World War II: The Impact of Total War

World War II Reference Library. Editor: Barbara C Bigelow, et al., Volume 1: Almanac, UXL, 2000.

World War II was larger than previous wars and was fought in more parts of the world. But it was different in another way, too. It came closer than any prior conflict to being a total war. It was not fought just by soldiers and sailors. Instead, each country tried to use all its resources to support the war. Victory in World War II depended, more than anything else, on supplying armies with huge quantities of industrial products. A country needed modern weapons, including planes, bombs, tanks, submarines, aircraft carriers, and machine guns. It needed the ships, railroads, and trucks to transport them; the fuel to run them; and the grease to lubricate them. It needed enough boots, uniforms, and helmets for its soldiers. The people who built these products, as well as the scientists and engineers who developed new weapons and the writers and filmmakers who waged psychological warfare, were as important to the war effort as the soldiers in the armies.

If all the people of a country were involved in the war, then the country could ask the civilian population to make major sacrifices to win the war. And if the civilian population were necessary for victory, then they were also targets for the enemy. If World War II were a war of the people, then the people were its victims as well as its fighters.

Death from the Air

One of the ways in which the war was brought home to civilian populations was by attacks from the air. In the first days of the war, the German air force (the Luftwaffe) heavily bombed Warsaw, the Polish capital. Then the Luftwaffe destroyed the center of the Dutch port of Rotterdam in May 1940. In both places, many civilians were killed and injured, and there was heavy damage to nonmilitary structures such as homes, schools, and hospitals. Shortly after, when large numbers of civilians clogged the roads of Belgium and France trying to escape the advancing Germans, Luftwaffe planes sometimes swooped down and fired machine guns at them to increase their panic and to block the movement of the Allied armies.

Although they caused civilian deaths, the air attacks were closely connected to efforts by German ground troops to capture the cities they were bombing or to cut off enemy forces. The Luftwaffe had been fashioned to work closely with the tanks and foot soldiers of the army. It had no four-engine heavy bombers, large planes that can travel long distances carrying heavy loads of bombs. Because the Germans based their military planning on the belief that the war would be short, they did not think they would need the Luftwaffe to operate independently of the German ground troops.

The RAF and the Strategic Air Offensive

The German military strategy was in sharp contrast to that of Britain’s Royal Air Force, the RAF (pronounced are-ayeff). Formed in 1918 at the end of World War I, the RAF was the first air force that was not part of the army or navy. In contrast, the American air force was still part of the army until after World War II. Because the RAF was an independent service, it looked for an independent part to play in a war.

The RAF developed the idea of the strategic air offensive, a direct, long-term bombing attack on the enemy’s homeland to destroy the enemy’s means or will to continue the war. One way to do this is by bombing the factories that build the enemy’s weapons. Bombers can also attack other enemy industries vital to the war effort, such as steel mills, coal mines, and dams needed to provide electric power to factories and oil refineries needed to provide fuel for planes and tanks.

Supporters of the strategic air offensive theory believed it might even bring victory by itself, rather than just helping the army win. They were certain that, at the very least, it would cause Germany to collapse much sooner, and with the loss of far fewer British lives. The RAF’s predictions about the effects of bombing were partly based on the belief that it was impossible to defend against bombing; that, in the words of former British leader Stanley Baldwin, “the bomber will always get through.”

British planners also had a wildly exaggerated idea of how much damage German bombing of Britain would cause. A secret study predicted that the Luftwaffe could drop an average of 700 tons of explosives on Britain every day. The study expected that each ton would kill or injure 50 people. This would amount to 35,000 people per day—2 million in the first two months of war—a rate Britain could not endure. The study expected that three-quarters of the 7 million citizens of London, Britain’s capital, would have to be evacuated and that between 3 and 4 million people in Britain would suffer mental breakdowns because of the bombing in the first six months.

No loss of life such as this happened. The actual number of British people killed or injured by German bombs in the entire war was about the number predicted for the war’s first week. The 60,000 civilians who died was a very high number, but it was nowhere near enough to make Britain give up.

The Battle of Britain

The idea that bombers could not be stopped was first proved wrong by the RAF itself. In the summer of 1940, the Luftwaffe began an extended series of air attacks on England that became known as the Battle of Britain. Although not designed for strategic bombing, the Luftwaffe was sent on an ongoing mission to fight and destroy the RAF’s fighter planes because Germany could not invade England until it had crushed the RAF. Soon, there was a second purpose for the German air raids: to make the British people feel that there was no chance to win the war and so force Britain to make peace without a German invasion.

Because of the fear of British retaliation against German cities, the Luftwaffe at first limited its attacks to military or semimilitary targets. The first German attack on London was an accident, and it did not come until August 24, six weeks after the beginning of the campaign. The British retaliated by bombing German cities. So, beginning on September 7, the Luftwaffe began massive attacks on London. Although these attacks were aimed at military targets such as the docks along the Thames River, there was heavy damage and loss of life in residential and commercial neighborhoods.

The fighter pilots of the RAF shot down so many German planes that by the middle of September it became clear that Germany had lost the Battle of Britain. It would not be able to invade England. The Luftwaffe shifted to night raids on London and other British cities in October and November 1940 and continued for months. Because night bombing was so inaccurate at that time, the raids were not really an attempt to hit military targets or factories. They were meant to cause as much damage and loss of life as possible.

Bombing Blind

Strategic bombing in World War II was certain to cause many civilian deaths. Even if the bombing were accurate, it would kill many workers in the targeted factories and mines. In fact, the way strategic bombing was carried out made it very inaccurate. In built-up cities, many of the bombs aimed at factories or shipyards hit the residential areas surrounding them.

Strategic bombing was inaccurate for a number of reasons. There were no computers to measure factors like the plane’s speed, direction, and altitude, as well as wind velocity, to determine the exact moment to release the bombs. Pilots and bombardiers had to calculate these factors, use their eyes, and rely on their experience to try to time the release accurately. Clouds and smoke made targeting even more complicated. Additionally, the bombers had to fly at high altitudes to avoid antiaircraft fire from the ground, and the need to dodge enemy ground fire and fighter planes made it difficult to keep a steady course.

Heavy Losses

The number of planes lost in bombing raids was very high, especially at first. To attack cities in Germany, the RAF had to fly long distances over German-controlled Europe. On both legs of the round-trip, Luftwaffe fighter planes attacked them. The deeper into Germany they went, the worse their losses were. Because British fighter planes did not have the fuel capacity to fly as far as the bombers, the bombers could not be escorted all the way to their targets. In a raid on Berlin, Germany’s capital, in November 1941, 12.5 percent of the bombers were shot down. At that rate, a bomber—and its crew—would last an average of only eight missions, much faster than they could be replaced. Any losses over 5 percent meant that the Luftwaffe would eventually wipe out the British bomber force. The fighter pilots of the Luftwaffe, like the RAF’s fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain, proved that bombers could be stopped.

Because of these factors, the British soon stopped daylight bombing missions. After the first few months of the war, the RAF flew strategic bombing missions only at night. Especially in the first years of the war, this meant the bombs were released blind. Because of the blackout, the pilots and navigators could not see any electric lights from their target cities. During blackouts, cities would require that all lights, streetlights, car lights, even flashlights could not be used outside after dark. People had to put heavy black curtains in their windows so that light would not show outside the house. The pilots and navigators relied on navigational charts, moonlight, or the fires caused by earlier bombs. Then they reported on how successful they thought they had been. However, after the RAF began taking photographs of bomb damage, it became clear that the crews’ reports were unreliable and that the bombers were doing a very poor job of hitting their targets.

At one point, a British study found that only 10 percent of the planes dropped their bombs within five miles of the intended target. Even when technical developments such as new versions of radar increased accuracy tremendously, only a small proportion of bombs landed closer than the length of two or three football fields from their targets.

“Area” or “Terror” Bombing?

The RAF chiefs realized that the only target they could count on hitting was an entire town. If the strategic air offensive were to continue, it needed a different justification than destroying factories. On February 14, 1942, Bomber Command, the RAF branch in charge of strategic bombing, issued a directive that the “primary object” of the campaign was to destroy “the morale [spirit] of the enemy civilian population and in particular of industrial workers.” The head of the RAF explained that the target was residential areas, “not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories.” The aim was to kill the people who worked in the factories, along with their families, and to destroy their homes. In fact, of the 600,000 German civilians killed in bombing raids during the war, about 120,000 were children. The tactic was called “area bombing,” but B. H. Liddell Hart, a leading British military historian, described it as a policy of “terrorization.”

In March 1942, the RAF attacked Lübeck and then Rostock, two small cities on the Baltic seacoast of northern Germany. The centers of both historic cities, dating from the Middle Ages, were completely destroyed by incendiary (fire-starting) bombs. The factory areas outside the central districts suffered little damage. The Luftwaffe retaliated by bombing historic and militarily unimportant towns in England, including Bath and Canterbury.

In May 1942, the RAF launched the first of its “1,000” raids. The first target was Cologne, Germany’s third largest city. One thousand bombers caused fires that destroyed 600 acres in the middle of the city, with only 40 bombers shot down. From March to July 1942, the RAF dropped 58,000 tons of bombs in a series of attacks on cities in the Ruhr, Germany’s most important industrial area, a campaign the RAF called the Battle of the Ruhr.


In late July, a large RAF force attacked the great seaport of Hamburg with incendiary bombs on four straight nights. For a combination of reasons, including the weather, the way Hamburg was built, and the fact that the raids destroyed the city’s water pipes, the attacks resulted in a new and terrible event: a firestorm.

Hamburg burned continuously from July 24 to July 30, until 62,000 acres were destroyed. The fire created winds reaching tornado speeds, which were sucked into the center of the fire area. There, temperatures rose to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and anything that could burn burst into flames—including people. Those in underground bomb shelters suffocated as the fire drew in all the oxygen. Eighty percent of the buildings in Germany’s second-largest city were damaged or destroyed. At least 30,000 people died, including about 6,000 children. Similar firestorms were created in several other cities. In some smaller cities like Magdeburg, where 9,000 died, the proportion of deaths was much higher than in Hamburg.

The RAF launched sixteen major raids on Berlin from November 1943 to March 1944. Until then, despite four years of war, life in Berlin had gone on normally, although 1 million of its 4.5 million inhabitants had been evacuated as a precaution. Because Berlin was a more modern city than Hamburg, with solidly built buildings and wide avenues and open plazas that prevented fires from spreading, there were no firestorms. An extensive system of well-designed bomb shelters kept the number of deaths down. But the physical destruction was still vast. About 1.5 million people were made homeless by the raids.

In February 1945, the RAF and the American air force attacked the city of Dresden in three short raids. Considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, Dresden was almost undamaged until then because it had little military importance. But that also meant it was almost undefended by the Luftwaffe or antiaircraft guns. The city was jammed with German refugees (people fleeing from danger) who were trying to escape the advancing Soviet armies farther east. A total of 1,223 Allied planes caused a firestorm, like the one in Hamburg, that wiped out the city and killed a large number of civilians. Because so many people had recently arrived in the city, it is impossible to know the exact number of deaths; estimates range from 30,000 to 135,000.

Morality and Effectiveness

The horror of the Dresden raid, coming as a time when it was certain that the Allies would win the war, made even many who had supported area bombing uneasy, including Winston Churchill, who was prime minister (head of the government) of Britain through almost the entire war. Even before Dresden, critics had argued that area bombing amounted to the intentional slaughter of civilians and was something the Allies should not do, even if the Nazis did.

In addition, the effectiveness of area bombing was doubtful. Even though the amount of bombs dropped on Germany rose from 48,000 tons in 1942 to more than 210,000 the following year and more than 900,000 in 1944, Germany produced 28,000 fighter planes in 1944, more than five times as many as in 1942. It produced three times as many tanks. Part of the reason was that the Germans had begun scattering their factories, breaking up large plants and relocating them to other areas. The new sites were unknown to the Allies, often disguised as something else, and sometimes built underground.

Even after the great Hamburg firestorm, industrial production in the city returned to about 80 percent of its pre-raid level within a few months. There is no indication that the people of Hamburg, or any other German city, were driven to rebel against the Nazi government, which supposedly was one of the goals of area bombing. In fact, the Nazis used area bombing to help convince average Germans that the British—not the Nazis—were barbarians who made war against defenseless children.

The cost of area bombing was high. Bomber Command lost 55,000 men in the campaign against Germany, most of them highly trained pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. Many more were shot down and became prisoners. These men, and the resources used to build the planes they flew and the bombs they dropped, might have made more of a difference if used in other ways.

The strategic air offensive, at least at first, was popular with the British people because for a long time it was the only way Britain could strike at Germany. The same was true for people in the German-occupied countries of Europe. It also forced the Germans to use about 2 million people, who were needed elsewhere, as part of the antiaircraft effort on the ground, and forced the Luftwaffe to devote many of its fighter planes to defend German cities, rather than fight the Soviet armies. Some historians believe this was its major contribution to the war. Almost all question whether the gain, however, justified the killing of so many civilians.

Poison Gas: The Weapon That Was Not Used

When the war began, one of the greatest fears—both of governments and ordinary people—was that the enemy would use poison gas. Both sides had used this weapon on the battlefield in World War I, killing thousands of soldiers and causing many others to suffer painful and sometimes deadly aftereffects for many years. Hitler himself had been injured in a gas attack while fighting in the German army in 1918, at the end of World War I.

The greatest danger was that planes would drop poison gas bombs onto cities in air raids. The British issued millions of gas masks to civilians, including specially designed masks for infants. But Germany did not drop poison gas on London, or anywhere else, and it did not fire gas-filled artillery shells on the battlefield. Neither did any other country. Each was afraid that the other side would then do the same, and the Allies publicly announced that they would use poison gas against Germany if the Germans used it first. But there were some close calls.

Each of the major countries produced poison gas weapons and sometimes even shipped them to the battlefront, to be ready in case the enemy used them. In fact, in December 1943, 1,000 Allied soldiers and Italian civilians were killed when a German air raid blew up an American ship carrying poison gas bombs in the port of Bari in southern Italy.

The Germans actually tested poison gas, including new forms of deadly nerve gas, using captured Soviet soldiers and concentration camp prisoners as guinea pigs. (Concentration camps were the brutal prison camps where the Nazis sent their enemies.) Japan apparently used poison gas in China before World War II and continued testing it on prisoners once the war began.

In the summer of 1940, when everyone thought Germany would soon invade England, Churchill approved a plan to use poison gas against German attackers who got beyond the beaches. Four years later, when Germany began attacking Britain with V-1 “flying bombs” and V-2 rockets, Churchill wanted to use gas on Germany in retaliation. (The German “V-weapons” are described in Chapter 15.) He dropped the idea because his generals opposed it, as did American President Franklin D. Roosevelt. American military men wanted to use poison gas once in a battlefield situation—to force Japanese soldiers out of their underground hiding places during the battle of Iwo Jima. (See Chapter 14.) Roosevelt said no.

Women and Total War

In the past, war had mostly affected young men. In World War II, other sections of the population were involved more than ever before. One of the great changes was in the expanded role of women.

Soviet Union

In a few cases, this expanded role meant taking a role in direct combat, especially in the Soviet Union. In the first few months of the German invasion, 1 million Soviet soldiers were killed and another 3 million captured. With such a severe shortage of manpower, Soviet women were recruited not only to do things like dig antitank ditches but also to join combat units.

Although they were still the exception, Soviet women drove tanks and flew planes in combat. One all-woman squadron flew their outdated planes on ten missions a night to bomb German troops during the Battle of Stalingrad. The Germans called them the “night witches.” The most famous woman ace of the war was Soviet fighter pilot Lily Litvak, “the rose of Stalingrad,” who shot down twelve German planes before she was killed in combat. In all, about 800,000 women served with the regular Soviet armed forces, although most did not see combat. Another 200,000 were partisans, troops operating behind German lines, employing hit-and-run tactics. (Partisans are described in Chapter 6.)

Great Britain

In most countries, women’s roles in the armed services were limited to noncombat positions. In Britain, nearly half a million women served in the various women’s branches of the armed forces or the nursing corps. Four hundred thousand were involved in defending against German air attacks, including operating antiaircraft guns during air raids. In theory, women were not allowed to fire the guns themselves, but they did everything else, such as operating searchlights and radar sets. Women—including Princess Elizabeth, who later became Queen Elizabeth II—drove trucks and ambulances. There were also more than a million part-time members of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WAS), who did things like provide tea to soldiers passing through their towns or darn soldiers’ socks, saving valuable material.

In December 1941 in Britain, single women between twenty and thirty years old became subject to the military draft, though they could choose to enter civil defense and similar work instead of the armed forces. By the end of the war, 125,000 women had been drafted into the women’s branches of the armed services.

United States

Although large numbers of women were serving in the armed forces in Britain, it took several months after the United States entered the war for the U.S. Congress to authorize the establishment of a Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, or WAAC on May 15, 1946. A year later, the WAAC became a full-fledged branch of the army called the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC. Women’s navy and marine corps forces were established in 1943. A total of 350,000 women were members of the armed services during the war. As in most countries, women were not permitted to serve in any combat roles. The WACs would free up more men for combat by filling important non-combat jobs. About half the women performed office work. Others worked in such diverse jobs as weather observer and forecaster, cryptographer (working with codes and secret communications), radio operator, photographer, and map analyst. Although some top officers strongly encouraged recruiting women to replace men in noncombat army jobs, others were hostile to the idea.

The Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, received a great deal of publicity during the war—even having a movie made about the group. Between 1942 and 1944, more than 1,000 women served as pilots in the WASPs, flying a total of 60 million miles. One of their main jobs was flying planes from the factories where they were assembled and the airfields where they were tested to ports for overseas shipment by boat. They flew every American military plane, including the huge B-29 Superfortress. Near the end of the war, they even flew the experimental jet fighters.

The women were responsible for testing various aspects of the aircraft they flew, such as their ability to jam enemy radar or to swoop low and attack ground targets with machine guns. The WASPs also towed targets that were used for practice by fighter pilots and antiaircraft gunners. The planes flown by the women were often hit since live ammunition was used in these exercises. Although the commander of the Army Air Corps strongly supported the WASPs, many other Air Corps officers resented their presence. Pilots thought of themselves as the elite of the military, and many found it disturbing that women could fly planes as well as men.

Children and Total War

British children were also impacted by the war in a dramatic way. When the war began, British experts were sure that German air raids on London and other English cities would kill hundreds of thousands of people a week. They also expected the Germans to drop bombs containing poison gas. Because of these fears, in September 1939, at the very beginning of the war, more than 800,000 children were evacuated—without their parents—from London and other large cities and sent to small towns or villages in the countryside. Half a million mothers of preschoolers, with their children, were also evacuated.

Most returned within a few months, during the period known as the phony war, when there were no German attacks on Britain. (This period is described in Chapter 2.) When German air attacks began again, many again left London. The same thing happened in 1944, when the V-weapon attacks began. (See Chapter 15.) Apart from physical dangers and shortages, one of the most dramatic effects of the war on children in countries such as Britain and the United States was the way it disrupted normal ways of growing up. An English child who was eight when the war began was fourteen when it finally ended—and probably could no longer remember a time before the war. Soldiers might be separated from their families for years, and no one could be sure if they would ever come back. Every child knew a friend whose father or older brother or uncle was killed in the war.

Victims and Orphans

Children in countries conquered by the Nazis suffered much more. The clearest example was the Holocaust, the Nazis’ attempt from 1941 to 1945 to kill all the Jews of Europe. (Chapter 7 describes the Holocaust.) Even before the war, Jewish children in Germany suffered constant discrimination. They were expelled from schools and attacked by Nazi thugs. Many Jewish families left Germany, but fleeing became increasingly difficult. In the last ten months before the war, German Jewish parents, who were unable to leave themselves, sent about 9,000 of their children to Britain. They traveled through Europe on special trains called kindertransporte (“children’s transports”). Although separated from their parents, friends, and homeland, these children were the lucky ones.

The overwhelming majority of Jewish children in German-controlled Europe, perhaps 85 percent, were murdered during the war—a much higher rate than adults. In extermination camps such as Auschwitz, designed to kill thousands of people a day, healthy adults might be spared and used as slave labor, but children were killed immediately. In addition, in the ghettos, the walled-in Jewish sections of towns that the Germans established in eastern Europe, there was starvation and constant epidemics of diseases caused by malnutrition, exhaustion, and inadequate sanitation. Children, especially very young children, were more likely to die from these causes than adults. Children were also less likely to survive by hiding in forests or escaping over mountains. Something like 1.5 million Jewish children died in the Holocaust.

Even so, many thousands of Jewish children survived the war, usually by being hidden by non-Jewish families or by Christian churches, even though their parents had died. But they were not the only children left alone. There were 1 million orphans in Poland at the end of the war and tens of thousands in France. One of every eight children in Greece was without parents. In 1945, when Germany surrendered, more than 10 million children in Europe had—at least temporarily—been abandoned or lost by their parents.

Germany: Fanatics and Rebels

For years, the Nazis had heavily pressured young people in Germany to join official Nazi organizations like the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls. By 1939, membership was legally required. These groups sponsored sporting events and similar social activities. But they also taught young Germans Nazi ideas, gave the youths uniforms, and marched them in Nazi parades. Older boys received military training, and many entered the army. In 1944, an entire armored division, called the Hitler Youth Division, was formed entirely from young men who had just “graduated” from the Hitler Youth. It fought with great courage and determination, but it was also the unit that murdered captured Canadian soldiers during the Battle of Normandy. In other words, the Hitler Youth had trained these young men to be fanatical Nazis.

Not all German young people participated in official Nazi groups, despite the law. In fact, some wanted to stay out so much that they became rebels against the Nazi government. In some of the big cities, especially in the Rhineland region of western Germany, loose groups of unskilled workers—usually between fourteen and eighteen years old—formed. They had various names, but the best-known groups were called Edelweiss Pirates. The edelweiss is a white flower that grows high in the Alps, the great mountain range of western Europe, and the Pirates wore one, or sometimes a white pin, hidden under the left lapel of their coats.

Originally, many of the Edelweiss Pirates just wanted to hike or go camping without Nazi interference. Soon, however, they began mocking Hitler and the Nazis in songs and in the graffiti they scrawled on walls. They attacked members of the Hitler Youth on the streets and tried to assassinate local Nazi officials. Sometimes they engaged in industrial sabotage, intentionally destroying machines or products.

The government considered the Pirates criminal street gangs, and, in some ways, some of them were. But their targets, and the things they wrote and said, made it clear that they hated everything the Nazis stood for. Because of this, the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police), whose job was to crush enemies of the government, hunted them. Although twelve Pirates were publicly hanged, without trial, in Cologne in 1944, the Gestapo never succeeded in destroying them entirely.