Destroy the towns, win the war. Or at least, that was the plan
Strategic bombing started in the First World War. It's still being done extensively in wars today
The scariest part was that they could hear the planes coming, but couldn’t see them.
The sound was terrifying.
That droning rumble, distant at first, would gradually grow louder, until you knew it was close, maybe even directly overhead.
Usually a single airplane — no formation flying at night.
You could hide in your house, yes. In your basement if you had one.
But you couldn’t escape that sound. If this were a movie it would be the full Dolby Surround 360-degree experience.
You knew that the louder it got, the more likely a bomb would fall through your roof and kill you.
Usually that didn’t happen though. The sound would fade, maybe disappear.
Then after a few minutes, or an hour, just after you fell back to sleep, the sound would return. The threat was back. Would this be the moment you met your end?
Or would you have to go through this again tomorrow night, and for who knows how many nights, maybe for years? The sleeplessness alone would be insanity-inducing.
There was no way to feel safe. Ever. Death and destruction could visit at any moment, preceded only by that drone of the engines that were driving the propellers that were pulling the planes and the bombs through the sky.
The attempt to terrorize the German population in the First World War by making sure they never felt safe was a deliberate strategy of the British, carried out by the short-lived branch of the air forces known as the Independent Force.
It was an innovative idea (as was everything to do with airplane warfare). Before the First World war, it wasn’t possible for a military force to strike targets from the air, and then just disappear. The Independent Force was created to take full advantage. Its job was to strategically bomb industrial and military targets relentlessly, 24/7, wearing down the German war machine until it broke.
Mainly, its focus was railways, factories and munitions depots. But the Independent Force’s planes also bombed towns that had no industrial or military value. And it wasn’t accidental.
How to win the war?
By 1917, the war had reached the brutal point most people are familiar with. Trench warfare along the Western Front featured battles that were lengthy, outrageously deadly, and usually resulted in minimal gains by either side.
The British prime minister and his cabinet were faced with a question: how to win the war? The conflict had settled into a stalemate-like situation that somehow had to be broken. Top generals said a decisive military victory on the ground was unlikely. Nor was the Navy able to produce an overwhelming advantage.
Everyone knew Germany’s air forces were getting stronger all the time. Failing to match that would probably lead to defeat. The British generals urged the cabinet to expand air forces, and fast. Superiority in the air was a path to overall victory, they said.
One of the men put in charge of building up the air forces was General Hugh Trenchard. The legendary stories of his life swirl around the history of the time. Barely made it into the British Army on account of his poor academic grades. Spent time in India, and fighting in the Boer War in South Africa, then to Nigeria for years. In 1912 he learned to fly in a week, apparently. By this time he was 39-years-old, just barely under the cutoff age of 40 for flying students. Became a visionary of how airplanes could be used in the First World War and beyond. He has been called the father of the Royal Air Force.
In October 1917, Trenchard set up the first strategic bombing unit in Nancy, France. This was the start of what would officially become the Independent Force.
Why was it called “independent”? Up to this point in the war, air forces ultimately took their orders from either the army or the navy. But Trenchard strongly argued that air forces should be in command of themselves, and have their own objectives, independent of the others1.
Not everyone was convinced, at least initially. When the name was first proposed, a skeptical French general asked, “Independent of whom? God?”
The ugly chain reaction of reprisals
Deliberately bombing civilians and undefended towns is a serious business, as it had been considered a war crime since the 19th century. It’s morally and ethically indefensible. All the more amazing that the British openly talked about it, even admitting it to the enemy.
On 14 April, 1917, dozens of British and French planes attacked Freiburg in a daytime raid. They dropped two and a half tons of bombs on the most densely-populated area of the city. The pilots were given no military objective. They were simply told to bomb the town.
There’s no word on how many Germans were killed. But for those who survived, they discovered that it wasn’t only bombs that were dropped. Leaflets also rained down, which explained that the attack was a reprisal for the sinking of a hospital ship the Germans had torpedoed a month earlier.
This was straight-up revenge. It was also a case of giving the British public what they wanted.
London had been hit by German bombs numerous times starting in 1917, killing hundreds of people and forcing many to head to Tube stations at night as form of air raid shelter.
Londoners were indignant, and wanted the air forces to hit back in the same way. Why should the Germans be allowed to sleep soundly in their beds if we can’t, they asked?
In June, Trenchard sent a memo to the British government, which included this passage:
Reprisals on open towns are repugnant to British ideas, but we may be forced to adopt them. It would be worse than useless to do so, however, unless we are determined that, once adopted, they will be carried through to the end. The enemy would almost certainly reply “in kind” and unless we are determined and prepared to go one better than the Germans, whatever they may do and whether their reply is in the air, or against our prisoners, or otherwise, it will be infinitely better not to attempt reprisals at all. At present we are not prepared to carry out reprisals effectively, being unprovided with suitable machines.
Let’s unpack that.
Trenchard is saying the British may be “forced” to attack innocent civilians, because the Germans did it first.
Then he says there’s no point in doing it half heartedly. The options as he sees it are: total commitment or none at all.
Predicting that the attacks on both sides would escalate (killing more and more innocent people), he says the only correct action is to “go one better” than the Germans, meaning the British must be more willing to kill civilians and attack towns that have no military value.
Finally, he issues a sort of threat to the British government that this level of madness cannot yet be achieved because he hasn’t been given enough planes. If only we had more airplanes, we could kill more civilians, Trenchard suggests.
“No town felt safe”
Trenchard wanted to break the morale of the German population. This wasn’t achieved only by attacking civilians. He thought destroying huge amounts of industrial and military infrastructure would also not only deprive the Germans of material they needed, but would wear them down mentally.
In a separate dispatch he sent upon the official creation of the Independent Force in 1918, he said this:
By attacking as many centres as could be reached, the moral effect was first of all much greater, as no town felt safe... At present the moral effect of bombing stands undoubtedly to the material effect in a proportion of 20 to 1, and therefore it was necessary to create the greatest moral effect possible.
In other words, depriving the enemy of tanks, bullets, coal and whatever else was nothing compared to the feeling of defeat it would instil in their minds.
Trenchard’s ideal vision for what the Independent Force could do was this:
A sustained and continuous attack on one large centre after another until each centre was destroyed, and the industrial population largely dispersed to other towns.
But he knew he wouldn’t be able to pull it off. He explains, almost with a sense of regret, that it would be too difficult to completely destroy industrial centres, and that weather would often get in the way. So instead, he settled for attacking as many centres as resources would allow, and crippling them to whatever extent possible, even if they were left somewhat intact.
Technological advancements over the course of the 20th century made Trenchard’s ideal vision possible, however. What does that look like? It looks like this.
Images from Bakhmut in Ukraine illustrate how that strategy is still carried out. Over the course of months, civilians were told to leave before the intense bombing started. Once it did, anyone in the way was killed. As of May 2023, nearly every building in the city is destroyed and hardly anyone is left there.
The legacy is secure
So did Trenchard’s vision work? Is this why the Germans were ultimately defeated? The effectiveness of strategic bombing in the First World War has been debated ever since. It certainly wasn’t the only thing that contributed to the Allied victory and there is much disagreement over whether it was a decisive factor.
But it “worked” in the sense that it changed war forever. The precedent of strategic bombing was set in 1917 and it is an indispensable element of war today. We see Bakhmut completely destroyed, along with other Ukrainian cities. It happened to cities in Syria in the 2010s. And it has happened in many, many other places too. As of 2022, the UN estimates that 90 per cent of war casualties are now civilian. One of the many reasons for that is the indiscriminate bombing of urban centres from the air.
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He won that argument when the air forces were combined into the Royal Air Force in April 1918