Targeting Civilians


In the 1930s, both the United States and Britain refrained from targeting civilians in wartime bombings regarding such actions as savage and ruthless.   Indeed, before the war began, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made a parliamentary speech declaring that it was “against international law to bomb civilians as such and to make deliberate attacks on the civilian population.”  The American State Department made a similar statement in 1937 condemning the Japanese bombing of Chinese cities, “Any general bombing of an extensive area wherein there resides a large population engaged in peaceful pursuits is unwarranted and contrary to the principles of law and humanity.”   President Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the issue as well calling civilian bombing “inhuman barbarism.” 


But the onset of World War II began the transition away from these earlier beliefs.  The movement was first initiated by Winston Churchill and the British government in response to Germany’s dropping of bombs on London.  It was at this point when Churchill articulated the need for an “absolutely devastating exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.”  Also pushing Britain toward this change in policy was the fact that military officials began to realize that the bombs being dropped from aircrafts were not accurate enough to destroy specific targets (i.e. bases, factories), and thus a more effective use of these bombs would be to direct them at cities where there destruction would have more severe effects. 


Nighttime Firebombing Mission over Tokyo- B-29 Bombers[1]

Thus, in 1942 under the command of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the Royal Air Force shifted its focus toward destroying “the morale of the enemy civil population.”  In the summer of 1942, the United States Air Force joined the strategic bombing campaign of Britain.  While the US had tried to avoid bombing civilian populations, daytime “precision bombing” had become a costly liability because German day fighters were able to detect and destroy many American fighter planes. Together under this new policy of “strategic bombing”, Great Britain and the United States command dropped thousands of firebombs on the cities of Cologne, Hamburg and Dresden incurring huge casualties.


In 1945, the US extended their policy of targeting innocent civilians to the cities of Japan, resulting in even greater destruction than any of the European campaigns.  In fact, one night’s worth of fire raiding on

Tokyo claimed the lives of more than 80,000 civilians, more than the casualties incurred from the atomic bomb detonation in Nagasaki.  The United States would continue to drop incendiary bombs on innocent, Japanese women and children until the equally horrific use of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan to surrender.


Britain and America’s shift in policy from respecting the human rights of innocent citizens during war to specifically targeting peaceful, non-strategic populations reflects the monstrosity of war, and the way in which its cruel realities erode the moral principles that govern our world society. World War II polarized the world the way people viewed humanity.  People were either allies or enemies, good or evil.  There was no in between and unfortunately, such inhumane and oversimplified distinctions resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent citizens in the bombing campaigns of the Second World War.


To learn more about the British Bombing Strategy in WWII, click here


For a list of articles and books on this subject, click here


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[1] Image taken from <>