Fire and the air war

Did you know that fire protection engineers played an important role in helping the allies successfully win the strategic air wars over Germany and Japan during WWII? Their contributions have been documented in a book; a book that I doubt few know even exists.

NFPA published "Fire and the Air War" in 1946. It is a collection of articles, many from the NFPA Quarterly (now known as the NFPA Journal), and presentations. Many from the 50th Annual Meeting of NFPA in Boston in June 1946.

"Fire and the Air War" is as compilation of expert observations on the fires of the war set by incendiaries and the atomic bombs, wartime fire fighting, and the work of the fire protection engineers who helped plan the destruction of enemy cities and industrial plants.

Horatio Bond, chief engineer of NFPA, edited the book. Bond also contributed five of the articles, one co-written with James K. McElroy, then a staff engineer with NFPA. Other contributors included Anthony Mullaney, chief fire marshal with the Chicago Fire Department, and Major Forrest Sanborn, who had many years of experience with Factory Mutual and Improved Risk Mutuals.

In the book’s forward, Percy Bugbee, general manager at NFPA observes the loss of life and the amount of physical destruction in cities which occurred during World War II was greater than fire losses would be in over 100 years in the U.S. at our present rate of burning. Particularly in the cities, fire dwarfed all other causes of loss of life and physical destruction.

The book contains 15 chapters covering the following general topics:

• Fire department capabilities and the impact of incendiary air raids on firefighting

• Planning, analysis, and lessons learned from the fire bombing attacks on Germany and Japan

• The atomic bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Bombing attacks in WWII were of two types, precision and area. Precision attacks were directed at specific targets usually of an industrial nature at individual buildings or plants. Area attacks involved bombing over a very large area intended to inflict widespread destruction of life and property. Rather than doing a review of the book, I will present some of the interesting things I found.

Chapter 1: The fire damage caused by air attacks by Horatio Bond

Bond uses maps, charts and graphs to help the reader grasp the tremendous level of destruction caused by the bombing.

He writes, “Take all of the City of Boston Proper away, and you have a pretty good idea of what Hamburg looked like after the Royal Air Forces got through with it in the summer of 1943.”

He describes the U.S. leaders as arguing more for precision daylight attacks aimed at industrial targets. Because citywide targets “could usually be found at night an incendiary attacks could accomplish wide spread destruction,” the RAF relied more and more on area attacks. Bond concludes with a discussion of lessons learned that can be applied to the civil defense of U.S. cities.

Chapter 2: Town planning lessons of the Fire Blitz

This paper is by British architect Eric L. Bird and outlines a strategy for city planning to reduce potential for conflagrations due to incendiary attack. In short, the idea is to maintain high densities of development in town centers, but do this via use of multiple story buildings, rather than low-rise construction, to increase open space around buildings.

The paper also argues strongly for greater government control of development in these areas.

Chapter 3: Britain's wartime fire service

This chapter is by Commander Sir Aylmer Firebrace, Chief of the British National Fire Service. Sir Firebrace describes all aspects of the British Fire service and the techniques used to fight fires during and after air raids. He describes the conditions a fire fighter had to endure in this passage, “But often when he was fighting a fire and incendiary bombs dropped round him he dare not move, or other firemen’s lives would have been endangered; for example if he was steadying the foot of a ladder on which men were working. Or perhaps he was holding a high pressure branch (hose), while a bomb was whistling down.”

Throughout the war, the UK lost approximately 700 firemen and 20 firewomen.

Chapter 6: Fire attacks on German cities by Horatio Bond

Mr. Bond notes that the incendiary attacks on German cities were primarily carried out by the RAF. The USAF focused on precision bombing raids on industrial targets. Incendiary attacks in Germany used a combination of high-explosive bombs with incendiary bombs. German cities had a high degree of concrete and masonry construction. The high explosives softened up the targets by damaging this construction allowing the incendiary to reach combustible construction and spread through damaged fire separations. The high explosives also impaired the firefighting response by making streets impassable and damaging fire protection water supplies.

Chapter 6 also provides a summary of the devastation for several German cities. The three attacks on Hamburg, July 24 to August 3, 1943, population 1,760,000, resulted in 60,000 to 100,000 dead. Dresden, population 633,000, had casualties similar to Hamburg.

A word on bombing casualties. Clearly, estimates such as fatalities when the scale of destruction is so huge are just that. A quick search of the web reveals that estimates of persons killed in the various attacks vary to a large degree. In the case of Dresden, I found stats varying from 25,000 killed to over 600,000 lives lost.

Chapter 7 and 8

In Chapter 7, Anthony Mullaney adresses the German fire departments being under attack. In Chapter 8, Horatio Bond looks at the fire casualties of the German attacks.

Both describe the firestorm that was generated in the Hamburg attack and the terrible effect it had on the population. Many in shelters died from lack of oxygen while others died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Chapter 9: The work of the Fire Protection Engineers in planning fire attacks

James McElroy tells how aerial photographs were analyzed to develop fire vulnerability maps, similar to the Sanborn fire insurance maps. From these maps fire protection engineers could predict if a given industrial target was vulnerable to incendiary attack. McElroy relates a story in which his study of aerial photographs of Italian cities revealed to him that these cities would not be very vulnerable to fire attack; and how his recommendation not to use incendiaries on Italian cities was followed by the RAF. He notes a major determinant of the effectiveness of area fire bombing is the number of “parapeted fire walls” in the target area. In the case of precision incendiary bombing of specific buildings, he thought the major contributing factor was whether or not the roof was of combustible construction.

Chapter 10: Making the fires that beat Japan

Robert Nathans, vice president of the Safety Research Institute, described how the weather changed the bombing strategy in Japan. Frequent heavy cloud cover made it difficult for U.S. forces to conduct precision high-explosive bombing raids. This resulted in a gradual shift to incendiary area attacks.

Chapter 11: Japanese fire departments under air attack

This chapter is by Commander Orville Emory, USNR, Office of Chief of Naval Operations. CDR Emory (formerly of the Los Angeles City Fire Department) describes the Japanese firefighting capability and the difficulties faced with wartime shortages of equipment and manpower. In the presentation, Emory describes the March 10, 1945 night attack on Tokyo, which developed into a firestorm, destroying 40 percent of the city and killing more than 80,000. Over 100 firefighters were also lost in the fire.

Chapter 12: Fire protection lessons of the Japanese attacks

This chapter is by Major Forrest Sanborn, U.S., Physical Damage Division, U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey. Sanborn points out that unlike Germany, fire bombing raids on Japanese cities relied almost exclusively on incendiary bombs. High-explosive bombs were less necessary due to the large amount of combustible buildings and the greater density. In all 65 major cities in Japan were fire bombed.

The book contains dozens of excellent photographs (all black and white, of course) which give a clear feel for the level of destruction caused by the fire bombing raids. "Fire and the Air War" tells the story of the role played by fire protection engineers in the planned destruction of the cities in Germany and Japan in World War II.

Aside from the authors of the chapters, a great many other fire protection engineers were involved in the effort. In Chapter 15, Bond and McElroy give credit to many of these FPE’s including Norman Thompson, of Factory Mutual Labs, and Robert Moulton, Technical Secretary at NFPA. n

Samuel S. Dannaway, P.E., is a registered fire protection engineer and mechanical engineer with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland Department of Fire Protection Engineering. He is past president and a Fellow of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. He is president of S. S. Dannaway Associates Inc., a 15-person fire protection engineering firm with offices in Honolulu and Guam. He can be reached via email at

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