In early 1942 the Royal Air Force bombing campaign against Germany wasn’t at a crossroads; it was in shambles and in danger of elimination. Existing technology didn’t meet the requirements of nighttime precision bombing. High attrition and minimal results caused Prime Minister Winston Churchill to virtually ban new missions over Germany and the government to consider reallocating precious resources from the RAF to the British Army and Royal Navy. On Feb. 22, 1942, Arthur Harris became Air Marshal of Bomber Command and began overhauling training and eliminating technical shortcomings, particularly in navigation, to try and improve efficiency.
“We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.”
– Baron Gustav Braun von Sturm, Reich Ministry of Propaganda, April 24, 1942 – attributed
But the future of Bomber Command was still in doubt when, on March 30, 1942, chief scientific advisor Professor Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell, submitted to Prime Minister Winston Churchill a memorandum that would rescue Bomber Command and put the British, and later the Americans, further down the path of total war.
The Lindemann Plan, as it came to be named, was an extension of two other reports that had studied the efficiency of Bomber Command missions and the impact of Luftwaffe bombing on the city of Hull, which had 95 percent of its houses damaged or destroyed during the Blitz. Lindeman recorded that Hull citizens were more negatively affected by the loss of their homes than anything else. He posited that if the RAF destroyed about thirty percent of the housing in fifty-eight of Germany’s largest cities, civilian morale would break and force Hitler to sue for peace. To increase the effectiveness of the raids, the Lindemann Plan called for the bombing of working class neighborhoods, because such areas were more densely populated and more buildings were constructed out of flammable wood.
Harris seized upon the proposal to shift from precision to area bombing. On the night of March 28-29, 1942, 234 RAF bombers dropped 300 tons of explosives and incendiaries on the Baltic port city of Lübeck. More than half of the city’s historic Old Town was destroyed, leaving 320 dead and about 14,000 people homeless. Harris later said, “[Lübeck] was not a vital target, but it seemed to me better to destroy an industrial town of moderate importance than to fail to destroy a large industrial city.”
That attack was followed by raids on Rostock and Augsburg, cities like Lübeck that were known more for their culture than for war industry. The attacks shook the Nazi hierarchy. Propaganda minister Josef Goebbels wrote in his diary, “The English air raids have increased in scope and importance. If they can be continued for weeks on these lines, they might conceivably have a demoralizing effect on the population.” A furious Adolf Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to respond in kind.
Beginning on April 23, 1942, four picturesque English cities were bombed: Exeter (April 23 and 24, and May 3), Bath (April 25 and 26), Norwich (April 27 and 29), and York (April 28). All had been founded during Roman times and had been awarded three stars by the German guidebook Baedeker Tourist Guide to Britain. Despite Baron Gustav Braun von Stumm’s reputed claim, no record exists that specifically attributes the Baedeker book as the source for the selections. Even so, the “Baedeker Raids” name stuck.
More to the point, terror bombing of civilian populations with intent to destroy national morale had become a matter of war-making policy.
In a harbinger of things to come, on the night of May 30-31, the RAF’s first 1,000-plane raid struck the historic city of Cologne, destroying 600 acres of property, killing about 500 civilians and leaving approximately 59,000 people homeless. The Luftwaffe responded with three raids on Canterbury (May 31, and June 2 and 6). Small raids on five other English cities were later included as part of the Baedeker Raids.
The Luftwaffe’s Baedeker Raids killed almost 1,700 people, injured about 1,800 more, and destroyed more than 50,000 homes, but failed to significantly affect English morale.
Great Britain and the United States, with their greater resources, increased the size and scope of their bombing campaigns, which came to include the destruction of the city of Dresden in February 1945, and the fire bombing of Japanese cities in 1945. But, like the Baedeker Raids, they failed in their strategic goal of breaking civilian morale.