Strategic bombing during World War II

Strategic bombing during World War II was the sustained aerial attack on railways, harbours, cities, workers' and civilian housing, and industrial districts in enemy territory during World War II. Strategic bombing is a military strategy which is distinct from both close air support of ground forces and tactical air power.[20]

Strategic bombing during World War II
Part of World War II

A B-24 on a bomb run over the Astra Romana refinery in Ploiești, Romania, during Operation Tidal Wave[1]
Allied Powers
 United States
 United Kingdom
 New Zealand
 Soviet Union
Axis Powers
Commanders and leaders
Henry Arnold
Carl Spaatz
Curtis LeMay
Chester Nimitz
Charles Portal
Richard Peirse
Arthur Harris
Arthur Tedder
Clifford McEwen
George Jones
Alexander Novikov
Sergei Khudyakov
Alexander Golovanov
Hermann Göring
Albert Kesselring
Wolfram von Richthofen
Hugo Sperrle
Naruhiko Higashikuni
Hajime Sugiyama
Masakazu Kawabe
Chūichi Nagumo
Rino Corso Fougier
Francesco Pricolo
Ettore Muti
Kálmán Ternegg
Gheorghe Jienescu
Casualties and losses

Soviet Union:

  • Roughly 500,000 Soviet civilians[2]
  • 2,700 airmen (Japan)[3]


  • 260,000–351,000 Chinese civilians[4][5]


  • 60,000 civilians killed[6]
  • 160,000 airmen (Europe)[7][8]


  • 67,000 civilians killed from US-UK bombing[9]


  • Tens of thousands of civilians
  • 2416 airmen of bombing squadrons (Polish Airforce in the West)[10]



  • Thousands of civilians


  • 353,000–635,000 civilians killed, including foreign workers[6][11]
  • Very heavy damage to industry


  • 330,000–500,000 civilians killed[12]
  • Very heavy damage to industry


  • 60,000–100,000 civilians killed[13]
  • 5,000 soldiers killed[13]
  • Heavy damage to industry


  • 19,135–30,000 killed and 25,000 wounded[14][15]
  • Heavy damage to industry[16]


  • 9,000 civilians killed or wounded[17]
  • Destruction and heavy damage to oil refineries and thousands of buildings[17]


  • 1,374 dead and 1,743 injured[18]
    12,564 buildings damaged, of which 2,670 completely destroyed[18]


  • At least 2,000 dead.[19]

During World War II, it was believed by many military strategists of air power that major victories could be won by attacking industrial and political infrastructure, rather than purely military targets.[21] Strategic bombing often involved bombing areas inhabited by civilians and some campaigns were deliberately designed to target civilian populations in order to terrorize them and disrupt their usual activities. International law at the outset of World War II did not specifically forbid aerial bombardment of cities despite the prior occurrence of such bombing during World War I, the Spanish Civil War, and the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Strategic bombing during World War II began on 1 September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) began bombing cities and the civilian population in Poland in an aerial bombardment campaign.[22] As the war continued to expand, bombing by both the Axis and the Allies increased significantly. The Royal Air Force began bombing military targets in Germany, such as docks and shipyards, in March 1940, and began targeting Berlin in August 1940.[23] In September 1940, the Luftwaffe began targeting British cities in the Blitz.[24] After the beginning of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, the Luftwaffe attacked Soviet cities and infrastructure. From February 1942 onward, the British bombing campaign against Germany became even less restrictive and increasingly targeted industrial sites and civilian areas.[25][26] When the United States began flying bombing missions against Germany, it reinforced these efforts and controversial firebombings were carried out against Hamburg (1943), Dresden (1945), and other German cities.[27]

In the Pacific War, the Japanese bombed civilian populations throughout the war (e.g. in Chongqing). The US air raids on Japan began in earnest in October 1944[28] and by March 1945 had started their escalation into widespread firebombing, which culminated in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, respectively.

The effect of strategic bombing was highly debated during and after the war.[29][30][31][32] Both the Luftwaffe and RAF failed to deliver a knockout blow by destroying enemy morale. However, some argued that strategic bombing of non-military targets could significantly reduce enemy industrial capacity and production[33][34] and in the opinion of its interwar period proponents, the surrender of Japan vindicated strategic bombing.[35]