France under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945

This web exhibition is devoted to the Allied bombing of France between 1940 and 1945.

Although a number of French towns, such as Amiens and Abbeville, suffered badly at the hands of the Luftwaffe during the campaign of 1940, with a total estimated death toll from bombing of approximately 3,000, the vast majority of air raids on French territory were carried out by the British and American air forces. Over a fifth of the Allied bombing effort over continental Europe was devoted to France; the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces dropped nearly eight times the tonnage of bombs on France as the Luftwaffe dropped on the United Kingdom.

For the Allies, attacking France, a friendly but German-occupied country, presented a particular problem: how to hit military, industrial and communications targets related to the German war effort while minimising French civilian casualties. For the French government, based in Vichy and committed to collaboration with Germany, Allied raids offered obvious propaganda opportunities to show the British and Americans as hostile to the French people. But they also presented the formidable challenge, in a context of great penury, of finding adequate resources for civil defence against a level of aerial bombardment for which pre-war preparations proved wholly inadequate. For the French people, air raids entailed both immediate suffering in the (many) bombed localities and a longer-term moral dilemma: that of accepting death and destruction at the hands of Allies whose military action was necessary to end the German occupation. The five sections of this exhibition are structured around these main themes: How France prepared for bombing before 1940; how the Allies developed their air offensive over France; how the Vichy state sought to assist the victims, but also to milk the raids for propaganda purposes; what the bombs did to French cities and civilians; and finally, how the French themselves reacted.

The text was written by Andrew Knapp, Professor of French Politics and Contemporary History at the University of Reading. The material here derived largely from research for a book, co-authored with Claudia Baldoli: Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945 (London: Continuum, 2012: Forgotten Blitzes, of course, offers a level of detail not available on this website.
Both the book and the website are part of a larger, comparative project, entitled Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe, 1940-1945. Financed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and headed by Professor Richard Overy of the University of Exeter, Bombing, States and Peoples covers the bombing experiences of France, Germany, Italy, and the UK. The Bombing, States and Peoples site is at It incorporates a web exhibition covering all four countries; the content of French section of this exhibition is the same as that offered here.

Neither the Reading nor the Exeter exhibition would have been possible without the support of the AHRC. And neither would be remotely complete without images. These have been generously supplied by a number of archives, including: the National Archives of the United Kingdom, the Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine (BDIC), the Archives Départementales de la Loire, the Mémorial de Caen, and the municipal archives of Boulogne-Billancourt, Le Havre, Lyon, Marseille and Rouen. They are warmly thanked here.

The creators of this web exhibition have made every effort to find the holders of rights to images displayed here. In cases where they have been unable to do so, they are ready to respect the rights of any individual or institution able to justify their position as the artist or the right holder.


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