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Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) Analysis

Info: 3023 words (12 pages) Essay
Published: 6th Sep 2017 in History

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The Anglo-American alliance during World War II (WWII) launched a series of strategic bombing campaigns against the Germans in what is now known as the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO). The justness of the CBO is and has always been a controversial one, as some schools of thought see it as being just, and had as its primary objective the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system. Thus, undermining the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance was fatally weakened[1]. However, other schools argue the aim of the CBO should be unambiguously stated as the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany[2]. These bombing campaigns on German cities like Dresden, which led to deliberate mass killings or murder of civilians on a large scale by the CBO, is seen as unjust. The bombing of the German city of Dresden will be used as a case study to give a balanced analysis of the CBO in this essay as it is the most controversial.

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This essay will analyse both schools of thought, taking into consideration if the CBO met the elements of justice in war -“Jus in Bello”. Analysing the involvement of the Anglo-American alliance in the CBO and the bombing of Dresden during WWII by the principles of Jus in Bello – military necessity, proportionality, discrimination and humanity; this essay will determine that the CBO against Germany was just. Jus in Bello has been used as criteria to analyse and determine the justness of CBO against due to the fact that the CBO was an act in the war, which has to be analysed in order to determine if the act of the CBO met the legal and ethical justness.

The CBO’s objective to attack the city of Dresden’s industrial and economic system was a legitimate military necessity. The doctrine of military necessity, states an attack or action must be intended to help in the defeat of the enemy; it must be an attack on a legitimate military objective[3]. Looking at the CBO attack of Dresden from this perspective, it was a legitimate military necessity; because the bombing of the industrial centres and other targets of the economic system was crucial for the CBO in order to slow down the German war “machine”. The concept is known as the Industrial Web theory, which was developed by Sir Hugh Trenchard, Colonel Billy Mitchell and General Giulio Douhet. Boog et. al support this principle of military necessity as they argue that the Germans could best be eliminated by destroying her armaments’ industry and the result of that will be breaking the civilian population’s will to resist[4].

However, critiques of the principle of military necessity have debated on its controversy, and a grey area on their minds is that of the justness of the CBO on Dresden. Their argument is that the attack on Dresden might be military necessity, but why was it ok for the CBO to kill non-combatants; also their argument is based on the fact that Dresden wasn’t of any importance to the Germans.

Michael Walzer gives a counter argument to this school of thought when he argues that military necessity supersedes the killing of civilians in a supreme emergency, and he uses Nazi Germany in WWII as an example of supreme emergency for Great Britain[5]. He goes on further to state that:

“if the situation is grave enough to justify killing or putting at risk one’s own citizens to accomplish military objectives, then military necessity may also justify the same risk to other “non-friendly” non-combatants[6].”

Further to that, the arguments of the critiques on the less importance of Dresden to the Germans at the time of the CBO are incorrect. The veracity of this argument is seen in the RAF’s briefing notes to its Squadrons which attacked Dresden:

“Dresden has developed into an industrial city of first-class importance… its multiplicity of telephones and rail facilities is of major value for controlling the defence of that part of the front now threatened…. The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front…[7]

These justifies of the attack on Dresden, on the basis of military necessity, which, resulted in production in industries stopping. The bombing of Dresden was therefore not “wanton” but was justified by military necessity and it was also aiming at civilian morale[8], in order to slow down the German war “machine”.

Jus in Bello’s principle of proportionality is an area of contention used by critiques to analyse the unjustness of the CBO. Proportionality means avoiding needless destruction to achieve justified ends[9]. One school of thought argues that the firebombing in Dresden caused more destruction than was necessary. John V. Denson, in his book, Costs of War, supports this theory:

“it seems to me that 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….The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing…. I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives…. rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive[10]“.

Other schools have a different perception of what is proportional and hold that the CBO was proportional with the destruction of civilian targets in Dresden. Proportionality is a hard criterion to apply, as there is no ready way to establish an independent or stable view of values against which the destruction of war is to be measured[11]. The use of the firebombing in Dresden was proportional, despite the argument that sees it as not fulfilling Jus in Bello principle of proportionality. Michael Walzer, in his book supports the justness on the basis of proportionality when he says:

“it would be difficult to condemn soldiers for anything they did in the course of a battle or a war that they honestly believed, and had good reason to believe, was necessary, or important, or simply useful in determining the outcome[12].”

The justness of this principle is the lack of technology at the time of the attack on Dresden, which was the best approach to be utilised at the time. Precision bombing had been used prior to that and it was impracticable, thus, area bombing had to be the means employed[13]. Moreover, with the bombing of Dresden, the German’s supplies of liquid fuels were eliminated with a far smaller cost in causality than would have been incurred had there been no resort to the bombing and destruction of the industrial capacity[14].

Discrimination is another principle which has been used in this essay to analyse how just the CBO on Germany in WWII was. Discrimination within Jus in Bello means avoiding direct and intentional harm to non-combatants[15]. Looking at the CBO based on this, it was a just act, as it did not set out with the intention of attacking and killing civilians. A.C. Grayling in his book argues that there is no such thing as putting non-combatants to the sword during the course of sacking their towns, as this is not classed as murder; for this is no less than their soldiers would do if matters were the other way round and they were sacking your town instead[16].

However, some school of thoughts hold that the attack on Dresden was a deliberate bombing of the civilian population, thus, makes the CBO unjust. They further support their argument that attacks on civilian populations have often happened in wars throughout history, but this fact does not amount to a justification of the practice; moreover, there are no acceptable circumstances in which killing civilians is allowed[17].

This essay argues in line with Douhet, an air power theorist that war as a national phenomenon, involves the totality of a nation’s activities and forces, and no longer organised forces alone; this is why the distinction between combatants and non-combatants are superseded[18] . The CBO, therefore, was against Germany and not the Nazi government, thus, all the Germans are classed as combatants. Thus, the principle of discrimination was respected and followed, as the CBO’s main aim was to attack the enemy’s industry, and civilian casualties were an unavoidable side-effect[19] as was the case in Dresden.

Jus in Bello principle of humanity, also shows how just the CBO against the Germans in WWII was. Humanity is defined as regulating the conduct of those involved in fighting as well as safeguarding human life and curbing the level of violence[20]. Critiques argue that the CBO was inhumane especially with the firebombing which caused untold pain and suffering to the population:

“it was a war of despair and mounting torments… there were no signs that the bombings would lead to a collapse. It was incomprehensible how people struggled on.[21]

They also hold that the wholesale destruction of German cities, Dresden foremost among them, could have been averted, even if attacks on urban rail centres had continued[22].

The above argument is flawed given that the degree of devastation suffered by the people of Dresden in the firestorm was an unfortunate weather condition, as prevailing wind helped, and did much of the damage and caused many of the deaths, and was not intended by the CBO, who, at the request of the Russians forces, had seen Dresden as an important choke-point for supplies and troops moving[23]. Further to that, the CBO was just, as it was humane as it shortened the war and prevented a lot more death and loses on both sides. Hasting in his book sums this humanity point when he states:

“we just wanted to get it over with if we could bring the end closer by dropping bombs on Germany that was fine by us”[24].

In conclusion, the CBO was just, despite the controversies surrounding the bombing of Dresden, which others might see as an unjust and legally wrong act of the CBO which goes against Jus in Bello principle of proportionality. However, the principle of military necessity outweighs this school of thought as the German armament production figures continued to rise through much of 1944, and these would undoubtedly have been very much higher but for the effects of the bombing on both industry and workforce[25]. Thus, the CBO was a necessary and ethically just act, and attacks on industrial targets like supplies of fuel, which resorted to the bombing of industrial capacity[26] in order to slow down the German’s fighting edge.


Archives, The National Archives. The Rise and Fall of the German Air Force 1933-45. Kew, Richmond, Surrey: United Kingdom, 2008.

Bess, Michael. Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008.

Biddle, Tami Davis. Rhetoric and REality in Air Warfare. New Jersy: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Charles Guthrie, Michael Quinlan. Just War; The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare. London, New York and Berlin: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007.

Christopher, Paul. The Ethics of War & Peace. Uppper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004.

Denson, John V. The Cost of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publisher, 1997.

Grayling, A C. Among the Dead Cities. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2006.

Green, Leslie C. The Contemporary Law of Armed Conflict. Manchester, Canada: Manchester University Press, 2008.

Hastings, Max. Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-45. Chatham, Kent: Mackays of Chatham plc, 2004.

Hippler, Thomas. Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, 1884-1939. Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 2013.

Horst Boog, Gerhard Krebs, Detlef Vogel. Germany and the Second World War, Volume VII. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006.

Johnson, James Turner. Morality and Contemporary Warfare. Binghamton, New York: Yale University Press, 1999.

Overy, Richard J. The Air War, 1939-1945. New York: Stein and Day, 1980.

Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars. New York: A Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2000.

[1] Biddle, (2002), p.215

[2] Denson, (1997) p.352

[3] Walzer, (2000), p.144

[4] Boog et. al, (2006), p.365

[5] Christopher, (2004), p.163

[6] id.

[7] Hastings, (2004), p.387

[8] Grayling, (2006), p. 202

[9] Johnson, (1999), p36

[10] Denson, (1997), p.352

[11] Walzer, (2000), p.129

[12] id.

[13] Grayling, (2006), p. 227

[14] The National Archives (2008) p.298

[15] Johnson, (1999), p36

[16] Grayling, (2006), p.4

[17] ibid., (2006), p.4

[18] Hipper, (2013), p.170

[19] Grayling, (2006), p.216

[20] Green, (2008), p.17

[21] Hastings, (2004), p.376

[22] Ibid. p. 355

[23] Grayling, (2006), p.224

[24] Hastings, (2004), p. 370

[25] Ibid.378

[26] The National Archives, (2008), p.298


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