Firebombing In WWII
" In order to win a war, is a nation justified in killing 100,000 civilians in one night?"
" Would it be moral to not burn to death 100,000 Japanese civilians, but instead to lose hundreds of thousands of American lives in an invasion of Japan?"
- Robert McNamara asking questions first proposed to him by US Major-General Curtis Lemay.

During World War One, Germany began using airships because they became a safer options than ships. Yet German commanders at this time were still reluctant to carry out an air raid against Britain. This first German air raid occurred on January 19th, 1914; it caused 18 causalities. Air raids like these continued and Germany bombed London on May 31st 1915. This bombing caused seven deaths and 35 people were injured. Major damage was caused in London in the following months. On September 8th, it is estimated that a bomb in London caused at least a half a million pounds of damage ( By 1916 Britain started the use of incendiary bullets in its airplanes. At first, these incendiary bullets and explosives were not used to bomb cities, but were used to take down German airships.

Although airplanes were used with incendiary weapons in World War Two, they were used in an entirely different way than in World War One. Commander’s and leaders in WWI were hesitant to bomb cities and used incendiary means to take down airships and Zeppelin’s. However in WWII, firebombing was used to take out entire cities and civilians. Unlike air bombing in WWI that could injure less than 18 people, hundreds of thousands of people were killed by firebombing in WWII. Firebombing developed as the most devastating weapon in World War Two because of advancements in technology and because of the moral shifts of WWII commanders.

A change in technology allowed for new strategies of arial warfare:
On November 1st, 1944, the B-29 made its first debut, collecting information, while flying over Tokyo. The B-29 was an extremely significant new airplane because it could fly at altitudes high enough to prevent it from being hit by anti-aircraft guns as well as other fighter planes.
In order for firebombing to have become the most effective, and most deadly weapon used in World War Two, new technology had to have been invented.

Boeing B-29 Superfortress in flight, during WW II. ( image and caption taken from

Although atomic bombs killed a shockingly high number of people, firebombing raids actually killed the highest number of people. Firebombs killed civilians and destroyed cities in Japan and Germany. Because firebombs are incendiary weapons, they created massive fires that caused more destruction than any other weapon. This type of bombing was most effective when lots of munitions were used on a small area, such as a city. Firebombs created a catastrophic inferno in the cities they took over.

In this segment of the movie, "Fog of War", Robert McNamara explains his involvement in the use of firebombing with the new planes, the B-29s. It was McNamara's job to analyze the efficiency of the B-29 operations, in other words, McNamara planed how to weaken the adversary, namely Japan. Although the B-29 could fly high enough to avoid being hit with enemy fire, the higher the plane was, the less accurate it's bombing operations would be. McNamara also comments on his interactions with Lemay. He quotes Lemay to have said to a US captain, "You lost one wingman, and we destroyed Tokyo." (Errol Morris Fog of War movie transcript). Indeed, 51% of Tokyo was destroyed. 50 square miles of Tokyo burned since it was primarily a city made of wood. Lemay chose to use incendiary bombs because by using arial bombs, the lives of US soldiers were saved.

From the cockpit of a nearby B-29 flying in the same formation, this photo is a view of two 39th Bomb Group B-29s out of North Field (Anderson Air Force Base, Guam) on a mission to Hiratsuka, Japan, 16 July 1945. (caption and photo taken from

Japan was not the only country affected by the firebombing done by the allied forces. In Dresden, a German city, over 3,400 tons of explosives were dropped in an effort to diminish Germany’s ability to communicated with its army. As a result, Dresden burned for days killing at least 35,000 and as many as 135,000 people (
"800 RAF Bomber Command planes let loose 650,000 incendiaries and 8,000lb of high explosives and hundreds of 4,000lb bombs in two waves of attack. They faced very little anti-aircraft fire."-BBC News (
Fires broke out across the entire city of Dresden. Chemnitz and Magdeburg, two other German cities were firebombed and burned as well. It is predicted that 25,000- 100,000 people were killed in these bombings.

This bombing in particular caused Commanders to question the morality of what they were doing to civilians and entire cities. Winston Churchill, who had supported the attack, attempted to remove himself from the incident.

(Background of air bombing in world war one)
(account of the Dresden firebombing)
(B-29 technology)
(Very basic overview of the concept of firebombing)
(bombing of Dresden)
(Information of the B-29)
(Entire Movie: Fog of War)
(Transcript of the fog of war)
( Both Photos of B-29)
(Dresden bombing)