Brave Bombers

'Unlike Nazis shooting defenceless women and children into ditches, or herding them into purpose-built as chambers, RAF air crew faced the nightly risk of violent death'

Michael Burleigh

Next month will see the dedication of a memorial in Green Park to the heroes of RAF Bomber Command. At its heart will be a bronze sculpture by Philip Jackson, depicting a wartime aircrew, though not a British one as it happens.

On the night of May 12, 1944, a Royal Canadian Air Force Halifax was shot down on its mission to destroy railyards at Louvain in Belgium. It crashed into a swamp in Schendelbeke, remaining there until 1997 when a nephew of the Canadian pilot, Wilbur Bentz, organised the recovery of the wreckage, with the remains of three missing crew (including Bentz) still at their stations. Five others scattered from the wreckage had been retrieved and buried back in 1944.  

These eight were among the 17,100 Canadians who served in Bomber Command’s 6 Group. Almost 11,000 of them died in the name of king and empire. Aluminium from the airframe of this Halifax is incorporated into the Green Park memorial, and further recovered metal is being used to cast medals for surviving RCAF air and ground crew.

Backed by the patriotic readers of the Daily Telegraph (and the Bee Gees singer Robin Gibb), the Bomber Command memorial is long overdue. Although a statue of its most outstanding commander, Sir Arthur Harris, stands guard at St Clement Danes, he declined  a peerage because his men never received a distinct campaign medal. This reflects a certain British squeamishness about a campaign that resulted in the deaths of around 600,000 German civilians: Bomber Command dropped 657,674 tons of bombs on Germany from 1939 to 1945.  

Hitler’s Germany embarked on the conquest of Europe, flouting every international law, and with the intention of reducing its citizens to helotry. It had no scruples in pulverising Rotterdam, Warsaw, Belgrade or Kharkov. The collective racial fantasy of German politicians, soldiers, professors, industrialists and ordinary workers inflicted misery and death on tens of millions of people. 

Germany was responsible for the terror bombing not just of London, where more than 28,000 people perished during the Blitz, but many other cities, including Birmingham, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Swansea, Belfast, Cardiff and Clydebank, the port near Glasgow where only eight of 12,000 houses survived undamaged. The Germans had no scruples about using incendiaries, delayed action aerial mines and huge V2 rockets either.

The RAF strategic bomber offensive followed miserable performances by the British army in overseas theatres. Bombing was the one sure way of striking back, directly, at the enemy’s productive vitals, and yes, civilian morale, a euphemism for indiscriminate loss of life due to the inaccurate technologies involved. An openly contemptuous Stalin was mollified when Churchill offered to share aerial photos of damage to German cities. A nation that had worshipped military might since Bismarck got a major shock when a firestorm wiped out 43,000 people in Hamburg. If you start a fight, you had better know how to finish it, especially one with hard and implacable men like Churchill and Harris.

Though the impact of bombing on industrial production remains contested, it forced diversion of prodigious resources into defensive tactics. Germany had to manufacture fighters, rather than bombers, as well as deploying nearly 9,000 88mm guns, which would have been used to halt Soviet tanks.  Some 90,000 men operated anti-aircraft guns, with a further million engaged in clearing rubble. By destroying transport links, the Allied air campaign progressively chopped the German economy into isolated boxes.

Insidious attempts have been made to forge a moral equivalence between strategic bombing and the Holocaust. This is done by transposing technical terms, so that civilians were “gassed” in fiery “furnaces” by which the authors mean casualties of smoke inhalation in basement shelters. Nothing Bomber Command did contravened the laws of war of the day, which governed combatants and PoWs, not civilians whose efforts and skills Nazi propagandists bruited as a vital front. 

Unlike Nazis shooting defenceless women and children into ditches, or herding them into purpose-built gas chambers, RAF air crew faced the nightly risk of violent death. Their survival rate was worse than that of a junior officer on the Western Front in the First World War a 44.4 per cent  fatality rate in a slugging match that went on, night after night, for years on end. 

Germans should count themselves lucky that the Allies did not develop a deployable atomic bomb earlier, rather than attempting to criminalise Allied fighting men who terminated that barbarous regime. One of the most militarised societies of the time also had war burned out of its soul. We all owe a very great debt to the heroes of Bomber Command and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris.

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