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How Just Was the Combined Bomber Offensive Against Germany During World War II?

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Published: 18th May 2020 in History

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How just was the Combined Bomber Offensive against Germany during World War II?

 The Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) was an Allied strategic bombing campaign during World War II by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), with its primary aim being the bombing of key German military targets, industry, oil refineries, and German morale.[1] A debate that emerged, both during the war and after, is the question of how just the Bomber Offensive was, and how, if at all, it complied with the theory of just war, specifically Jus In Bello. For something to be ‘just’, it must be fair and morally correct, and this essay will look to assess exactly how just the CBO was against Germany during World War II. In order to appropriately analyse this matter, the essay will look at the key elements of just war theory. It will look at the principles of distinction, proportionality, humanity and necessity, and assess the offensive against these key pillars of just war theory in order to conclude how just the campaign was. When examined through the scope of just war theory, it will be argued that the CBO was not just, as it did not abide by all the principles of Jus In Bello and just war theory.

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 Firstly, the principle of distinction is a key factor in determining how just the CBO was against Germany. Distinction, or discrimination, is the idea of separating the innocent from the combatants of war[2], and this is a greatly important aspect to consider. In order for an act of war to be just, it must meet all the principles of the just war theory[3], therefore it can be argued that the CBO did not meet the principle of distinction and therefore was not just. Whilst figures vary, it is believed at least 380,000 German civilians died as a result of the CBO’s campaign, many in ‘horrible circumstances’.[4] This is important because with high numbers of civilian casualties, it suggests that the CBO in fact unjust in its actions. However when discussing the principle of distinction, it is imperative to consider what is deemed an innocent civilian. In the context of Jus In Bello, the word ‘innocent’ refers to whether or not they were directly involved in contributing to the German war effort.[5] This is a complex matter because whilst the civilian populations of the affected German cities might not have been direct combatants, many of them working at ‘dual-use’ facilities such as power stations and bridges that served both the military and civilians would have indirectly contributed to the German war effort.[6] Despite this, certain aspects of the CBO emphasise the unjustness of the campaign, at least from the British perspective. Britain’s objectives behind the CBO were twofold; ‘the simultaneous terrorising of the population and the destruction of industries’.[7] The relevance of this point lies with the idea of terrorising the German population, a standpoint taken by the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) head of Bomber Command Arthur Harris.[8] This approach fundamentally goes against the idea of Jus In Bello, and specifically the principle of distinction. The emphasis on ‘area bombing’ as opposed to the American approach of strategic bombing meant that there would be an increased probability of civilian fatalities. Beau Grosscup in ‘Strategic Terror’ notes the British attacks ‘had the desired effect of creating massive firestorms that sucked the air and life out of the tortured urban populations’.[9] This is relevant because it highlights how it was not just military and industrial compounds being targeted, but that the civilian and urbanised areas were also severely affected. This therefore suggests that the CBO was unjust in its bombing raids on German cities. Furthermore, when looking at specific examples, such as the bombing of Dresden, Tami Davis Biddle states that due to the demographics of German cities at the time, most of the victims were women, children and old people.[10] Again, the fact that innocent citizens of Dresden were killed during the bombings indicates that by the nature of the attacks, the CBO was unjust in many of its actions.

 Secondly, the principle of proportionality will be analysed with regards to the CBO and how just it was. Proportionality is the idea that during war, actions taken to achieve a particular aim must not be outweighed by the harm they cause to those not involved in the conflict.[11] This is a significant area to analyse when dealing with the CBO because Britain’s strategy of ‘area bombing’ meant that there was a high probability of collateral damage. As a result it could be argued that by the very nature of Britain’s strategic approach, the likelihood of keeping the war just was unlikely. Further evidence of this can be found in the Casablanca Directive, which stated that the “primary objective will be the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial, and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”[12] Analysing this directive, it could be argued that from the beginning of the CBO, Britain’s approach to the bombing raids meant abiding to the principle of proportionality would have been difficult. This is because by targeting the morale of the German people, it could be argued that this is fundamentally unjust, as there is a high likelihood of the civilian population being affected. Moreover, the attack on Cologne is another example of how the CBO didn’t adhere to the principle of proportionality. As stated earlier, for an attack to be proportional the gain must outweigh the harm caused. However in the case of Cologne this was not the case, and by the end of the attack, roughly half of the city was destroyed.[13] As a result of this widespread destruction, it suggests that the CBO wasn’t just as the attacks on German cities were not proportional in relation to the military gains that it made. Of the ‘thousand bombers’ that were sent to bomb Cologne on May 30th 1942, only 868 actually reached and bombed their desired target.[14] In light of this, the CBO could be considered to have been greatly unjust, because through examples such as the bombing of Cologne, it is evident that the CBO was not proportional in its attacks on Germany. Although military targets would have been outlined, the fact that half of the city was destroyed implies a scale of devastation much beyond that which is required, especially through the scope of just war theory.

 Following on from proportionality, the principle of humanity will be assessed in order to evaluate how just the CBO was in its attacks on Germany. In order for a war to be just, people must be treated humanely. However the very nature of the British ‘area bombing’ and use of high explosive and incendiary bombs meant that treating civilians humanely proved difficult, if not unrealistic.[15] Tami Davis Biddle notes of the bombing raid on Dresden, “the concentration of the bomb fall created an intense and horrifying impact on the ground, relentlessly pummelling those in the city centre.”[16] Although war is imperfect, the deaths that German civilians faced, particularly in the example of Dresden, can be argued as being inhumane. The use of high explosive bombs meant that many faced a harrowing fate, with most of the victims being women and children.[17] It is also important to highlight the manner in which the civilians died, not just in the case of Dresden but in other raids such as Hamburg. The type of bombs used often caused catastrophic firestorms, particularly in Hamburg.[18] This is relevant when assessing how just the CBO was, because it provides evidence that suggests many of the victims of the CBO not only lost their lives, but did so in a horrific and inhumane manner. This therefore suggests that the CBO was not just in its attacks on Germany, because not only were the most vulnerable people in society under attack, but they were also subject to horrific deaths.

 Lastly, the principle of military necessity will be analysed in order to assess how just the CBO was. In order for an action to be a necessity, it must be designed to help in bringing about the defeat of the enemy. To that end, the principle of necessity is therefore a problematic concept when analysing how just the CBO was. This is because on the one hand, the aerial presence of the CBO meant that the Allies could make considerable advancements that might not have been possible without it. Sir Arthur Harris (head of RAF Bomber Command at the time) himself notes this when describing the success of the D-Day landing. “Bomber Command’s attacks in the three months before D-Day were so effective, and the new means and tactics of precision bombing so rapidly mastered that the invasion proved an infinitely easier task than had been expected.”[19]This argues the point that the CBO was necessary in providing the military advantage over Germany, allowing the invasion to take place. In addition to this, Harris details the effectiveness of the RAF and USAAF’s joint bombings, especially in the spring of 1945 where the campaign on German oil supplies left their armed forces without fuel.[20] From this perspective, it could be argued that the CBO was a necessity, however critics of the offensive claim this necessity dwindled towards the end of the war and therefore brings its justness into question.[21] A. C. Grayling argues that the bombing campaigns towards the end of the war are ‘targets for moral disapprobation’[22] due to the fact that at the time they took place when the war was effectively over. This therefore brings the necessity of the CBO into question, and highlights that it can’t be seen as being just if there is not a necessity for it. Grayling uses the example of Dresden when dealing with necessity, because it had catastrophic results yet occurred at a time during the war in which a raid of that scale wasn’t necessary.[23] Although at the time the Allies wouldn’t have known the end of the war was near, a number of the raids conducted by the CBO at this time weren’t a necessity in terms of the overall war effort. It can therefore be evaluated as being unjust, as the principle of necessity isn’t met in its entirety throughout the duration of the war.

 In conclusion, the analysis of the principles of just war theory illustrates that overall the CBO was not just in its attacks on Germany during the Second World War. After looking at distinction, proportionality, humanity and necessity, it is evident that in many cases the CBO was often in breach of these principles, particularly distinction and proportionality, through the deaths of civilians and the excessive nature of many of the raids. By the end of the war, the ‘area bombing’ had claimed the lives of over 300,000 Germans and destroyed many cities including Dresden and Hamburg.[24] This emphasises the scale of the CBO and also how destructive it was. Although to an extent the principle of necessity is arguably met at the earlier stages of the war, the excessive bombing is constant until the end of the war. As a result, despite achieving many of its legitimate targets, it can be concluded that the Combined Bomber Offensive was as a whole unjust in its attacks on Germany, as it did not adhere to all the principles of the just war theory.


  • Biddle, Tami Davis (2002), Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare (Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press).
  • Biddle, Tami Davis (2008), ‘Dresden 1945: Reality, History and Memory’, The Journal of Military History, Vol 72, No 2, pp. 421-423.
  • Frankland, Noble (1965), The Bombing Offensive Against Germany (London: Faber and Faber Ltd).
  • Gray, Peter (2012), The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of The RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945 (London: Continuum International Publishing Group).
  • Grayling, A. C. (2006), Among the Dead Cities (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc).
  • Grosscup, Beau (2006), Strategic Terror: The Politics and Ethics of Aerial Bombardment (London: Zed Books Ltd).
  • Guthrie, Charles, & Michael Quinlan (2007), Just War (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc).
  • Harris, Sir Arthur (1998), Bomber Offensive (London: Greenhill Books).
  • International Committee of the Red Cross (2015), ‘What are jus ad bellum and jus in bello?’, https://www.icrc.org/en/document/what-are-jus-ad-bellum-and-jus-bello-0, accessed 23 Jun 2019.
  • Ledwidge, Frank (2018), Aerial Warfare: The Battle for the Skies (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • O’ Donovan, Oliver (2003), The Just War Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Olsen, John Andreas (2010), A History of Air Warfare (Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, Inc).
  • Overy, Richard (2013), The Bombing War: Europe 1939 – 1945 (London: Penguin Books Ltd).
  • Terraine, John (1997), The Right of the Line (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited).

[1] Gray (2012), p. 173.

[2] O’ Donovan (2003), p. 32.

[3] What are Jus ad bellum and jus in bello? (2015), https://www.icrc.org/en/document/what-are-jus-ad-bellum-and-jus-bello-0.

[4] Ledwidge (2018), p. 80.

[5] Guthrie & Quinlan (2007), p. 35.

[6] Ibid, p. 36.

[7] Grosscup (2006), p. 63.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Biddle (2008), p. 423.

[11] Guthrie & Quinlan (2007), p. 40.

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

[13] Frankland (1965), p. 69.

[14] Olsen (2010), p. 46.

[15] Biddle (2008), p. 421.

[16] Id.

[17] Ibid, p. 423.

[18] Frankland (1965), p. 69.

[19] Harris (1998), p. 266.

[20] Ibid, p. 267.

[21] Grayling (2006), p. 271.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Ibid, p. 273.


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