Speech Opposing Area Bombing

Speech Opposing Area Bombing  (1944) 
by George Bell (1883-1958)

The Speech Opposing Area Bombing was delivered in the House of Lords on February 9, 1944, by George Bell, Bishop of Chichester. Bell made the speech in the context of a question he put to the Government regarding the policy of area bomdardment (also called "area bombing") in Germany with respect to its effect on civilians. [1]

My Lords, the question which I have to ask is beset with difficulties. It deals with an issue which must have [its] own anxieties for the Government, and certainly causes great searchings of heart amongst large numbers of people who are as resolute champions of the Allied cause as any member of your Lordships' House. If long-sustained and public opposition to Hitler and the Nazis since 1933 is any credential, I would humbly claim to be one of the most convinced and consistent Anti-Nazis in Great Britain. But I desire to challenge the Government on the policy which directs the bombing of enemy towns on the present scale, especially with reference to civilians, non-combatants, and non-military and non-industrial objectives. I also desire to make it plain that, in anything I say on this issue of policy, no criticism is intended of the pilots, the gunners, and the air crews who, in circumstances of tremendous danger, with supreme courage and skill, carry out the simple duty of obeying their superiors' orders.

§ Few will deny that there is a distinction in principle between attacks on military and industrial objectives and attacks on objectives which do not possess that character. At the outbreak of the war, in response to an appeal by President Roosevelt, the Governments of the United Kingdom and France issued a joint declaration of their intention to conduct hostilities with a firm desire to spare the civilian population and to preserve in every way possible those monuments of human achievement which are treasured in all civilized countries. At the same time explicit instructions were issued to the Commanders of the Armed Forces prohibiting the bombardment, whether from the air or from the sea or by artillery on land, of any except strictly military objectives in the narrowest sense of the word. Both sides accepted this agreement. It is true that the Government added that, ‘In the event of the enemy not observing any of the restrictions which the Governments of the United Kingdom and France have thus imposed on the operation of their Armed Forces, these Governments reserve the right to take all such action as they may consider appropriate.’ It is true that on May 10, 1940, the Government publicly proclaimed their intention to exercise this right in the event of bombing by the enemy of civilian populations. But the point which I wish to establish at this moment is that in entering the war there was no doubt in the Government's mind that the distinction between military and non-military objectives was real.

§ Further, that this distinction is based on fundamental principles accepted by civilized nations is clear from the authorities in International Law. I give one instance the weight of which will hardly be denied. The Washington Conference on Limitation of Armaments in 1922 appointed a Commission of Jurists to draw up a code of rules about aerial warfare. It did not become an international convention, yet great weight should be attached to that code on account of its authors. Article 22 reads: ‘Aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population, of destroying or damaging private property not of military character, or of injuring non-combatants is prohibited.’ Article 24 says: ‘ Aerial bombardment is legitimate only when directed at a military objective—that is to say, an objective of which the destruction or injury would constitute a distinct military advantage to the belligerent.’ Professor A. L. Goodhart, of Oxford, states: ‘Both these Articles are based on the fundamental assumption that direct attack on non-combatants is an unjustifiable act of war.’

§ The noble Viscount, Lord Halifax, at the beginning of this war, in reference to this very thing, described war as bloody and brutal. It is idle to suppose that it can be carried on without fearful injury and violence from which non-combatants as well as combatants suffer. It is still true, nevertheless, that there are recognized limits to what is permissible. The Hague Regulations of 1907 are explicit. "The right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited." M. Bonfils, a famous French jurist, says: ‘If it is permissible to drive inhabitants to desire peace by making them suffer, why not admit pillage, burning, torture, murder, violation? ’ I have recalled the joint declaration and these pronouncements because it is so easy in the process of a long and exhausting war to forget what they were once held without question to imply, and because it is a common experience in the history of warfare that not only war but actions taken in war as military necessities are often supported at the time by a class of arguments which, after the war is over, people find are arguments to which they never should have listened.

§ I turn to the situation in February, 1944, and the terrific devastation by Bomber Command of German towns. I do not forget the Luftwaffe, or its tremendous bombing of Belgrade, Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, Portsmouth, Coventry, Canterbury and many other places of military, industrial and cultural importance. Hitler is a barbarian. There is no decent person on the Allied side who is likely to suggest that we should make him our pattern or attempt to be competitors in that market. It is clear enough that large-scale bombing of enemy towns was begun by the Nazis. I am not arguing that point at all. The question with which I am concerned is this. Do the Government understand the full force of what area bombardment is doing and is destroying now? Are they alive not only to the vastness of the material damage, much of which is irreparable, but also to the harvest they are laying up for the future relationships of the peoples of Europe as well as to its moral implications? The aim of Allied bombing from the air, said the Secretary of State for Air at Plymouth on January 22, is to paralyze German war industry and transport. I recognize the legitimacy of concentrated attack on industrial and military objectives, on airfields and air bases, in view especially of the coming of the Second Front. I fully realize that in attacks on centres of war industry and transport the killing of civilians when it is the result of bona-fide military activity is inevitable. But there must be a fair balance between the means employed and the purpose achieved. To obliterate a whole town because certain portions contain military and industrial establishments is to reject the balance.

§ Let me take two crucial instances, Hamburg and Berlin. Hamburg has a population of between one and two million people. It contains targets of immense military and industrial importance. It also happens to be the most democratic town in Germany where the Anti-Nazi opposition was strongest. Injuries to civilians resulting from bona-fide attacks on particular objectives are legitimate according to International Law. But owing to the methods used the whole town is now a ruin. Unutterable destruction and devastation were wrought last autumn. On a very conservative estimate, according to the early German statistics, 28,000 persons were killed. Never before in the history of air warfare was an attack of such weight and persistence carried out against a single industrial concentration. Practically all the buildings, cultural, military, residential, industrial, religious—including the famous University Library with its 800,000 volumes, of which three-quarters have perished—were razed to the ground.

§ Berlin, the capital of the Reich, is four times the size of Hamburg. The offices of the Government, the military, industrial, war-making establishments in Berlin are a fair target. Injuries to civilians are inevitable. But up to date half Berlin has been destroyed, area by area, the residential and the industrial portions alike. Through the dropping of thousands of tons of bombs, including fire-phosphorus bombs, of extraordinary power, men and women have been lost, overwhelmed in the colossal tornado of smoke, blast and flame. It is said that 74,000 persons have been killed and that 3,000,000 are already homeless. The policy is obliteration, openly acknowledged. That is not a justifiable act of war. Again, Berlin is one of the great centres of art collections in the world. It has a large collection of Oriental and classical sculpture. It has one of the best picture galleries in Europe, comparable to the National Gallery. It has a gallery of modern art better than the Tate, a museum of ethnology without parallel in this country, one of the biggest and best organized libraries—State and university, containing two and a half million books—in the world. Almost all these non-industrial, non-military buildings are grouped together near the old Palace and in the Street of the Linden. The whole of that street, which has been constantly mentioned in the accounts of the raids, has been demolished. It is possible to replace flat houses by mass production. It is not possible so quickly to rebuild libraries or galleries or churches or museums. It is not very easy to rehouse those works of art which have been spared. Those works of art and those libraries will be wanted for the re-education of the Germans after the war. I wonder whether your Lordships realize the loss involved in that.

§ How is it, then, that this wholesale destruction has come about? The answer is that it is the method used, the method of area bombing. The first outstanding raid of area bombing was, I believe, in the spring of 1942, directed against Lubeck, then against Rostock, followed by the thousand-bomber raid against Cologne at the end of May, 1942. The point I want to bring home, because I doubt whether it is sufficiently realized, is that it is no longer definite military and industrial objectives which are the aim of the bombers, but the whole town, area by area, is plotted carefully out. This area is singled out and plastered on one night; that area is singled out and plastered on another night; a third, a fourth, a fifth area is similarly singled out and plastered night after night, till, to use the language of the Chief of Bomber Command with regard to Berlin, the heart of Nazi Germany ceases to beat. How can there be discrimination in such matters when civilians, monuments, military objectives and industrial objectives all together form the target? How can the bombers aim at anything more than a great space when they see nothing and the bombing is blind?

§ When the Nazis bombed France and Britain in 1940 it was denounced as "indiscriminate bombing." I recall this passage from a leader in The Times after the bombing of Paris on June 4, 1940: ‘No doubt in the case of raids on large cities the targets are always avowedly military or industrial establishments; but, when delivered from the great height which the raiders seem to have been forced to keep by the anti-aircraft defences, the bombing in fact is bound to be indiscriminate.’ And I recall two other more recent articles in The Times on our own policy. On January 10, 1944, the following was published: ‘It is the proclaimed intention of Bomber Command to proceed with the systematic obliteration one by one of the centres of German war production until the enemy's capacity to continue the fight is broken down.’ On January 31 the Aeronautical Correspondent wrote: ‘Some of the most successful attacks of recent times have been made when every inch of the target area was obscured by unbroken cloud, thousands of feet thick, and when the crews have hardly seen the ground from which they took off until they were back at their bases again.’ If your Lordships will weigh the implication, and observe not only the destruction of the war-production factories but the obliteration of the places in which they are and the complete invisibility of the target area, it must surely be admitted that the bombing is comprehensive and what would ordinarily be called indiscriminate.

§ The Government have announced their determination to continue this policy city by city. I give quotations. The Prime Minister, after the thousand-bomber raid on Cologne in 1942, said: ‘Proof of the growing power of the British bomber force is also the herald of what Germany will receive city by city from now on.’ Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, on July 28, 1942, said: ‘We are going to scourge the Third Reich from end to end. We are bombing Germany city by city and ever more terribly in order to make it impossible for her to go on with the war. That is our object; we shall pursue it relentlessly.’ A few days ago, as reported in the Sunday Express of January 23, an Air Marshal said: "One by one we shall pull out every town in Germany like teeth."

§ I shall offer reasons for questioning this policy as a whole, but what I wish immediately to urge is this. There are old German towns, away from the great centres, which may be subjected—which almost certainly will be subjected—to the raids of Bomber Command. Almost certainly they are on the long list. Dresden, Augsburg, Munich are among the larger towns, Regensburg, Hildesheim and Marburg are a few among the smaller beautiful cities. In all these towns the old centres, the historic and beautiful things, are well preserved, and the industrial establishments are on the outskirts. After the destruction of the ancient town centres of Cologne, with its unique Romanesque churches, and Lubeck, with its brick cathedral, and Mainz, with one of the most famous German cathedrals, and of the old Gothic towns, the inner towns, Nuremburg, Hamburg and others, it would seem to be indicated that an effort, a great effort should be made to try to save the remaining inner towns. In the fifth year of the war it must surely be apparent to any but the most complacent and reckless how far the destruction of European culture has already gone. We ought to think once, twice, and three times before destroying the rest. Something can still be saved if it is realized by the authorities that the industrial centres, generally speaking, lie outside the old inner parts where are the historical monuments.

§ I would especially stress the danger—outside Germany—to Rome. The principle is the same, but the destruction of the main Roman monuments would create such hatred that the misery would survive when all the military and political advantages that may have accrued may have long worn off. The history of Rome is our own history. Rome taught us, through the example of Christ, to abolish human sacrifice and taught us the Christian faith. The destruction would rankle in the memory of every good European as Rome's destruction by the Goths or the sack of Rome rankled. The blame simply must not fall on those who are professing to create a better world. The resentment which would, inevitably, follow would be too deep-seated to be forgotten. It would be the sort of crime which one day, even in the political field, would turn against the perpetrators.

§ I wish to offer a few concluding remarks on the policy as a whole. It will be said that this area bombing—for it is this area bombing which is the issue to-day—is definitely designed to diminish the sacrifice of British lives and to shorten the war. We all wish with all our hearts that these two objects could be achieved, but to justify methods inhumane in themselves by arguments of expediency smacks of the Nazi philosophy that Might is Right. In any case the idea that it will reduce the sacrifice is speculation. The Prime Minister, as far back as August, 1940, before either Russia or America entered the war, justified the continued bombardment of German industries and communications as one of the surest, if not the shortest, of all the roads to victory. We are still fighting. It is generally admitted that German aircraft and military production, though it has slowed down, is going forward; and your Lordships may have noticed signs in certain military quarters of a tendency to question the value of this area bombing policy on military grounds. The cost in sacrifice of human life when the Second Front begins has never been disguised either from the American or from the British public by our leaders.

§ It is also urged that area bombing will break down morale and the will to fight. On November 5, in a speech at Cheltenham, the Secretary of State for Air said that bombing in this way would continue until we had paralysed German war industries, disrupted their transport system and broken their will to war. Again leaving the ethical issue aside, it is pure speculation. Up to now the evidence received from neutral countries is to the opposite effect. It is said that the Berliners are taking it well. Let me quote from two Swedish papers. On November 30 last, the Svenska Dagbladet—this was during the first stage of our raids on Berlin—said: ‘Through their gigantic air raids the British have achieved what Hitler failed to achieve by means of decrees and regulations; they have put the majority of the German people on a war footing.’ On January 9 of this year, the Sydsvenska Dagbladet said: ‘The relative German strength on the home front is undoubtedly based on desperation, which increases and gets worse the longer the mass bombing lasts. It is understandable that the fewer the survivors and the more they lose the more the idea spreads 'We have everything to gain and nothing to lose, and we can only regain what is ours if Germany wins the final victory, so let us do everything in our power.'’ If there is one thing absolutely sure, it is that a combination of the policy of obliteration with a policy of complete negation as to the future of a Germany which has got free from Hitler is bound to prolong the war and make the period after the war more miserable.

§ I am not extenuating the crimes of the Nazis or the responsibility of Germany as a whole in tolerating them for so long, but I should like to add this. I do not believe that His Majesty's Government desire the annihilation of Germany. They have accepted the distinction between Germany and the Hitlerite State.

[Bell is interrupted here by shouts of "no" from several members.]

On March 10 of last year the Lord Chancellor, speaking officially for the Government, accepted that distinction quite clearly and precisely. Is it a matter for wonder that Anti-Nazis who long for help to overthrow Hitler are driven to despair? I have here a telegram, which I have communicated to the Foreign Office, sent to me on December 27 last by a well-known Anti-Nazi Christian leader who had to flee from Germany for his life long before the war. It was sent from Zurich, and puts what millions inside Germany must feel. He says: ‘Is it understood that present situation gives us no sincere opportunity for appeal to people because one cannot but suspect effect of promising words on practically powerless population convinced by bombs and phosphor that their annihilation is resolved?’ If we wish to shorten the war, as we must, then let the Government speak a word of hope and encouragement both to the tortured millions of Europe and to those enemies of Hitler to whom in 1939 Mr. Churchill referred as "millions who stand aloof from the seething mass of criminality and corruption constituted by the Nazi Party machine."

Why is there this blindness to the psychological side? Why is there this inability to reckon with the moral and spiritual facts? Why is there this forget-fulness of the ideals by which our cause is inspired? How can the War Cabinet fail to see that this progressive devastation of cities is threatening the roots of civilization? How can they be blind to the harvest of even fiercer warring and desolation, even in this country, to which the present destruction will inevitably lead when the members of the War Cabinet have long passed to their rest? How can they fail to realize that this is not the way to curb military aggression and end war? This is an extraordinarily solemn moment. What we do in war—which, after all, lasts a comparatively short time—affects the whole character of peace, which covers a much longer period. The sufferings of Europe, brought about by the demoniac cruelty of Hitler and his Nazis, and hardly imaginable to those in this country who for the last five years have not been out of this island or had intimate association with Hitler's victims, are not to be healed by the use of power only, power exclusive and unlimited. The Allies stand for something greater than power. The chief name inscribed on our banner is "Law." It is of supreme importance that we who, with our Allies, are the liberators of Europe should so use power that it is always under the control of law. It is because the bombing of enemy towns—this area bombing—raises this issue of power unlimited and exclusive that such immense importance is bound to attach to the policy and action of His Majesty's Government. I beg to move.

[Three more speakers, including Cosmo Lang, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, intervene before Bell, exercising his right of reply, makes a concluding statement.]

My Lords, I should like to express my gratitude for the courtesy of the noble Viscount's reply.[2] I will not disguise the fact that the end of his speech was not exactly unexpected but was nevertheless a disappointment. I, of course, wish—no one more—for the liberation of the unfortunate peoples of Europe, and I know it is only by the conquest of Hitler and his associates that that can be achieved. I would very strongly press the noble Viscount to take great pains about the definition of legitimate objectives of a military and industrial kind and to avoid to the utmost extent possible any confusion of them with non-military and non-industrial objectives. I do not wish to trouble your Lordships further, but we have to think of the future as well as the present. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion. [1] [3]

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Notes and referencesEdit

  1. 1.0 1.1 Hansard, House of Lords Debates, 9 February 1944, vol. 130, cc737-55.
  2. Bell is referring to Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Viscount Cranborne, who defended the bombing policy as necessary to help the people whom Bell is concerned about by bringing about the prompt defeat of Germany.
  3. Bell had added to his question the words "and to move for Papers," which is a way to reserve a right of reply. Having replied, Bell withdrew the motion as required by Parliamentary courtesy. See Companion to the Standing Orders and guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords, §5.46.