The largest city in Germany, Berlin covered nearly 900 square miles. Attacking it not only would strike at the seat of power in the Third Reich but also would cripple a major industrial base for the German armed forces. Factories in Berlin contributed one-third of the Reich's electrical components as well as one-quarter of the army's tanks and half its field artillery.
Bolstered by the success of recent air raids, in particular the attack on Hamburg, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris believed he could do the same with Berlin and force a German surrender. If he could get the Americans to join in, he expected losses to be between 400 and 500 aircraft. However, because of its own recent heavy losses over Germany, the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force would not able to participate. Despite this setback, Harris received approval in early November 1943 from Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill to begin the bomber offensive. He employed the RAF's new Avro Lancaster heavy bomber, as this four-engine aircraft had the requisite range to strike targets deep in German territory. The first raid, the largest battle Bomber Command had yet fought, occurred on the night of 18–19 November.
Attacking heavily defended Berlin was not an easy task. The city was ringed with a flak belt 40 miles wide and a searchlight band over 60 miles across. The defense centered on 24 128-mm antiaircraft guns grouped in eight-gun batteries on flak towers. Additionally, the city's extensive subway system provided underground shelter for the civilians. Only the Ruhr region was more heavily defended.
The British employed Window—strips of foil dropped from aircraft to jam German radar. To counter this, the Germans organized groups of single-engine fighters to attack the bombers as they were caught in searchlights. The Germans called this new tactic Wilde Sau (Wild Boar), and the technique helped them until they could develop effective radar. By early 1944, German night-fighter aircraft—primarily Ju-88s, FW-190s, and Bf-109s—were successfully employing bomber-intercept tactics with the help of SN2, an aircraft-based, air-to-air radar that would cause Bomber Command's losses to approach 9 percent for a single raid. To make matters worse for the British, many bombs did not come close to their desired targets, as chronically poor weather over Berlin forced pathfinders to mark targets blindly, relying exclusively on H2S radar; this problem was exacerbated by the fact that the number of experienced pathfinder radar operators dwindled as casualties mounted during the campaign.
The Battle of Berlin came to an end in March 1944 when the bombers passed under the control of the Supreme Allied Command to prepare for the Normandy Invasion. During the offensive, Bomber Command flew 9,111 sorties to the "Big City" and dropped 31,000 tons of bombs. Bomber Command lost 497 aircraft—5.5 percent of the force employed—and more than 3,500 British aircrew were killed or captured. On the German side, nearly 10,000 civilians were killed, and 27 percent of the built-up area of Berlin was destroyed. Harris's goal of defeating Germany was not, however, realized.
M. R. Pierce and John D. Plating
Cooper, Alan W. Bombers over Berlin: The RAF Offensive, November 1943–March 1944. Northhamptonshire, UK: Patrick Stevens, 1985.; Middelbrook, Martin. The Berlin Raids: RAF Bomber Command, Winter 1943–44. London: Cassell, 1988.; Neillands, Robin. The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive against Nazi Germany. New York: Overlook Press, 2001.