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The Truth About Allied Air Operations in World War II

World War II was rife with tactical air raids and the indiscriminate destruction of civilian lives. It took years for the Allied Powers and their supporters to have second thoughts about their vicious tactics. The Israel–Hamas war is in many ways comparable to this saga, as a hatred of Jews is linked to both. What lessons do these conflicts have to teach?
World War II

B-17 Bomber during the first big raid on Germany by the U.S. 8th Air Force. The raid destroyed most of the Marienburg Focke-Wulf aircraft factory. World War 2. October 9, 1943 © Everett Collection /

February 14, 2024 05:14 EDT

During the course of World War II in Europe, the Allied powers’ strategic bombing campaign killed between 300,000 and 600,000 civilians in German cities.

In the air war against the Nazi regime, the British Royal Air Force (RAF)’s Bomber Command initially sought to attack specific German military and industrial targets. This effort proved too costly and relatively ineffective. Then under its new leader, Arthur “Bomber” Harris, Bomber Command turned to a new tactic: “area bombing.” In effect, area bombing meant largely indiscriminate attacks on German cities in an attempt to “de-house” the civilian population and break its morale. In 1943, an estimated 40,000 civilians were killed in the two-day Bombing of Hamburg, known by the code name “Operation Gomorrah.”

Initially, US decision-makers had other ideas. Equipped with new, more accurate bombsights, the Eighth Air Force’s commanders were determined to crush Germany’s industrial infrastructure. These attacks were more successful, especially those that targeted the country’s oil refineries and synthetic rubber facilities. Yet by the war’s final years (1944–1945), the Eighth Air Force was carrying out almost daily raids on Berlin, a target with limited economic value. By the time of Germany’s surrender in May 1945, Berlin and other German cities looked like the surface of the moon.

There is also the case of Dresden. A city with very limited economic value, both the RAF’s Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force targeted it. Between February 13 and 15, 1945, they launched a series of ruinous attacks that killed approximately 35,000 civilians. Winston Churchill supposedly decided he wanted Dresden bombed to show Joseph Stalin the power of his arsenal.

Historical devastation unleashed on Japan

The strategic bombing campaign launched against Japan during the war was almost exclusively a US operation. It began in April 1942 with the famous Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. Physically, it did little overall damage. Psychologically, however, it was a spectacular success for the US. They saw it as payback for the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. It also showed the Japanese public how vulnerable their home islands were to aerial assaults.

Serious air operations against Japan only began in the middle of June 1944, following the US capture of the Mariana Islands, notably Guam, Tinian and Saipan. The Marianas were close enough to Japan to permit the US Air Force to launch strategic bombing raids on Japanese cities. These attacks were also made possible by the deployment of the new Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber.

After some experimentation with its use, this craft was employed by General Curtis LeMay’s 509th Composite Group to stage firebombing raids on Japanese cities. The most lethal of these was the bombing of Tokyo, otherwise known by the code name “Operation Meetinghouse,” from March 9–10, 1945. One estimate is that approximately 100,000 Japanese civilians were killed during this one offensive. From March–August 1945, the US Air Force was also employed in mine-laying operations, under the code name “Operation Starvation,” with the goal to prevent fishing in the seas surrounding Japan.

The weapons used against Tokyo and the other cities were conventional weapons: incendiaries. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6, 1945 and August 9, 1945, respectively) were something different. They were the first and so far only use of atomic weaponry in wartime. Not only this, but against a helpless civilian population.

These nuclear attacks and the radiation they left behind killed an estimated 214,000 people. They contributed to the Japanese government’s decision to surrender unconditionally to the Allies, bringing an end to the war.

Allies approved civilian slaughter

Seen in retrospect, one of the most striking things about indiscriminate British and US air attacks on civilian populations was the virtual absence of public criticism. It is true a handful of US nuclear scientists, led by Leo Szilard, circulated a letter to some of their peers objecting to the impending use of the atomic bomb. In Britain, the question was raised retrospectively about the need for the attack on Dresden. But at the time, there were no widespread public demonstrations about the Allied air attacks on civilians, nor any US or British radio commentators objecting to the carnage. If anything, Allied journalists tended to regard the bombing operations as significant achievements.

Why was there no public opposition or objections from Anglo-American newspaper or radio journalists and their attentive publics? Certainly, part of the answer was the widespread desire to retaliate. British civilians wanted revenge for the Nazi firebombing of major cities, especially London, during the Blitz. The US demanded payback for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, followed by the “fight to the death” response of the Japanese military as it struggled to prevent the Allied conquest of its occupied islands.

German and Japanese propaganda efforts to weaken British and US morale were unsuccessful. In Nazi Germany and Italy, British Fascist William Joyce and US turncoats Mildred Gillars and Rita Zucca — using the nicknames, “Lord Haw-Haw” and “Axis Sally,” respectively — made regular radio broadcasts stating the invincibility of the Axis Powers. In the Pacific, Iva Toguri D’Aquino, using the nickname, “Tokyo Rose,” made similar and equally unsuccessful attempts to undermine US morale — especially that of GIs fighting there.

To a significant extent, British and US journalists tended to define themselves as part of the war effort. There were exceptions here and there, however: In 1943, the isolationist Chicago Tribune published the fact that US codebreakers had deciphered Japan’s Naval Code. That same year, journalist Drew Pearson made headlines when he published a story that General George S Patton had slapped a soldier convalescing at a Sicilian hospital.

Substantial opposition to the Allied bombing of civilian targets developed well after World War II. The 1957 Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marked a shift among Western intellectuals against strategic bombing. This retrospective opposition appeared in the context of the Cold War conflict between NATO and the Soviet Bloc countries.

The Israel–Hamas war: How does history compare?

To what degree does the current Israel–Hamas war resemble the exponentially larger struggle of World War II? At first glance, the answer would be little. The battle between the two sides is restricted to a small corner of the Middle East, while the scope of World War II was practically global. The same applies to the number of soldiers directly involved in the fighting: thousands, not millions.

The drones, missiles and other weapons being used by the Israelis and Hamas fighters are far more sophisticated than those available to either side in World War II. And the Israeli Iron Dome air defense system would have been the envy of the soldiers of yesteryear. And, althought the Israelis do not advertise this fact, they possess nuclear weapons and the means to launch them.

There are no Hamas equivalents of “Lord Haw-Haw,” “Axis Sally” or “Tokyo Rose” employed to weaken Israeli morale. This is not because Hamas lacks the means, such as social media, to convey such messages. Rather, it is because the organization leaders regard their members as engaged in a holy war not only with Israelis, but with Jews altogether. So, there is no point in surrendering. Hamas does not recognize any distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Israeli civilians, following the October 7, 2023 attacks, are not susceptible to such an appeal.

Aside from the scale and scope of the conflict, a crucial distinction between the two wars is the reactions of their audiences. With the possible exceptions of pacifist Mahatma Gandhi, his Indian followers and a few Axis wartime collaborators, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan enjoyed little popular support around the world.

The opposite is true for Hamas. Almost the entire ummah — the worldwide community of Muslim believers — and their religious and political leaders have expressed support for Hamas and its holy war with Israel. Strengthening their support is the fact that Israel controls Jerusalem, the location of many Muslim holy sites.

During World War II, most print journalists and radio reporters behaved as cheerleaders for the Allies’ cause. In the current conflict, with the technologies of mass communication being more varied and vastly superior, many journalists and influential people active in the West are now cheerleaders for Hamas. After briefly expressing sympathy for the Israelis murdered or kidnapped by Hamas fighters on October 7, major news outlets in Britain, the US and elsewhere reacted with thinly disguised hostility once the Israeli Air Force began bombarding Gaza. This malice was not confined to the civilian casualties involved, but to the existence of Israel itself. Antisemitism loomed large in both conflicts.

Antisemitism persists

One similarity between then and now, sadly, is antisemitism.

Hatred of Jews had no meaning in the war on Japan, but in the European conflict, it certainly did. In addition to the destruction of around two-thirds of the European Jewish community by the Nazis and their collaborators across Europe, the Western Allies were hardly immune to Jew-hatred. In Britain, foreign office officials repeatedly complained how tired they were of listening to the “wailing Jews” that sought their assistance.

Throughout World War II, the Royal Navy enforced His Majesty’s Government’s White Paper of 1939. This seriously restricted Jewish emigration to Palestine. In other words, just as many European Jews were fleeing the Nazis, the British blocked the ports and sealed the exits.

The situation in the US was different. Figures in the Roosevelt Administration voiced sympathy for the ordeal of European Jews. But for the most part, their hands were tied. Surveys of US public opinion reflected widespread antisemitism. In view of this outlook, Congress was unwilling to modify immigration laws to permit more European refugees to enter the country. State Department officers controlling entry also did their best to deny visas to European Jews.

In the current Israel–Hamas war, the Jewish state has few friends aside from political leaders in the US and Britain. Even in these two countries, the present conflict has unleashed a wave of widespread antisemitism among professors, university students and Internet users that has not been seen in decades.

Animosity towards Jews appears to be a latent phenomenon throughout the Western world , needing only a stimulus to set it off, e.g.,  the Israeli response to October 7. Among Muslims, on the other hand, antisemitism appears to be something visible and constant, reflected by the fact that Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion continue to be best-sellers throughout the Middle East.

What lessons should Israeli Jews and Westerners learn from these two wars? The obvious answers that come to mind are these: When the chips are down, you are on your own. And if you wish to survive, you had better learn to fight.

[Lee Thompson-Kolar edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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