In early June 1945, not long after the German surrender at Reims ended the Second World War in Europe, LIFE magazine published an article titled, “The Battered Face of Germany.” Featuring photos made from the air by Margaret Bourke-White — America’s first accredited woman photographer in WWII and the first authorized to fly on combat missions — the pictures, in LIFE’s words, “show the devastation of Germany at its worst and reveal the overall pattern of Allied air strategy”:
In the closing months of the war, chemical plants and oil refineries were hit hardest and most frequently. Although the Germans went right on producing planes and tanks, they were unable to supply them with enough fuel.
The heaviest destruction was wreaked on the centers of large German cities which are today only dunes of rubble surrounded by gaunt windowless walls. The smaller towns, villages, farm country and even the suburbs of the big cities were relatively undamaged.
Not mentioned in that June ’45 issue of LIFE, but certainly worth noting here, is that the Allied bombing campaigns directed at some German cities — especially world-renowned cultural centers like Dresden — were controversial even at the time they were carried out. (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., famously based much of the most brutal elements of his classic novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, on what he witnessed as a POW in Dresden in the aftermath of the attack, which killed tens of thousands of civilians.)
In fact, the strategy of bombing German cities — and German-occupied cities in France and elsewhere — throughout the war has been both defended and excoriated through the decades. But in light of Bourke-White’s stark, masterful aerial shots, there’s little room for debate on one salient point: if the bombings were meant to rain down maximum destruction, they succeeded with a grim thoroughness that remains shocking even today, seven decades after the air-raid sirens, the explosions and the screams of the living and the dying echoed in the ruins.
– Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com