Freeman Dyson on the Bombing of Civilians

The following account of the bombing of German and Japanese civilians was written by Freeman Dyson, who during the war was a civilian scientist working for the Operational Research Section of RAF Bomber Command headquarters. It was published in his book Disturbing the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), pp. 19ff.

[p. 19] Bomber Command was putting its maximum effort into the repeated attacks on Berlin that winter [Jan. 1944], because it was the last chance to do decisive damage to the German war economy before the Western armies would begin the invasion of Europe. The boys who flew the Lancasters were told that this battle of Berlin was one of the decisive battles of the war and that they were winning it. I did not [p. 20 ] know how many of them believed what they were told. I knew only that what they were told was untrue. By January 1944 the battle was lost. I had seen the bomb patterns, which showed bombs scattered over an enormous area. The bomber losses were rising sharply. There was no chance that our continuing the offensive in this style could have any decisive effect on the war. It was true that Berlin contained a great variety of important war industries and administrative centers. But Bomber Command was not attempting to find and attack these objectives individually. We merely showered incendiary bombs over the city in as concentrated a fashion as possible, with a small fraction of high-explosive bombs to discourage the fire-fighters. Against this sort of attack the defense could afford to be selective. Important factories were protected by fire-fighting teams who could deal quickly with incendiaries falling in vital areas. Civilian housing and shops could be left to burn. So it often happened that Bomber Command "destroyed" a city, and a photographic reconnaissance a few weeks later showed factories producing as usual amid the rubble of burnt homes.

On just two occasions during the war, Bomber Command incendiary attack was outstandingly successful. This happened first in Hamburg in July 1943. We started so many fires in a heavily built-up area that a fire storm developed, a hurricane of flame that killed forty thousand people and destroyed everything in its path. None of our other attacks had produced effects that were a tenth as destructive as the effects of a fire storm. The only way we could have won a militarily meaningful victory in the battle of Berlin was to raise a fire storm there. Conceivably, a giant fire storm raging through Berlin could have fulfilled the dreams of the men who created Bomber Command. "Victory through Air Power" was their slogan. But I knew in January 1944 that this was not going to happen. A fire storm could happen only when the bombers were able to bomb exceptionally accurately and without serious interference from the defenses. Under our repeated battering the defenses of Berlin were getting stronger, and the scatter of the bombing was getting worse. Only once more, a year after my visit to Wyton, when Germany was invaded and almost overrun, we succeeded again in raising a fire storm. That was in February 1945, in Dresden. ...

[p. 28] We killed altogether about 400,000 Germans,* one third of them in the two fire storms in Hamburg and Dresden. The Dresden fire storm was the worst. But from our point of view it was only a fluke. We attacked Berlin sixteen times with the same kind of force that attacked Dresden once. We were trying every time to raise a fire storm. There was nothing special about Dresden except that for once everything worked as we intended. It was like a hole in one in a game of golf.† Unfortunately, Dresden had little military importance, and anyway the slaughter came too late to have any serious effect on the war.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book called Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade about the Dresden raid. For many years I had intended to write a book on the bombing. Now I do not need to write it, because Vonnegut has written it much better than I could. He was in Dresden at the time and saw what happened. His book is not only good literature. It is also truthful. The only inaccuracy that I found in it is that it does not say that the night attack which produced the holocaust was a British affair. The Americans only came the following [p. 29] day to plow over the rubble. Vonnegut, being American, did not want to write his account in such a way that the whole thing could be blamed on the British. Apart from that, everything he says is true. One of the most truthful things in the book is the subtitle, "The Children's Crusade." Vonnegut explains in his introduction how the wife of one of his friends got angry and made him use that subtitle. She was right. A children's crusade is just what the whole bloody shambles was.

Bomber command might have been invented by some mad sociologist as an example to exhibit as clearly as possible the evil aspects of science and technology. The Lancaster, in itself a magnificent flying machine, made into a death trap for the boys who flew it. A huge organization dedicated to the purpose of burning cities and killing people, and doing the job badly. A bureaucratic accounting system which failed utterly to distinguish between ends and means, measuring the success of squadrons by the number of sorties flown, no matter why, and by the tonnage of bombs dropped, no matter where. Secrecy pervading the hierarchy from top to bottom, not so much directed against the Germans as against the possibility that the failures and falsehoods of the Command should become known either to the political authorities in London or to the boys in the squadrons. A commander in chief who accepted no criticism either from above or from below, never admitted his mistakes, and appeared to be as indifferent to the slaughter of his own airmen as he was to the slaughter of German civilians. An Operational Research Section which was supposed to give him independent scientific advice but was too timid to challenge any essential element of his policies. ...

Many of these evils existed in military establishments long before warfare became technological. Our commander in chief was a typical example of a prescientific military man. He was brutal and unimaginitive, but at least he was human and he was willing to take responsibility for the evil that he did. In himself he was not worse than General Sherman, who also did evil in a just cause. He was only [p. 30] carrying out, with greater enthusiasm than the situation demanded, the policy laid down by his government. His personality was not the root of the evil at Bomber Command.

The root of the evil was the doctrine of strategic bombing, which had guided the evolution of Bomber Command from its beginning in 1936. The doctrine of strategic bombing declared that the only way to win wars or to prevent wars was to rain down death and destruction upon enemy countries from the sky. This doctrine was attractive to political and military leaders in the 1930's, for two reasons. First, it promised them escape from their worst nightmare, a repetition of the frightful trench warfare of the First World War through which they had all lived. Second, it offered them a hope that war could be avoided altogether by the operation of the principle that later came to be known as "deterrence." The doctrine held that all governments would be deterred from starting wars if they knew that the consequence would be certain and ruinous bombardment. So far as the war against Germany was concerned, history proved the theory wrong on both counts. Strategic bombing neither deterred the war nor won it. There has never yet been a war that strategic bombing by itself has won. In spite of the clear evidence of history, the strategic bombing doctrine flourished in bomber command throughout the Second World War. And it flourishes still, in bigger countries, with bigger bombs.

Bomber Command was an early example of the new evil that science and technology has added to the old evils of soldiering. Technology has made evil anonymous. Through science and technology, evil is organized bureaucratically so that no individual is responsible for what happens. Neither the boy in the Lancaster aiming his bombs at an ill-defined splodge on his radar screen, nor the operations officer shuffling papers at squadron headquarters, not I sitting in my little office in the Operational Research Section and calculating probabilities, had any feeling of personal responsibility. None of us ever saw the people we killed. None of us particularly cared.

The last spring of the war was the most desolate. Even after Dresden, through March and April of 1945, the bombing of cities continued. The German night fighters fought to the end, and still shot down hundreds of Lancasters in those final weeks. I began to look backward and to ask myself how it happened that I let myself become involved in this crazy game of murder. Since the beginning [p. 31] of the war I had been retreating step by step from one moral position to another, until at the end I had no moral position at all. At the beginning of the war I believed fiercely in the brotherhood of man, called myself a follower of Gandhi, and was morally opposed to all violence. After a year of war I retreated and said, unfortunately non-violent resistance against Hitler is impracticable, but I am still morally opposed to bombing. A few years later I said, unfortunately it seems that bombing is neccessary in order to win the war, and so I am willing to go to work for Bomber Command, but I am still morally opposed to bombing cities indiscriminately. After I arrived at Bomber Command I said, unfortunately it turns out that we are after all bombing cities indiscriminately, but this is morally justified as it is helping to win the war. A year later I said, unfortunately it seems that our bombing is not really helping to win the ar, but at least I am morally justified in working to save the lives of the bomber crews. In the last spring of the war I could no longer find any excuses. Mike had fought single-handed the battle of the escape hatches and had indeed saved many lives. I had saved none. I had surrendered one moral principle after another, and in the end it was all for nothing. ...

[p. 39] I continued, during the final months of the war in Europe, to do what I could as a technician to bring the bombers safely home from their missions. But it became clearer and clearer as the weeks went by that our bombing of cities was a pointless waste of lives. Four weeks after Dresden we attacked the ancient cathedral city of Würzburg and shattered one of the finest Tiepolo ceilings of Europe in the bishop's palace. The bomber crews were particularly happy to obliterate Würzburg because they knew that the deadly German tracking and fire-control radars were called Würzburg radars. Nobody told the crews that the city of Würzburg had as much to do with the radars as our own cathedral city of Winchester had to do with Winchester rifles. I began more and more to envy the technicians on the other side who were helping the German night fighter crews to defend their homes and families. The night fighters and their supporting organization put up an astonishing performance, continuing to fight and to cause us serious losses until their last airfields were overrun and Hitler's Germany ceased to exist. They ended the war morally undefeated. ...

[p. 41] The Americans in 1945 went through an experience directly opposite to mine. I had taken part in a bombing campaign which caused us enormous losses and failed to achieve any decisive result. I came to the end of it aware that the German defenses had by and large defeated us. The Americans began their campaign of indiscriminate bombing of cities in Japan just as we were finishing ours in Germany. Their Twenty-first Bomber Command, commanded by General Curtis LeMay and based in the Mariana Islands, attacked Tokyo with fire bombs three weeks after we attacked Dresden and achieved equally spectacular results. In this, the first raid of their campaign, they raised in Tokyo the fire storm that we never achieved in Berlin. They killed 130,000 people and destroyed half of the city in one night, losing only fourteen planes. They continued the campaign in the same style for three months and paused on June 15 because they had run out of cities to burn. The defenses were ineffective and the bomber losses were militarily inconsequential. The urban economy of Japan was shattered. Whether the Japanese industrial machine would have recovered, given time, as the German industries recovered from repeated bombings, we shall never know. The Japanese were not given time. The American bombing campaign was as clear a victory as ours was a clear defeat. Unfortunately, people learn from defeat more than they learn from victory.

While the bombing of Japan was in progress, the scientists at Los Alamos were putting the finishing touches to their first atomic bombs, and Secretary of War Stimson was meeting with his advisers [p. 42] to decide how these bombs were to be used. ...

Two factors made it almost inevitable that Stimson, and President Truman following Stimson's advice, would decide to use the bombs. First was the fact that the whole apparatus for delivering the bombs—the B-29 bombers, the strategic bomber bases in the Mariana Islands, [p. 43] the trained crews, and the bureaucratic machinery of the Twenty-first Bomber Command—already existed. The B-29 had been designed and built for the specific purpose of bombing Japan from distant island bases. Not to use all this apparatus, when it was there ready and waiting for the word Go, would have been a hard decision to make and harder still to justify to the American public if the war had continued. The second factor prejudicing Stimson's decision was the fact that indiscriminate fire bombing of Japanese cities had already occured and was widely approved. Stimson was well aware of the enormous quantitative difference in destructive potential between nuclear and conventional bombs, but it was difficult for him to feel that there was a difference in the quality of evil between the killing of 130,000 people by old-fashioned fire bombs in Tokyo and the killing of about the same number by a nuclear bomb in Hiroshima. Those who argued against the use of nuclear weapons could only speak about long-range consequences and dangers. They could not say simply, "We should not do this because it is wrong," unless they were also prepared to put a stop to indiscriminate use of conventional bombs. The ground on which Stimson might have been able to make a moral stand was already surrendered when the fire bombing started in March. Long before that, in England and in America independently, the moral issues had been effectively prejudged when the decisions were made to build strategic bomber forces and to wage war with them against civilian populations. Hiroshima was only an afterthought.

* This number is probably too low, and it does not include those who died of exposure, disease and starvation after the destruction of their cities. The amount of human suffering and death caused directly or indirectly by three years of civilian bombing in Germany is really incalculable.

† Dyson should have noticed here that Dresden was practically undefended, and therefore the bombing could be done with much greater efficiency. Bomber Command knew this. The destruction of this helpless city was carefully planned and ruthlessly executed. It was no "fluke."

Dresden index