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Great Britian & the Holocaust: Air Chief Portal's Note to Churchill on British Reprisal Bombings in Germany

(January 6, 1943)

At the Staff Conference on Thursday, at which General Sikorski's telegram [calling for the “bombing on a large scale of non-military objectives in Germany… in retaliation for German savagery”] was considered, you [Churchill] suggested that if Berlin was raided in the near future leaflets should be dropped during the raid telling the Germans that our attacks were reprisals for the persecution of the Poles and the Jews. At the time I was attracted by the idea, but on further consideration I think I ought to ask you to consider the objections to it which seem to me to be rather formidable.

First, by labelling as a “reprisal” any raid even on Berlin (particularly as there is no special feature or weapon that we can introduce into it) we would automatically abandon our previous position, which is that our attacks on cities are attacks on military objectives (including industry) and therefore “lawful” and justifiable.

Alternatively, if we claimed that the raid had been an especially violent or effective one, should we not have the dilemma (a) "Why not always do the same?" or (b) "You are competing in brutality with the Germans"?

Then again, we should almost certainly be overwhelmed with requests from all the other Allies that we should also redress their grievances in the same way. This would result in nothing but a series of "token" reprisals which would not only be completely ineffective as deterrents but would destroy the last shreds of the cloak of legality which at present covers our operations.

Finally, we should make it much easier for the Germans to institute reprisals against our captured air crews.

[Minuted at the bottom of the document by Churchill:] “I agree.”

Sources: Yad Vashem; Bernard Wasserstein, "Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939-1945, Institute of Jewish Affairs," 1979, p. 307.