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The people at Operations Research in Bomber Command


The bombing of Hamburg and Dresden
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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The place was a collection of Army huts hidden away in a forest on a hill outside High Wycombe, and that's where the Bomber Command Headquarters was. Sir Arthur Harris was our chief. We saw him driving by every morning in a big limousine while we struggled up the hill on our bicycles, so we were very lowly worms in the organisation. I was then 19 years old when I arrived there, and during the week when I arrived there we bombed Hamburg, and that was the first really successful bombing operation Bomber Command did.

[Q] Successful in the sense that...?

We really destroyed a lot of Hamburg and there was a firestorm and about 40,000 people were killed. So it was the first real success in the sense of - I mean Bomber Harris, who was our chief, whom we always called Bert - Bert had this idea that we would just put the fear of God into the Germans by burning down their cities. That was the idea of the whole campaign. He was just very single-minded that you wouldn't try to go for military objectives but just burn the place down, and it worked in Hamburg. For the first time, we actually created a firestorm, which meant that it was a fire of really apocalyptic dimensions, quite different from a normal fire. It meant there were winds of a hundred miles an hour and tremendously strong circulation of the flames going hundreds of feet up into the air. For the people who survived it, it was a really terrifying experience, and so it burnt people to death, even in shelters, or asphyxiated them, which otherwise would never happen. So if you had a fire storm you killed tens of thousands of people; if you didn't have a fire storm, with the same tonnage of bombs you'd only kill a few hundred. So it was an absolutely qualitative difference. So it was Harris' intention to make fire storms all over Germany. In point of fact we only did it twice: there was just this one time in Hamburg in '43 and then Dresden in 1945 when the war was almost over, and in between we had hundreds of bombing attacks, none of them produced fire storms. But at the time when I arrived, of course the Command was in great joy because finally things worked and we never really found out why it worked in Hamburg and nowhere else. It seems to have been a sort of meteorological accident that you had to have an unstable atmosphere to start with and the bombing was a trigger which set in motion some sort of a big instability which was there already before. I don't know - I mean, I don't think anybody understands it to this day. But the failure of the campaign was that we never could do this in Berlin, for example, which was obviously the prime objective.

Freeman Dyson (1923-2020), who was born in England, moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He published several books and, among other honours, was awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: High Wycombe, RAF Bomber Command, Hamburg, Dresden, 1943, 1945, Berlin, Arthur Harris

Duration: 3 minutes, 21 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008