Sunday 26 July 2009

29 July: anniversary of an Anglo-American war crime in Operation Gomorrah

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Travers Harris, 1st Baronet GCB OBE AFC RAF (13 April 1892 – 5 April 1984), commonly known as "Bomber" Harris by the press, and often within the RAF as "Butcher" Harris, was Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) of RAF Bomber Command (from early 1943 holding the rank of Air Chief Marshal) during the latter half of World War II.

He was directly and deliberately responsible for ordering the deaths of hundreds of thousands of mostly innocent women, children and elderly in Germany during World War II. He ought to have been tried for war crimes alongside the defendants at Nuremberg.

In fact, however, he was laden with honours.

In 1942 the British Cabinet agreed to the area bombing of German cities. Harris was tasked with implementing Churchill's policy which, in turn, was based upon the erroneous and superficial "scientific" guess work of Professor Frederick Lindemann, later Viscount Cherwell.

Professor Lindemann, Lord Cherwell, chief architect of the policy of hate which was the carpet bombing campaign against German cities and civilians who had never been responsible for starting the war. Ironically, he was of German origin.

Harris's preference for area bombing over precision targeting was controversial at the time and hotly contested by wiser heads like that of Sir Henry Tizard, career scientist and head of department in the civil service, who actually knew much better what they were talking about.

Harris was not even dissuaded from his pet idea of "carpet bombing" by his seniors, Portal and Churchill, both of whom had access to better intelligence than Harris, and serious misgivings were frequently expressed about the campaign by airmen, civil servants, military leaders and politicians. Catholic Labour MP, Sir Richard Stokes, and churchmen like Bishop Bell of Chichester, both of whom were members of the Bombing Restriction Committee and were, in addition, in touch with the German resistance to Hitler, were highly critical of carpet bombing civilians.

The British government would have no dealings with the German resistance, preferring to deal largely with Communists due to the pathetic obsession with Stalin of left-leaning Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary, Sir Anthony Eden, later Earl of Avon. Eden was vain, arrognat and politically short-sighted. The result was often disastrous.

The bombing campaign was another result of the thoroughly bigoted, racist and immoral policy of unconditional surrender which regarded all Germans and all Italians as odious enemies.

The Battle of Hamburg, codenamed Operation Gomorrah, was a campaign of air raids beginning 24 July 1943 for 8 days and 7 nights. It was at the time the heaviest assault in the history of aerial warfare and was later called the "Hiroshima of Germany" by British officials.

Gomorrah was originally formulated by Cherwell and Harris who persuaded Churchill. The operation was conducted by RAF Bomber Command (including RCAF Squadrons) and the USAAF Eighth Air Force. The British conducted the night raids and the USAAF conducted daylight raids.

Piles of dead after a "carpet bombing" raid - comparable with the piles of dead in concentration camps

On the night of 27 July, shortly before midnight, nearly 800 aircraft attacked Hamburg. The unusually dry and warm weather, the concentration of the bombing in one area, and firefighting limitations due to Blockbuster bombs used in the early part of the raid culminated in the so-called "Feuersturm" (firestorm).

This created a huge inferno with winds of up to 240 km/h (150 mph) and reaching temperatures of 800 °C (1,500 °F), which incinerated some eight square miles (21 km²) of the city. Asphalt streets burst into flame, and most of the casualties caused by Operation Gomorrah happened on this night (many killed were in shelters).

Horrifying pictures of women civilians burned in the streets of Hamburg by allied bombing

On the night of 29 July, Hamburg was again attacked by over 700 aircraft. The last raid of Operation Gomorrah was conducted on 3 August.

The number killed is unknown as many were simply obliterated without trace.

The first German city to be carpet-bombed was Cologne and many more German cities were obliterated by allied bombing thereafter, including, famously, Dresden in February 1945.

Dresden after the firestorm - children in their carnival costumes were fried alive

Thousands of children were in the streets of Dresden in their carnival costumes and were horribly incinerated. Also present were thousands of refugees from the East, men, women and children. They, too, perished in the firestorm that obliterated Dresden.

Ironically, however, the carpet bombing campaign was a total failure, strategically, lengthened the war rather than shortened it and, according to some, very nearly caused the allies to lose the war.

Tizard had called Cherwell's estimates of the likely damage inaccurate by about 7 times. In fact, they were out by more than 10 times as the post-war Strategic Bombing Survey of Webster and Frankland amply proved.

German civilian morale rose to new heights during the bombing since they became more disposed to believe Goebbels' propaganda about the "terror air raids" and were more willing to defend themselves from these terrifying attacks.

Hamburg as a city had been particularly pro-British before the campaing and a very fruitful ground for building resistance to Hitler. Once the bombing campaign arrived in Hamburg all such pro-British feeling disappeared and the resistance to Hitler evaporated.

But Harris and Cherwell were chiefly interested in revenge killing and were determined to slaughter as much German life as possible - even children.

Marshal of the RAF Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, or "Butcher" as even his own troops called him, was directly responsible for ordering the massacre of hundreds of thousands of largely innocent German women and children in the "strategic" carpet bombing raids on German cities.

German war production rose to its greatest level during the height of the strategic bombing campaign and Professor Pat Blackett, the chief scientific adviser to the Admiralty during the war, claimed that the carpet bombing campaign actually lengthened the war by between 6 and 12 months by failing to attack industrial and military targets and, instead, concentrating upon the homes of working class families.

The disgustingly brutal Harris was quite clear about his policy and unblushingly stated:

"...the aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive...should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany.

It should be emphasized that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories."

His own airman used to complain to their superiors that they did not relish the policy of killing women and children first and using a Cathedral as an aiming point.

Roskill, the official Naval historian,
was in no doubt that the Battle of the Atlantic was very nearly lost for the want of 2 or 3 more long-range bomber squadrons, all of which had been taken away to bomb innocent children in Germany.

The strategic bombing campaign is one of the blackest marks upon the good name of the allied air forces and prepared the way for the decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the last being dropped right on top of Urukami Catholic Cathedral of St Mary in the centre of Japanese Catholicism by American aircrew which, with terrible irony, numbered Irish-American Catholics among them.

President Harry Truman, Freemason and Democrat Party leader, dishonestly told the American public in a broadcast that Hiroshima was a "military base".

Blessed Emperor Charles of Austria had condemned the bombing of cities and innocent civilians in World War I and forbade his troops ever to do so.

Blessed Pope John XXIII and Vatican II were both entirely right to condemn the concept of carpet bombing, mass destruction and atomic bombing of cities.

Indeed, it is a grotesquely evil moral crime of the highest order.

Blessed Pope John XXIII roundly condemned the bombing of cities and innocent civilians and he was entirely right so to do.



Pontesisto said...

Gosh! Thank you for this post.

Growing up in the '70s and '80s, I remember questioning the propriety of such vile actions. The answer always came, back, "Remember Coventry". For some, two wrongs do make a right, but as you've shown so clearly, this can never be right.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing and sharing this. While I do not believe in "collective guilt" it nonetheless is helpful to us all to remember where unchecked power may lead.

Anonymous said...

The definitive moral theological case against these acts was penned in the US by one Fr. John C. Ford, SJ, in Theological Studies, Vol. 5, Issue 3, pp 261-309(available here:

This eminent theologian thoroughly refutes the case for "total warfare" as it was called.

Tribunus said...

Thank you for that.

Society of St Bede said...

The historian Richard Holmes claimed that it was the British that started the bombing of civilians. He also claimed that Hitler ordered his air force not to bomb civilians (at least in the UK!).
Also to compare the bombing of Coventry to anything the Allies did is absurd.

Anyway thanks again for an excellent post.

Tribunus said...


Anonymous said...


I am very late to the party, but feel I should put forward my point. In short, I cordially disagree with you and the other posters. Leaving aside the then widely accepted theories of General Douhet, the bombings of cities by both sides, and the extensive civil defence and evacuation measures adopted in both Germany and Britain, let me ask a question. Was Hamburg a legitimate military target?

If the British Army was camped outside German-defended Hamburg in July 1943, would it not be fully justified in using artillery to bombard the city, to capture it, to weaken the defences or destroy military installations, regardless of whether the civilian population was present or not?

If the answer is 'yes' then objections to aerial bombardment largely disappear. If the answer is 'no', then the prosecution of war throughout history would have been impossible.


Hestor said...


Is the theory of a "just war" just regarded as that - a theory or is it part of the ordinary magesterium of the church?

PJMULVEY said...

Thank you for the very informative and objective information. It is true that history is written by 'victors' and that their crimes are whitewashed rather than persecuted. The old saying that two wrongs don't make a right applies in the carpet bombing strategy. This 'mentality' however is still alive and well with the recent Tarrantino film, Inglorious Bastards, that abounds in many scenes of barbaric cruelty aimed at Germans.....simply horrible. I read that the reviewers loved the film!!! I am sure that if scenes of the carpet bombing were included in the film that the audience would be up and cheering. If this modern philosophy and view of war is progress, how dare we retrospectively view past ages such as the Crusades as horrible and cruel? In my opinion, the conduct of modern warfare is a symptom of a neo-pagan culture that is divorced from its Catholic theological and ethical roots. I may not always agree with you....but from the other side of the Atlantic, I respect and thank you.

Tribunus said...

Thanks to all.

Hestor, I think the just war theory is teaching of the OM and it certainly appears in the CCC. If it is not yet infallible teaching it is certainly close to it and no Catholic is free to reject its essential parts. But who would want to, anyway, since it is so obviously right?

Dion, a little thought is all that is needed to answer your own questions.

Whoever General Douhet is, he is certainly not the final arbiter on morality.

Neither Hamburg, not any other city is a legitimate target qua city, since no city, as such, can be a legitimate target.

However, parts of a city may be legitimate targets if they are military targets e.g. a military base.

Provided the intention is genuinely to strike the military target and to avoid civilian casualties then the intention is morally legitimate and collateral civilian casualties do not render the targeting immoral.

Thus the shelling of military targets within Hamburg was legitimate, even if civilian casualties resulted provided the latter were (genuinely) not intended and were always sought to be avoided.

On the other hand, the area bombing of Hamburg was deliberately aimed at civilians and so was grossly immoral.

The fact that you have clearly not heard of the principle of double effect and are unaware of some of the fundamental principles of moral philosophy is more of a reflection upon your own education than upon the issue of military targeting policy.

If you knew more about moral philosophy then you would understand that your conclusion is a non-sequitur and does not follow from your stated premises.

If you were right - and you certainly aren't - then virtually everyone would be a legitimate target in war - women, children, the vulnerable and the elderly included.

It is hard to imagine a more disgustingly immoral war policy.

You need to read a primer of moral philosophy. I suggest Prof Frederick Copleston as a good start.

Keir said...

Shame the Pope didn't see fit to condemn the Holocaust at the time as he saw the round-up of Jews in Rome from his vantage point in the Vatican... But then, the Pope referred to here who condemned the bombing wasn't the same one who is about to be beatified now for his inactions during the war.
40,000 British civilians were killed during the Blitz when Britain was fighting for its and Europe's existence. It's all well and good in the security of one's home in 2009 (a security shaped by such actions) to cast aspersions, but we were fighting a war at a time when all the rules had been thrown out. One must look at the context of the time rather than that generations later.
I find it rather appalling that Catholics will take righteous rage against actions that saved it when it chose to do nothing but acquiesce to Hitler, from its abandonment of the Catholic Central Party at the start of NSDAP rule to the abandonment of the people.

Tribunus said...

Dear Keir,

Shame you didn't bother to read the condemnation of Nazi beliefs that the Pope wrote in 1937 in his encyclical letter Mit Brennender Sorge addressed to the Church in Germany.

Shame you didn't read the fruitless condemnation of Nazism that the Dutch Catholic bishops wrote that resulted in the deaths of many more Jews, including all Catholic convert Jews, as a direct result.

Shame you haven't read of the decision of Pope Pius XII not to issue condemnations that would only lead to tens of thousands of more deaths but, instead, to organise Europe-wide clandestine operations to save Jewish lives which rescued 860,000 Jews.

Shame you are so quick to condemn those who saved Jews rather than the British and US governments who did so very little to save Jewish lives.

Shame you have not read what Jewish Diplomat, Pinchas a Lapide, wrote about the heroic work of Pope Pius XII in saving Jewish lives.

Shame you did not read about the sacrifices made by Pope Pius XII to obtain 35 kilos of gold to save innocent Roman Jews from execution by Colonel Herbert Kappeler and the SS.

Shame you did not read how this caused the Chief Rabbi of Rome. Israel Zolli, to convert to Roman Catholicism, taking the Pope's own name, Eugenio, as his baptismal name.

Shame you so condemn a pope who was a prisoner in the Vatican and at the mercy of the Nazi occupiers of Rome and you do so from a position of total comfort and safety, free from danger, long after the war is over and without any experience of life under a totalitarian regime.

Shame you - who have never had to face such challenges - are so ungallant as to condemn those popes who did so much to save Jews at risk to their own lives.

Shame you are so ignorant of the very subject you claim to pontificate about that you are unaware that the pope who condemned the war-time carpet bombing of civilians was not the Pope at the time but was an Apostolic diplomat saving Jewish lives.

Shame that you seem unaware that Angelo Roncalli – who would become Pope John XXIII – played a pivotal role in saving the lives of thousands of Jews while serving as the papal representative to Turkey during World War II.

Shame that you seem unaware that Roncalli, on the orders of Pope Pius XII, used diplomatic couriers, papal representatives and the Sisters of Our Lady of Zion to transport and issue baptismal certificates, immigration certificates and visas – many of them forged – to Hungarian Jews to save their lives.

Shame that you seem so unaware that "Operation Baptism" proved so effective that when the Soviets captured Budapest in February 1945, as biographer Lawrence Elliott wrote, "some 100,000 Jews (200,000 in the whole of Hungary) had been spared".

Shame that you overlook that Chaim Barlas, who worked closely with Roncalli as head of the Palestine Jewish Agency's Rescue Committee, wrote "Much blood and ink have been spilled in the Jewish tragedy of those years, but to the few heroic deeds which were performed to rescue Jews belong the activities of the apostolic delegate, Monsignor Roncalli, who worked indefatigably on their behalf".

Shame that you did not know that the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation asked the Holocaust Museum of Israel to designate Roncalli as "Righteous Among the Nations", an honour reserved for non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust.

Shame that you seem unaware that Rabbi Simon Moguilevsky, Chief Rabbi of Buenos Aires, called Roncalli "a man truly created in the image of God".

Shame that you seem unaware that successive Israeli governments praised and thanked Pope Pius XII for saving so many Jewish lives.

Shame that you are so ill-informed that you even go so far as to call the saving of 860,000 Jewish lives "inactions during the war", even though this pope saved more Jewish lives during the Holocaust than all other agencies put together.

Tribunus said...

Shame that you think "all the rules had been thrown out" in the war so that the Allies were allowed to commit war crimes but, in the same contradictory breath, you condemn those, like the popes, who, unlike the Allied bombing planners, were scrupulous in following "the rules" and in saving the innocent, especially the Jews.

Shame that you seem to think that the Blitz gave the Allies carte blanche to commit war crimes in response.

Shame, above all else, that you speak of the "security of one's home in 2009" and "the context of the time rather than that of generations later" when it is you who, from the safety and comfort of your armchair in which your complacent backside is so comfortably placed, claim to sit in judgement upon those who lived under totalitarianism (which you clearly never have) and, whilst preposterously speaking of throwing out "the rules", claim to condemn those saviours of Jews for not risking their own lives even more than they already were when you, yourself, have clearly never had to risk your life in that way or, most probably, at all.

What shall we say of those who claim to find “rather appalling” the righteous rage of the just against the bombing of innocent civilians, the very same just souls who did more to save Jewish lives than all other agencies put together, particularly when the person finding this “rather appalling” cannot even be bothered, from the complacent comfort of his armchair, to find out the truth despite having every opportunity since he, unlike they, lives in peace, tranquillity and security rather than under a terrorist police state and the constant threat of a horrible death?

When one also takes into account the fact that the UK took very few Jewish refugees and the US took less than 20,000 throughout the whole period of the persecution of European Jewry in sharp contradistinction to the 860,000 Jews saved by the orders and plans of Pope Pius XII and our view of this person claiming to find the Pope and his Church “rather appalling”, whilst ignoring the truly appalling complacency of the Allied governments, is likely to be very dim indeed.

Nevertheless, this is yet further compounded by a deep ignorance which is apparently unaware that the government parties NSDAP and DNVP jointly won 52% of the vote in March 1933 compared to only 11% for the Centre Party so that it was not the Church that abandoned the Centre Party but rather the German people, contrary to the yet further muddled (or worse) view of those who try to blame the Church. After the 1933 election the Centre Party was powerless to stop the Nazis and was inevitably finished whatever the Church might have done. But it is not at all uncommon for the uninstructed to blame the powerless for the faults of the powerful.

In sharp contrast to the German Protestant Church which sold out to Nazism in the form of the Deutsche Christen which produced Hitler's Protestants and the Reich Bishop, Ludwig Muller, the Catholic Church continuously and consistently opposed the Nazi regime, saved more Jewish lives than all other agencies together and suffered direct persecution and the execution of Catholic laymen and priests whose memory some have little or no compunction but disgracefully to defame and besmirch.

I entertain a small hope that the above does not describe you, Keir, but that you have, instead, arrived at your grossly false conclusion through lack of knowledge and that you will resolve to find out the truth next time before you feel inclined to condemn those who, in the face of totalitarian horror and terrorism, nevertheless had the heroic courage to forget their own safety in order to save the lives of others.

And you might, perhaps for a moment or two, hang your head in shame for your hasty, inaccurate and wholly unjust judgements which insult the memory of heroic souls who risked their lives for others.