By Allan Sinclair, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History.



Area bombing is an instrument of total war as its main target is innocent civilians. During the Second World War (1939 – 1945) 7,5 million German people were left homeless as a result of the Royal Air Force’s indiscriminate area bombing campaign. In the process 305 000 civilians were killed and 780 000 wounded. By the Spring of 1945 there were hardly any targets left to attack as the vast majority of German cities had been reduced to rubble.[1] It has even been suggested that the bombing offensive was so powerful that the resultant shockwaves breeched and weakened the outermost layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. Consequently, the bombing also changed weather patterns and placed species of birds and insects on the endangered list.[2]

In 1945 South African war artist Geoffrey Long travelled to Europe to accompany the British force into Germany. In the process he completed a number of paintings in Berlin and other devastated cities which were, due to their great topical value, immediately placed on exhibition after his return to London.[3] This article looks at six of these works completed in 1945.

Geoffrey Long and the War Programme
The official Military Art Collection, which depicts South Africa’s involvement in the Second World War, has been under the curatorship of the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History since 1953.

Soon after South Africa’s entry into the war official war artists were appointed to travel to the battlefronts where the Union Defence Forces would be fighting. Geoffrey Long became a war artist in 1941 and his service initially took him to North Africa and Italy. He was not a war illustrator who spent time in the safety of the base painting portraits of generals and other personalities. He also did not paint action scenes from photographs or listened to the descriptions of those who had taken part in battle. He was daring and courageous, ready and willing to accompany the most dangerous missions to fulfil his role as an illustrator of the conflict.

Long’s productivity was noteworthy and he completed over 230 official works, the bulk of which became part of the official South African wart art collection. His style can be described as graphic and inclined towards expressionism. He worked in various mediums, but most of his work was completed in the form of drawings. These are more important for their subject matter rather than their artistic quality. [4]

The Area Bombing of German Cities
The six paintings that are the subject of this article are illustrations of Dortmund, Kiel, Essen, Bochum, Cologne and Berlin. They are selected examples of the many German cities completely destroyed as a result of the area bombing policy carried out by Bomber Command.

FIgure 1: G Long: Bochum (Acq 15390)

A number of reasons led to the formulation of such a policy. At the outset of the war, Bomber Command was given stringent instructions to avoid hitting targets that were neither military nor industrial and could lead to civilian casualties. There were also fears of pre-war estimates of the power of the German Luftwaffe. The initial policy was to stick to precision bombing of targets located away from the German cities.[5]

The first raids carried out in daylight were a disaster and the bombers were exposed to German fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft fire. As a result Bomber Command suffered major casualties to both its aircraft and personnel.

There was a belief that the bombing offensive would have to be cancelled altogether. However, after the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated from Dunkirk in May 1940, the Royal Air Force (RAF) became the only arm of service with a capacity to take the war to the enemy. According to Anthony Beever, the oppressed inhabitants of occupied Europe were crying out for retaliation against Germany. There was also strong opinion in Britain that the Germans deserved the same treatment that the Luftwaffe had meted out on the British population during the Blitz.[6]


Figure 2: G Long: Dortmund (DNMMH Acq 15095)

Accordingly, Bomber Command turned to night time raids. Patrick Bishop believes that the strategy of area bombing of cities was agreed to almost as a necessity. The lack of visibility, poor navigational aids and inaccurate bombsights rendered precision bombing of military and industrial targets at night useless. Area bombing was the only way to continue the fight into Germany. Widely dispersed attacks on residential areas would break civilian morale and the destruction of housing would leave workers homeless and impact heavily on German war-time industry. [7]

Figure 3: G Long: Kiel (DNMMH Acq 15379)

The area offensive began in earnest in March 1942 when 230 aircraft bombed Lubeck. The mission was primarily used as an experiment to see whether the bombing of timber framed buildings could produce a massive fire large enough to be used as an aiming point for more waves of bombers. The results spoke for themselves as 80% of Lubeck’s timber framed structures were destroyed in the raid.[8]

This mission became a pattern for Bomber Command raids for the rest of the war. A list of 43 German cities consisting of more than 100 000 inhabitants was drawn up by the British Chiefs of Staff and they were bombed one by one. The targets included Berlin, Essen, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Hamburg and the Ruhr industrial area. The method of attack was indiscriminate and terrifying for those on the ground. Once incendiary bombs had been dropped in large quantities they were followed by deadly high explosive bombs which precluded firefighters and other emergency management services from carrying out both fire suppressant and emergency medical duties.[9]

Figure 4: G Long: Essen (DNMMH Acq 15392)

Examples of particular bombing operations include Operation Millennium, a raid of 1 047 aircraft on Cologne on 30 May 1942. It is recorded that 868 bombers eventually dropped 1 455 tons of bombs on the city destroying 3 000 buildings in the process. Operation Gomorrah, the raid on Hamburg on 24 July 1943, saw 43 000 people lose their lives in the resultant firestorm. A further operation, the Battle of the Ruhr, formed part of a bombing campaign in 1943 and 1944. The cities of Essen, Dortmund and Bochum were regular targets throughout this period. One particular raid on Essen took place on 5 March 1944 and, even though the Krupp factory located in the city did suffer heavy damage, more than 160 acres of Essen’s residential areas were also destroyed in the process.[10]

While the RAF maintained its strategy of area bombing, the United States Army Air Force was determined to prove its own strategy. After the United States entered the war in December 1941, the US 8th Air Force was despatched to the United Kingdom to take part in the bombing campaign. The British had hoped that it would join Bomber Command in a massive area bombing operation. US planners, however, were of the firm belief that their heavy bombers which relied on speed, massed formations, high altitude and a large quantity of defensive weapons, could succeed with precision daylight raids on specific military and industrial targets.[11]

Figure 5: G Long: Cologne (DNMMH Acq 15393)

A mutual agreement was then reached in which the US bombers would carry out day time bombing raids on specific targets while the British would continue with their night time area bombing of the civilian population. Despite this agreement, the 8th Air Force did combine with Bomber Command during Operation Gomorrah and later raids on civilian targets.[12]

Possibly the most infamous bombing raid of the war took place on Dresden in eastern Germany on 13 February 1945. The raid formed part of Operation Thunderclap, the systematic attack on desperate German refugees moving west ahead of the advancing Soviet forces. The operation was adjusted to bomb major German cities in the east. It was believed that such attacks would place an even greater strain on the German defence of the Eastern Front.

A first wave of 244 Avro Lancaster bombers of the RAF delivered all their incendiary bombs over a period of fifteen minutes. The result was an immediate fire storm that sucked in all the oxygen. A few hours later a second wave of Lancasters arrived and, with fires raging heavily in the city, these bombers had no problem finding their targets. As day broke on the morning of 14 February, US Boeing B17 Flying Fortress bombers flew over to continue the attack. By that time Dresden was enclosed in a huge ash cloud which made it impossible for the aircraft to bomb selected targets. Many people on the ground suffocated from lack of oxygen or were cooked alive while tarred roads and people hiding in the bomb shelters melted under the massive heat which had been generated. The city continued to burn for two days and by the time the flames had dispersed 25 000 people had been killed.[13]

Debating the Effectiveness of the Aerial Bombing Campaign
This debate on the effectiveness and necessity of the bombing campaign has been raging ever since the war. On one side it is believed that the German economy was severely hindered by the campaign. Production of synthetic oil, chemicals and explosives was reduced while the railway and waterway transport systems also suffered.[14] Anthony Beever is of the opinion that the bombing created a second front against Germany which hampered the German position on the Eastern Front. A large number of 88mm anti-aircraft guns that would have played an important role against the Soviet forces had to be stationed strategically around Germany to defend against the bombing raids. The Luftwaffe was also required to relocate squadrons of aircraft that would have proved valuable on the Eastern Front.[15]

On the other side, historians such as Richard Overy argue that the bombing offensive never achieved its aims. Overy believes that the campaign did not create the desired negative effect on the German war economy or the morale of the local population. This is much in the same manner that the German Blitz of 1940 and 1941 failed to halt the British war effort or the determination of the British people. He claims that the RAF should rather have made a more substantial contribution to assist in halting the German U-boat offensive in the Atlantic Ocean.[16]

It is also believed by people such as Fuller and Liddel-Hart that nothing was gained by the killing of so many civilians for a cost of 55 000 aircrew. The German workers endured the bombing on an increasing scale and continued to work in the factories, many of which had been constructed away from the city centres where the bombing was concentrated. In addition, public support for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Government did not diminish in the manner that had been expected.[17]

The argument also highlights a fact that the bombs delivered on the United Kingdom during the Blitz were a mere five per cent of the tonnage dropped on Germany by Bomber Command. In reality more bombs were dropped on Berlin in 1944 and 1945 than all those that fell on the United Kingdom during the entire period of the war.[18]

Figure 6: G Long: Astcomfischer Platz, Berlin (DNMMH Acq 25354)

Illustrating the Effects of Area Bombing
The series of paintings under discussion was Long’s last assignment of the war and was the first comprehensive exposure of the devastation wrought by the Allies on Germany. The depiction of buildings and infrastructure in total ruin is clearly tangible and the scenes are captured in energetic, fascinating strokes.

In most case the buildings illustrated, a proportion of which would have been designed in previous centuries, are depicted as mere gaunt skeletons. In the sketch of Cologne (acq No 15393), the cathedral appears to stand alone, defiant over the desolation that surrounds it.

The subject matter also includes local citizens passing by the debris, all attempting to go about their daily lives despite the circumstances. Two of the paintings illustrate people searching through the wreckage. Some were probably trying to locate items that had belonged to them while others were searching for anything they could use to help rebuild their lives.[19]

It is reasonable to say that Long was moved by what he experienced in Germany. Previously during the war when he was stationed in the Mediterranean, Long registered 27 operational hours in bombing missions with both the RAF and USAAF over targets which included Benghazi, Sicily and Greece. His thoughts on those bombing missions after experiencing the effects of the destruction in Germany at first hand would probably have been interesting to read.[20]

The area bombing campaign against Germany in the Second World War was a case of total war in its extremity and the effectiveness and moral issues are still disputed today. West Germany was able to recover swiftly and re-build its cities in the years following the war as a result of loans received through the European Recovery Programme or Marshal Plan. However, until recently, it is doubtful whether people have fully understood the horror that German civilians were forced to endure. Many of the grim images and explicit accounts of people on the ground had been classified until the advent of the internet forced such information into the public domain. Geoffrey Long’s works of art produced during his visit to Germany in 1945 are an important record as the series represents a first serious attempt to document the consequences of area bombing.

Sources Consulted

Archival Sources:

  • Document Ref AG (1) (L) p.1/2050Document Ref AG (1) (L) p.1/20504/1 in File 920. Long Geoffrey Kellet (Archives of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History)
  • Document produced by Maj R N Lindsay, SA Public relations, Central Mediterranean, 1944 in File 920. Long Geoffrey Kellet (Archives of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History)

Published Sources

  • Frankland, N “The Bombing of Germany” in History of the 20th Century (Chapter 71)
  • Frankland, N “Bombing, The RAF Case” in Purnell’s History of the Second World War Vol 6
  • Huntingford, N P C, The Official World War II works of Geoffrey Long (Johannesburg, DNMMH, 1986)

Academic Sources

  • Rahder, K H The RAF Bombing Campaign in German: Ethical and Strategic Considerations (Master’s Thesis, Committee on International Relations, University of Chicago) November 1988
  • Rigole, J The Strategic Bombing Campaign against Germany in World War II (LSU Master’s Thesis, Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College) 2002

Video Sources

  • Netflix series, Greatest Events of World War II in Colour, 2019, Episode 8 “Dresden Firestorm”
  • YouTube Video, The Allied Bombing of German Cities in World War II was Unjustifiable, Intelligence Squared, 25 October 2012.
  • YouTube Video, The World at War, (Thames Television, 1973), Episode 12 “Whirlwind, Bombing of Germany”,

The above videos were accessed on 14 August 2020.

Internet Sources


The above internet sources were accessed on 22 May 2020.

[1] . J Rigole, The Strategic Bombing Campaign in World War II, p 78.

[2] . Internet source,

[3] . Document Ref AG (1) (L) p.1/20504/1.

[4] . N P C Huntingford, The Official World War II works of Geoffrey Long, Introduction.

[5] . K F Rahder, The RAF bombing campaign: Ethical and strategic considerations, p 8.

[6] . You tube documentary, The Allied bombing of German cities in World War II was unjustifiable.

[7] . You tube documentary, The Allied bombing of German cities…..

[8] . Internet source,

[9] . K F Rahder, pp 24, 27.

[10] . N Frankland, “Bombing the RAF Case”in Purnell’s History of the Second World War Vol 5, p 2272.

[11] . J Rigole, p 24.

[12] . Internet source,

[13] . Netflix Series, Greatest Events of World War II: Episode 8 “Dresden Firestorm”.

[14] . J Rigole, p 59.

[15] . You tube documentary, The Allied bombing of German cities…..

[16] . You tube documentary, The Allied bombing of German cities…..

[17] . K F Rahder, p 68; Internet source,

[18] . Internet source,

[19] . N P C Huntingford, Nos 107 – 115.

[20] . Document produced by Maj R N Lindsay, SA Public relations, Central Mediterranean, 1944.

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