Operation Bombing of Tokyo

The 'Bombing of Tokyo' was a series of air raids by the US Army Air Forces against the capital of Japan (1944/45).

Of these, 'Meeting House', which was flown on the night of 9/10 March 1945, was the single most destructive bombing raid in history, for 16 sq miles (41.44 km²) of central Tokyo were destroyed, leaving an estimated 100,000 civilians dead and more than one million homeless: by comparison, the 'Silverplate' atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945 resulted in the immediate death of between 70,000 and 150,000 people.

The US forced mounted their first small-scale raid on Tokyo as the carrierborne 'Doolittle Raid' in April 1942. Strategic bombing and urban area bombing began in 1944 after the long-range Boeing B-29 Superfortress four-engined heavy bomber entered service, first deployed from China and thereafter the Mariana islands group. B-29 raids from these latter began on 17 November 1944, and lasted until 15 August 1945, the day of Japanese surrender.

More than half of Tokyo’s industry was spread out among residential and commercial neighbourhoods, and firebombing reduced the whole city’s industrial output in half. Some modern post-war analysts have called the raid a war crime as it targeted civilian infrastructure and caused massive loss of civilian lives.

The first raid on Tokyo was the 'Doolittle Raid' (more formally 'Conceal') of 18 April 1942, when 12 North American B-25 Mitchell twin-engined medium bombers, land-based machines adapted for carrier take-off, were launched from the carrier Hornet to attack targets including Yokohama and Tokyo and then to fly to airfields in China. Retaliation against the Japanese 'Ai' attack on Pearl Harbor, the raid did little damage to Japan’s war capability but was a significant propaganda victory for the USA. Launched at longer range than planned after the task force had encountered a Japanese picket boat, all the attacking aircraft either crashed or ditched short of the airfields designated for landing. One B-25 landed in the neutral USSR, where the crew was interned but then smuggled over the border into Iran on 11 May 1943. Two crews were captured by the Japanese in occupied China. Three crewmen from these groups were later executed.

The key development for the bombing of Japan was the B-29 strategic bomber, which had an operational range of 3,250 miles (5230 km) was capable of attacking at altitudes above 30,000 feet (9145 m), where the Japanese defences were very weak. Almost nine-tenths of the bombs dropped on the Japanese home islands were delivered by this type of bomber. Once Allied ground forces had captured islands sufficiently close to Japan, airfields were built on those islands (particularly Saipan and Tinian) and the B-29 could reach Japan for bombing missions.

The initial raids were carried out by the 20th Army Air Force operating from the Chinese mainland in 'Matterhorn' under XX Bomber Command, but these could not reach Tokyo. Operations from the northern part of the Mariana islands group began in November 1944 after the XXI Bomber Command had been activated there. The high-altitude bombing attacks using general-purpose bombs were seen by USAAF leaders to be ineffective as a result of high winds (later discovered to be the jet stream) which carried the bombs off target during their descent. Between May and September 1943, bombing trials were conducted on the Japanese Village set-piece target, located at the Dugway Proving Grounds. These trials demonstrated the effectiveness of incendiary bombs against wood-and-paper buildings, and resulted in an order by Major General Curtis LeMay for the bombers to change tactics to use these munitions against Japan.

The first such raid was against Kobe on 4 February 1945. Tokyo was hit by incendiaries on 25 February 1945 when 174 B-29 bombers flew a high-altitude raid during daylight hours and destroyed some 643 acres (260.21 hectares) of the snow-covered city, using 453.7 tons of bombs, most of the incendiaries and a smaller quantity fragmentation bombs. After this raid, LeMay ordered the B-29 bombers to attack again but at a relatively low altitude of 5,000 to 9,000 ft (1525 to 2745 m) and at night, because Japan’s anti-aircraft artillery defences were weakest in this altitude range, and the fighter defences were ineffective at night. LeMay ordered all the defensive guns but the tail guns removed from the B-29 bombers so that the aircraft would be lighter and use less fuel.

On the night of 9/10 March 1945, 334 B-29 bombers took off to raid Tokyo, and of this total 279 aircraft dropped 1,665 tons of bombs on Tokyo. The bombs were mostly the 500-lb (227-kg) E46 cluster bomb which released 38 napalm-carrying M69 incendiary bomblets at an altitude of 2,000 to 2,500 ft (610 to 760 m). The M69 bomblets punched through thin roofing material or landed on the ground, but in each case they ignited 3 to 5 seconds later, throwing out a jet of flaming napalm globs. A lesser number of M47 incendiaries were also dropped: the M47 was a 100-lb (45-kg) jellied-petrol and white phosphorus bomb which ignited on impact. In the first two hours of the raid, 226 of the attacking aircraft unloaded their bombs to overwhelm the city’s fire defences. The first B-29 bombers to arrive dropped bombs in a large X pattern centred on Tokyo’s densely populated working class district near the docks in both the Koto and Chuo city wards on the water; later aircraft simply aimed at this flaming X. The individual fires caused by the bombs joined to create a general conflagration, which would have been classified as a firestorm but for prevailing winds gusting at 17 to 28 mph (27 to 45 km/h). About 15.8 sq miles (40.92 km²) of the city were destroyed and it has been estimated that some 100,000 people died. A grand total of 282 of the 339 B-29 bombers launched for 'Meeting House' made it to the target, of which 27 were lost to the Japanese air defences, mechanical failure, or being caught in updrafts caused by the fires.

Damage to Tokyo’s heavy industry was slight until firebombing had destroyed much of the light industry that was an integral source for small machine parts. Firebombing also killed or made homeless many workers. According to the US report, more than half of Tokyo’s industry was spread among residential and commercial neighbourhoods; firebombing cut the whole city’s output by 50%. The destruction and damage were especially severe in the city’s eastern areas. and the districts bombed were home to 1.2 million people. Tokyo police recorded 267,171 buildings destroyed, which left more than one million people homeless.

Emperor Hirohito’s tour of the destroyed areas of Tokyo in March 1945 was the beginning of his personal involvement in the peace process, culminating in Japan’s surrender six months later.

The US Strategic Bombing Survey later estimated that nearly 88,000 persons died in this single raid, 41,000 were injured, and more than one million residents lost their homes. The Tokyo fire department estimated a higher toll: 97,000 killed and 125,000 wounded. The Tokyo metropolitan police department established a figure of 83,793 dead and 40,918 wounded, as well as 286,358 buildings and homes destroyed.[28] Historian Richard Rhodes put deaths at over 100,000, injuries at a million and homeless residents at a million. These casualty and damage figures could be somewhat short of the reality.

The entire bombing campaign against Japan killed more than 300,000 people and injured an additional 400,000, most of them civilians.

After the war, Tokyo struggled to rebuild. In 1945 and 1946, the city received a share of the national reconstruction budget roughly proportional to its quantity of bombing damage (26.6%), but in successive years Tokyo saw its share dwindle. By 1949, Tokyo was given only 10.9% of the budget. At the same time there was runaway inflation devaluing the money. Occupation authorities such as Joseph Dodge stepped in and drastically cut back on Japanese government rebuilding programmes, focusing instead on simply improving roads and transportation. Tokyo did not experience fast economic growth until the 1950s.

A partial list of B-29 missions also includes 24 November 1944, when 111 B-29 bombers struck an aircraft factory on the edge of the city; 27 November 1944, when 81 B-29 bombers hit the dock and urban area as well as 13 targets of opportunity; 29/30 November 1944, when there were two incendiary raids on industrial areas, burning 2,773 structures; 19 February 1945, when 119 B-29 bombers struck the port and urban areas; 24 February 1945, when 229 B-29 bombers and more than 1,600 carrierborne warplanes attacked the city; 25 February 1945, when 174 B-29 bombers dropped incendiaries and destroyed 28,000 buildings; 4 March 1945, when 159 B-29 bombers hit urban areas; 10 March 1945, when in 'Meeting House' 334 B-29 bombers dropped incendiaries and destroyed 267,000 buildings or one-quarter of the city; 2 April 1945, when 100 B-29 bombers attacked the Nakajima aircraft factory; 3 April 1945, when 68 B-29 bombers struck at the Koizumi aircraft factory and urban areas in Tokyo; 7 April 1945, when 101 B-29 bombers attacked the Nakajima aircraft factory; 13 April 1945, when 327 B-29 bombers attacked the arsenal area; 20 July 1945, when one B-29 dropped a 'Pumpkin' bomb (with same ballistics as the 'Fat Man' atomic bomb) through overcast at the Imperial palace, which was missed; 8 August 1945, when 60 B-29 bombers struck at an aircraft factory and the arsenal; and 10 August 1945, when 70 B-29 bombers attacked the arsenal complex.

Other raids on Tokyo included at of 16/17 February 1945 when carrierborne aircraft, including dive bombers, escorted by Grumman F6F Hellcat single-engined fighters in an effort which lasted two days in which more than 1,500 US warplanes and hundreds of Japanese planes were in the air. By the end of 17 February, more than 500 Japanese aircraft, both on the ground and in the air, had been lost, and Japan’s aircraft works had been badly hit. The US forces lost 80 warplanes.