Anthony J. Gaughan has published a paper on SSRN dealing with the 1923 Hague Draft Rules of Aerial Warfare and D-Day
This paper examines the question of whether the adoption of the 1923 Hague Draft Rules of Aerial Warfare as binding international law might have changed the outcome of the D-Day invasion during World War II. The delegates to The Hague conference proposed a severe restriction on the use of air power in urban areas, but the rules were never adopted as international law.
Two decades later, the international community’s failure to adopt the 1923 Hague Draft Rules had a significant impact on the D-Day invasion. On June 6, 1944, the Allies mounted the largest amphibious operation in history as 150,000 troops stormed the Normandy beaches of Nazi-occupied France. The landings succeeded in no small part because of the Allied air forces, which mounted a massive interdiction campaign to prevent the German army from rushing to the French coastline and destroying the Normandy beachhead. Operation Overlord, the code name for the D-Day invasion, marked a major turning point in the war, accelerating the collapse of Nazi Germany, which surrendered 11 months later. As the historian Ian Kershaw has observed, Operation Overlord marked “the beginning of the end for the Third Reich.”
The D-Day air campaign, however, came at a severe cost for French and Belgian civilians. At least 12,000—and possibly more than 25,000—French and Belgian civilians died as unintended casualties of the Allied bombing campaign. Although the Allied air strikes clearly played a critical role in interdicting the German army, it was by no means clear that the vast scale of the bombing was necessary. Whether the interdiction objectives could have been achieved by a more modest—and less destructive—air campaign was an open question at the time and remains so for many historians today.
One of the principal reasons why the Allies implemented a massive area bombing campaign against French and Belgian rail centers was because international law did not provide clear guidance regarding air warfare. But it might have had the 1923 Hague Draft Rules of Aerial Warfare been adopted as binding international law. The Draft Rules prohibited area bombing in urban areas, which is precisely what the Allies engaged in during the D-Day air campaign. Had the Rules been in effect in 1944, the Allied air campaign in support of the D-Day operation may well have been much more modest in nature. But would the reduction in collateral damage have come at the cost of jeopardizing the invasion’s success? The story of The Hague Draft Rules and the controversy over the D-Day air campaign demonstrates the unique challenges and inherent complexity of the effort to use international law to protect civilian populations during wartime.