Fire, as Bomber Command well knew, was the biggest destroyer of property.
On 23 September 1941, Britain’s Air Staff produced a report detailing the effectiveness of German incendiary attacks on Britain and recommending that fire be a central feature of Bomber Command attacks. The key lesson to be learned from the 1940 German ‘Blitz’ (as it was to become known in Britain the air bombing campaign, 7 September 1940 - 11 May 1941) was that concentrated use of incendiary bombs was the most effective form of annihilation.
In 1941, approximately just 12 percent of the total bomb loads despatched consisted of incendiary bombs. The response was the ‘Incendiary Plan Unison’ , issued on 25th October 1941 and first tested against the city of Lübeck on March 1942. That year the figure raised to a 42 percent of the bomb-load.
The RAF had to develop the required technique to burn out an entire city and the method was copied from the German raids and largely improved by British scientifics and physicists. The combined work of the Research and Experiments Department and the Air Warfare Analysis Section to estimate the nature of bomb damage and the vulnerability of German buildings made an essential contribution to what bombing could achieve. Led by Dr Reginald Strading, and with German-born Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann among these top-men, this statistical research group produced from September 1940 accurate figures for air warfare operations from the damage done by Nazi bombs, and applied them into German cities in future attacks in terms of lives lost and houses destroyed.
New chemicals weapons and reactions had to be created to allow new Bomber Command fire-rising tactics and this let to a change in Britain’s industries and set as the most urgent problem to develop the technology to find an entire city at night and poor weather (mainly navigation aids).
[Death from above • A British RAF four-engined bomber -a Short Stirling, overflies the firestorm during the bomb run on a night mission against a German city.]
Germans had well knowledge about fire-bombs and their destruction capabilities, as they had employed them in large numbers against Britain during the ‘Blitz’ attacks in 1940-41, and although well prepared for a fire-air attack, the defences and fire-fighting equipment of Berlin and other main Reich cities were well overwhelmed by the massive size of the RAF Bomber Command offensive.
In total around 110,000 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped during the ‘Blitz’ on England by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, twice the number of explosive weapons dropped. Fire was the biggest threat during the campaign and 95,000 Britons were drafted into the Auxiliary Fire Service.
[The ‘Blitz’: Buildings burning in Manchester after a German air raid on the night of 23 December 1940.]
Meanwhile, on Germany during inter-war years several drills were instructed as more evident became the idea that air power and air-raids against civil population and towns would be the main form of attack in the incoming war.
[Two shots of a Luftschutz fire brigade during an air raid drill in Berlin, circa 1941, training techniques to extinguish an incendiary bomb. The paper bags with sand should be burnt so that the content then smothers the fire.]
A colour footage of a demonstration to deal with a firebomb, during a Luftschutz event at Cardinalplatz in Köpenik (Berlin) before the war.
[Video credit: AKH Archive (Nr M1965)].
This is a German newsreel film from civil defence showing how to deal with these new fire-threat, in this case the British 30-lb bomb, in the event that an incendiary device lands on an apartment building.
[Video credit: this film is part of the Periscope Film LLC archive.]
The main objective of the use of incendiary bombs in a carpet-bombing was to create a Firestorm. Fortunately for Berliners, the German capital was too big in size (the third largest city in the world) and was a more modern city than Hamburg or London, with more wider residential districts and there are more open spaces. Berlin blocks of flats were also of sounder construction. Even the powerful RAF Bomber Command was ineffective in burning out such a large city from end to end. Instead, smaller cities like Hamburg, Dresden or Hanover would suffer this aerial punishment of fire.
The success of the Hamburg raids (‘Operation Gomorrah’) in July 1943, a textbook example of the incendiary attack planning, confirmed the theory of the superiority of incendiary over high-explosive bombs and impressed the Americans.
[This is a vertical photograph taken from 19,000 feet during a night raid on Hanover, showing an Avro Lancaster, silhouetted by the many incendiary fires below. That night 3,932 buildings were totally destroyed, and more than 30,000 damaged in varying degree, by the intense conflagration in the central and south central districts of the city resulting from this attack.]
[The deadly effects of incendiaries. Burnt out buildings and few roofs intact.- Part of a British vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial taken over Berlin showing an area immediately south of the Tiergarten (at left) and east of the Zoological Gardens. Lützowplatz is at centre, surrounded by a considerable area of buildings gutted by incendiary fires resulting from repeated raids by Bomber Command aircraft.]
[Brände nach Luftangriff: Berlin engulfed in flames after an Allied night raid at Jerusalemerstraße Ecke Zimmerstraße in July 1944.]
Detailed evidence from Britain “blitzed” cities suggested that incendiary bombs had five times the destructive potential of heavy explosive per ton. It was estimated that an initial salvo of 30,000 4-lb incendiaries had to be dropped in 20 minutes as a minimum to produce a firestorm. High explosive was needed only to reduce water supply and ventilate the attacked buildings.
- Air ministry. RAF Armament Volume I: Bombs and Bombing Equipment. 1954.
- Bowman, Martin W. Nachtjagd, Defenders of the Reich 1940-1943. Pen & Sword Aviation. 2016.
- Bowman, Martin W. Voices in Flight: the heavy bomber offensive of WW2. Pen & Sword Aviation, 2014.
- Bowman, Martin W. Voices in flight: RAF Night Operations. Pen & Sword Aviation. 2015.
- Fahey, John. BRITAIN 1939-1945: THE ECONOMIC COST OF STRATEGIC BOMBING. University of Sidney. 2005.
- Falconer, John. Bomber Command Handbook. The History Press. 1998.
- Friedrich, Jörg. Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945. Propylaen Verlag, Zweigniederlassung der Ullstein. 2002.
- Harris, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur. Despatch on War Operations 23 February 1942 to 8 May 1945. London, Air Ministry, 1945.
- Overy, Richard. The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945. Allen Lane. 2013.
- Price, Alfred. Kampfflieger. Bombers of the Luftwaffe Volume Three January 1942-September 1943. Classic Publications. 2005.
- Smith, J Richard & Creek, Eddie. Kampfflieger. Bombers of the Luftwaffe Volume Two July 1940-December 1941. Classic Publications. 2004.