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Firebombing is a bombing technique designed to damage a target, generally an urban area, through the use of fire, caused by incendiary devices, rather than from the blast effect of large bombs.

The tactic originated during World War II with the use of strategic bombing to destroy the ability of the enemy to wage war. London, Coventry and many other British cities were firebombed during the Blitz. Many German cities, such as Hamburgmarker, were extensively firebombed starting in 1942. Almost all of the Japanese cities were firebombed during the last six months of World War II.

This technique makes use of small incendiary bombs (possibly delivered by a cluster bomb such as the Molotov bread basket). If a fire catches, it could spread, taking in adjacent buildings that would have been largely unaffected by a high explosive bomb. This is a more effective use of the payload that a bomber could carry.

The use of incendiaries alone does not generally start uncontrollable fires where the targets are roofed with nonflammable materials such as tiles or slates. The use of a mixture of bombers carrying high explosive bombs, such as the British blockbuster bombs, which blew out windows and roofs and exposed the interior of buildings to the incendiary bombs, are much more effective. Alternatively, a preliminary bombing with conventional bombs can be followed by subsequent attacks by incendiary carrying bombers.


Early in World War II many British cities were firebombed. Two particularly notable raids were the Coventry Blitz on 14 November 1940, and the blitz on Londonmarker on the night of 29 December/30 December 1940, which was the most destructive raid on London during the war with much of the destruction caused by fires started by incendiary bombs. During the Coventry Blitz the Germans pioneered several innovations which were to influence all future strategic bomber raids during the war. These were: The use of pathfinder aircraft with electronic aids to navigate, to mark the targets before the main bomber raid; The use of high explosive bombs and air-mines (blockbuster bombs) coupled with thousands of incendiary bombs intended to set the city ablaze. The first wave of follow-up bombers dropped high explosive bombs, the intent of which was knock out the utilities (the water supply, electricity network and gas mains), and to crater the road - making it difficult for the fire engines to reach fires started by the follow-up waves of bombers. The follow-up waves dropped a combination of high explosive and incendiary bombs. There were two types of incendiary bombs: those made with magnesium and iron powders, and those made of petroleum. The high-explosive bombs and the larger air-mines were not only designed to hamper the Coventry fire brigade, they were also intended to damage roofs, making it easier for the incendiary bombs to fall into buildings and ignite them. As Sir Arthur Harris, commander of the RAF Bomber Command, wrote after the war:

The development of the tactical innovation of the bomber stream by the RAF to overwhelm the German aerial defenses of the Kammhuber Line during World War II would have increased the RAF's concentration in time over the target, but after the lessons learned during the Blitz, the concentration of dropping bombs over the target in the shortest time possible became standard tactic of the RAF because it was known to be more effective than spreading the raid over a longer time period. For example during the Coventry Blitz on the night of 14/15 November 1940, 515 Luftwaffe bombers many flying more than one sortie against Coventry delivered their bombs in a raid that lasted more than 10 hours, while in contrast the much more devastating raid on Dresden, Germanymarker on the night of 13/14 of February 1945 by the two waves of the Bomber Command's main force, the first wave released their first bomb at 22:14, with all but one of the 254 Avro Lancaster bombers releasing their bombs within two minutes, and the last one releasing at 22:22. The second wave of 529 Lancasters dropped all of their bombs between 01:21 and 01:45. This means that in the first raid that on average one Lancaster dropped a full load of bombs every half a second and in the second larger raid that involved more than one RAF bomber Group, one every three seconds.

The United States Army Air Force (USAAF) officially only bombed precision targets over Europe, but for an unusual example, when 316 B-17 Flying Fortresses bombed Dresdenmarker in a follow-up raid at around noon on the 14 February 1945, because of cloud the later waves bombed using H2X radar for targeting.Davis p.504 The mix of bombs to be used on the Dresden raid was about 40% incendiaries, much closer to the RAF city-busting mix than the 100% high-explosive bomb-load usually used by the Americans in precision bombardments.Taylor p. 366. Taylor compares this 40% mix with the raid on Berlin on February 3rd where the ratio was 10% incendiaries This was quite a common mix when the Army Air Force anticipated cloudy conditions over the target.Davis pp. 425,504

In its attacks on Japan the Army Air Force eventually abandoned its policy of high-altitude precision bombing, and it used a mix of incendiaries and high explosives to burn Japanese cities to the ground. These tactics were used to devastating effect with many urban areas burned out. The first raid using low-flying B-29 Superfortress bombers carrying incendiary bombs to drop on Tokyomarker was on the night of 24-25 February 1945 when 174 B-29s destroyed around fifty square mile (150 km²) of the city. Changing their tactics to expand the coverage and increase the damage, 279 B-29s raided on the night of 9-10 March, dropping around 1,700 tons of bombs. Approximately 16 square miles (41 km²) of the city were destroyed and some 100,000 people are estimated to have died in the resulting firestorm, more than the immediate deaths of either the Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Japan atomic bombings. Another example is the Bombing of Kobe, Japan on 17 March 1945, 331 B-29 bombers launched a firebombing attack against the city. Of the city's residents, 80,841 were confirmed to have been killed in the resulting firestorms, which destroyed an area of three square miles and included 21% of Kobe's urban area. At the time, the city covered an area of 14 square miles (36 km²). More than 650,000 people had their homes destroyed, and the homes of another one million people were damaged.

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  1. *
  2. Taylor, Fredrick; Dresden Tuesday 13 February 1945, Pub Bloomsbury (First Pub 2004, Paper Back 2005). ISBN 0-7475-7084-1. Page 118
  3. Freeman Dyson. Part I: A Failure of Intelligence. Technology Review, November 1 2006, MIT


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