I'm trying to study the long-run effects the strategic bombing of German and Japanese cities had on urban and economic development.

Reading some articles about it I get contradictory information about the degree that the bombing was "actually strategic". Cities might have been more or less heavily bombed

  • because of the infrastructure they contained (e.g. factories, rail roads, etc.),
  • because of their location/accessibility (e.g. cities closer to the frontier, cities suitable as a base once the countries fell),
  • or because of ideological reasons (not destroying culture, attacking symbolic places to demotivate the population).

For Germany, I stumbled on the, admittedly pretty random, paper.

Beck, E. R. (1982). The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-1945, and the German Response: Dilemmas of Judgment. German Studies Review, 5(3), 325-337.

Which states:

“The key words in the directive indicated that the "primary objective" of British bombing in Germany "should now be focussed on the morale of the enemy civil population and, in particular, of the industrial workers." A list of important industries in targeted cities was set forth, but Sir Charles Portal in a memo to Harris' predecessor on February 14, 1942, wrote: "Ref the new bombing directive: I suppose it is clear that the aiming points are to be the built-up areas, not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories where these are mentioned in Appendix A. This must be made quite clear if it is not already understood."” (p. 329)


“In the bombing of Dresden, if the American targets were the railroad stations, the execution was quite faulty. But the offensive against German oil reserves was an American initiative and must be classed as the only genuinely "strategic" campaign of the war.” (p. 331)

The discussion in the following paper on Germany becomes more nuanced and strays into the 'more strategic than Beck (1982)' territory:

Brakman, S., Garretsen, H., & Schramm, M. (2004). The strategic bombing of German cities during World War II and its impact on city growth. Journal of Economic Geography, 4(2), 201-218.

They write:

"From March 1942 onwards, Royal Air Force Bomber Command headed by Sir Arthur Harris, inaugurated a new bombing method.6 The emphasis in this new programme was on area bombing, in which the centres of towns would be the main target for nocturnal raids.7 The central idea of the new strategy was that the destruction of cities would have an enormous and destructive effect on the morale of the people living in it. Moreover, the destruction of city centres implied the destruction of a large part of a city's housing stock. This led to the dislocation of workers, which would disrupt industrial production even if the factories themselves were not hit. This strategy also implied that targeted cities were not necessarily large, industrialized cities. On the contrary, relatively small cities with, for instance, distinguished historic (and thus highly flammable!) town centres were also preferred targets under this plan.8 The recent study by Friedrich (2002) documents in detail that targeted cities were not only selected because they were particularly important for the war effort, but that they were also selected for their visibility from the air (depending, for example, on weather conditions or the visibility of outstanding landmarks such as a cathedral) and whether a city centre would be susceptible to area bombing with incendiary bombs (see also Section 4.2). What should be stressed here is that the economic importance of cities was often not decisive in the selection of targets after Harris took over Bomber Command." (p.204-205)

If there's an academic consensus that the bombing was relatively “blind” or “opportunistic” maybe this would allow a different analysis than if I had to assume that the bombing targeted industries and transportation infrastructure.

Does anyone have any leads for meta-studies or books that deal with this question?

Thank you for reading! :)

ETA: In this interview with Sir Arthur Harris I found the following quotes:

"Interviewer: When you took over as the were you given any specific directions as CiC?
SAH: OH yes, I lived in a shower of directives from the day I took over 
> to the last day of the war. But the directive when I took over was the one that I wasn’t to specifically aim at anything unless if specifically ordered to do so except to blast the German cities as a whole.
Interviewer: Subsequently though there were occasions when although you clearly understood some of the directives you perhaps did you occasionally seek to evade them or perhaps interpret them, shall we say?
SAH: No I wouldn't agree with that. There were items in some directives which I knew were impossible of achievement and naturally enough I argued against them. It was my job to do so.

> Interviewer: So you had a considerable amount of flexibility as CiC?
SAH: Exactly.

Interviewer: Again, staying on the broad subject of directives and targets. There were many discussions about which particular kind of target system to concentrate on and I think I'm right in saying that when the concept of panacea targets was produced you were not very enthusiastic about that?

> SAH: No, I certainly wasn’t, because they arrived in showers any bright lad in or out of the service and in the air minister or the scientist and there had a bright idea or the ministry of economic warfare they seemed to think that their ideas could be put into the test and I took the responsibility for the results and I naturally enough didn't quite agree with that idea. And also I've always been taught when I was at the Army Staff College that there's a principle of war known as the maintenance of the objective either the object or the objective and you cannot change what you're aiming at every few days and still maintain either the object or the objective.
Interviewer: Although there were problems with the panacea targets obviously Bomber Command could when required hit very important critical targets perhaps the two best known examples are the attack on the dams and the attack on Peenemunde would you care to say a little about those two particular raids?

> SAH: Yes, well you see now there's where types of targets that could definitely be found. When I first took over the command the first thing I did was to concentrate on coastal targets. Not because the coastal targets were the most important but what you can always see if you can see anything in the dark is a coastline because you can see the difference between the land and the water and the and the foam of the breaking wave that shows up if you can see anything at all. That was one of the reasons we made those attacks in the Baltic so against Lubeck rostock places like that. The Peenemunde attack of course was especially ordered one in order to deal with the genesis of the rockets and that again was a fairly easy place to find, because it could be spotted in relation to an island and close inshore. And that was when we started this game of the master bomber to directly all of the attack and it was very successful that was largely due to sheriff Cochran who commanded five group at that time."

  • 2
    You might want to look into where and by whom bombing was done at night vs. at daytime. Bombing at night was blind by its very nature.
    – Jan
    Oct 25, 2021 at 12:10
  • There are probably a lot of German and Japanese books. I have "Dresden im Luftkrieg" by Goetz Bergander which discusses the different air attacks on Dresden. I think "Downfall" by Ricardo B. Frank has some discussion about Japan.
    – Jan
    Oct 25, 2021 at 12:15
  • 1
    There's a story from WWII where the British managed to "hack" the radio-based navigational systems of German long-ranged bombers, to the effect that an entire flight of them (presumably intended for London) was observed to release their payload with great deliberation upon an empty rural field.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 25, 2021 at 13:29
  • 1
    @Tototulbi: Yes, normally they were able to find cities at night (despite wartime blackouts) and also usually the intended one. The attacks on e.g. Hamburg or Lübeck were not that different from the attack on Dresden AFAIK. All three probably were strategically important in some waay, but what was hit were mostly residential areas.
    – Jan
    Oct 25, 2021 at 13:31
  • 1
    The Butt report showed that the RAF was lucky to find the city which they were meant to bomb. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butt_Report nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/worldwar2/theatres-of-war/…
    – C'est Moi
    Oct 25, 2021 at 20:02

2 Answers 2


The choice of cities to bomb does not seem to have been the subject of much study. If you want to learn about it, factors to consider include:

  • The hours of daylight, or of night, available at different times of year.
  • The range vs bomb-load trade-off.
  • The competing priorities of various kinds of target.
  • The various commanders' strategic ideas.

You're going to have to learn quite a lot about the bombing campaigns before you can start to research this facet of them in a meaningful way. The history is complicated, and has been obscured by politics. The issues you need to understand include, but are not limited to:

  • The ideology of "independent air forces."
  • The widely variable meanings of "strategic", as applied to bombing.
  • The very different means and methods of the British and American bombing campaigns in Europe, and their evolution over the course of the campaign.
  • The much-neglected subject of the use of tactical bombing and ground attack by lighter bombers as a means of reducing the casualties of the heavy bombers.
  • The changes in American methods during the bombing campaign against Japan.
  • The personal ideas and objectives of many of the personalities involved.
  • The degree of whitewashing that some hold to have been applied to the history.

A good start can be obtained from Richard Overy's The Bombing War: Europe 1939–1945 (2013), ISBN 0713995610 (later published as The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940–1945, ISBN 978-0-670-02515-2). That book is not enough orientation, but it is a reasonable introduction, and it is well-referenced.

  • Thank you John for your answer. I will look into those sources and keep the considerations in mind. Do I interpret your answer correctly as an implicit "No." regarding the existence of a scientific consensus?
    – Tototulbi
    Oct 25, 2021 at 19:05
  • 2
    @Tototulbi: To explain targeting choices, you need to look at constraints like hours of daylight, range vs bomb-load trade-off, competing priorities and the commander's strategic ideas. The reasons why some cities were targeted more haven't been a major subject of study as far as I know. Oct 25, 2021 at 19:26

By late 1944, Japan was in ruins. Most major cities had already been destroyed by 1945 bombing of Japan was more so a psychological weapon than practical. However Japan did not consolidate industry to major factories and diversified production of war goods to cottage industry and small scale manufacturing. So destroying all in vicinity was paramount.

  • This doesn't answer the question about the strategy behind the selection of targets for Allies' bombers. Can you edit your answer to adress it, and back any important claim with relevant sources ?
    – Evargalo
    Oct 26, 2021 at 8:45

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