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“There is a recurring theme in Sparrow:

the experience of being on the receiving end of an aerial bombardment.

Grant McLachlan

Before Roosevelt sent the diplomatic wire, the Rules of War regarding aerial bombardment were straightforward. It was illegal. On 14 March 1902 the United States Senate ratified the Hague Convention 1899, which specifically forbid the use of poisoned weapons, killing an undefended enemy, or employing material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering. Furthermore, it prohibited the bombarding of undefended towns, unless there is prior warning. The main effect of the Convention was to ban the use of certain types of modern technology in war, including bombing from the air, chemical warfare, and hollow point bullets.

The second Hague Conference was called at the suggestion of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, but postponed because of the war between Russia and Japan. The U.S. Senate ratified the 1907 Convention on 10 March 1908. Here, Declaration I extended Declaration II from the 1899 Conference to other types of aircraft. This extension was signed, among the great powers, only by United Kingdom, United States and Austria-Hungary.

In 1938, the League of Nations declared for the “Protection of Civilian Populations Against Bombing From the Air in Case of War.” The resolution stipulated three principles:

  1. The intentional bombing of civilian populations is illegal;

  2. Objectives aimed at from the air must be legitimate military objectives and must be identifiable; and

  3. Any attack on legitimate military objectives must be carried out in such a way that civilian populations in the neighbourhood are not bombed through negligence.

Although the United States never joined the League of Nations (and Japan left in 1933), the 1 September 1939 letter from Roosevelt mirrored the sentiment of the resolution.


Regardless of what the Rules of War were, the major powers all equipped themselves with bombers. The definition of 'military target' soon expanded to cover armament factories, which were often surrounded by residential areas that supplied the workforce.

Interactive map showing the location of bombs dropped on London during the  Blitz. Click on the link to the right to view the full map.

Initially, Germany did not target civilian areas. After a stray Luftwaffe bomber bombed a London residential area, RAF Bomber Command then raided Berlin. Tit-for-tat bombing raids escalated to the Blitz of major British cities, including Clydebank and Greenock. In 71 raids over London, 18,291 tonnes of bombs were dropped, which killed as many as 43,000, injured 139,000, and damaged or destroyed over a million houses.


The United States' position was unequivocal: bombing civilian areas reduced the ability of Japan to wage war. While Japan's factories were made from concrete and steel, its residential areas were mostly wooden. Incendiary bombing raids that could burn a city to the ground was a war crime.


The Operation Meetinghouse air raid of 9–10 March 1945 was the single most destructive bombing raid in history. The  firebombing destroyed approximately 16 square miles (41 km2) of Tokyo, killed 97,000, injured 125,000,  wounded124,711 casualties and destroyed 286,358 buildings and homes.

Map showing the location of the extent of firebombing raids on Tokyo during 9-10 March 1945.

Undersecretary of the Navy Ralph A. Bard warned that use of the atomic bomb without warning was contrary to “the position of the United States as a great humanitarian nation,” especially since Japan seemed close to surrender. Nonetheless, the four cities shortlisted for the bomb were chosen so that  “clean data” could be collected in an area with a small military targets “in a much larger area subject to blast damage in order to avoid undue risks of the weapon being lost due to bad placing of the bomb.”


Effectively, Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren't bombed to destroy Japan's ability to wage war. They were chosen to see how much destruction the bomb could cause to an urban area.


The raids on the Clyde were meant to target industrial areas. Instead, the Luftwaffe mostly destroyed residential areas. As a result of the raids on the nights of 13 and 14 March 1941, Clydebank was largely destroyed and it suffered the worst destruction and civilian loss of life in all of Scotland. 528 people died, 617 people were seriously injured, and hundreds more were injured by blast debris. Out of approximately 12,000 houses, only seven remained undamaged — with 4,000 completely destroyed and 4,500 severely damaged. Over 35,000 people were made homeless.

(Left) The Luftwaffe target intelligence identifying the tank farm and John Brown Shipyard as targets. (Right) Map showing the location of bombs and the extent of bomb damage in the Clydebank area.

Clydebank's production of ships and munitions for the Allies made it a target (similar to the Barrow Blitz). Major targets included the John Brown & Company shipyard, ROF Dalmuir and the Singer Corporation factory. A total of 439 bombers dropped over 1,000 bombs. RAF fighters managed to shoot down two aircraft during the raid, but none were brought down by anti-aircraft fire.

In his book Luftwaffe over Scotland: a history of German air attacks on Scotland, 1939-45, historian Les Taylor

qualified the Clydebank Blitz as "the most cataclysmic event" in war-time Scotland. He claims that while the raid on 13 March was not intended as a terror attack, it caused extensive damage because there was a lot of housing near the specific targets. But the bombing the following night was indeed a terror attack as it "was intended to crack morale and force the people to call for an end to the war. However, it had quite the opposite effect, strengthening resolve for the war in Scotland."

Map showing the location of bombs and the extent of bomb damage in the Port Glasgow, Greenock, and Gourock areas during the nights of 6-7 May 1941. Lock Thom is to the south.


The Greenock raids of 6-7 May 1941 targeted the many ships and shipyards around the town but like the Clydebank Blitz the previous March the brunt of the bombing was taken by civilians. Over the two nights 280 people were killed and over 1,200 injured. From a total of 18,000 homes nearly 10,000 suffered damage and 1,000 were destroyed outright.

An Air Ministry 'decoy' behind Loch Thom prevented the number of casualties being even higher. The decoy was lit on the second night of the blitz. It consisted of a large number of mounds of combustible materials scattered over a wide area of the moorland to simulate a burning urban

area. Scores of large bomb craters were found after an inspection of the decoy after the air raids.

The Blitz began around midnight on 6 May when around fifty bombers attacked the town in an apparently random fashion. Bombs fell all over the town and surrounding area: serious damage being inflicted on East Crawford Street and Belville Street. Many civilians fled to the tunnels in the east end of the town, significantly reducing casualties the next night.

Air raid sirens at 12:15am on 7 May marked the beginning of a second night of bombing. Initially, incendiary bombs were dropped around the perimeter of

the town. The second wave attacked 

primarily the east end and centre of Greenock; the distillery in Ingleston Street had been set alight in the first wave, providing a huge fire which acted as a beacon for the rest of the bomber force. The final wave came around 2am; dropping high explosive bombs and parachute land mines which caused widespread destruction.

At 3:30am the "All Clear" sounded; the whole of the town appeared to be in flames. The sugar refineries, distillery and foundries were all extensively damaged, and several churches were left as burnt out shells. However damage to the shipyards was minimal.

>> Did the atomic bombs save lives?
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These maps show the extent of damage to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and other cities in Japan. Please click on the maps to enlarge.

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