Originally published 3/1/2011
Can you be proud of something you consider was wrong? I’m currently reading a history of Bomber Command during World War Two and It’s left me with this pretty insoluble moral question.
In a paragraph; Bomber Commands operations over Germany are the only major battle of the Second World War for which Britain did not issue a campaign medal to the men involved. This is because by the end of the war the government and to a lesser extent the public had become embarrassed about what they had been asked to do in our name. Is this fair and how should we remember the men of Bomber Command today?
“The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.” Arthur Harris, Air Officer Commanding, Bomber Command.
The bomber offensive had started as a way of hitting back, with our land forces banished from the continent, on the back foot in North Africa, and distant but ultimately crucial battle ongoing out in the cold waters of the North Atlantic it was a visible way we were striking back. The Blitz on London and other cities notably Coventry had created a feeling that the enemy should suffer too.
In today’s age of high tech warfare where lasers guide bombs down chimneys it is easy to forget that in 1943 bombers had trouble bombing the right city never mind the right building. This was especially true at night, the only time Bomber Command could hope to operate over Germany and survive. To compensate for this inaccuracy the tactic of area bombing or the deliberate targeting of large areas of German cities was adopted out of necessity. This reasoning, commonly accepted in the UK is valid but is not the full story; there was also a darker motive.
Harris was under no illusions about what he was trying to do.
“It should be emphasized that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories”
This was confirmed in Directive 22 which stated bombing was to be:
“focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular of the industrial workers.”
So just as Hitler had tried to break the will of the British by bombing, now we would try the same thing on the Germans regardless of the fact it had completely failed to crush the will of the British people. The scale is unimaginable, 500-800 aircraft a night pounded every major German city one ofter the other. Yes it caused massive problems for the German war machine, production of armaments was delayed and the numbers reduced, troops were tied up manning air defences rather than facing the Russians in the east and later the allies in the west but between 200,000 and 400,000 civilian died in the nighttime raids by the RAF.
Although the numbers of casualties were worse on the ground, the percentages were worse in air. A total of 55,737 men of Bomber Command would die during the war, a loss rate of 44.4% of those who served, only the German U-boat crews would suffer a higher loss rate. A bomber tour was composed of 30 missions, and with the average loss rate per mission at five percent rising to 10% or higher for the long missions to Berlin the crews could see that statistically you could not survive a tour. It was not unknown for more aircrew to die on a raid than civilians on the ground.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like. These were eighteen, nineteen and twenty year old kids, they could not drive a car because they were not old enough, some had not seen the sea till they navigated across it. Having only having learned to fly two months before they would now take a big heavy four engined bomber all the way to Berlin, navigating across a blacked out continent with little more than a compass, map, and stop watch. Sat in unpressurised aircraft with only minimal heating against the -30 degree air temperature. Stalked by searchlights, and night fighters, holding the aircraft steady in a hail of flack whilst on the bomb run, knowing that any minute cannon shells could come tearing through the fuselage. They injured this for seven or eight hours at a stretch.
They could see death coming as they flew over Germany, watching the searchlights wave ahead in front of a wall of exploding flack that they had to fly through. Aircraft caught by the beams were easy pray to the flack and fighters and would desperately try and throw of the light before it was too late; those that succeeded would then get back on the bomb run and try again. The crews would see aircraft exploded, split in half, have wings torn off, fall to the ground in flames, be hit by bombs falling from aircraft above them, yet with this going on around them they pressed home there attacks.
Back at base tired, and shaken by strain they would see the belongings of those that had not returned disappear from the mess, friends with whom they had had a drink with a couple of days before gone forever. Sometime crews would be killed on their first mission, so quickly that barely anyone on the squadron would have had time to learn there names. Despite this horror they boarded their aircraft night after night and flew the missions. How can one not be proud of their bravery
Towards the end of the war questions were being raised about the morality of what we were doing; then came the Dresden firebombing. Dresden as a city had escaped the worst of the conflict, and was renowned for its culture and architecture, by 1945 it was full of refugees fleeing the advancing Red Army. Then on the 13th-14th February 1945 it was destroyed by the RAF and USAAF in a colossal Firestorm* from two huge raids comprising close to 800 aircraft apiece. The bombing is thought to have killed up to 25,000 people. The scale of the destruction caused Churchill to look to question the bombing strategy and to distance himself from it:
“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests than that of the enemy.” Winston Churchill
I think the failure to award a campaign medal to a group of men who fought so bravely and suffered so much because politically it had become difficult is a disgraceful one. The men of Bomber Command put in a monumental effort on our behalf and suffered horrific losses, to ignore their contribution because we now find what they did morally troubling is in itself morally wrong. However I am not for one minute saying the bombing of German (or Japanese) civilians is something we should take any pride in.
By today’s standards the raids were morally wrong but applying morals retrospectively is a dangerous game. I think that Churchill’s response to the Dresden attack indicates some appreciation of the moral dimension to the issue at the time. Bomber Command did what they were asked to do in our name, and as a people we knew what was going on when those bombs landed. Any guilt should be carried by the nation not the men themselves.
I can’t be proud of what they did but I am proud of the way they did it. If that makes sense.
Bomber Boys, Kevin Wilson The story of Bomber Command in 1943, lots of first hand accounts
Dresden, 13 February 1945, Frederick Taylor an analysis of the most controversial attack of the European War
*Firestorm: A colossal inferno caused by incendiary bombing where concentrated fires cause superheated air to rise drawing in cold air from the outside further feeding the fire in a positive feedback loop. The centre of a Firestorm could reach temperatures of 1000 degrees, produce winds strong enough to suck people in through the air, and all the air out of the air raid shelters suffocating the victims. The phenomenon was unexpected and had been discovered accidentally during the bombing of Hamburg in 1943 when a single raid is thought to have killed 42,000 people.
Firestorms were rare in WW2 due to the need for very accurate concentrated bombing but the seven or eight Firestorms which occured may be responsible for up to 25% of the civilian casualties from bombing. The worst Firestorm in history occurred after a USAAF raid on Tokyo on 5th March 1945 and is thought to have killed 120,000 civilians.