Thousands of aircraft bombs were dropped by both sides over the course of the war, devastating entire cities and killing hundreds of thousands of people. A wide variety of bombs were used by the U.S. Army Air Forces, including high-explosive, fragmentation, and incendiary warheads. Bombs were also developed for chemical and biological warfare, but they were not deployed during World War II.

U.S. high-explosive bombs ranged in size from 100 to 4,000 pounds, though the larger sizes were seldom used. (An experimental 42,000-pound high-explosive bomb was created by the Army Air Forces in 1945 but was never used in the war.) Fragmentation bombs — also known as antipersonnel bombs — came in 20-, 23-, and 30-pound sizes and were dropped on enemy ground troops.

Incendiary bombs, which used chemicals to start fires, were usually fifty pounds in size and were often dropped in clusters to create a fast-moving blaze. Sometimes demolition bombs were dropped first to blow off roofs so the incendiary bombs that followed would be more effective in destroying target buildings. According to bomb experts, incendiary bombs were far superior to explosives for wholesale destruction, and entire cities, such as Dresden, Germany, were burned to the ground as a result of their use.

Map 11-1 Air offensive in Western Europe as of September 6, 1943.

Map courtesy of the National Archives (RG 160, Vol. 2, No. 20)

Toward the end of the war, the Japanese sent incendiary bombs to the United States and Canada via balloon. Few reached their targets, and damage from the balloon bombs was minimal. The only casualties were Elsie Mitchell and her five children, who found a balloon bomb while fishing in Lake County, Oregon. The bomb detonated while they were examining it. The Mitchells were also the only casualties from enemy action on the U.S. mainland.

Fig 11-2 Pilots aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier receive last minute instructions before taking off to attack industrial and military installations in Tokyo.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (208-N-38374)

The British created a number of large bombs, including a 4,000-pounder that could level an entire city block. This “blockbuster” bomb was first used against the German port of Emden on April 1, 1941. The largest bombs used during the war were British-made 12,000-and 22,000-pound “earthquake” bombs known, respectively, as Tallboy and Grand Slam. These bombs were used against German submarine pens and other heavily fortified targets and proved quite effective. A Tallboy bomb was also used to sink the German battleship Tirpitz, which had survived blasts from smaller bombs.

Some large bombs were equipped with parachutes to slow their fall so aircraft could safely escape the blast area before they detonated.

The largest Axis bomb used was the German 5,511-pound SB 2500, which carried an explosive charge of more than 3,700 pounds. The bomb was effective, but few were dropped during the war. The most destructive Allied bombs, of course, were the atomic bombs used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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