The most devastating air raid of the entire Second World War occurred in the firebombing of Tokyo on the night of 9-10 March 1945 with the resulting death toll greater than those of the raids on Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Accurate casualty figures have never been possible but estimates of between 100,000 and 125,000 deaths are generally accepted – together with around 1 million injured.
Operation “Meetinghouse” consisted of a raid by 334 American B-29 Superfortress bombers that took off from the Mariana Islands on the night of 9 March 1945 for a raid over the Japanese capital city of Tokyo.
During their bombing run they flew at 7,000 feet – much lower than the usual altitude of 30,000 feet – and in single file formation. Incendiary ordnance was used, including phosphorus and time-delay napalm bombs designed to start fires amongst Tokyo’s predominant wooden structures.
In the three-hour raid some 2000 tonnes of incendiary bombs were dropped and the result was unprecedented devastation. Huge fires erupted across the city overnight and into the morning of 10 March amid apocalyptic scenes of water boiling in canals, melting cars and buildings spontaneously bursting into flames in the furnace-like heat.
As the fires amalgamated monstrous winds unleashed by the heat raged across the city, adding another terrifying dimension to the raid and an estimated 15 square miles – or half the area of Manhattan – was destroyed by both wind and fire.
The shocking scenes prompted a tour of the city by Emperor Hirohito later in the month and it is believed that as a result he became a driving force for the Japanese surrender in September.
Great controversy has surrounded the event ever since the fateful night of the raid. Japan was already near defeat and the reason for such a huge attack on a largely civilian target has been questioned and condemned.
However some Japanese people – both at the time and more recently – believed that the Japanese Government was at least partly to blame by refusing to surrender even when defeat was inevitable.
Operation “Meetinghouse” was followed by the much more widely publicised atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, events that finally resulted in the Japanese surrender in September and an end to the Second World War.
Image: Some of the dreadful scenes on Tokyo streets following the raid – hundreds of charred bodies lie in the ruined streets. (Image from Wikipedia Commons)