1940-1949 | Bombing towns & cities | Germany | RAF crimes

The RAF obliterates the medieval town of Wurzburg

A model of burned out Wurzburg after the bombing raid. (Salin01 – CC BY-SA 3.0 – via Wikimedia)

16 March 1945

On 16 March 1945, in the closing days of the Second World War, as Allied forces advanced ever deeper into Germany, 225 RAF Lancaster heavy bombers dropped a mixture of high explosives and 300,000 incendiary bombs on the medieval city of Wurzburg. Though the municipality lacked any heavy industry, it contained numerous half-timbered buildings in a tightly packed centre. These were considered ideal targets as they would be particularly vulnerable to fire bombing.1

In January, Wing Commander Arthur Fawsett, an RAF intelligence officer had drawn up a list of priority objectives for air raids, with the selections based not primarily on strategic importance but rather because they were relatively easy to locate and possessed ‘structural features’ which rendered them suitable to ‘fire attack.’2 That was how Wurzburg made it on to the target list. Its value as a strategic or economic  target was marginal. The city’s most well known industries were its chocolate factory, an exotic wood sawmill and two breweries.3

Only in  the twisted logic of the RAF  planners was the raid deemed both important and successful. With the help of clear skies, 17 minutes of intense bombing, including 300,000 incendiaries, resulted in a giant conflagration which burned down 89% of the urban area and left some 50,000 people, half the town’s inhabitants, homeless. The eleventh century cathedral was also obliterated, as well as 35  churches and the eighteenth century episcopal palace.  The total death toll was estimated at 5,000, but as shocking as that seems, it  was lower than it would have been had not the air raid warning sounded well in advance, allowing many to escape to shelters.4

Two weeks later, on 28 March, Winston Churchill penned a draft letter to General Ismay, his chief military adviser, beginning with an astonishing admission. ‘It seems to me,’ he declared, ‘that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed.’ This was not out of any sentimental concern for the German civilians who had been targeted.  Rather, he feared that the Allies would ‘come into control of an utterly ruined land. We shall not, for instance, be able to get housing materials out of Germany for our own needs because some temporary provision would have to be made for the Germans themselves.’ Consequently, he argued for a ‘more precise concentration upon military objectives, such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.’5

FOOTNOTES

  1. Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945, Allen Lane, London, p. 397 and Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book, 1939-1945, Pen and Sword Aviation, Barnsley, 2019, p. 682.
  2. Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Allied Bombers Choose “Easy” German Targets,’ The Guardian, 23 August 2001 accessed online at url https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/aug/23/humanities.highereducation
  3. Hermann Knell, Strategic Bombing and its Human Consequences in World War II, Da Capo Press, 2003 p. 21
  4. Richard Overy, op. cit., p. 397 and Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, op. cit., p. 682
  5. ‘Two drafts of a letter from Churchill on area bombing, 28 March 1945 and 1 April 1945,’ CAB 120/303, the National Archives, accessed online at url http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/heroesvillains/transcript/g1cs3s3t.htm

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