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The Historical Development of Aerial Bombardment from Guernica (1937) to Dresden (1945)

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kim, Hyun Kyu
Research Paper, AP European History Class, Fall 2009

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. Selection of cases and possible bias
III. Early German Terror-Bombings
III.1 Introduction
III.2 The attacks on the cities.
III.2.1 Guernica (April 26th 1937)
III.2.1.1 Prelude
III.2.1.2 Operations Carried Out
III.2.1.3 Damage Suffered
III.2.1.4 Aftermath
III.2.2 Rotterdam (May 14th 1940)
III.2.2.1 Prelude
III.2.2.2 Operations Carried Out
III.2.2.3 Damage Suffered
III.2.2.4 Aftermath
III.2.3 Summary
IV. German Terror Bombing on Britain
IV.1 Introduction
IV.2 The Attacks on the Cities
IV.2.1 Coventry (November 14th 1940)
IV.2.1.1 Prelude
IV.2.1.2 Operations Carried Out
III.2.1.3 Damage Suffered
III.2.1.4 Aftermath
IV.2.2 Belfast (April 15th, 1941)
IV.2.2.1 Prelude
IV.2.2.2 Operations Carried Out
III.2.2.3 Damage Suffered
III.2.2.4 Aftermath
IV.2.3 Summary
V. Allied Terror Bombing on Germany
V.1 Introduction
V.1.1 Hamburg (July24-August 3 1943)
V.1.1.1 Prelude
V.1.1.2 Operations Carried Out
V.1.1.3 Damage Suffered
V.1.1.4 Aftermath
V.1.2 Dresden (February 14th 1945)
V.1.2.1 Prelude
V.1.2.2 Operations Carried Out
V.1.2.3 Damage Suffered
V.1.2.4 Aftermath
V.2.3 Summary
VI. Number Analysis
VI.1 Introduction
VI.2 Chart 1
VI.3 The Differences between British and German Bombings
VI.4 The Common Points of British and German Bombings
VI.5 Summary
VII. Newspaper Statistics
VII.1 Introduction
VII.2 New York Times - Times of London Analysis
VII.2.1 Introduction
VII.2.2 By City
VII.2.3 By Newspaper
VII.3 NYT Coverage Analysis
VII.3.1 Introduction
VII.3.2 Summary of the articles.
VII.3.3 Sources of Coverage
VII.3.4 Statistics of Coverage
VIII. Conclusion
VI. Notes
VII. Bibliography

I. Introduction
            World War II was one of the first total wars of the world. Even in World War I, the battles were fought by solders, not civilians. However, with the advent of the airplanes, the "home front" literally became a front - civilians back at home could be killed as well. Airplanes could fly over the fortified fortresses and bomb the factories beyond. The factories were the not only the targets of the bombers. Civilians and residential buildings also became targets as well. By bombing the city, the attackers found numerous different advantages. They could cut off the communication lines. The factories that cranked out war materials could be stopped. The bombing of residential attacks would kill a lot of civilians, which would terrify and break down the morale of the city. Destruction of housing created homeless who had no home to return to. The defenders were forced to spend resources on anti-air defense, and numerous air signals kept the defenders sleepless. Sophisticated new bombing techniques made destruction of cities as a whole possible - which became an even greater threat.
            This was all part of the war, but it was also the more gruesome part of the war. Innocent people were killed just because they were living in the city of the country. Yet, this tactic is still used in the modern world. Baghdad was bombed with "High-Precision" bombs which lead to "collateral" damage. New technologies, such as rockets, nuclear bombs, and jet planes make the bombing even more deadly.
            By observing the bombings of the World War II, I wish to do two things. First, I would like to observe the technological advance of the war. Even within World War II, many new technologies were developed, both to bomb and protect themselves from the bombs. Secondly, I would like to look at the statistics and compare them - was the bombing of Dresden more deadly was the bombing of Coventry ? Was the bombing of Guernica really as awful as it sounds, or are there cities like Hamburg, the bombing of which are lesser known yet even more awful ?
            To do this, I have two parts- History and Numbers. Chapters III, IV, V will describe the bombings and their technological advance. The history part might sound really similar- all the bombing attacks were deadly, and the quotes all sound alike - everything was in flames and people were dying everywhere. In the history part, I tried to come up with reasonable estimates of disputed numbers, and noted the advance of technology. Chapter VI and VII will be different - it will be filled with numbers. At the start of this paper, I hoped that the numbers would show a clear trend, but the numbers meant something else. Chapter II will explain about how and why I selected the cases and biases that might be present in the paper.

II. Selection of cases and possible bias
            A unique feature of this paper is that it does not deal with all of the bombings of World War II. This paper deals with only a few selected cases. There are two reasons for doing this.
            First is the resource at hand. As a high school student living in South Korea, I have limited sources. To get more accurate information, there needs to be a lot of resources to cross-check. As I was writing this paper, I was surprised at the discrepancy between resources. If I had opted to write even smaller cases, I would have only one or two sources, which might be incorrect.
            Secondly, it is the significance that these cities held. I believe that these cities were one way or another significant of the kind of bombing that they received. Guernica, Rotterdam, Coventry, and Dresden are all major examples of their bombing. Hamburg and Belfast shows two cities that were neglected but are excellent follow up examples - and as they are about a year or two apart from each other, they show a progress of time as well.
            However, it is not to say that this method was the best method, as there are several problems with this.
            First and foremost, they are the large ones. Small bombings were neglected, and the difference may be vast. So not all cases of air bombardment were as horrific as I described - some of them were relatively harmless, a squadron of four destroying a factory, but such cases were not dealt with.
            Secondly, they are the one that succeeded. All were considered a great success by the bombers, as they caused massive destruction and chaos on the other side. The reason that these cases are famous is because they succeeded. This creates a huge bias as the anti-air defense being inadequate, as many of these cases succeeded because the anti-air defense was insufficient. However, there are numerous other cases where the defense worked fine, and the bombers retreated without doing much damage.
            Thirdly, even though I choose the cities, there are many major cases that I ignored. London and Berlin were the two most heavily bombed places. However, I did not enter them as they were bombed over a long period of time. The V-1 and V-2 attacks were also excluded as they do not concern air technology. Bombings of Warsaw, Hull, Birmingham, Bremen and Cologne were all major bombings, but they were excluded from this research. That is because there were not enough resources or they were similar with other cases.
            Lastly, I cannot read German, Spanish, Pole, or Dutch as well as English. I tried to utilize translation engines, but they became horrible when I needed precise information - so most sources are in the viewpoint of British. There are two biases. First, the German damage might have been exaggerated and Allies damage minimized. Also there are much information on how the German bombings were planned, and the casualties of the British side, but not vice versa.

III. Early German Terror-Bombings

III.1 Introduction
            The early German terror-bombings are defined as the period of bombing from the Guernica to until the Battle of Britain. The major bombings of this period include Guernica, Warsaw, and Rotterdam. In this part, I will describe Guernica and Rotterdam, and the damages done to the cities. I picked the two cities because of their significance and their relative ease for information. Warsaw was also very important, but there were not much information on it that I had access to.

III.2 The attacks on the cities.

III.2.1 Guernica (April 26th 1937)

III.2.1.1 Prelude
            Guernica, a town of then about 5000 in Northern Spain, a city of the Basque region. On April 1937, the town of Guernica was in a peculiar situation. It was under control of the Basque Government, which was an autonomous regional government. The Government was made of Leftists and Basque Nationalists (different from Franco¡¯s Nationalists.) Franco¡¯s Nationalists were right faction assisted by facist regimes, while the Basque Nationalists were based on the Basque region. The government decided to not to surrender and defend the region. (1)
            Outside Guernica, the Republicans were fighting a losing battle. The Nationalist forces led by Franco were marching within the Republican territory. Franco¡¯s forces were directed toward Bilbao, which was thought to be the key city to end the front in Northern Spain. (2) Guernica was in between the front and Bilbao, and many Republican refugees were using Guernica as a rally point. (3)
            On April 26th, 1937, Guernica is estimated to have a population of more than 5,000, mainly because the large number of refugees gathered there. (4) The estimated number is 7,000 to 10,000. (5) Also, 26th was a Monday, which means that it was market day. This market day would have also brought many more people into the area. There is a small debate whether the market day took place or not. (6) The Basque government had prevented a holding of large markets like such, but it is still likely the market would have been held. (7) There is also an eyewitness account by Jos? Monasterio, eyewitness to the bombing which states, "Every Monday was a fair in Guernica. They attacked when there were a lot of people there. And they knew when their bombing would kill the most. When there are more people, more people would die." (8)

III.2.1.2 Operations Carried Out
            The bombing was done by the Condor Legion of the German air force. The squadron delegated two Heinkel (9) He 111s, one Dornier Do 17, eighteen Ju 52 Behelfsbomber, and three Italian SM.79s were assigned for the mission. (10) These were armed with medium high explosive bombs (250kg), light explosive bombs (50kg) and incendiaries (1kg). The commanding officer of the Condor Legion was Oberstleutnant Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, but he turned his command over to the Spanish Nationalist forces. (12)
            The bombing started with a single fighter plane. It was identified some as a Heinkel He-111 and Do-17E by others. The pilot is conjectured to be Major Rudolf von Moreau, the most accomplished flier of the squadron (13). This plane stooped down low and dropped 6 to 12 bombs. (14)T his series of bombs turned out to be just the start of the fiasco.
            Then came the second wave of bombings which was done by the three Italian SM.79s. (15) They were given orders to destroy explicitly bomb the bridges, as so to block the path that the villagers could run. They dropped around 36 bombs, but not at the village. The third wave consisted of Heinkel He 111 escorted by five Aviazione Legionaria Fiat fighters. Waves four and five were carried out by German twin-engined planes (16). Until this time, there was only a prelude of bombing and a bombing to block off the path - the damage to the town was relatively small. (17)
            The real beating came in a few hours From 4:30PM, the 1st and the 2nd squadrons of the Condor Legion began its real attack. The 3rd squadron left just a few minutes later. Waves kept coming, and wave 5, the final wave, ended around 6PM.More than 29 planes bombed the area, with the Ju52s bombing out the buildings and Bf 109Bs and Heinkel 51 biplanes swept the roads, deliberately aiming at the civilians. Also, another civilian atrocity happened at Mugica, a little group of houses at the head of the Guernica. Machine-gunned raged at the civilian houses, without any protection, provocation or military purposes for 15 minutes. (18)
            The part about the 29 planes is disputed (18a), as the officials records themselves crash, some citing 29 planes but at the very start of the record, there are less than 29 planes. This might be explained if more planes were added as the raid went on.

III.2.1.3 Damage Suffered
            First, the number of civilian casualties is debated. The Basque forces counted more than 1500 dead, as in Gerard Brey¡¯s article La destruccion de Guernica, in Tiempo de Historia no 29, April 1977. The Nationalists, however, said that the destruction was caused by the Republicans as they were fleeing the town, and even claimed that there were only 12 dead, as in case of the January 30st issue if the newspaper Arriba, 1/30/1970. Ramos states in this book La Legion Condor en La Guerra Civil (19a) and Villaroya and Sabte in their book Espana en Lamas, La Guerra Civil (19b), as 200-350. However, the best possible way to put this is the report on Times Of London : "It is impossible to state yet the number of victims." (20)
            There are three main reasons that the casualty numbers are different. One, there was a large refugee population, so no one really knows how many people were there. Second, there were also a lot of people killed as they were escaping the town by the machine guns of the passing planes. Lastly, the Nationalist forces who took this town three days later made no real effort to count the number.
            Also, more the three quarters of the town was destroyed and the city Guernica was taken by Franco in three days. However, interestingly, arms factories Unceta and Company and Talleres de Guernica along with the Assembly House Casa de Juntas were not destroyed.

III.2.1.4 Aftermath
            The aftermath can be divided in three main parts
            First, technologically, carpet bombing is thought to have been developed during this raid. It is true that Carpet bombing was done during this campaign. However, it is not sure that this was the very first place. To give a brief look, the Times Of London reports:

            "First, small parties of aeroplanes threw heavy bombs and hand grenades all over the town, choosing area after area in orderly fashion. Next came fighting machines which swooped low to machine-gun those who ran in panic from dugouts, some of which had already been penetrated by 1,000 lb bombs, which make a hole 25 ft. deep. Many of these people were killed as they ran. A large herd of sheep being brought in to the market was also wiped out. The object of this move was apparently to drive the population underground again, for next as many as 12 bombers appeared at a time dropping heavy and incendiary bombs upon the ruins. The rhythm of this bombing of an open town was, therefore, a logical one : first, hand grenades and heavy bombs to stampede the population, then machine-gunning to drive them below, next heavy and incendiary bombs to wreck the houses and burn them on top of their victims." (21)

            This article also interestingly notes that the best defense that the Guernica could employ was the prayer of the clerks.
            However, the first official development on carpet bombing was on 1937 Asturias campaign in September. Therefore, it can be logically concluded that Guernica, along with few other bombings such as fighting in Barcelona help develop the strategy of carpet bombing. Carpet bombing became the most effective and widely used way to destroy and incinerate buildings and towns.
            The second is the effect on the Spanish Civil War. As aforementioned, Franco took the town rather easily. Also, the attack on the city had a demoralizing effect on the town as well as the whole of Basque community. The threats to end the war in North quickly became more real and the Nationalists managed to strike fear into the Republican¡¯s enemy¡¯s hearts. Cities like Bilbao were taken shortly afterwards, applying the same strategies as Guernica.
            Lastly, this bombing had a lasting effect, and almost a unique effect on the media. The Times ,reported the story by George Steer in two days, who was within the country and was therefore able to cover the story firsthand the quickest. His stern attack against the German attacks set the tone and made the media more hostile against the Germans. He also discovered bomb cases with German marks made the official German position of neutrality in the Civil War and the signing of a Non-Intervention Pact a hypcirisy. The report spread the New York Times and other media. Newspapers like the Times and the New York Times ran the story every day for over a week.
            Also there was the effort from Picasso which helped this incident to be famous. The exiled Republican worked at Paris for this job. He was asked to paint a picture for the Republican cause but was unable to produce one. The bombing enraged him and inspired him to makes this masterpiece, which created a huge astonishment at the world fair 1917. The painting became the symbol of the Basque and the Republican cause, and it was later placed at the United Nations Security Council room.

III.2.2 Rotterdam (May 14th 1940)

III.2.2.1 Prelude
            Although the Netherlands had adhered to strict neutrality during the Phoney War (22), Germany nevertheless started attacking the country on May 10th, 1940. Germany decided this attack as to bypass the Maginot line of the French by attacking through Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg. This war was a certain German victory, regarding the strength of the armies. The only question was how long would Netherlands hold off the German attack. (23)
            The initial push was fast for the Germans, as they had the superior equipment. The Dutch army had just over 100 tanks, and there were not enough airplanes to call them a separate division - they were still considered as part of the army (24). However, the Dutch managed to hold their ground at the Fortress Holland. (25)
            Germany wanted to end this front as soon as possible and divert their full resources on the French front. (26) The "Weisung" Nr. 11. (27) Issued by Hitler fully summarizes "The resistance capability of the Dutch army has proved to be stronger than expected. Political as well as military reasons demand that this resistance is broken as soon as possible."

III.2.2.2 Operations carried out
            Generals Schmidt and?Student requested for tactical bombing, and decided that the army could not win without large losses; they needed air support to lessen their losses (28). The Germans had already tried out large-scale bombing in Guernica and Warsaw, and Rotterdam would be the third city which would be obliterated by the Luftwaffe. The German Air Force Luftwaffe had lost already 400 planes in Netherlands, much higher number than expected, so Göring, the top commander of Luftwaffe viewed this attack as a chance to up-grade the status.
            The air-defense was almost non-existent. There were very few anti-air plane guns, and technologies like the barrage balloons have not been deployed yet. The main anti-bomber defense, the Dutch Air force, had been largely reduced in the early stage of the war (29). Rotterdam was to be bombed with almost no resistance. The best defense that they could take was evacuate the city, but the Dutch had chosen to defend the city.
            General Schmidt then sent an ultimatum to the Dutch : "This may well result in the complete destruction of the city... I petition you - as a man of responsibility - to endeavour everything within your powers to prevent the town of having to bear such a huge price ... two hours after the hand-over of this ultimatum no official reply be received, I will be forced to execute the most extreme measures of destruction." (31)
            The colonel who sent the message also threatened to destroy other cities like Amsterdam, Den Haag, Utrecht and Haarlem if the Dutch did not surrender (32), although this in question. However, looking at the fact that Germany sent an ultimatum later to bomb Utrecht, this threat has a high chance of actually been made. This was sent at 10:00, setting the deadline for response to 12:00.
            Colonel Scharroo, the mayor of Rotterdam, and other members of the Dutch command was disturbed by the fact that the ultimatum before had no signature, rank, or anything to verify it (33). The German command also realized that the 2 hours were too short- the messenger needed time to actually go through the defenses and hand out the message. So the command sent a telegram back to Germany, asking to postpone the attack. Meanwhile, the Dutch asked for the verification at 11:45 and the second ultimatum which asked more specific terms such as surrendering the city, not destroying the supplies, and laying down the arms (34). This was given at 1:15. (35)
            The bombers struck at 1:20. (36)
            Although the German Command had asked for postponement, the planes already had taken off. It is still unknown why the planes still bombed Rotterdam. There was the radio system to convey the message midway, and the flare system as a back-up method. The German records show that the telegram from General Schmidt was received, as well as the fact that flares were fired just in case. (37)
            Even General Schmidt cried out: "My God, this is a catastrophe !" (38) Two different bomber groups approached, and one of them luckily saw the flares and only 3 planes dropped the bombs. However, the other group unleashed its 97 tons of bombs at Rotterdam. In all, 57 of the 90 He-111P bombers dropped their loads, and fires began burning buildings and civilians alike (39). Unlike other bombardment, there was only one wave, which lessened the damage to the city. The Dutch surrendered quickly after the bombing, and the German forces occupied the city in few hours. It was later found that Göring was planned to bomb at 7:00 once again, but only stopped by a telegram by Schmidt that he had already occupied the city - interestingly, the bombers were turned around in time. (40)

III.2.2.3 Damages suffered
            Although the exact numbers are not sure, most records agree that 800 to 900 persons were killed in the bombing (41). The city was destroyed to a large extent, and 24,978 homes, 24 churches, 2,320 stores, 775 warehouses and 62 schools was destroyed. (42) Of the city with almost 600,000 people (43), 80,000 were left homeless. (44) The city center was literally razed to the ground by the bombs (45). The lives losses were amplified by the fact that Rotterdam, due to its geographic location (at sea level), has neither underground bomb shelters nor basements in the houses.
            The first-hand account shows how horrific the sight was : "As we moved through the burning city streets, every street we walked through was burning ... This is something you don't want to write or talk about, but within me this death walk will never leave my mind." (46)
            Rotterdam lost its war capacity and was turned into a strategic point for the German military.

III.2.2.4 Aftermath
            This bombing had many different after effects. One of them was the surrender of the Netherlands. When the Netherlands were threatened once again with similar conditions with the city of Utrecht (47), the Dutch quickly complied. The British also started bombing civilian workers and industries that was related to war. (48) Göring later was condemned as a war criminal for this act.
            Technologically, the move showed the effectiveness and the destructiveness of the air force - and maybe the communication system by the Germans was not as good as they previously thought. All in all, the bombardment showed a new fact about war: the war cannot be won without the control of the skies.


(2)      ibid.
(3)      ibid.
(5)      Guernica, pg26
(7)      Guernica, pg25
(9)      Also may be spelled Heinckel
(13)      Guernica, pg 26
(14)      Guernica states 6, while the Wikipedia states 12)
(16)      Guernica, pg 32
(18a)      Wikipedia : Bombing of Guernica : 29 ; War and Game 2007 : 43 ; Times Online : 12
(19a)      quoted after :
(19b)      quoted after :
(26)      ibid.
(27)      ibid.
(29)      ibid.
(30)      ibid.
(31)      ibid.
(32)      ibid.
(33)      ibid.
(38)      ibid.
(40)      ibid.
(45)      Thomas van Hoey Smith, images .,
(48)      ibid.


Note : websites quoted below were visited in June 2009.

Primary Sources


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