The Burning of Japan

A squat, bespectacled and moustachioed Sir Arthur Harris of the RAF Bomber Command sat behind his desk and said, “They say you can’t win a war by bombing alone. I say, no one’s ever tried it.” Until then, both sides in his argument were correct. No one had won a war by bombing alone, and Bomber Harris would not get his chance. Under orders from Churchill, he began a bombing campaign against Germany with night area bombing in mid-1942 but was diverted from this task just as he started achieving results by March/April of 1944, moving away from strategic area bombing to supporting tactical bombing of France in preparation for the D-Day landings of June, 1944. After France had been liberated in August of that year, Harris redirected his heavy bombers to the wholesale destruction of German cities. In the meantime, the US Eighth Air Force, maintaining that daylight bombing would accomplish the destruction of the German ability to conduct war, continued its ‘precision’ bombing campaign during daylight hours. This policy would change in another theatre of war.

The Firebombing of Hamburg

On July 27, 1943, just before midnight, several British bombers, flying in pitch black over Hamburg, Germany, dropped tin foil strips into the air which had the effect of creating millions of radar ‘bogeys’. These false hits sent the German radar system into a state of electronic stupidity. Their anti-aircraft guns, normally controlled by radar, were wobbling this way and that and had to be switched to manual control. The Pathfinders had started fires that could easily be seen by the follow-on planes. For one hour more, a steady stream of 800 heavy bombers unleashed their incendiaries and high explosives. What happened next was unplanned. A firestorm began to feed itself with the sucking in of air into the center of the flames. Asphalt streets melted, boiled and turned to flames. Men skied on their shoes with nothing to hold on to, sucked into the flames. Three foot wide trees were uprooted and drawn into the white heat. Women running away from the fire had their babies sucked from their arms by two hundred mile per hour winds.

People taking refuge in concrete buildings were cooked. Others, jumping into water to escape the heat, were boiled. Many huddled in basements had no air or only gases to breathe. Forty-three thousand civilians were cremated in some of the most gruesome scenes of hell on Earth, thirty-seven thousand injured. After the raid, fearing further devastation, more than 1.2 million people evacuated their homes. The city, an important seaport and industrial centre, was almost completely destroyed. The details were purposely suppressed by the Propaganda Ministry. Albert Speer, Armaments Minister, stated after the war that if England had conducted raids such as this against six more cities, Germany would have thrown in the towel. England did not have the capacity at that moment to create six more firestorms. As it turned out, there was another way to create unheard of destruction from the air that wasn’t nuclear in nature. It was to take place halfway around the world about two years later.

The VLR and the B29 Program

Even before the war started the Americans developed the strategic bombing plan known as VLR (very long range) and sent out specs to aircraft builders for a long range bomber with the capacity to fly above 30,000 feet, to carry ten tons of bombs, to fly 400 miles per hour, and be able to hit targets over 3,000 miles away. This was 1938, before war was even contemplated with another country. There was little money appropriated for the development and the plan was shelved for the time being by the government but Boeing kept the project going with its own funding and was able to submit a prototype to the US Army Air Force in early 1940. In May of 1941, the government placed an order for 250 bombers and later increased that to 500.

This underlines the difference between the US strategic thinking and that of Japan. The Japanese, already at war in China since the early 1930’s, had given no thought to damaging US industrial capacity. With an economy many magnitudes greater than Japan, isolated and protected by enormous distances across the Pacific Ocean, and completely self-sufficient without requiring imports to survive, the United States would prove an overwhelming task for a country like Japan to subdue. US industrial centers were spread over vast distances, untouchable by almost anything Japan could muster. They did attempt fire-bombing the US by balloons late in the war, but this was a laughable attempt that merely dropped small bombs into the Oregon forest. Japan, without regard to strategic aims, started a war against an industrial giant. The industrial giant did have strategic aims: to starve and bomb the population of the aggressor nation into submission, thereby obviating the need to obtain a military victory on the field of battle. The Americans had come to a more scientific understanding of warfare before their enemies had, and Japan had not even considered it. They had lost the war the day they started it. A document that illustrates the Pentagon’s ability to canoodle tells us that in 1935 the Army had a plan to invade Canada. The plan details the operational problems they would encounter. Although the US had no intention of attacking its peaceful neighbor to the north, it highlights the difference between the two adversaries; Japan didn’t even have a strategy for defeating a country that it was going to attack. Japan thought that its homeland was impervious to retribution while it executed a violent blueprint of empire building against its neighbors.

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