While it takes decades – sometimes even centuries – of effort and resources to build and populate a thriving city, all that could be wiped out by merely a few days of warfare. Even today, densely-populated settlements are deliberately and systematically targetted as a widely-practiced strategy of war, often resulting in the almost-total destruction of their cultural and historical legacies.
10. Saint-Lo, France
The siege of Saint-Lo in France was one of the pivotal battles of World War II, fought between the Allies and the occupying German forces in the summer of 1944. It was a part of the larger Battle of Normandy, as Saint-Lo was a key transportation hub for the Allied forces landing on the Normandy beach.
While the actual battle began when American forces entered the town in July, it was subjected to a massive bombardment campaign in the weeks leading up to the assault, resulting in the complete destruction of much of its infrastructure. Several bridges and railway lines were permanently destroyed during the siege, with much of its civilian population forced to flee the region.
While it was a successful operation from a military standpoint – as it was one of the first major German defeats on the western front – the bombardment and destruction of Saint-Lo is still remembered as a controversial decision by the Allies. By the end of the war, Allied bombing campaigns claimed the lives of at least 8,000 Normans and more than 60,000 French civilians in other occupied regions.
9. Grozny, Russia
The siege and eventual battle of Grozny was one of the darkest episodes of the Second Chechen War. Beginning in 1999, Russian forces initiated a full-scale assault on the Chechen capital, which by then had turned into the stronghold of the self-declared Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. The city was extensively bombarded in the months leading up to the attack, as Russian forces imposed a blockade and subjected the militants and civilians alike to an unrelenting aerial bombardment campaign.
While they faced stiff resistance when they finally entered the city in February, 2000, the city was eventually overrun and most of the militants were forced to flee. Grozny itself was left in ruins, to the extent that the UN declared it the ‘most destroyed city on Earth’. Apart from the total destruction of the critical infrastructure, many civilian areas were also devastated, and it would take years before they could be completely rebuilt. According to some human rights groups, as many as 25,000 civilians lost their lives in the two-months-long campaign.
8. Rovaniemi, Finland
As the Second World War began, Finland found itself in a precarious position, as it was fighting its own war against the Soviet Union now known as the Winter War. In November 1941, it signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with other Axis powers, effectively handing over the northernmost part of the country to fascist forces. It resulted in German bases quickly springing up across the Lapland region, especially in and around the capital of Rovaniemi. As the war progressed, the Germans became more and more entrenched in the city, building fortifications, airfields, and other defensive installations.
Of course, the situation had drastically changed by 1944, when advancing Soviet forces demanded that the country expel the Germans or risk fighting another war with the USSR. Finland complied and gave the order to expel all Axis units by October, 1944. As they retreated, however, German forces decided to lay waste to the entire city and its infrastructure, destroying more than 90% of it over the next few weeks. This included the destruction of critical facilities and all of the city’s military installations, along with most of the city’s residential quarters.
7. Palmyra, Syria
Palmyra, also called the “Venice of the Sands“, is an ancient city in present-day Syria that once served as an important trading hub between the Mediterranean and the East. Its unique blend of Roman, Greek, and Persian influences made it an important historical and cultural site in the region, as the city housed many well-preserved artifacts, temples, tombs, and ancient sculptures.
Sadly, much of that legacy would come to a tragic end in 2015, when ISIS militants captured Palmyra and began a campaign of total destruction. They systematically targeted and destroyed most of the city’s historical heritage, including the Temple of Bel and the Roman Arch of Triumph. They also executed a number of Palmyra’s citizens, including the brutal beheading of the city’s chief archaeologist, Khaled al-Asaad, who had dedicated his life to the study and preservation of the site.
6. Magdeburg, Germany
The Thirty Years’ War was one of the longest-running and most destructive conflicts fought on European soil, lasting from 1618 to 1648. It was primarily fought by the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Republic, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany, though the conflict involved all of Europe in some way. It was triggered by a combination of political, social, and economic factors, especially the growing divide between Catholics and Protestants at the time.
One of its most infamous events was the sack of Magdeburg – a Protestant city in what is now Germany – after a long siege that ended on May 20, 1631. It was an indiscriminate massacre, as forces of the Catholic coalition burned the city down and killed more than 20,000 people. The infrastructure was almost-completely wiped out, with about 1,700 out of 1,900 of the city’s buildings burned or destroyed. The devastation was so massive that by 1639, only 450 residents remained in the city, down from a total population of more than 25,000. It would take another two centuries before Magdeburg could recover and grow again.
5. Pyongyang, North Korea
The bombardment of Pyongyang in Korea began in June 1950, when it increasingly became clear that the North Korean forces were about to make a push for the city. As a pre-emptive measure, UN forces – led by the U.S. and South Korean contingents – launched a total of 420,000 bombs on a city of about 400,000 residents, which included nearly 32,000 tons of napalm.
The damage was so extensive that by the end of the war, only a few buildings remained standing. About 75% of Pyongyang was destroyed during the bombing campaign, including factories, hospitals, schools, government buildings, residential neighborhoods, and even hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war. According to one journalist’s account, the city ran out of military targets to attack within days, as the coalition forces had bombed “every brick standing on top of another.”
4. Ypres, Belgium
Belgium was the site of extensive combat throughout the First World War, as German forces invaded and occupied the country in the early years of the conflict. The city of Ypres, located in western Belgium, saw some of the most intense fighting of the front, as it was a key strategic location throughout the war. The first major battle to control Ypres was fought in the fall of 1914, and the city was subsequently attacked and heavily shelled on multiple occasions.
By the end of it all, Ypres was almost-completely destroyed, with some of its most iconic structures left in ruins. That included the Cloth Hall – a center of the city’s economic life since the 13th century – and the historic St. Martin’s Cathedral, along with numerous other churches and cultural sites. While it’s now a popular tourist and cultural spot in Belgium, it would take many years before Ypres could be fully restored in its original architectural style after the war.
3. Baghdad, Iraq
Baghdad was an important cultural, intellectual, and economic center during the Golden Age of Islam, which began with the establishment of the Abbasid caliphate in the eighth century. It was a major hub for trade, learning, and religious scholarship, and home to perhaps the largest library in the world at the time – the House of Wisdom.
While the city had a great run for a while, it was unfortunately overrun by the Mongols in 1258, which would have a significant impact on the region and beyond. The sack of Baghdad resulted in widespread destruction and death, as the city was systematically pillaged and destroyed by Mongol forces in a matter of a few days. The entire population was either killed or sold into slavery – according to Mongol estimates, more than 200,000 people lost their lives during the assault. Most of the city’s buildings were also burned to the ground, including the House of Wisdom and the Grand Mosque.
2. Manila, Philippines
The battle of Manila lasted from February 3 to March 3, 1945, fought between a coalition of American and rebel Filipino forces against the occupying Japanese army. While the entire occupation had been brutal for the city’s residents, it was nothing compared to the scale of destruction seen during the month-long battle.
The city was heavily bombed by American planes in the run-up to the battle, and urban combat between Japanese and American forces left much of it in ruins. As Japanese forces retreated, they engaged in a campaign of terror against civilians, as they raped, tortured, and massacred suspected guerrillas throughout the city. It was one of the greatest tragedies of the entire war, as nearly the entire city was razed to the ground by aerial or artillery bombardment. In total, an estimated 100,000 Filipinos – most of them civilians – lost their lives during the battle of Manila, making it the second most devastated place of the war after our next entry.
1. Warsaw, Poland
Warsaw was the first capital to be occupied on the European front during the Second World War. It was a primary target for the Nazis due to its large Jewish population, as the city was home to many prominent Jewish political, cultural, and religious organizations. It was also one of the more rebellious cities occupied by the Germans, as the entire occupation was marked by minor and major revolts by armed Polish rebels, like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943.
When yet another one of those rebellions failed in the summer of 1944, Adolf hitler ordered his troops to completely destroy the city. According to specific instructions by Heinrich Himmler, “the city must completely disappear from the surface of the Earth”, which was carried out to a scary degree of efficiency over the next few weeks.
When the Red Army entered Warsaw in January, 1945, they found that every part of the once-thriving metropolitan was burned or destroyed with explosives. It was a wasteland, with most of its population either dead or deported to one of the concentration camps. Warsaw is still remembered as the most completely-destroyed city of the war, perhaps even all history, as about 85% of it was entirely wiped off from existence.