people died

The bomber did not always get through. By the end of the war there had been advances in radar-guided anti-aircraft guns which meant it was unlikely bombers could reach their targets. Over 57,000 fighter pilots had died just within the RAF during the war

Civilians were seen as collateral damage and were not legitimate targets


What did the public think?

In April 1941 the British Institute of Public Opinion carried out a survey of the whole country’s response to the question:

Would you approve or disapprove if the RAF adopted a policy of bombing the civilian population in Germany?

It found that people who lived in more heavily bombed areas were less in favour of reprisal bombing. In inner London which had suffered the most during the Blitz, 47% disapproved. In the North Riding of Yorkshire which had been relatively safe, 76% agreed with reprisals.

After the War

War crime trials took place in Nuremberg and Tokyo to deal with the atrocities that had taken place during the war, but deliberate civilian bombing was not included. Most belligerents had committed their own acts of civilian bombings so everyone would have been guilty.

Today, many would argue that bombing helped overcome Nazi Germany and win the war. Bombers from Bomber Command are remembered through the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln. Many of these young pilots gave their lives fighting against Nazism and facism.

The use of nuclear bombs at the end of the war could overshadow the use of conventional bombing against civilians. Today, the horror of nuclear war is perhaps more remembered.

Legacy of World War II

WWII had a positive impact on the advancement of human rights, with the founding of the United Nations and the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. However, it wasn’t until 1977 that a review of civilian human rights and bombing was designed and agreed with the revised Geneva Convention Protocol.

As part of the efforts to create a lasting peace and avoid future world wars, efforts were made to reconcile populations. One part of this was twinning towns in an attempt to bring the people together which began in 1947. In 1956, Coventry entered a twin town agreement with Dresden.

To this day, many memorials exist to commemorate those who lost their lives during the war. However, in 1992 a statue of Sir Arthur Harris commander-in-chief of Bomber Command, who had ordered the obliteration of Dresden, brought controversy. Canon Paul Ostreicher, the Director of the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral and businessman Richard Branson were involved in the campaign against the statue. The Harris statue did go ahead, but Ostreicher and Branson arranged for two copies of a statue by artist Josefina de Vasconcellos to be erected, one at Coventry Cathedral and one in Hiroshima named Reconciliation. The original is at the University of Bradford.

The two new copies were unveiled in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing and to promote cordial relations between the UK and Japan. Some WWII veterans and the public spoke out against this because of the atrocities committed by Japan against prisoners of war.

The day it was unveiled in Hiroshima, the Mayor apologised for Japanese war crimes. In 1999, another copy was unveiled in Berlin to mark the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in 2000 a copy was placed in the grounds of Stormont, Belfast to mark the Good Friday Agreement.

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