Front cover of a magazine publishing a critical account of the raid of 3/4 March 1942. Reproduced courtesy of the Archives Municipales de Boulogne-Billancourt.

The expectation of air attack led to the marketing of products for personal protection. 'There are many ways to fight fire, but only one means of escape: the Sans Rivale Ladder'. Reproduced courtesy of the Archives Municiples de Boulogne-Billancourt.

Commemorative stamp issued in 1949 by the Comité Lyon-Brest to raise money for the homeless and the refugees from the town of Brest. Courtesy of the Archives Municipales et Communautaires de Brest.

Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe 1940-1945

The Bombing of France 1939 - 1945

Bombing in World War 2 claimed between 50,000 and 60,000 French civilian lives. Almost all died at the hands of the Allies, not the Germans. The death toll, though no more than an eighth of that in Germany, was still numerically comparable to that of British civilian victims of German bombing and V-weapons, or to that of Jews deported from France and exterminated in the camps. The Channel port of Le Havre alone is estimated to have lost some 5,000 dead.1 Material destruction, too, left a lasting legacy on French towns. Of France 's 38,000 municipalities, 1,838 were officially declared war-damaged, or sinistrées, in 1946 – a designation requiring damage or destruction to at least 30 per cent of buildings. They included 20 out of France 's 27 largest cities. Some 18 per cent of all French buildings were listed as destroyed or seriously damaged. Largely untold in the literature in English, this story has received fairly scant coverage in French as well.2

Why did the Allies choose to wreak such destruction on what was considered a friendly country, albeit one occupied by the Germans? The reasons were many, at times contradictory, and usually quite distinct from the logic – destroying morale or economic systems – that underpinned the strategic bombing of Germany. In 1940 the Royal Air Force bombed Channel ports to head off the threat of invasion. From 1941 it attacked the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest harbour. On 3-4 March 1942, RAF Stirling bombers targeted the Renault works at Boulogne-Billancourt, which was known to be supplying German forces.3 The operation was remarkable for using the ‘Gee' navigational aid for the first time – and for killing over 370 civilians, more than in any raid hitherto on Germany. It inaugurated a policy of raids on industrial targets believed to be working for Germany that continued with growing intensity through the war. In 1943, U-boat bases in the Bay of Biscay ports were attacked; the towns, especially Lorient, were badly damaged, but the reinforced concrete of the U-boat pens survived intact. The largest-scale bombing, however, was linked to the Allies' re-entry to Western Europe. The controversial ‘Transportation Plan', undertaken from March 1944, aimed to destroy any French rail centres that might help the Germans send reinforcements to the Normandy beaches after D-Day. After the Normandy landings, the Allied air forces gave battlefield support to the invading armies whenever required; Caen and Saint-Lô, for example, suffered particularly in this way. Meanwhile they continued to bomb French industrial and transport targets, and attacked the V-weapon sites which proliferated through northern France in the course of that summer.

All of these raids were ‘tactical', in the sense that they sought to destroy specific targets: the occupying forces themselves, or factories and transport networks that supported the German war effort. They were also politically highly sensitive. Some of the earlier raids, such as the Renault attack, were viewed in London as politically beneficial because they seen as showing the French that Britain could and would hit their occupiers hard. More frequent, however, was an awareness of the potential political costs of bombing French territory. Up to 1942, the main danger was seen as pushing France's Vichy regime further into German arms, opening the possibility that French North Africa, or Vichy's Mediterranean fleet, would fall into German hands. After the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942, and the scuttling of the French fleet in the same month, the perceived risk was more that the French population would prove hostile to Allied forces after a major landing, or even that liberated France would view the Soviet Union, not Britain or the United States, as an ally. The political debates reached a climax in Spring 1944; when they were settled by Eisenhower's and Roosevelt's unconditional backing for the Transportation Plan, bombing policy towards France was effectively transferred for the rest of the war to military control. And however ‘tactical' the raids, the force of Allied air power, by the summer of 1944 at least, was such that the French populations under the bombs might be forgiven for confusing their situation with that of victims of a strategic bombing offensive.

If the Allies, and especially the British, were politically hesitant about bombing France, the French who received the bombs were similarly ambiguous. Did they view the aircraft of the RAF, or the US 8th and 9th air forces, as their liberators, or their nemesis? Low-flying Allied pilots regularly reported being waved at by French men and women – as they speeded to other destinations. Jean-Paul Sartre himself recalled a mixture of joy and dread at seeing Allied aircraft in over occupied Paris. The inhabitants of Le Havre, by contrast, put black crêpe around their tricolour flags as they greeted the British troops who had entered the city after a week of bombardment from land, sea and air.

These ambiguities permeate every aspect of the French experience of bombing, and are at the heart of the French component of the present research project. More specifically, they can be seen in the way in which French cities prepared (or did not prepare) for aerial attack; in the way in which civilians, governments, and even Resistance movements responded to bombing; and in the political, social and cultural impact bombing had on French towns and cities.

How, for example, did the French authorities prepare for aerial attack? Bombing had been an object of concern both to media and to government through the 1930s; a detailed Civil Defence manual had been produced by the Interior Ministry, while private firms touted all manner of gas masks, ladders, and reinforcements for cellars for the equipment of the prudent householder. But the defeat of 1940 came and went without the experience of large-scale bombing. Thereafter, civil defence measures from town to town would have to be undertaken in collaboration with the occupying authorities, for whom the defence of civilian populations was not an overriding priority compared, for example, with that of their own military installations. The difficulty of dealing with the occupiers was compounded by uncertainty about where, and with what intensity, future raids would take place. What appears certain, but requires further research from the current project, is that no French locality was fully prepared for the scale of the onslaught of 1944. Bombing was, in a sense, both anticipated (in the 1930s) and unexpected (in its direction, nature, and scope).

How, secondly, did central and local government, civilians, and the Resistance respond to bombing when it came? The Vichy government took the opportunity to depict the British and Americans in the darkest of colours – for example, in a telling poster linking the bombing of Rouen with the fifteenth-century burning of Jeanne d'Arc by the English, with the slogan ‘Murderers always return to the scene of their crimes'. Allied propaganda, by contrast, presented bombing as a painful but necessary prelude to liberation. How did civilians respond to these conflicting pressures? Is it possible to speak of French civilian ‘morale' in this context, and if so, how does it compare to notions of morale in the major European belligerents, Britain and Germany? A vital source for understanding this is the regular reports (analogous to those of the German Sicherheitsdienst) from the secret services to France's prefects, and from the prefects to the Interior Ministry, on the state of popular morale. These need to be complemented, however, both by newspapers and by personal diaries of civilians under attack. Bombing also presented an obvious problem for the Resistance and the Free French, given their support for the Allies; while they implored the British and Americans, especially from 1944, for less indiscriminate raids and a greater recourse to the sabotage operations that Resistance teams could undertake against German targets, their appeals fell largely on deaf ears.

Aside from questions of morale and propaganda, the project will consider how the authorities on the ground, and French civil society, coped with the reality of air raids. How, for instance, were evacuation plans implemented, if at all? How far did the capacity of air raid shelters meet the needs of the population? How well were volunteer teams mobilised for civil defence, and what links did they have with the Vichy authorities and the Germans? The project also deals with the aftermath of bombing during the war, such as the organisation of relief for bombed-out civilians in terms of housing, food and clothing; the role of groups such as Secours National, and the French Red Cross, as well as the mobilisation of youth groups in the clear up, and the different sources of charitable assistance which grew up around bombed communities. It is also necessary to consider the re-establishment of a semblance of daily life – the supply of necessities like gas and water, opportunities for transport, shopping, education and worship – between attacks, and the question of how far it was possible during this time to achieve some kind of normality.

With the Liberation, the experience of bombing merged into that of managing bombed localities, restoring basic services, and commencing reconstruction. In many of the worst-bombed localities, the French had to play host to Allied troops after their liberation, at the same time as they rediscovered democratic politics in the preparations for the municipal elections of April-May 1945. These difficult months between the end of fighting in most of France and the end of the European war are also part of this project.

Images of bombed towns and cities across the globe are depressingly similar. But our research so far also suggests the importance of difference: the lack of a single experience of bombing. There are, to begin with, enormous local differences. The point in the war at which a town was bombed, for what reason, and by whom are significant, as are the weight, frequency, expectation and accuracy of bombing, and the understanding of why a certain place was bombed. Such diversity contributes to local differences in how bombing was experienced in France, in the town attacked and the perception of that town by others. Response and experience of bombing also reflected political variation across the country, at a basic level in the different zones, but also in the extent to which the German authorities dominated local decisions, or in the ability of local administrators to demand more for their communities. But despite local differences, and in a country deeply divided, was there a broader national reaction to bombing?

Other wide-ranging factors also mediated experience, such as gender, age and class. Many French families were headed by a woman, on whose shoulders fell the task of petitioning the authorities for relief and of devising strategies to protect the family; the voices of these women echo through local archives. Children, too, with an often limited understanding of the motivation for attacks, sometimes separated from parents in evacuation and re-evacuation or temporarily deprived of formal schooling, have their own story to tell. It is also worth considering how capable those less familiar with dealing authority were of obtaining recompense and relief, and in what ways bombing – seemingly indiscriminate in its civilian targets – was in fact a greater threat to those who were economically unable to evacuate, or who tended to live and work in industrial milieus. In short, the project aims not only to address, in general terms, the relative lack of research on the bombing of France but also to begin, at least, to apprehend the diversity of the experience of bombing across the country.

1 For a link to Andrew Knapp's article ‘The Destruction and Liberation of Le Havre in Modern Memory', in War in History , 14.4 (2007), pp. 476-498, click on

2 The main French book on the subject is Eddy Florentin's Quand les Alliés Bombardaient la France , 1940–45 ( Paris , 1997). Norman researchers have also included bombing in their work on the battle of Normandy . Cf. B. Garnier, J.-L. Leleu, F. Passera, and J. Quellien (eds.), Les Populations civiles face au débarquement et à la bataille de Normandie (Caen, 2005), or M. Boivin, G. Bourdin, and J. Quellien (eds.), Villes Normandes sous les bombes, juin 1944 (Caen, 1944). The Mémorial de Caen ( ) is a major centre for researchers on the battle of Normandy.

3 For a link to a British newsreel on this raid, click on