Opportunity Costs

Edward Luttwak

  • The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45 by Richard Overy
    Allen Lane, 852 pp, £30.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 7139 9561 9

The scenes of terror which took place in the firestorm area are indescribable. Children were torn away from their parents’ hands by the force of the hurricane and whirled into the fire. People who thought they had escaped fell down, overcome by the devouring force of the heat and died in an instant … The sick and infirm had to be left behind by the rescuers as they themselves were in danger of burning … And these days were followed by more nights of more horror, yet more smoke and soot, heat and dust and more death and destruction … Posterity can only bow its head in honour of the fate of these innocents, sacrificed by the murderous lust of a sadistic enemy.


This extract is from the report of the police president of Hamburg on the suitably named Operation Gomorrah, which took place in late July and early August 1943 and caused the first deliberately ignited firestorm. It is part of a longer passage printed in Appendix 30 of the official British history of the bombing of Germany by Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, and demonstrates their relentless objectivity (all the more remarkable in a book published in 1961, only 16 years after the end of hostilities).

My extract from the extract is enough to make plain the sheer horror of the air war waged by the British, Canadians and Americans against German cities. Americans come last chronologically, and also in intent, for as Richard Overy explains succinctly and well, the US saw the bombing of cities as a last resort and not the very first aim, as it was for Bomber Command.

However, from Appendix 2 of the Hamburg police president’s report, which isn’t reproduced in the official British history, we discover that, at least in the case of Operation Gomorrah, the bombing did directly weaken the German war effort: along with 1310 residential buildings fully destroyed and 3248 severely damaged (the ‘de-housing’ wanted by Bomber Command, although its net effect on German fighting strength was indeterminate), 582 industrial plants, 484 transport installations and 112 military installations were also severely damaged. Set against this, was the cost of delivering to Hamburg 9000 tons of munitions: 6610 high-explosive bombs, 152 aerial mines, 219,281 stick firebombs, 4157 phosphorus firebombs (by this time Bomber Command had learned that German cities were more easily burned than smashed), and 3428 other munitions. In all, 3095 sorties were flown by Lancaster, Halifax, Stirling and Wellington bombers, 86 of which were lost along with hundreds of their crew members. That, incidentally, was a very low rate of loss compared with previous and later air attacks, but the success of Operation Gomorrah had also required another kind of sacrifice: the so-called ‘Window’ – metallised strips that were dropped en masse so as to neutralise German radar – could never again be used with the huge advantage of surprise.

As for the police president’s evocation of the innocents murdered by the sadistic enemy – insistently echoed in Jörg Friedrich’s bestseller The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-45 and in many other publications, sermons and perorations, which began in Britain itself while the war was still going on – we find in Appendix 2 that 1769 people were killed by Operation Gomorrah. That is a misprint, or just conceivably a deliberate underestimate (Overy has 18,474 for the firestorm raid of 27 July alone), but even that number seems quite low when one considers the vast effort expended in the attack. It is certainly unimpressive compared with what the police president’s own men achieved: Hamburg’s reserve police battalion 101, manned by ‘ordinary’ policemen, never numbered more than five hundred and its members were armed only with pistols and bolt-action rifles. Even so, it had killed 38,000 Jews by November 1943, when it took the lead in the Erntefest (‘harvest festival’) operation in the Lublin district, in which another 42,000 Jews were killed.

This disparity in death rates was a constant till the very last major attack on a German city, the bombing of Pforzheim on 23 February 1945, ten nights after the bombing of Dresden (which Churchill had condemned). In this attack 83 per cent of the urban area was destroyed, 17,600 people were killed, according to the official estimate: certainly an enormous number, but still far below the daily average killed one way or another by the Germans in the last years of the war.

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[*] Italian industrial workers visiting British plants in the 1980s could not believe how meanly their British counterparts lived, with fish and chips at home and beer in Benidorm, instead of their month-long driving holidays through Greece and winter scuba in Sharm el Sheikh; today, they are far more likely to be unemployed.