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Hidden horrors of the "good war" that won't be commemorated on the D-Day anniversary

By the end of World War II, the US and Britain were bombing Japanese and German cities to terrorize the people who lived in them and transmit a ‘message’ to the inhabitants of cities who had not been bombed.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings, an event that is rightly celebrated as a key moment in the defeat of Nazism and the liberation of Europe from fascist tyranny.  Last year I visited the beaches at Omaha and Arromanches for the first time, and went to the American and British and Commonweath cemeteries.

It was a moving and impressive sight, and anyone who has read accounts of the landings and the vicious hedgerow fighting that preceded the Bocage ‘breakout’ cannot but be impressed by the courage and resilience shown by the soldiers who waded ashore on 6 June, 1945.

D-Day belongs firmly to the ‘good war’ narrative of World War II, partly because the battles that followed are remembered as clashes between armies.   In fact the landings had a catastrophic impact on French civilians, as a result of Allied bombing raids and artillery bombardments of German positions that made no distinction between civilians and soldiers, whether in the bombing of Caen that followed the landings:


Or the firebombing of the seaside town of Royan with napalm by the US Eighth Air Force on 15 April 1945 that preceded them:


Events like these should not be forgotten.   And the ‘good war’ historical remembrance of military heroism should never be allowed to obscure the fact that the Allied victory in World War II was not merely due to the heroism and self-sacrifice of soldiers, but was also the result of a new form of ‘total war’ that was directed not only at armies and military targets, but against the enemy society.

This transformation had its most destructive expression in the use of air power against civilian targets.   The 67,000-odd French civilians who died at Royan, Caen and other French cities were mostly an ‘indirect’ consequence of bombing and artillery raids aimed at German defensive positions and military targets in densely-populated areas, but some of the weapons used in these campaigns had their origins in a  126,720 acre stretch of desert in Utah known as the Dugway Proving Ground.

Established by President Roosevelt in  February 1942,  Dugway was an experimental centre where the US Army’s Chemical Warfare Service carried out research into firebombing and incendiary devices, with the collaboration of the National Defense Research Committee and the petrochemical industry:

Early Biological Testing

Its main purpose was to test tactical weapons that were to be used for the bombing of German and Japanese cities.   In his classic history of American airpower, Michael Sherry describes how scientists under the direction of the Harvard chemist Louis Fieser experiemented with various possibilities, that included flamethrowers and jellied gasoline and more outlandish and ultimately unworkable schemes  involving bats equipped with incendiary devices and incendiary ‘leaves’ that were to be dropped on forests and grainfields.

Most of Dugway’s work was concerned with increasing the ‘flammability’ of German and Japanese cities, and this objective was faciliated by the construction of mock-German and Japanese ‘villages’, using the kind of construction materials that were likely to be found in them.


German village with observation bunker. Dugway Proving Ground.

In the German villages even the wooden fittings were periodically doused in order to simulate the damp climate.


Though US bombing planners, unlike their British counterparts, initially rejected the idea of civilian ‘terror bombing’, and attempted to limit their efforts to ‘military’ targets, the experiments at Dugway always had wider implications.   The mock villages included ‘authentic’ furniture, children’s cots and toys, curtains,  and clothing hanging in closets, all of which were also integrated into the search for ‘flammability’, as these US Army photographs make clear, whether in the ‘German villages’:



Or their Japanese counterparts:


In effect, the experiments at Dugway were rehearsals for the new forms of ‘total war’ advocated by Douhet, Trenchard, Billy Mitchell and the ‘prophets’ of air power, which eliminated the distinctions between front and rearguard, military and civilian, between economic and ‘infrastructure’ targets and the psychological objective of enemy morale, and set out to inflict massive  technological violence and destruction on the enemy population.

In German ‘villages’:


And their Japanese counterparts:


These experiments paved the way for events like this, in Dresden, 1945:

And this in Tokyo: 9-10 March 1945:

‘Flammability’ was a particular concern in planning the bombing of Japan, whose ‘paper cities’ were regarded by US military planners as particularly lucrative targets long before the war began.   In the spring of 1945, Curtis LeMay’s Twentieth Air Force began a bombing campaign that was intended to burn as many Japanese cities as possible.

Though US and British bombing strategists continued to measure the success of raids in terms of  ‘de-housing’ workers or ‘man-hours’ lost in order to give these tactics a veneer of military respectability, by the end of the war Japanese and German cities were essentially being bombed in order to terrorize the people who lived in them and transmit a ‘message’ to the inhabitants of cities who had not been bombed.

All these outcomes were part of Dugway’s mission and a testament to its success.    And today, as we remember the soldiers who died on the Normandy beaches, the Bocage pocket and Third Army’s searing drive into Britanny, and the drive across France and Belgium and across the Rhine; and as politicians invite us to reflect on the meaning of those events, it is also instructive to reflect on those uninhabited ‘villages’ in Utah and the horrors that came out of them.

Source: Matt Carr's Infernal Machine

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