Firebombing is a bomb
A bomb is any of a range of explosive weapons that only rely on the exothermic reaction of an explosive material to provide an extremely sudden and violent release of energy...

ing technique designed to damage a target, generally an urban area, through the use of fire
Fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products. Slower oxidative processes like rusting or digestion are not included by this definition....

, caused by incendiary device
Incendiary device
Incendiary weapons, incendiary devices or incendiary bombs are bombs designed to start fires or destroy sensitive equipment using materials such as napalm, thermite, chlorine trifluoride, or white phosphorus....

s, rather than from the blast effect of large bombs.

Although simple incendiary bombs have been used to destroy buildings since the start of gunpowder warfare, World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 saw the first use of strategic bombing
Strategic bombing
Strategic bombing is a military strategy used in a total war with the goal of defeating an enemy nation-state by destroying its economic ability and public will to wage war rather than destroying its land or naval forces...

 from the air to destroy the ability of the enemy to wage war. London, Coventry
Coventry Blitz
The Coventry blitz was a series of bombing raids that took place in the English city of Coventry. The city was bombed many times during the Second World War by the German Air Force...

 and many other British cities were firebombed during the Blitz
The Blitz
The Blitz was the sustained strategic bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany between 7 September 1940 and 10 May 1941, during the Second World War. The city of London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 76 consecutive nights and many towns and cities across the country followed...

. Most large German cities were extensively firebombed starting in 1942 and almost all large Japanese cities were firebombed during the last six months of World War II.

This technique makes use of small incendiary bombs (possibly delivered by a cluster bomb
Cluster bomb
A cluster munition is a form of air-dropped or ground-launched explosive weapon that releases or ejects smaller sub-munitions. Commonly, this is a cluster bomb that ejects explosive bomblets that are designed to kill enemy personnel and destroy vehicles...

 such as the Molotov bread basket
Molotov bread basket
The RRAB-3, nicknamed the Molotov bread basket , was a Soviet-made droppable bomb dispenser that combined a large high-explosive charge with a cluster of incendiary bombs. It was used against the cities of Finland during the Winter War of 1939–1940...

). If a fire catches, it could spread, taking in adjacent buildings that would have been largely unaffected by a high explosive bomb. This is a more effective use of the payload that a bomber could carry.

The use of incendiaries alone does not generally start uncontrollable fires where the targets are roofed with nonflammable materials such as tiles or slates. The use of a mixture of bombers carrying high explosive bombs, such as the British blockbuster bomb
Blockbuster bomb
Blockbuster or "cookie" was the name given to several of the largest conventional bombs used in World War II by the Royal Air Force...

s, which blew out windows and roofs and exposed the interior of buildings to the incendiary bombs, are much more effective. Alternatively, a preliminary bombing with conventional bombs can be followed by subsequent attacks by incendiary carrying bombers.


Early in World War II many British cities were firebombed. Two particularly notable raids were the Coventry Blitz on 14 November 1940, and the blitz on London
The Second Great Fire of London
The "Second Great Fire of London" is a name used at the time to refer to one of the most destructive air raids of the London Blitz, over the night of 29/30 December 1940. Between 6pm and 6am the next day, more than 24,000 high explosive bombs and 100,000 incendiary bombs were dropped...

 on the night of 29 December/30 December 1940, which was the most destructive raid on London during the war with much of the destruction caused by fires started by incendiary bombs. During the Coventry Blitz the Germans pioneered several innovations which were to influence all future strategic bomber raids during the war. These were: The use of pathfinder aircraft with electronic aids to navigate, to mark the targets before the main bomber raid; The use of high explosive bombs and air-mines coupled with thousands of incendiary bombs intended to set the city ablaze. The first wave of follow-up bombers dropped high explosive bombs, the intent of which was knock out the utilities (the water supply, electricity network and gas mains), and to crater the road - making it difficult for the fire engines to reach fires started by the follow-up waves of bombers. The follow-up waves dropped a combination of high explosive and incendiary bombs. There were two types of incendiary bombs: those made of magnesium
Magnesium is a chemical element with the symbol Mg, atomic number 12, and common oxidation number +2. It is an alkaline earth metal and the eighth most abundant element in the Earth's crust and ninth in the known universe as a whole...

 and iron
Iron is a chemical element with the symbol Fe and atomic number 26. It is a metal in the first transition series. It is the most common element forming the planet Earth as a whole, forming much of Earth's outer and inner core. It is the fourth most common element in the Earth's crust...

 powders, and those made of petroleum
Petroleum or crude oil is a naturally occurring, flammable liquid consisting of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights and other liquid organic compounds, that are found in geologic formations beneath the Earth's surface. Petroleum is recovered mostly through oil drilling...

. The high-explosive bombs and the larger air-mines were not only designed to hamper the Coventry fire brigade, they were also intended to damage roofs, making it easier for the incendiary bombs to fall into buildings and ignite them. As Sir Arthur Harris
Sir Arthur Harris, 1st Baronet
Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Travers Harris, 1st Baronet GCB OBE AFC , commonly known as "Bomber" Harris by the press, and often within the RAF as "Butcher" Harris, was Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of RAF Bomber Command during the latter half of World War...

, commander of RAF Bomber Command
RAF Bomber Command
RAF Bomber Command controlled the RAF's bomber forces from 1936 to 1968. During World War II the command destroyed a significant proportion of Nazi Germany's industries and many German cities, and in the 1960s stood at the peak of its postwar military power with the V bombers and a supplemental...

, wrote after the war:
The development of the tactical innovation
Military tactics
Military tactics, the science and art of organizing an army or an air force, are the techniques for using weapons or military units in combination for engaging and defeating an enemy in battle. Changes in philosophy and technology over time have been reflected in changes to military tactics. In...

 of the bomber stream
Bomber stream
The bomber stream was a tactic developed by the Royal Air Force Bomber Command to overwhelm the German aerial defences of the Kammhuber Line during World War II....

 by the RAF to overwhelm the German
Luftwaffe is a generic German term for an air force. It is also the official name for two of the four historic German air forces, the Wehrmacht air arm founded in 1935 and disbanded in 1946; and the current Bundeswehr air arm founded in 1956....

 aerial defenses
Anti-aircraft warfare
NATO defines air defence as "all measures designed to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of hostile air action." They include ground and air based weapon systems, associated sensor systems, command and control arrangements and passive measures. It may be to protect naval, ground and air forces...

 of the Kammhuber Line
Kammhuber Line
The Kammhuber Line was the name given to the German night air defense system established in July 1940 by Colonel Josef Kammhuber.- Description :...

 during World War II would have increased the RAF's concentration in time over the target, but after the lessons learned during the Blitz, the concentration of dropping bombs over the target in the shortest time possible became standard tactic of the RAF because it was known to be more effective than spreading the raid over a longer time period. For example during the Coventry Blitz on the night of 14/15 November 1940, 515 Luftwaffe bombers many flying more than one sortie
Sortie is a term for deployment or dispatch of one military unit, be it an aircraft, ship, or troops from a strongpoint. The sortie, whether by one or more aircraft or vessels, usually has a specific mission....

 against Coventry delivered their bombs in a raid that lasted more than 10 hours, while in contrast the much more devastating raid on Dresden
Dresden is the capital city of the Free State of Saxony in Germany. It is situated in a valley on the River Elbe, near the Czech border. The Dresden conurbation is part of the Saxon Triangle metropolitan area....

 on the night of 13/14 of February 1945 by the two waves of the RAF Bomber Command's main force, the first wave released their first bomb at 22:14, with all but one of the 254 Lancaster
Avro Lancaster
The Avro Lancaster is a British four-engined Second World War heavy bomber made initially by Avro for the Royal Air Force . It first saw active service in 1942, and together with the Handley Page Halifax it was one of the main heavy bombers of the RAF, the RCAF, and squadrons from other...

 bombers releasing their bombs within two minutes, and the last one releasing at 22:22. The second wave of 529 Lancasters dropped all of their bombs between 01:21 and 01:45. This means that in the first raid that on average one Lancaster dropped a full load of bombs every half a second and in the second larger raid that involved more than one RAF bomber Group, one every three seconds.

The United States Army Air Force (USAAF) officially only bombed precision targets over Europe, but for example, when 316 B-17 Flying Fortresses bombed Dresden
Dresden is the capital city of the Free State of Saxony in Germany. It is situated in a valley on the River Elbe, near the Czech border. The Dresden conurbation is part of the Saxon Triangle metropolitan area....

 in a follow-up raid at around noon on the 14 February 1945, because of cloud the later waves bombed using H2X radar
H2X radar
H2X radar was an American development of the British H2S radar, the first ground mapping radar to be used in combat. It was used by the USAAF during World War II as a navigation system for daylight overcast and nighttime operations...

 for targeting. The mix of bombs to be used on the Dresden raid was about 40% incendiaries, much closer to the RAF city-busting mix than the bomb
A bomb is any of a range of explosive weapons that only rely on the exothermic reaction of an explosive material to provide an extremely sudden and violent release of energy...

-load usually used by the Americans in precision bombardments. This was quite a common mix when the USAAF anticipated cloudy conditions over the target.

In its attacks on Japan the USAAF abandoned its policy of precision bombing, and used a mix of incendiaries and high explosives to burn Japanese cities to the ground. These tactics were used to devastating effect with many urban areas burned out. The first raid using low-flying B-29 Superfortress
B-29 Superfortress
The B-29 Superfortress is a four-engine propeller-driven heavy bomber designed by Boeing that was flown primarily by the United States Air Forces in late-World War II and through the Korean War. The B-29 was one of the largest aircraft to see service during World War II...

 bombers carrying incendiary bombs to drop on Tokyo
, ; officially , is one of the 47 prefectures of Japan. Tokyo is the capital of Japan, the center of the Greater Tokyo Area, and the largest metropolitan area of Japan. It is the seat of the Japanese government and the Imperial Palace, and the home of the Japanese Imperial Family...

 was on the night of 24/25 February 1945 when 174 B-29s destroyed around fifty square mile (150 km²) of the city. Changing their tactics to expand the coverage and increase the damage, 279 B-29s raided on the night of 9/10 March, dropping around 1,700 tons of bombs. Approximately 16 square miles (41 km²) of the city were destroyed and some 100,000 people are estimated to have died in the resulting firestorm
A firestorm is a conflagration which attains such intensity that it creates and sustains its own wind system. It is most commonly a natural phenomenon, created during some of the largest bushfires, forest fires, and wildfires...

, more than the immediate deaths of either the Hiroshima
is the capital of Hiroshima Prefecture, and the largest city in the Chūgoku region of western Honshu, the largest island of Japan. It became best known as the first city in history to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon when the United States Army Air Forces dropped an atomic bomb on it at 8:15 A.M...

 or Nagasaki, Japan atomic bombings.

Popular culture

  • The Japanese animated
    Animation is the rapid display of a sequence of images of 2-D or 3-D artwork or model positions in order to create an illusion of movement. The effect is an optical illusion of motion due to the phenomenon of persistence of vision, and can be created and demonstrated in several ways...

     film Grave of the Fireflies
    Grave of the Fireflies
    is a 1988 Japanese animated war tragedy film written and directed by Isao Takahata. This is the first film produced by Shinchosha, who hired Studio Ghibli to do the animation production work...

    follows events after the firebombing of Kobe, Japan.
  • Kurt Vonnegut
    Kurt Vonnegut
    Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was a 20th century American writer. His works such as Cat's Cradle , Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions blend satire, gallows humor and science fiction. He was known for his humanist beliefs and was honorary president of the American Humanist Association.-Early...

    's science fiction
    Science fiction
    Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities...

     novel Slaughterhouse-Five
    Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut about World War II experiences and journeys through time of a soldier called Billy Pilgrim...

    is partially based on his personal experience of the Dresden firestorm.
  • The novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.The book's narrator is a nine-year-old boy named Oskar Schell. Two years before the story begins, Oskar's father dies on 9/11...

    by Jonathan Safran Foer
    Jonathan Safran Foer
    Jonathan Safran Foer is an American author best known for his novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close...

     contains narrative threads dealing with the Bombing of Dresden.
  • The song 'Fire Bomb' on Rated R (Rihanna album)
    Rated R (Rihanna album)
    Rated R is the fourth studio album by Barbadian recording artist Rihanna, first released November 20, 2009, on Def Jam Recordings. The album is a musical distance from her previous effort Good Girl Gone Bad , which contained up-tempo and ballad-oriented songs, and it heavily incorporated pop and...

     uses the technique as a metaphor for love.
  • The Capcom
    is a Japanese developer and publisher of video games, known for creating multi-million-selling franchises such as Devil May Cry, Chaos Legion, Street Fighter, Mega Man and Resident Evil. Capcom developed and published Bionic Commando, Lost Planet and Dark Void too, but they are less known. Its...

     videogame Dead Rising 2
    Dead Rising 2
    is an action-adventure horror-comedy video game, developed by Capcom in partnership with Blue Castle Games, and was distributed by Capcom. It was released on September 24, 2010 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 and September 28, 2010 for Microsoft Windows. The Dead Rising staff returned to create...

    contains a scenario where the dire outcome of the plot may lead to the fire bombing of the fictional city Fortune City, Nevada
    Nevada is a state in the western, mountain west, and southwestern regions of the United States. With an area of and a population of about 2.7 million, it is the 7th-largest and 35th-most populous state. Over two-thirds of Nevada's people live in the Las Vegas metropolitan area, which contains its...

  • The movie "28 Weeks Later" contains a scenario where American fighter/bomber jets firebomb a section of London, in a failed attempt to kill all the infected after a "Rage" virus outbreak.
  • In the "Left 4 Dead" video game series there are multiple mentions of military bombing runs of infected areas. It is heavily hinted that the bombs were Firebombs. In addition in "Left 4 Dead 2", on one of the final missions the military starts to bomb New Orleans while the group tries to make it across the bridge to a helicopter. Also in both games the group has the ability to pick up Cocktail Molotov's.
  • The game "Battlefield: Vietnam", the F-4 has bombs that you can drop containing Napalm.
  • One of the kill-streaks in "Call of Duty: Black Ops" is a napalm strike.
  • In the series "Plague of the Dead: The Morning Star Strain" there are multiple scenarios where fighter/bomber jets firebomb areas such as Washington D.C., and San Fransisco.
  • In the "Dragon Age" series the player or their party can buy/make firebombs (more like grenades).

See also

  • German Village (Dugway proving ground)
    German Village (Dugway proving ground)
    German Village was the nickname for a range of residential houses constructed in 1943 by the U.S. Army in the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, roughly a hundred kilometers southwest of Salt Lake City....

  • Japanese village
    Japanese village
    Japanese Village was the nickname for a range of residential houses constructed in 1943 by the U.S. army in the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, roughly a southwest of Salt Lake City....

  • General
    A general officer is an officer of high military rank, usually in the army, and in some nations, the air force. The term is widely used by many nations of the world, and when a country uses a different term, there is an equivalent title given....

     William S. Radzibaba, USAF
  • Bombing of Hamburg in World War II
    Bombing of Hamburg in World War II
    The Allied bombing of Hamburg during World War II included numerous strategic bombing missions and diversion/nuisance raids. As a large port and industrial center, Hamburg's shipyards, U-boat pens, and the Hamburg-Harburg area oil refineries were attacked throughout the war...

  • Bombing of Dresden in World War II
    Bombing of Dresden in World War II
    The Bombing of Dresden was a military bombing by the British Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force and as part of the Allied forces between 13 February and 15 February 1945 in the Second World War...

  • Bombing of London in World War II
  • Bombing of Coventry in World War II
    Coventry Blitz
    The Coventry blitz was a series of bombing raids that took place in the English city of Coventry. The city was bombed many times during the Second World War by the German Air Force...

  • Bombing of Tokyo in World War II
    Bombing of Tokyo in World War II
    The bombing of Tokyo, often referred to as a "firebombing", was conducted by the United States Army Air Forces during the Pacific campaigns of World War II. The U.S. mounted a small-scale raid on Tokyo in April 1942, with large morale effects...

  • Bombing of Frampol in World War II
  • Bombing of Wieluń in World War II
  • Bombing of Warsaw in World War II
    Bombing of Warsaw in World War II
    The Bombing of Warsaw in World War II refers both to the Strategic bombing campaign of Warsaw by the Luftwaffe during the siege of Warsaw in the Invasion of Poland in 1939 and to the German bombing raids during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944....

  • Aerial bombing of cities
    Aerial bombing of cities
    A species of strategic bombing, the aerial bombing of cities began in 1915 during World War I, grew to a vast scale in World War II, and continues to the present day. The development of aerial bombardment marked an increased capacity of armed forces to deliver explosive weapons in populated areas...

  • Terror bombing
  • 16th Street Baptist Church bombing
    16th Street Baptist Church bombing
    The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed on Sunday, September 15, 1963. The explosion at the African-American church, which killed four girls, marked a turning point in the U.S...

  • Roerich Pact
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