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The Top 5 Air Battles of World War II: The Berlin Raids

No. 5 of World War II's 5 Greatest Air Battles

 

 

Air Marshal Sir Arthur Travers “Bomber” Harris believed that strategic bombing could win World War II for the Allies. In his mind, a sufficient force of heavy bombers could cause enough destruction to the enemy that there would be no need for a land invasion. The enemy would sue for peace. It happened that the British War Cabinet also knew that bombing, pending the cross-channel invasion, was the only way for Great Britain to strike back at Germany, so while Coastal Command and the army went begging for bombers, Harris got much of what he wanted.

Harris, conversely, was flush from his greatest triumph, the Hamburg raids in July 1943, which had seen the German defenders helpless in the face of new Allied technologies and tactics. More than 42,000 people were killed, 37,000 injured, 250,000 lost their homes, and 1 million fled the city.

In 1943, with a night bombing campaign in full swing and his forces growing, and with America now joining “round the clock” bombing, Harris believed the Allied bomber forces could level Berlin and bring Germany to its knees. “We can wreck Berlin from end to end if the USAAF come in with us. It will cost us between 400 and 500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war,” Harris said.

Halifax Mk III

A Halifax B Mk. III, with its distinctive square tailfins and Bristol Hercules radial engines. The Halifax was the second major heavy bomber in the Berlin raids, and, with the Stirling, was gradually pulled from frontline operations. Royal Air Force photo

The Americans, however, still reeling from the Schweinfurt-Regensburg debacle, and without a long-range fighter escort force, were unprepared to participate, and in any case, had decided to concentrate on their mission of destroying the Luftwaffe in preparation for the Normandy invasion. Harris, conversely, was flush from his greatest triumph, the Hamburg raids in July 1943, which had seen the German defenders helpless in the face of new Allied technologies and tactics. More than 42,000 people were killed, 37,000 injured, 250,000 lost their homes, and 1 million fled the city.

The raw statistics do little justice to the horror. A combination of conditions created a tornadic firestorm; asphalt streets caught fire, people fleeing the flames were sucked from their feet and pulled back into the maelstrom. Others were boiled alive in the city’s canals or harbor burned to death as the oil and fuel leaked into the water by shattered vessels caught fire. Bomb shelters were found with all inside dead, without a mark on them, suffocated as the fires above them consumed all the oxygen in the air. Hamburg never really recovered from the campaign.

Lancaster SR-B drops window

Avro Lancaster B Mark I, NG128 ‘SR-B’, of No. 101 Squadron RAF drops bundles of “window” during a daylight raid on Duisburg Oct. 15, 1944. Some question whether the use of window by Bomber Command eventually worked to its detriment. IWM photo

Harris thought he could do the same to Berlin. Berlin had been bombed before, first by 81 Wellingtons, Whitleys, and Hampdens that managed to drop their bombs on Aug. 25, 1940. While the material effect was small, this attack, and a few others afterward, caused Hitler to order the Luftwaffe to concentrate on bombing British cities rather than continue the attacks on airfields and sector stations that had been on the verge of breaking the back of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. Those first raids, small as they might have been, thus had an influence out of all proportion to their size and effectiveness.

Harris never had a sufficient force of bombers to wreak the damage necessary on the city nor to overwhelm the German defenses.

The twin-engine medium Whitleys, Wellingtons, and Hampdens were gone now, on second-line duties, retired, or destroyed, and while Berlin had been bombed before, it had never been attacked with Bomber Command at peak strength, with a majority of capable bombers on strength like the heavy Lancaster and Halifax as well as the superlative de Havilland Mosquito (operating in both night fighter and bomber variants), and employing new tactics and technologies.

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