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The Effects of Strategic Bombing in WWII on German Morale

Survey Dates:              March – July 1945
Date of Publication:     May 1947

This report summarises the conclusions of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey in their research into the effects of air raids on the willingness and ability of the German population to support the war effort.

Research was conducted in Western Germany over two months following the end of the war. It comprises two parts: the first reports on findings from interviews with civilians; the second from official German documents and interrogations with officials.

AOAV has decided to publish this summary as we accept that, in order to try to reduce the impact of explosive violence in populated areas on civilians in the future, we have to learn from lessons of the past. This US report was, clearly, written by victors who may have rationalised that the death of civilians in war was a necessary evil to win the war. In the modern age, however, where cities are more populated and more impact by explosive violence, such a framing may not hold true.

Of note, however, is that ‘maximum morale effects would have been achieved through lighter raids distributed over a wider area.’


  • Strategic Bombing was the principal means by which the Allies sought to weaken the morale of German civilians.
  • Almost a third of the population were directly subjected to it; countless more feared it.
  • A fifth of the population were deprived of utilities by bombing and one in thirteen were evacuated.
  • Bombing had a profound effect on depressing morale through inducing defeatism, fear and apathy.
  • Bombing did not harden popular resolve against the US. The hate and anger it aroused was directed against the Nazi regime, not the Allies.
  • Continuous heavy bombing did not produce proportional decreases in morale. Maximum morale effects would have been achieved through lighter raids distributed over a wider area.
  • Civilians who suffered personal injuries and/or family casualties suffered lower morale than those who did not.
  • Lower morale led to diminished industrial productivity.
  • Bombing contributed greatly to popular disillusionment in official propaganda.
  • Nazi controls prevented lowered morale from manifesting in subversive activities.
  • Religious organisations served as an important source of resistance to the Nazis.
  • Party members and others with a vested interest in victory had consistently higher morale than the wider population.
  • Evacuations produced widespread dissatisfaction among the population and contributed to a worsening in morale.
  • The Nazis kept no accurate, quantitative data on the effect of bombing on popular morale, so in many cases the effect cannot be definitively concluded.

Part 1: Estimates of Morale from Interviews with Civilians

Popular support for the war was regarded by the Nazis as essential to German victory and by the Allies as a crucial target. A number of cultural habits helped the Nazis maintain good morale: stern disciplinary standards, strong work ethic, and emotional nationalism. Morale was thus “not an easy target to knock out” and never completely destroyed by bombing.

Estimated figures (of a population of 69,800,000)

Homes destroyed1,865,000
Persons evacuated4,885,000
Persons deprived of utilities20,000,000

An estimated third of the German population were subjected to Allied bombing, half of whom suffered personal property losses and 5% suffered injury or death. Disruptions to utilities as a result of bombing led to a “fox-hole existence” for many.

Evacuations affected “every facet of German morale,” even beyond the cities targeted. Approximately 5m people were evacuated, entailing physical, social and economic consequences for evacuees, hosts, families left behind and wider communities. Transport infrastructure was strained, housing was often inadequate or insufficient, food distribution was impacted, and medical services were stretched.

The Will to Resist
Bombing appeared to depress every measure of morale examined. The main psychological effects found included “defeatism, depression, despair, fear, helplessness, fatalism and apathy.”

The idea that bombing might stiffen resistance appears unfounded. It generated some anger and hatred but these emotions were predominantly directed against the regime. A lack of contemporary data, however, means this cannot be definitively concluded.

Morale comprises psychological and behavioural components. Psychological components include willingness to surrender; belief in the probability of victory; conviction in and emotional identification with the cause; confidence in leadership; sense of group unity; and personal psychological health. Behavioural components include absenteeism; crime levels; and subversive activity. Multiple measures were used to ascertain the effect of bombing on morale. Each produced varying figures but consistent conclusions.

 Percentage of German Population
 Beginning of WarEnd of War
High morale326
Medium morale5116
Low morale1778

As the war progressed, morale declined. Of the respondents interviewed, 36% attributed a decline in morale to bombing, second only to other military factors (e.g. two front war, allied superiority). Germans in heavily- and lightly-bombed areas alike agreed bombing was the hardest aspect of the war.

At the group level, bombing generated resentment among those in the cities affected towards those in rural areas unaffected, thus weakening social solidarity. On a personal level, more than one-third experienced semi-permanent psychological effects: “terror transcends the immediate raid to such an extent that it is reinstated by the next alert.” When asked how they were faring under occupation, respondents seldom mentioned the defeat but frequently talked of relief that the bombings had stopped.

Bombing had a profound effect on the trust of the German people in their leaders: 9/10 of respondents condemned their political leadership as incompetent. Approximately a third of respondents blamed the Allies for the air raids, meaning more than a half did not. The Nazis showed a consistent increase in blame as bombing increased.

Morale Effects Produced by Different Bombing Conditions
Having determined that bombing depressed morale across all measures, the question arises of which bombing conditions produced the greatest effect. Increased levels of bombing produced diminishing returns past a certain point, meaning greater effect on morale could be achieved by widespread rather than concentrated bombing.

An increase in anxiety was observed between those in lightly-bombed areas and moderately bombed areas, but there was little change between the moderately- and heavily-bombed. The same pattern was observable in levels of war weariness and willingness to surrender. It is concluded that the greatest morale-depressing effect was observed where bombing tonnage was increased from 0 to 500 tons.

Examining levels of morale relative to total bomb tonnage is only a gross index of the exposure of the individual to bombing. Not everyone in a city was equally-affected by the same attacks. When the percentage of buildings destroyed is taken into account, the effect on morale appears similar to bomb tonnage measures. When personal involvement is considered, those who suffered very high involvement (i.e. personal injuries or casualties) had lower morale than those with low involvement. Casualties and injuries were more damaging to morale than property damage. Morale nevertheless declined as services and utilities deprivation increased. Interestingly, levels of apathy continued to increase with bombing tonnage, not diminishing like other measures, suggesting heavy bombing may “stiffen” morale not by promoting support for the war, but by inhibiting active opposition.

“The raids caused such physical destruction that for the majority the whole of their energy was necessarily taken up in coping with the elementary physical problems of existence.”

Social and Psychological Factors Affecting Morale
Why was not everyone subject to bombing willing to give up? Identification with the Nazi cause appears most important in this regard. Other factors strengthening morale include a belief in the adequacy of defence measures and V-weapons, and a vested interest in German victory. These factors did not necessarily render people immune to the depressing effects of bombing, rather their morale may have simply been higher in the first place.

Ardent Nazis subjected to heavy bombing retained higher levels of morale than unbombed non-Nazis. Nazis experienced a higher morale drop on some measures but started from a much higher level.

Those who accepted propaganda on the transformative potential of V-weapons showed higher levels of morale. These factors may be tied to Nazi identification and reflecting a willingness to believe propaganda claims, however, and are perhaps a result of high morale rather than a cause.

Despite propaganda efforts emphasising the common fate of the German people, some felt they had more to gain from victory than others. These people with a vested interest in German victory showed higher morale to the very end of the war.

Those with a low socioeconomic status showed consistently lower morale across all measures. However, this group started with lower morale and the drop was only slight, compared to a more pronounced fall in higher status groups.

Part 2: Morale as reflected in official German documents and selected interrogations
The Nazis maintained an extensive intelligence-gathering operation to help guide propaganda efforts. These reports lacked scientific rigor, however, and so are of questionable value, potentially reflecting the narrative desired rather than the truth.

Intelligence reports distinguished between Stimmung, how people felt, and Haltung, how they acted. On the whole it appeared Stimmung was more depressed than Haltung. Behaviour may have remained satisfactory as morale deteriorated due to fear, coercion and habits of discipline.

The Course of Decline in Morale
The single most important factor affecting morale was the course of fighting, including the air war. With multiple campaigns being waged simultaneously, however, it was difficult to isolate the effect of individual military events. Naturally, propaganda emphasised victories and downplayed losses. Of the 33 intelligence reports examined, air raids are mentioned as a primary factor depressing morale in 20.

As 1942 progressed (the first year reports were available), morale was generally good. As raids intensified towards the end of 1942, the seriousness of the war was “brought home.” Morale declined further following surrender at Stalingrad in February 1943 and defeat in North Africa a few months later. Contemporary reports mention a loss of popular faith in the party and a declining use of “Heil Hitler.” As Summer 1943 progressed, morale was significantly depressed but “collective behaviour” of the population remained “not bad.” Cries of retaliation and rumours of new weapons gathered momentum at this time, but the V-1 rocket was not introduced until June 1944. Toward the end of 1944, criticism became “sharp and merciless, even against leaders” and featured Allied air superiority heavily. At the turn of 1944-45, “bunker fever” was widespread and confidence in leadership was evaporating.

Morale and the Behaviour of Industrial Workers
War production was a crucial area in which the effects of depressed morale manifested through absenteeism, lower productivity, and sabotage.

The limits within which absenteeism was possible in wartime Germany were narrow. With sons and husbands at the front, many Germans considered their work indispensable to victory. Precise levels of absenteeism were hard to ascertain as new industrial controls were always being introduced and recording was muddled: many unauthorised absences following air raids were authorised to manipulate statistics. Nevertheless, in 1944, approximately 4% of productive hours across all industries were lost due to air attacks. Intelligence reports suggest the heaviest-bombed areas suffered the most absenteeism.

In heavily-bombed areas, 60% reported a decline in work performance. According to one informant, “after the attacks there was more loafing, frequent visiting the toilet, frequent questions of the foreman.” Nervousness and fatigue were cited as the main causes. The immediate effects of bombing greatly lowered industrial output by contributing to feelings of defeatism among workers.

Anti-Nazi sentiment was strong among workers in large German cities but sabotage appeared rare. Antagonism to the Nazis was stronger in heavily-bombed cities but this may have been pre-existing, not a direct result of bombing.

Protection and Relief from Bombing
Measures were taken preemptively to protect the population from air raids, insuring against damage to morale, and post-facto, in response to declining morale.

At the outbreak of war, Germany had an excellent Air Raid Protection (ARP) system. As bombing intensified, it was quickly overrun, its inadequacies rendered clear, contributing to disillusionment and declining morale. Towards the latter stages of war, 63% of the population felt ARP, including public shelters, was inadequate or unsatisfactory. A vast evacuation programme was also undertaken, which the Nazis took extremely seriously due to the potential for loss of control. Evacuations were well-managed in the beginning but became increasingly chaotic towards the end. Morale was generally poor among those who were evacuated but even worse in areas where no such measures were taken. Notably, hosts’ morale was said to be lowered by the evacuees arrival.

In terms of relief, there was minimal evidence of dissatisfaction with medical services or the financial compensation scheme for those affected by raids.

Attempts to Maintain Morale by Propaganda
Propaganda and terror kept a “habitually obedient and industrious people treading the mill.” To do so, it required military successes and censoring conflicting information. Bombing hindered both by pushing the German military back and delivering tangible proof of Allied strength.

For most of the war, propaganda was reasonably successful in stimulating morale and slowing its decline. The effectiveness of ARP was emphasised and people involved were lionised, making those on the home front feel less like passive victims and more like active soldiers. However, as bombing worsened and Allied airpower grew indisputable, “Nazi officials found themselves the victims of their own long-established policy of presenting the Party as the guardian and guarantor of community welfare.”

Attempts to Rally Youth
The question of youth morale presented a “condensed and intensified account of the overall problem of civilian morale.” Problematically, bombing indirectly undermined the Nazis by strengthening popular belief that they were taking advantage of it for their own youth-indoctrination purposes.

In the early stages of war, education was continually disrupted by air raid alerts. Many children were enlisted as air raid protection personnel (messengers, night-watchers, fire-fighters), generating friction between parents and the regime over their loss of schooling. Furthermore, the conscription of youngsters indirectly damaged morale by indicating the desperation of a regime resorting to employing children.

Children were affected by the morale-damaging effect of air raids – “children who had to be rescued from wrecked houses often suffered a long time from shock, and wept and cried in their sleep” – but generally proved more resilient than adults. Problems arose through their evacuation, however, widely resented by parents for the accompanying anti-religious teaching and Nazi indoctrination.

Relation of Bombing to Disruptive Behaviour
Deteriorating morale manifested in socially disruptive and outright oppositional behaviour. Few records of these offences survived the war but it is known that the number of death sentences meted out in the final year was six times higher than the first.

Looting was of particular concern, with one intelligence report declaring “parts of the population, which under normal conditions would never appear before a criminal court, were spurred to criminal activity as a result of aerial attack.” Statistical evidence is weak on this claim, however it is notable that security services were alert to it. There is stronger evidence towards a rise in juvenile delinquency and black market activity in relation to air raids. The latter was particularly problematic for morale as it accentuated the cleavage between “rich and poor, Party member and non-Party member.” Well-founded or not, the Nazis were concerned that bombing rendered citizens indifferent to law and order.

The Control of Subversion and Opposition
Himmler’s “inner front” was considered a major theatre of operations for the Nazis. The sprawling network of state security services, encompassing the Elite Guards (SS) and the regular police (including the Gestapo), was supplemented by a large number of “volunteer informants” and a subservient judiciary. Despite this elaborate apparatus of repression and control, opposition persisted throughout the war.

Just as the system of state control consisted of formal and informal elements, opposition ranged from the informal spread of gossip and jokes in air-raid shelters to well-organised distribution of leaflets. Some leaflets directly linked the regime to the hardship of bombing, reading “no more of these raids. Unite, arise, down with the murderers. Down with Hitler.”

Bombing generated popular discontent and thus fertile ground for opposition activity. Without contemporary data, it is impossible to conclude the effect of bombing in this regard, but its prominence in intelligence reports on subversive behaviour suggest a strong connection. Communist and Social Democratic leaders active in opposition movements reported air raids made the public more susceptible to their appeals. However, it should be noted that opposition groups would have suffered the same damage and disruption.


For more, please read: the United States Strategic Bombing Survey