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The Ethics of Civilian Bombing: Hamburg as a Case Study

Updated: Jun 9

Hamburg in Ruins
Hamburg in Ruins

When is it morally justified to bomb civilian areas? American commentator Tucker Carlson sparked a controversial debate about the use of atomic weapons in the Second World War on Japanese civilians when he spoke on Joe Rogan: “people on my side — I’ll just admit it, on the Right — have spent the last 80 years defending dropping nuclear bombs on civilians,” Carlson said on the latest episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast.

“Like, are you joking? That’s just prima facie evil… It’s wrong to drop nuclear weapons on people, and if you find yourself arguing that it’s a good thing to drop nuclear weapons on people, then you are evil. It’s not a tough one, right?”

In response, conservative Candace Owens defended Tucker’s claim and criticised the Allied bombing campaign in the Second World War, arguing that the firebombing of Dresden “was a sinister war crime.” 

Bombing Civilians

More recently, Israel’s strategic bombing of Gaza has brought this debate to a boiling point, spilling over onto the streets around the world. Many on the political left argue that Israel’s attacks are not justified because they have killed a disproportionate number of civilians compared to Hamas. In contrast, others have argued that the attacks are justified considering the threat Hamas presents to the greater Israeli population. What’s more, the sufficient warnings the IDF gave to areas under bombing and the use of human shields by Hamas further justifies their actions. 

These questions are far from new.

During the Second World War, Britain killed more civilians through strategic bombing than did Nazi Germany. Most people remember the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by America and the German Blitz on London. But few people have ever heard of the bombings of Wuppertal, Dusseldorf and Hamburg.

The threat of a civilisational collapse at the hands of Nazi Germany ended the Allied strategy of limited bombing.

There is a morbid logic to this type of “total war”. Should engineers be considered any more innocent than a German U-boat sailor if they were working towards the same end? Are oil manufacturers, military train drivers, munition factory workers or even farmers providing food to the German army any less culpable than those fighting on the front lines for the Nazi party?

In a “total war” with no delineation of where the battlefield is fought, all these moral qualifications disappear.

An aerial view of ruined residential and commercial buildings in the Eilbek district of Hamburg, Germany.
An aerial view of ruined residential and commercial buildings in the Eilbek district of Hamburg, Germany.

The Bombing of Hamburg, 1943

One of the most controversial examples was the bombing of Hamburg in 1943.

By examining the tragedy of this event, the historian Keith Lowe in his breathtaking book, Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943 (2007, Penguin UK), offers excellent guidance to this complicated moral conundrum.

As Lowe points out, it was difficult for the Germans in 1943 to blame the Allies for the tactic of civilian bombing. After all, they had done precisely the same thing when they bombed the city of Rotterdam in May 1940. Up until that point, Britain had a strict policy of bombing military targets, but after the German attack on Holland, everything changed.

By 1943, London had been under air raids for two years during the Blitz and the British attacks on German cities intensified.

Commander of the R Air Force, Sir Arthur Harris (also known as ‘The Butcher’) believed strategic bombing of civilian areas could demoralise the German war effort and end the war early.

Hamburg was an obvious target.

The city produced several submarines a month and was home to one of the largest aircraft part factories in the Reich. As the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal pointed out, ‘it seems abundantly clear that Hamburg is much more than a dormant centre of peace time commerce, and if so, I certainly do not think we should refrain from bombing it.’

Operation Gomorrah

Yet this bombing campaign, symbolically called ‘Operation Gomorrah’ was going to be different. The normal ratio of high explosives to incendiary bombs was flipped. The goal was not just the destruction of a few military bases, but the entire city itself.

By and large, the four British air raids and one American daytime raid achieved just that. In a few nights, the Allies had firebombed over half the city, killing over 42,000 people—more than the atomic bomb would kill over Nagasaki.

A series of catastrophic, yet unintended events made for one of the most horrific firestorms in history. An exceptionally long stretch of warm weather had dried out the city houses, smoke particles from the firebombing held hot air over the city while the surrounding area remained cool, and a new radar jamming device allowed the RAF to drop its fiery explosives in an exceptionally accurate and uninterrupted formation. 

When the bombs hit the city, it created a catastrophic chain reaction.

Inferno in Hamburg

The hot air from the large conflagration jettisoned upwards into the atmosphere, sucking in cooler air into the vacuum and feeding the fire. Winds up to 130mph and heat so intense that it melted glass and literally swept people off their feet and into the raging inferno. 

The accounts of survivors are as horrific as they are gripping.

Most of the civilians who stayed in the bomb shelters died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Those that tried to run were immediately consumed by the flames. Oil spills from the shipyards made many of the waterways just as dangerous as the streets. 

The smoke from the flames reached over 30,000 feet and could be seen by the RAF bombers until they came to the British coast.

Never before in the history of warfare had there been more bombs dropped on a city—let alone any military target—in such a short amount of time. A hellfire, inferno, annihilation or apocalypse, the carnage dropped on Hamburg exhausted superlatives.

But this raises the obvious question, “Was all this death and destruction ethically justified?”

An air to ground photograph of Hamburg following the bombing
An air to ground photograph of Hamburg following the bombing

The Equation

As Lowe unpacks, the British and American governments spent enormous resources to analyse the effectiveness of the bombing. They concluded that 61% of Hamburg’s residential space was destroyed, 109,000 homes and 275,000 apartments.

Almost 300 schools, 4,000 industrial plants and 8,000 small businesses ceased to exist. The death toll was ten times larger than any other bombing raid up to that point. At the cost of 500,000 million dollars, the Americans had stopped the production of approximately 20 U-boats. It was so expensive to train pilots, build planes and manufacture munitions, that the bomber war took up 1/3 of Britain’s entire economy. 

The psychological impact of the bombing of Hamburg was incalculable.

The bombing resulted in the dispersion of over 1 million refugees across northern Germany, bringing with the terror and the reality of war with them. One senior General said later that not even the most remote towns were spared from the ‘Terror of Hamburg’.

And just two weeks after the attack, the Chief of Staff for the German air force shot himself in the head. 

The Luxury of Hindsight

By May 1945, the Allies had killed somewhere between 300,000 to 600,000 German civilians. As a result, even today, the statue of Sir Arthur Harris, the architect of ‘Operation Gomorrah’, is defaced with red paint.

Many young people now view Winston Churchill as a war criminal in large part due to British bombing campaigns.

It is easy to criticise the actions of those who do not have the luxury of hindsight. We should not judge the decisions of our forebears simply based on the consequences of their actions but also take into account their circumstances. Consider the following four reasons:

Firstly, it was certainly plausible, even though grotesquely ironic, that the bombing of Hamburg could save more lives than it killed. By delivering a fatal punch to the German morale, the reasoning was the war might end weeks, if not months sooner. Tens of thousands of soldiers, civilians and Jewish people in concentration camps would also be saved. 

Secondly, by taking out the industrial capacity of Germany’s key trading port and shipyards, British ships could sail more freely across the Atlantic without the fear of German submarines. 

Thirdly, the Cold War battle lines were already being drawn up, and every square mile captured by the Russians was another square mile under their communist influence. 

Fourthly, after years of German air raids over Allied territory, there was a public feeling of retribution. The Allies were returning the punishment in kind.

“War’s legitimate purpose is more perfect peace.” (General William Sherman)

The Ethics of Civilian Bombing

All of this brings us back to our original question: When is it justified to bomb civilian areas?

The obvious answer is, ideally never. But the reality is, it will be necessary at some point. If there is a reasonable probability that the bombing will save more lives than it takes; if it is used as a last resort and sufficient warning is given to the civilian population to leave the targeted area; and if it is proportional to the military threat, then I would argue it is justified. 

While many of these questions are somewhat ambiguous, the bombing of Hamburg can form some sort of guide in the context of total war.

Ultimately, the aim of any military campaign should be its end, as the American Civil War General William Sherman wrote, “War’s legitimate purpose is more perfect peace.”


Photos public domain.


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2 commentaires

30 mai

Thanks, interesting article. I knew about Dresden of course but Hamburg, Wuppertal, Dusseldorf are new to me.

In my view as an ethics absolutist, if you're going to engage in war it makes no difference who you kill to win it. Military or not, everyone is a human being.


Cody Mitchell
Cody Mitchell
30 mai

An excellent piece, Luke. Thought-provoking and particularly relevant given the current situation in the Middle East.

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