Aerial bombing – the jettisoning of explosive devices from aircraft – began in earnest during World War One with the zeppelin raids over England, and the successes of these raids, both in direct destruction and in the terrorising of civilian populations greatly impressed military minds of the era.
Improving technology followed quickly and by the time of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 both aircraft and bombs had developed considerably.
The aerial bombing of Guernica, a Basque town in Spain on 26 April 1937 was a terrible demonstration of this, with civilians deliberately targeted by the German Luftwaffe and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria using modern aircraft and bombs. An estimated 300 civilian deaths resulted, together with massive destruction across the town.
During World War Two the intensive bombing of cities was increasingly used, with the twin aims of destroying enemy infrastructure but to also demoralise the civilian populations, and thereby reduce their will to maintain the war effort.
The Luftwaffe day and night bombing of London during the “Blitz” during 1940 and 1941 killed an estimated 40,000 civilians and produced massive damage across the city – but notably failed to break the British civilian resolve.
As the war turned in favour of the Allies, air strikes were conducted against German cities with one of the most destructive an incendiary bomb attack on the city of Dresden on 13 and 14 February 1945. This raid used an attacking force of more than 1000 British and US bombers to almost totally devastate the city with some 25,000 deaths resulting.
The head of the RAF Bomber Command Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, bitterly anti Nazi following the Blitz, later remarked that:
“I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.”
The most devastating air raid of the entire Second World War occurred with the US firebombing of Tokyo on the night of 9-10 March 1945 with the resulting death toll estimated to have been between 100,000 and 125,000 people – together with around 1 million injured.
The terrifying power of the nuclear age arrived on 6 August 1945 when a totally new type of bomb developed by a team of international physicists headed by J. Robert Oppenheimer was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan. This was followed by another on Nagasaki three days later. Both cities were devastated and an estimated death toll in excess of 225,000 people resulted, forcing an unconditional surrender from Japan on 15 August.
Image: Devastation in London following a German air raid in 1941, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.