Cologne, Germany May 30, 1942

During World War II in Europe Allied air power had several principle objec­tives. Fore­most among them were destroying Nazi Ger­many’s war-making capa­city, oil instal­la­tions, and transpor­ta­tion net­works; demor­alizing Ger­mans by laying waste to their popu­la­tion cen­ters, where mostly civilians lived, many working for the military-industrial firms in the area; and preparing the ground for land-based armed forces to finish the job.

Lowering enemy morale and undermining people’s will to sus­tain the war effort began in a spec­tac­ular way late on this date, May 30, 1942, and early the next morning. The third largest city in the Third Reich, Cologne with 700,000 inhabi­tants, became the tar­get of the first “thou­sand bomber” raid. The bombers of the Royal Air Force Bomber Com­mand reached their objec­tive just after mid­night. Flying 1,047 air­craft, which included 73 of the new long-range, four-engine Arvo Lan­casters, raiders in the opera­tion code­named Mil­len­nium carried 1,455 tons of bombs, two-thirds of them incen­di­aries. Though attacked by 135 air­craft earlier in March 1942, Cologne this night was pay­back in spades for the Luft­waffe’s incineration of Coventry, England, 18 months earlier.

The violence directed at Cologne was more traumatic than anyone had expe­ri­enced. One returning air­crew­man reported he could see the “big red flow [of the city] for miles. To the Dutch coast, I guess.” For days Cologne lay shrouded in clouds of dense, acrid smoke. Locals recorded 3,330 buildings destroyed out­right, 2,090 seriously damaged, and 7,420 slightly damaged. Fire con­sumed 13,010 houses, mostly apart­ments, and seriously damaged 6,360 more. Smashed or damaged were some 250 fac­tories. The death toll estab­lished a new record (469) for a single air raid on Germany; hun­dreds of resid­ents were burned or suffo­cated in public shelters and under­ground cellars where they had taken refuge when the sirens sounded. Fires ravaged the densely packed city center. Bridges across the Rhine were blasted into the river. Also blasted or burned down were 9 hos­pi­tals, 17 churches (many of them, like the Cologne Cathe­dral, between 700 and 1,000 years old), 16 schools, 4 uni­ver­sity buildings, 10 postal and railway buildings, and other sites of non­mili­tary, non­in­dus­trial value. All told, 45,000 resi­dents had been bombed out of homes and businesses, and roughly a fifth of the population fled the city.

Cologne’s March and May 1942 destruc­tion was a fore­taste of satura­tion bombing to come: think Hamburg (Oper­a­tion Gomor­rah) in July and August 1943. Luft­waffe chief Her­mann Goering, with blind sang­froid, remarked in his diary: “The effects of aerial war­fare are terrible if one looks at individual cases. But we have to accept them.”

Saturation Bombing of Cities: Civilian Morale Was a Primary Target

Saturation bombing: Coventry’s Holy Trinity Church, November 1940Saturation bombing: Nave of Coventry Cathedral after destruction

Above: Holy Trinity Church (left) and the Coventry Cathedral (right) following the Luft­waffe’s dev­as­tating Coventry Blitz on the night of Novem­ber 14/15, 1940. With nearly 240,000 resi­dents, Coventry was an impor­tant center of Great Britain’s war indus­try, crammed with 27 war-prod­uction fac­tories: air­craft, engine, and auto­mobile fac­tories and machine tool and instru­ment firms. Yet Coventry was weakly defended: only 36 anti­aircraft guns pro­tected the city. Fifteen months after the out­break of war in Europe, Coven­try became a tar­get of eight Luft­waffe bomber units, which hit the city known for its famous cathe­dral with 503 tons of high-explo­sive bombs, 56 tons of incen­di­aries, and 127 para­chute mines over a 10‑hour period. Altogether 42,904 homes were destroyed or damaged, which repre­sented 56 per­cent of the city’s housing. The dead num­bered 534 and the seriously in­jured were 863. Ger­mans invented a new word for the damage they had inflicted on the city and its residents: koventrieren (Coventrate).

Saturation bombing: Artwork depicting RAF bomber raid on CologneSaturation bombing: Cologne, 1945

Left: Official British war art imagining a mass bombing raid on Cologne. Cologne was bombed in 262 separate air raids (most of them nui­sance raids) by the Allies during World War II, all by the Royal Air Force, which dropped a total of 38,876 tons (35,268 metric tons) of high-explosive and incen­diary bombs on the city. The headline-grabbing first ever 1,000-bomber raid on Cologne during the night of May 30/31, 1942, was intended to severely damage Ger­man morale and maybe serve to knock Nazi Ger­many out of the war. The raiders’ squad­rons were a Common­wealth mixture: British, Cana­dian, Aus­tra­lian, New Zea­lander, and South African. U.S. ground forces captured Cologne on March 6, 1945, nearly 2 months before Soviet ground troops forced the surrender of Berlin, Nazi Germany’s capital and largest city.

Right: Cologne, 1945. The 157-ft twin spires of its cathe­dral, naviga­tional land­mark for RAF bombers, are clearly visible in the back­ground of an other­wise com­pletely flattened city. Begun in AD 1248, the Roman Catholic cathe­dral is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and survived the war, despite suffering 14 hits by aerial bombs. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Contemporary British Newsreel of the 1942 Thousand-Bomber Raid on Cologne