We know that tons and tons of bombs were dropped during World War I and World War II. However, the largest bombing happened in Cologne in Germany during World War II when more than 1,000 bombers took part in the raid that killed 474 Germans and made the other 45,000 homeless.

Operation Millennium

When Arthur Harris became the head of Royal Air Force Bomber Command at the peak of the Anglo-American strategic bombing campaign against the Nazis in February 1942, his instruction was “to focus attacks on the morale of the enemy civil population, and in particular, of the industrial workers.” His idea? To use the Bomber Command’s reserves where 1,000 aircraft would attack against a single enemy, something that the world had never seen before. He wasn’t called “Bomber” Harris for no reason.

Air Marshal Arthur Travers Harris seated at a desk during World War II.

As he pointed out, “The organization of such a force—about twice as great as any the Luftwaffe ever sent against this country—was no mean task in 1942. As the number of first-line aircraft in squadrons was quite inadequate, the training organization…. We made our preparations for the thousand bomber attack during May.”

With Churchill’s approval, they decided to bomb Hamburg, but the weather condition made it an unideal prey, so they decided to go for Cologne instead.

May 30, 1942: The Day of The Attack

The moon was shining brightly over Germany the night of May 30 when a total of 1047 bombers flew over the city of Cologne and dropped 1455 tons of bombs in a span of one and a half hours, at the rate of 20 tonnes per minute meant to destroy chemical and machine tool facilities and the Germans’ morale.

As reported by one of the No. 9 Sqn crew, “the whole town was ablaze at 0115 hrs, and fires were visible 100 miles after leaving. Fires visible from the Dutch coast from 10,000 ft on return.”

Six hundred acres of the city were damaged, 90% of the city was gone, and the flames could be seen about 150 miles away. Three thousand three hundred (3,300) homes were pulverized. Four hundred seventy-four died (474), while 5,000 were wounded. The number could’ve been higher had they not hidden in their air-raid shelters and deep cellars. Britain, on the other hand, lost 39 aircraft.

Köln Hohenzollernbrücke mit Blick auf den Dom, 1945

On Criticism

Of course, bomb attacks like this wouldn’t go without criticism even until now. Leonard Cheshire, one of the pilots that would later be a recipient of the Victoria Cross, said:

I glued my eyes on the fire and watched it grow slowly larger. Of ack-ack there was not much, but the sky was filled with fighters…. Already, only twenty-three minutes after the attack had started, Cologne was ablaze from end to end, and the main force of the attack was still to come. I looked at the other bombers, I looked at the row of selector switches in the bomb compartment, and I felt, perhaps, a slight chill in my heart. But the chill did not stay long: I saw other visions, visions of rape and murder and torture. And somewhere in the carpet of greyish-mauve was a tall, blue-eyed figure waiting behind barbed wire walls for someone to bring him home. No, the chill did not last long… I felt a curious happiness inside my heart. For the first time in history, the emphasis of night bombing had passed out of the hands of the pilots and into the hands of the organizers, and the organizers had proved their worth. In spite of the ridicule of some of their critics, they have proved their worth. They have proved, too, beyond any shadow of doubt that, given the time, the bomber can win the war. Not only have they proved it, they have written the proof on every face that saw Cologne.

Two more raids were carried out in the same year: they decided to bomb Essen on June 1st but were ineffective, and another on June 26th on Bremen.

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