The terror of aerial bombardment was nothing new to the world when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, in effect starting World War II. In 1935, Italian planes had killed Red Cross workers in Ethiopia in an aerial attack. Two years later, Fascist planes bombed the Spanish city of Guernica in 1937, serving as the inspiration for Pablo Picasso’s anti-war mural of the same name. In 1938, Japan began the first of its 268 air raids against Chongqing in China. Unfortunately for the world, these incidents were just horrifying previews of the staggering scale of destruction unleashed from the air during World War II.
To compile the biggest bombing raids of World War II by number of planes involved, 24/7 Tempo turned to sources including the websites of the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Naval Institute, as well as War History Online, the BBC, and Britannica. We included raids in which at least 500 confirmed planes were involved. Some of these raids included on our list were part of an overall mission such as the Battle of Berlin conducted by the Royal Air Force. Certain raids such as the German terror bombing of Rotterdam or Japan’s attack on various Chinese cities are not on the list either because too few planes were involved or the information on these raids was not complete.
Between 1940 and 1945, U.S. and British air forces dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs on Europe. Most of that fell on Germany. When the Third Reich bowed to inevitable defeat in May 1945, its total infrastructure had been demolished. Berlin was the most bombed city in the European theater of war, and the firebombing of Dresden continues to be a painful controversy. (These are the cities destroyed by the U.S.A. in World War II.)
The Pacific air war was no less appaling. About 700,000 tons of bombs fell on Japan, almost entirely dropped by the United States, virtually wiping out every major Japanese city – even before the atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Here’s a list of the most powerful nuclear explosions in history.)
As many as 600,000 Germans and 500,000 Japanese civilians were killed by aerial bombing. Axis bombing claimed the lives of 500,000 Soviet civilians, 67,000 French, and almost 61,000 British.
We live with the consequences of aerial bombardment to this day. In February 2023, an ordnance team defused a WWII bomb in Kaiserslautern, Germany. That same month, a World War II bomb exploded in the English town of Great Yarmouth as workers attempted to defuse it.
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