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1945: The Atomic Bombing of Japan and The Fire Bombing of Germany

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

The Rise of Strategic Bombing

In the 1930s General William "Billy" Mitchell was an early leading visionary on strategic bombing. Mitchell asserted flatly that bombing "vital centers" (cities) to quickly end a war was "more human than the present methods of blowing people to bits by cannon projectiles or butchering them with bayonets."

In the age of modern industry, mass political mobilization, and the advancement of science, it was argued that war couldn't be confined to the fighting front. During the Second World War Allied generals would put "Operation Thunderclap" into action to bring the German nation to its knees.

It was an attempt to shatter German civilian morale, giving every German citizen a chance to witness the strength of Allied air power, sealing the fate of hundreds of thousands of Germans civilians by the end of the war in Europe.

German civilians would experience the nightmare of "Operation Thunderclap" beneath the shriek of falling bombs and swirling clouds of fire as Allied bombers dropped hundreds of tons of bomb on German cities.

When aerial bombing of heavily populated cities was introduced, its proponents claimed it was "at once terrible and awe-inspiring." British Brigadier-General Lord Thompson would describe aerial bombing, writing in 1925, with its "horror goes a splendor of achievement" that "kindles the dullest imagination.

The American B-29 Superfortress emerged as the most advanced heavy bomber used in the Second World War by any of the belligerents. It was one of the largest aircraft used in the war, with a wingspan of over 141 feet, and featured a pressurized cabin for flying at very high altitudes. Originally designed as a "hemisphere defense weapon," to bomb Germany directly from the United States.

The B-29 Superfortress was designed to make strategic bombing a reality, replacing ground and naval forces as the decisive weapon on the battlefield. The B-29 would take years to develop costing the United States government over three billion dollars before Boeing air-works delivered it to the military for use against the enemy.

It was the first bomber that carried a crew of ten. It was protected by eleven machine guns and was capable of cruising at speeds in excess of 320 miles-per-hour at over 30,000 feet while holding a bombload of about eight tons. The B-29 aircraft would play a crucial role in the firebombing of Japan, putting into practice the theory that the bomber was capable of delivering the knock-out blow to the enemy.

Most importantly, the B-29 was the only aircraft in the American inventory which could carry America's new secret weapon the atom bomb.

Curtis Emerson Le May, described as the Caveman in a Jet Bomber, was the United States Pacific Air Commander in the Second World War. He rarely smiled or spoke and led his command in a manner that was surly and tackles. Le May was the prototype of the brutal, inhuman militarist, his strength was his ability to take a dauntingly complex problem and reduce it to its most basic elements.

Spectacular command performance in the deadly skies over Germany made Le May the youngest major general in the Army Air Force by March 1944.

Le May would take responsibility for the 1945 incendiary bombing campaign against Japan that killed over one million civilians, totally destroying sixty-four cities, a bombing campaign that would lead to the death of more civilians than any other in human history.

In the words of General Thomas Sarsfield Power who would later command the Strategic Air Command, who also directed the firebombing of Tokyo and had been the Deputy Chief of Operations during the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, "the incendiary attacks on Japan were the greatest single military disaster incurred by any enemy in recorded time."

Le May's legion of 300 B-29s would not only strike economic targets, but also urban areas, attempting to erode the Japanese people's morale.

For cities and towns, with so many wooden buildings, most aircraft would carry incendiary bombs, setting the template for the massive firebombing of Japan's homeland. Subsequently, the great fire raids of Japan began. Le May's B-29s flew in vast aerial armadas sowing death and destruction in their wake.

The Firebombing of Germany

In the twentieth century the safety of the nation became a supreme value, and the international community acknowledged a nation could use whatever means necessary to protect itself. Between 1914 and 1945, over seventy million people in Europe and the Soviet Union died violent deaths defending their homelands.

Most would agree that some of the largest-scale acts of terrorizing violence against civilians has been carried out by States rather than independent groups or individuals. In what can be termed the national wars of the twentieth century, millions of civilians were firebombed, napalmed, or vaporized.

In the Second World War, Allied scientists would carefully calculate the right mix of explosives, and wind patterns, to create devastating firestorms in the densely populated residential areas in Germany and Japan to terrorize their nations populations.

From September 1944 to May 1945, Allied bomber command waged a campaign of "continuous attrition" which resulted in the highest number of German casualties of the air war in Europe.

Over the eight months until the German surrender, Allied bombers dropped 75% of the entire wartime bomb total against an almost totally defenseless enemy, almost half of all German deaths from bombing occurred over that same period.

The extravagant use of power, and its massive damage to Germany's civilian populations, urban infrastructure, cultural heritage, has raised serious moral questions about the necessity of such tactics. The debate continues to be made by critics as to the inaccuracy and the cruelty of strategic bombing. It has been argued that they would have been better employed bombing the approaches to Auschwitz.

In an attempt to express his hatred for the Allied bombing war, one German writer applied the language normally associated with crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. He described American bombers as flying Einstazgruppen, who turned air-raid shelters into gas chambers.

Einstazgruppen were assassination squads who roamed behind German battlelines murdering Jewish men, women, and children as a part of the Nazi "Final Solution." It is believed that the indiscriminate nature of the air attack aroused more defiance than defeatism.

As Allied bombers flew over Dresden releasing their bombs, a young schoolgirl named Karen Bush, and her twin brother were forced to leave their family shelter after an unexploded bomb demolished their shelter in the midst of the firestorm.

The children somehow managed to escape to the banks of the river Elbe. From there they would become witnesses to the new face of war, one where civilians threw themselves into the river desperately attempting to escape the heat as deadly phosphorus danced along the water.

But there was no escape, dead bodies lay everywhere with the gas masks they were wearing melting into their faces. Finally, when they found their way back to their family shelter all that was left was a pile of ashes in the shape of a person. Karen didn't know who it was until she saw a pair of earrings in the ashes, she knew then that she had found her mother.

The panic-stricken citizens of Dresden had nowhere to run. Flame hundreds of feet high drove them from their shelters, but high-explosive bombs sent them scrambling back again.

Once inside their shelter, trapped they would suffocate from carbon-monoxide poisoning afterward their bodies would be reduced to ashes as though they had been placed in a crematorium, which is indeed what each shelter proved to be.

"Giants Who Stalked The Earth Above Us"

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. the great American author would bear witness to the bombing of Dresden firsthand. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, he unfortunately at Dresden on the night of February 13, 1945. Vonnegut escaped death by hiding in a bunker sixty feet below the surface which had been used as a slaughterhouse.

Vonnegut described the approach of Allied bombers as "Giants who stalked the earth above us". "First came the soft murmur of their dancing on the outskirts, then the grumbling of their plodding toward us, and finally the ear-splitting crashes of their heels upon us".

Vonnegut would base his most famous novel the darkly satirical, "Slaughterhouse Five," on what he experienced at Dresden, which would become an American anti-war classic. The book's anti-war sentiment resonated with its readers as the Vietnam War raged in Southeast Asia making Vonnegut famous overnight. Vonnegut would go on and write fourteen novels becoming one of America's most respected authors for the next fifty years.

Allied bomber commanders under great pressure to bring the war in Europe to an end would finally come up with a plan to destroy Germany, they termed it the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO).

The plan listed six German industrial systems as having high priority for destruction: submarine construction yards and bases, the aircraft industry, ball-bearing, oil, synthetic rubber and tires, and military transport vehicles.

They also agreed to bombard Berlin, home of nearly four million civilians, by the end of the war it would be the focus of 363 raids, and over 1.7 million of its citizens would flee the city. Allied leaders had crossed the moral threshold by bombing Berlin, they had deliberately decided to bomb civilians, once they crossed that moral divide, they sealed the fate for almost half a million Germans.

It would make everything else easier as they turned their focus toward defeating Japan later in the war.

In October 1943, the American faith in daylight bombing began to waiver after several air assaults deep into German territory resulted in the loss of more than 200 bombers and hundreds of American airmen. But the Allied air assaults continued regardless of the losses.

In late July 1943, Allied leaders launched a series of raids on the German city of Hamburg, an industrial town and its largest port, home to nearly two million people which sparked the fire firestorm in recorded history. The raids code-named "Operation Gomorrah," killed nearly 50,000 human beings, all but about 800 of them were civilians.

Hamburg was a perfect target for Allied bombers. It was Germany's second largest city and played a particularly important role in U-boat construction.

The unusually warm weather and clear conditions resulted in a very accurate bombing run that concentrated around the intended targets, creating a vortex of super-heated air, a tornado of fire that reached out toward Allied bombers. Trees three feet thick were broken off or were uprooted. Human beings were lifted up and thrown to the ground or flung alive into the flames by winds which exceeded 150 miles-per-hour.

Allied bombers flew into the target sheltered from detection by "Window," a new Allied invention which was a shower of aluminum strips that smothered the German radars, resulting in almost no loss of life to the attackers.

The firestorm created by the raid on Hamburg was seen from more than two hundred miles away. The heat from the firestorm exceeded 1500 degrees Fahrenheit causing the asphalt streets of Hamburg to literally burst into flames. It is estimated that over one million civilians fled the city to escape from the blazing ruins that over a week later were still burning.

The air assault began on the 24th of July 1943, when 791 Allied bombers attacked the city, by the time the operation was over more than 9,000 tons of bombs would be dropped on the city. Over the following eight nights, five more large raids were launched against Hamburg, ending with a 740-bomber raid on the 2cnd of August, which would cause apocalyptic devastation.

The British launched their raids on the city during the evening while the American air force attacked during the day. Numerous 8,000-pound blockbuster bombs were dropped on the city destroying entire city blocks.

Weather conditions greatly contributed to the raging fires; the Hamburg area had been suffering from a mini drought for some period of time. Up to that point in the Second World War "Operation Gomorrah" was the heaviest assault in the history of aerial warfare later called the Hiroshima of Germany by British officials.

A stunned Albert Speer told Hitler in August 1943 that "six more attacks as successful as the attack on Hamburg would bring armament production to a standstill."

In the end Hamburg collapsed into a sea of rubble and ashes, photo reconnaissance after the raid revealed that 6,200 acres of Hamburg had been destroyed. Hamburg would be bombed another 69 times before the end of the war.

Much like Berlin, Hamburg experienced on-going periods of bombing throughout most of the war.

Ghosts of the Atomic Age

On the 6th of August 1945 at 8:16 A.M., on a bright sunny morning as children left for school, suddenly a blinding pulse of white light ripped open the sky above the Japanese city of Hiroshima. What took place that morning could be described as the hand of God reaching out and releasing a piece of the sun over Hiroshima.

But the light was made by man and given the name "Little Boy." It was an atomic bomb whose detonation created a fireball which reached temperatures greater than the surface of the sun. The white-hot flash of light was hot enough to blind whoever looked directly at the light, melt steel and vaporize flesh.

Anyone who happened to be exposed to the heat directly below the fireball would have their flesh converted into gas. Their blast-dispersed carbon would leave shadows on the sidewalks and granite walls, offering evidence where humans had once lived and breathed, in an instant, they became ghosts of the atomic age.

The blast pressure created by the intense heat tore off hands and limbs, also causing eyes and internal organs to explode. Thousands of people were crushed beneath collapsed houses, factories, and schools.

Survivors suffering severe thermal burns from the bomb's remarkable heat instinctively walked away from the boiling cauldron that was ground zero. Walking with their hands outstretched, to dull the pain as the skin peeled off their hands and arms, the once living in Hiroshima, now became walking dead. The atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima would not be announced to the world for another sixteen hours.

The man who ordered the attack on Hiroshima, President Harry S Truman the 33rd President of the United States, was on the other side of the globe in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean returning back from the Potsdam Conference aboard the U.S.S. Augusta when he found out the attack was a success.

Truman would have his press secretary Eben Ayers announce it to a dozen members of the Washington press corps due to the fact he was out of the office.

The term Ground Zero originated that day in the streets of Hiroshima. It refers to an area where virtually all buildings are destroyed, and the possibility of a horrific death is certain for those unfortunate unprotected persons caught outside. How far away from ground zero determined whether or not if you lived or died.

The power of the bomb would later be calculated to be equivalent to 18,000 tons of TNT. The bomb's rising fireball suctioned up massive amounts of radioactive dust and debris into a churning column above Hiroshima.

The city looked otherworldly under a giant dome of red plasma created by the heat milliseconds after the bomb's detonation. The entire city vanished under a pillar of yellow boiling dust and flames leaving many thousand dead instantaneously.

The blast wave created by "Little Boy" flattened the entire city in less than ten seconds, leaving over 60,000 buildings destroyed or severely damaged.

The bomb's blast wave traveled through Hiroshima's neighborhoods at twice the speed of sound and with the force of a runaway locomotive. "Little Boy" was a true weapon of terror, the first weapon of mass destruction, a single bomb capable of destroying an entire city.

By 1950 over 200,000 citizens of Hiroshima would die as a result of the bomb, they died from either the blast wave, the intense heat or the radiation associated with the aftereffects of the bomb.

On the 9th of August 1945, three days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a second more powerful atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Some of those who survived the first atomic bomb in Hiroshima would leave from Hiroshima's Kio Station for Nagasaki, and become members of a very exclusive club, witnesses to the horrors of the world's only two atomic bomb attacks.

At 11:02 A.M., a super-brilliant white-hot flash of light lit up the sky above Nagasaki visible from more than ten miles from the center of the explosion. With colossal force and energy "Fat Man," code name for the second atomic bomb, detonated a third of a mile from its intended target the town center of Nagasaki.

Beneath the still rising mushroom cloud, a huge portion of Nagasaki had vanished. Soon after the explosion, particles of carbon ash from the burning ruins and radioactive residue descended from the atmosphere condensing into an oily black radioactive rain that fell over the dead and dying.

In Nagasaki, 74,000 people had been killed indiscriminately, which included almost everyone living in the central Uramaki Valley and over 40% of the communities in the adjacent townships.

Death Ray

Less than a millisecond after the atom bomb exploded, the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombarded by the largest doses of radiation ever received by any humans in recorded history.

Within a tenth of a millisecond after the bombs detonated all the radioactive materials that made up the bombs were converted to ionized gas. Traveling at the speed of light, electromagnetic energy in the form of gamma rays, neutrons, and x-rays sprayed invisible cell damaging energy into everything up to two miles from the center of the explosion.

Those exposed to the gamma ray burst within a half of a mile from Ground Zero received extremely high doses of radiation and died instantly, or by the end of the first day. The radiation was so intense that it damaged the living cells inside the survivors' mouths, causing their teeth to fall out, leaving only rotten bone.

Some survivors over two miles from ground zero received enough radiation to severely damage their immune systems causing them to die of painful infections weeks after the bomb exploded.

In order to make the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, the United States used the only 141 pounds of enriched uranium that was in existence.

A startling fact is when "Little Boy" exploded most of the bomb was blown apart before it reached the supercritical phase. The result was the huge explosion that destroyed Hiroshima was caused by seven-tenths of a gram of uranium, less than the weight of a dollar bill.

Some consider the atomic bomb in reality is a death ray. The bomb's initial flash of white light releases a tremendous amount of heat, but also scatters a massive number of radioactive particles throughout ground zero in a shotgun-like effect, that burns the victim's bodies from the inside out.

Norman Cousin called the atomic bomb a "radiological assault on human tissue" that was not only reflected in the survivors' immediate post-bomb hardships, but also foreshadowed by a heavy stream of recurring atomic bomb-related diseases and deaths.

Little was known about radiation sickness before the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. The Japanese who survived the bomb's radiological assault would become test subjects for the rest of their lives. Many survivors would live years after those fateful days but die of various types of cancer caused by the hidden effects of radiation exposure associated with the explosion of the atomic bombs.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first and only nuclear tests where live subjects were used under the pretense of war. Calculations were made to determine the exact altitude over Hiroshima and Nagasaki the atomic bombs needed to detonate to most effectively kill as many civilians on the ground as possible.

In 1945 the atomic bomb was the only weapon in history that could destroy so much by itself, generating a colossal amount of heat, a devastating blast, and possibly its most gruesome effect was the invisible spread of radioactivity throughout its targeted area.

On May 27, 2016, seventy-one years after "Little Boy's" fireball vaporized the center of Hiroshima, President Barack Obama visited ground zero. He first sitting American President to ever visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

President Obama would meet Sunao Tsuboi who watched that lone silver B-29 fly over Hiroshima on that fateful morning. At the age of 91, she still sufferers from the burns caused by the massive heat, created from that blinding white hot flash of light, which was America's first atomic bomb.

President Obama said the memory of Hiroshima must never fade. He remarked that the bombing of Hiroshima which killed at least 100,000 people had shown that mankind now possessed the means to destroy itself.

Paradoxically, on that day not far away from President Obama, stood an officer who carried the launch codes for America's nuclear arsenal which opens the key to unlocking the destruction of the human race.


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