Did civilians go out and watch the aerial battles over WW2 Europe?

I understand that a person in a major city likely to be targeted would be in a cellar or subway once the sirens sounded but if you were a suburban German or Frenchman what was the experience like? I’ve never heard stories of people on the ground describing seeing these giant aramadas of bombers flying overhead battling with fighters, but presumably there were people standing in their backyard watching the battles overhead. Also, thousands of planes went down, did civilans on the flightpath from the U.K to Germany wonder if a bomber or fighter was gonna come down in their backyard or did they just sleep in the cellar the last few years of the war?

I don’t know. Maybe. But it would be hazardous. Most the the machine gun bullets and 20 and 37 mm cannon shells missed their mark and fell to the ground somewhere.

I seem to recall the storied Japanese author Haruki Murakami using this as a sub-device in at least one of his plots: Japanese children run outside to watch the Allied bombers fly by. Can’t be arsed to remember which book, but my WAG would be Kafka on the Shore because I read a couple chapters of it recently in a bookstore and remember it dealing with a specific Allied bomber incident in depth.

Considering how inaccurate bombing was in those days, I would think they would want to be in their cellars if they were anywhere near the target. The fighters were usually escorting the bombers, so an aerial battle would probably have indicated it was time to get underground.

Going by what I’ve learned from studying the font of knowledge that is the History Channel, it was very common for people in Britain to watch daytime bombing raids, especially in the countryside.

From what I understand, once the German’s had an idea where the raid was heading they would scramble fighters to meet the bombers well ahead of the target city if possible. If you were 50 miles or so outside of Berlin on the flightpath you probably weren’t in any danger of falling bombs.

My mother was 12 years old at the start of the war, living in England. She has interesting stories of watching “Battle of Britain” dogfights, and of bombs falling nearby.

Full air raids were not something people hung around to watch. Apart from the danger, they took place at night.

As Xema points out, the Battle of Britain was very different, and people did watch it take place. Also, people watched V1 flying bombs - one guy I know says that he felt safer being able to see them, and see that the engine was still burning (i.e. it was going to pass you by).

Most people had access to air raid shelters - either at home, or public ones (such as this **Disclaimer: shameless self-interest in that link :slight_smile: **)

Oh, I meant to add, people on the east coast of England, and living near airfields, would sometimes watch the fleets of Allied bombers departing in the evening, and their return in the early hours, counting the difference.

There are plenty of accounts in history books and newspapers from civilians watching from the countryside at least. In the cities, dogfights were likely (I would guess) to happen as bombers were overhead and civilians would be in shelter long before and so unable to see.

Documentaries on the air battles show fighting filmed from the ground in the countryside quite a bit, but when over cities it is mostly either shots from attacking bombers or the odd clip of a fire crew we see.

We need to be clear hear about the difference between bombing raids and dogfights. The latter were between fighters, not directly involving bombers, although it may involve fighters defending a bombing fleet.

I’d say that you could certainly have “dogfights” between fighter aircraft and bombers… especially some of the light bombers that were marginally capable of manuevering.

If not classified as a “dogfight”, it could certainly be classified as an “attack run” and would be visible from the ground.

I’m glad I didn’t have to see them overhead, but as an aviation buff, it would have been an amazing sight!

I meant of course between the attacking bombers’ escort and defending fighters. But then by the time bombers were overhead a city, it was perhaps more likely to be anti aircraft guns and not fighters attacking the bombers.

This is correct - and the main effect was to keep the bombers at a high altitude, which meant that (a) they were less effective at hitting their target (and more prone to hitting unintended ones), and (b) there was less to see.

Well, that depends. The German Blitz bombing of London took place almost entirely at night. British attacks on Germany took place at night. American firebombing of Japan took place at night.

But the American bombing campaign against Germany was largely a daylight affair.

Also conducted in daylight were pre-D-Day heavy and medium bomber attacks on railyards and communication hubs in France, and, probably most dangerous of all for ground observers, fighter-bomber attacks, especially the numerous and aggressive Allied attacks in France and Germany. By mid 1944 the Luftwaffe was largely committed to defending the homeland against high-level bombing, and tactical uses on the Eastern Front, and did not contest the Alllied fighter sweeps and ground support missions in the West. Virtually unopposed, allied fighter-bombers ran amok, attacking ground targets at will – I’d think it would be very dangerous to be visible in the open in the areas under attack.


Just spoke with a delightful lady last Friday, who was a 17 year-old soldier on a 4.5-inch AA gun near Newcastle, England in 1941; she and her (female) crew were credited with a bomber, and made the paper. What put her in my mind in regards this thread is that one of her crew was injured (on a different occasion to the above shoot-down) by a large splinter of AA shell. All that crap has to come back down somewhere.

My mother, who was 11 when the war broke out, was never allowed out of the shelter during raids (Clydeside). She did have a great collection of shell pieces, and even a German 4-lb Thermite incendiary bomb (that had been smothered by a sandbag) under her bed. My granny had fits, and threw it all out, sadly.

Well, the fighters didn’t always attack everything. Usually it was only what they could see.

And, by the way, all those antiaircraft shells bursting overhead. Most of the shrapnel fell to the ground at pretty high velocity. On occasionally did a piece or two hit a plane.

My parents were in their twenties during WW2. They lived in London.

They are obviously not happy memories, but they have told me:

  • every house observed a nighttime blackout
  • there was an Andersen shelter in the back garden*
  • if bombing started while you were in the street, you used the nearest Underground station
  • the worst thing about the German ‘flying bombs’ was when their engine cut out (since it was now coming down)
  • bombing damage was almost ‘random’, in the sense that the house next door could be demolished and everyone killed, while your house didn’t have a scratch
  • they had both seen some aerial combat, but were far more concerned with getting under cover

*see http://www.macksites.com/PRT1.htm

There was also public shelters every few hundred yards - but these were little more than brick outhouses, so people obviously preferred to use deep-level tube stations where possible.

It may have been some other sort of incendiary, but thermite won’t smother. It’s a completely self-contained reaction, and doesn’t need oxygen or anything else from its environment.