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The United States, Britain and Germany started to research of the atomic bomb at the beginning of World War II. When Americans got it, the war in Europe was over and the bomb was only used against Japan.

Is it known what both sides wanted to do with the bomb if they had got it earlier? Bombing German and Italian cities? Destroying industrial complexes? Bombing concentrations of troops? Sinking whole navies?

If plans aren't known, or if they hadn't been made before developing the bomb, any scholar research on what would they have done with the bomb will be welcomed.

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    It was not expected in time so there was probably no plans. They started discussing the plans only after the first test, which was after the end of the war in Europe. There was no point in making any plans before the test.
    – Alex
    Feb 24, 2018 at 1:22
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    @Alex I'd expect governments to have in mind some practical application for any device before spending billions of dollars developing it in times of scarcity. And I would be surprised if the issue hadn't been researched by historians.
    – Pere
    Feb 24, 2018 at 15:02
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    @Pere: this is a prime example of a risky investment. Nobody knew whether it will work.
    – Alex
    Feb 24, 2018 at 22:15
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    Another source: robertsmcnamaracom.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/… (found in history.stackexchange.com/a/41313/21213 ) says that tactical use of the A-bomb started being considered at the same time than strategical use.
    – Pere
    Feb 25, 2018 at 16:56
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    @Alex: Don't conflate plutonium and U-235 bombs! The Uranium bomb was so simple no test was ever considered - but would only be available at 2-3 per year until a more efficient enrichment process had been perfected. The Plutonium bomb was a much more complex design and required the Trinity test, but would be available at 2-3 per month from late August on (assuming Trinity tested successfully). Feb 26, 2018 at 1:30

3 Answers 3

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According to this answer, it wasn't until very late that the Americans decided whether to bomb (in Japan) a military/industrial/transportation city, or a capital city.

They did decide it had to be a city (not a smaller target), because they had very few bombs and aiming was uncertain:

Minutes of the second meeting of the Target Committee Los Alamos, May 10-11, 1945

It was agreed that for the initial use of the weapon any small and strictly military objective should be located in a much larger area subject to blast damage in order to avoid undue risks of the weapon being lost due to bad placing of the bomb.

Also, "Psychological Factors in Target Selection" says it was intended as a strategic weapon i.e. to affect morale, not just supplies and matériel.

I guess people didn't start to think about (or, at least, making plans for using) "tactical" nuclear weapons until they had a lot of them (maybe starting in the early 1950s).

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@ChrisW's answer is good and I upvoted it. I suspect that the people who might have made those plans either didn't know about the bomb or were too busy on more important things. (The people working in the Manhattan Project certainly had no expertise.)

Further, the situation was changing continuously -- "the fog of war" is not just a clever phrase! -- and even the US leadership had pretty much exhausted its strategic planning when we arrived off the coast of Japan. At that point it looked like the alternatives were (a) Invade or (b) flatten more of Japan and then, if they don't surrender, Invade.

By the time a bomb looked like it might arrive before the war ended, the thinking was probably that a big bomb has got to be useful. Anything to end the war without an invasion of Japan with its millions of casualties.

"If the Axis Powers have all surrendered, great! If not, there'll be plenty of targets. Now get back to work figuring out where to drop the bombs we do have."

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The answer could be divided betweeen different countries fighting and researching on nuclear bomb by that time:

  • USA: They had the plan of a weapon that woul enhance the effects of strategic bombing. So the target could have been any strategic objectif, like a city, a big training center, airbase, or an industrial center. Note that, despite hopes put into heavy bombers attacking a fleet, there was no certaintity of the effect of an atomic bomb against a fleet before the Bikini atomic test, after the war

  • United Kingdom: basically...same strategic situation as the US. If we look at both countries' strategic bombing doctrines, the British would have been more encline to strike a city

  • Germany: the most achieved plan for atomic bombs was to destroy big Russian or American cities, in order to strike an ennemy that was otherwise unreachable. British cities were less a target because they could be stroke by conventionnal (airplanes) or special (V1, V2) means

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    As far as I know, the Germans were not even close to developing a nuke. Most of the Germans who could build one, had fled the country. The remainder wasn't interested or thought they were years away from any result. An American later said: "we had all the good Germans." Meaning: we got all their nuclear physicists.
    – Jos
    Feb 6 at 0:19
  • @Jos Ok, but I don't really see the link with the question nor my answer, instead of giving additionnal context information? Feb 6 at 19:48

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