Allied bombers chose ‘easy’ German targets

By Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, Thursday 23 August 2001

Britain and the US bombed small towns in Germany in the final stages of the second world war because they would burn easily and not because they were strategically important, documents found in the public record office reveal.

The documents cast new light on the allied bombing campaign after the razing of Dresden in February 1945 when at least 30,000 people were killed, many of them refugees fleeing from the Russians.

The following month, the RAF dropped more bombs on Germany than in any previous month and more than 30,000 tons fell on towns and cities, including Wurzburg in southern Germany. With a baroque palace, and rich in art and architecture, Wurzburg had little industry of wartime importance. According to the British ministry of economic warfare, it had only one potential target, a power switching station.

A BBC2 Timewatch programme, Bombing Germany, to be broadcast tonight, records that on the night of March 16, 226 Lancaster bombers took off for Wurzburg. The crews were briefed that the town was an important communications centre. Yet it was clear to them that their mission was a fire attack on residential parts of the town. Their bomb loads contained mainly incendiaries.

In just 17 minutes, they dropped nearly 1,000 tons of bombs on Wurzburg; 82% of the town was destroyed and almost 5,000 people were killed.

Timewatch found documents which show how Wurzburg found its way on to a target list once German industrial centres were virtually destroyed.

To use heavy bombers in every way possible to hasten a German collapse, new targets for area bombing were needed. In January 1945 Wing Commander Arthur Fawssett, intelligence officer for targeting at Bomber Command, made a list. Towns were first selected because they were easy for the bombers to find and destroy. One of the main selection criteria was that the towns had structural features that made them suitable or otherwise for fire attack.

The Americans also attacked targets of little strategic importance. A few days after the Dresden raid they launched an attack on mainly rural towns that had not been attacked before. These included Ellingen, a small town in Bavaria with 1,500 inhabitants, many of them farmers. Around 70 tons of bombs were dropped on the town. A note by US air force general Frederick Anderson to his press office notes that such operations were not expected in itself to shorten the war ... However, it is expected that the fact that Germany was struck all over will be passed on, from father to son, thence to grandson; that a deterrent for the initiation of future wars will definitely result.

The programme notes that a few days after the Wurzburg raid, Winston Churchill drafted a memorandum for the chiefs of staff. The moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land.

Air Vice Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, chief of Bomber Command, was furious, especially since Churchill had backed the bombing campaign.