Operation Bombing of Kobe

The 'Bombing of Kobe' was part of the strategic bombing campaign waged by General Henry H. Arnold’s US 20th Army Air Force against military and civilian targets and population centres in the course of the Japanese home islands campaign in the closing stages of World War II (16/17 March 1945).

At the time of World War II, Kobe was the sixth largest city in Japan, and had a population of about 1 million persons living in houses constructed largely of wood and thus highly flammable, suitable for starting and sustaining large fires. Kobe was Japan’s largest port, and the home of the greatest concentration of shipbuilding and marine engine manufacturing. Kobe was also an important city for transportation and business. National highways ran through the city, especially through the congested business section, and Kobe contained business and manufacturing facilities for steel, machinery, rubber, railway equipment and ordnance. Kobe’s limited water supply, comprising just three reservoirs, and its poor equipment of ire firefighting service created a very fire-prone environment.

After trials had been undertaken at the Japanese Village set on the Dugway Proving Grounds, Major General Curtis E. LeMay, commander of the US 20th Army Air Forces' XXI Bomber Command, ordered his Boeing B-29 Superfortress four-engined heavy bombers to drop a larger proportion of incendiary bombs to burn Japan’s mostly wood and paper housing, in an 'experimental' carpet bombing of Kobe on 4 February 1945.

On 16/17 March, 331 B-29 bombers launched a firebombing attack against the city of Kobe. This raid committed all three major elements of the XXI Bomber Command, namely Brigadier General Emmett O’Donnell’s 73rd Bombardment Wing, Brigadier General John H. Davies’s 313th Bombardment Wing and Brigadier General Thomas S. Power’s 314th Bombardment Wing. The raid targeted four key areas: the north-western corner of the city, the area to the south of the main railway line, the area to the north-west of the main railway station, and the area to the north-east of the third target. Of the city’s residents, 8,841 were confirmed to have been killed in the resulting firestorms, which destroyed an area of 3 sq miles (7.77 kmē), representing 21% of Kobe’s urban area of about 14 sq miles (36.25 kmē). More than 650,000 people were rendered homeless by the destruction of their houses, and the homes of another 1 million people were damaged.

During the raid, 280 Japanese fighters were spotted, of which 96 engaged the B-29 bombers in 128 attacks: this constituted a higher proportion of fighters sighted to those attacking than previously experienced during a night raid over Japan. Three bombers were lost during the raid, but the reasons for their losses remain unknown. Two of the airmen in the downed aircraft, Sergeant Algy S. Augunus and 2nd Lieutenant Robert E. Copeland, survived and were captured by the Japanese: they were subsequently tried by a hastily convened court for the 'indiscriminate bombing' of Kobe and Osaka, sentenced to death, and executed by firing squad.

On 5 June, Kobe was bombed once again. Incendiaries dropped by 530 bombers destroyed 3.8 sq miles (9.8 kmē) of the city, and 51% of the city’s built-up area were damaged.

In addition to incendiary attacks, Kobe was the target of a B-29 precision attack on industry, three minelaying operations, and one fighter-bomber swoop: On 11 May, 92 B-29 bombers hit the Kawanishi aircraft factory; on 18 June, 25 B-29 bombers laid naval mines in several areas, including the waters near Kobe' on 28 June, 29 B-29 bombers laid naval mines in three harbours, including at of Kobe' on 19 July, 27 B-29 bombers laid naval mines in several areas, including the waters near Kobe; and on 30 June, fighters attacked airfields, railways and tactical targets throughout the area of Kobe and Osaka.