Winston Churchill was effectively a war criminal who sanctioned the extermination of Germany’s civilian population through indiscriminate bombing of towns and cities, an article in Germany’s biggest-circulation newspaper has claimed.
In an unprecedented attack on Allied conduct during the Second World War, the tabloid Bild has called for recognition to be given to the suffering inflicted on the German population during the strategic air campaign of 1940-45.
The newspaper’s campaign, provoked by a new German history of the bomber offensive, breaks six decades of virtual silence on the subject, and is being seen as the latest manifestation of a belief among Germans that they too were victims of the war — albeit a war started by their country.
The newspaper is serialising Der Brand (The Fire: Germany Under Bombardment 1940-45) by the historian Jorg Friedrich, which claims to be the most authoritative account of the bombing campaign so far.
Friedrich claims the British government set out at the start of the Second World War to destroy as many German cities and kill as many of their inhabitants as possible. Civilian deaths were not collateral damage, he says, but rather the object of the exercise. He argues that Churchill had favoured a strategy of attacking the civilian population from the air some 20 years before Hitler ordered such raids.
Britain’s war leader is quoted during the First World War as saying: “Perhaps the next time round the way to do it will be to kill women, children and the civilian population.”
Friedrich goes on to quote Churchill defending the morality of bombing: “Now everyone’s at it. It’s simply a question of fashion — similar to that of whether short or long dresses are in.”
Der Brand is far removed from the dry style of most German histories, and is filled with emotive accounts of the horrors of bombing, but carries few references to the man who brought retribution on Germany, Adolf Hitler.
Friedrich argues that the Allied policy of seeking to break German morale through bombing proved mistaken, the attacks merely serving to weld together the German population.
The debate is certain to anger those in Britain who see the strategic air campaign as a necessary evil. The British, led by Sir Arthur Harris, C-in-C Bomber Command, were the leading proponents of “night area bombing”, involving the systematic destruction of German industrial capacity and housing.
The policy resulted in the laying to waste of city after city, including Hamburg, Cologne and Dresden, and the deaths of some 635,000 Germans.
The policy was to some extent forced on the RAF by the failure of daylight raids early in the war. It also reflected the fact that, for much of the conflict, bombing was the only method by which Britain could attack Germany.
German raids on Britain in 1940-41 were seen to have freed the British from the obligation not to attack civilian centres.
Antony Beevor, the British historian and author of the bestselling Berlin: The Downfall, 1945, criticised the German claim that Britain’s war of attrition was unnecessarily brutal.
“This argument is removed from the context that they were the ones who invented terror bombing,” he said, referring to German attacks on Coventry, Rotterdam and Warsaw.
“They literally obliterated whole cities and that certainly preceded what the British did,” he said. “What we did was more terrifying, but it was a natural progression in this war.
“One can certainly debate the whole morality of bombing, but for Germans to say Churchill was a war criminal is pushing it a bit,” he said.