Saturday, 15 May 2010

The difficult sequel

If you'll forgive me I'm going to jump forwards in time from the First World War (even if you don't I'm going to anyway) to discuss the Second World War. Specifically this story that I've just read.

I don't think it'll come as any surprise that the role of Bomber Command during the Second World War is still highly contentious and has been treated as one of Britain's dirty little secrets for the past 65 years. This news that they will be receiving a memorial is, probably in its own way, more surprising than the decision a few years ago to add soldiers from the First World War who'd be executed by courts martial to war memorials. The monument to Bomber Harris didn't appear until 1992 and he was bitter for years at the way Britain had quickly tried to pretend that Bomber Command hadn't existed (or done what it had) immediately after the war.

Obviously my primary focus of study is the First World War but that doesn't mean it is the limits of my interest. I think Bomber Command and this particular memorial raise some difficult questions and divide people into an assortment of groups which are sometimes tough to reconcile.

The crux of such a situation always comes down to the issue of whether Bomber Command's assaults on German (and French lets not forget) cities was either militarily or morally justifed, and the difference between the two is often where the arguments appear.

I have to say that for most of the period 1939-1945 the term 'strategic bombing' is something of a misnomer. I don't care how good a pilot or bombadier you have, the aim of bombing missions (on both sides) involving civilian and lesser military targets was to carpet bomb the area in the hope that you'd drop enough explosives to destroy the entire area and everything within it. These heavy bombers were not Stukas, designed for a more pinpoint (but still not surgical) assault on targets. In much the same way that battleships are little more than floating platforms for the heavy guns, long-distance heavy bombers were designed to carry large amounts of highly explosive bombs to be dropped en masse.

The attack on British cities by the Luftwaffe were clearly designed to destroy the morale of the people as well as cripple Britain's industrial capacity. This was a Total War, the home front and the front line were linked (after Dunkirk they were at the same place as well). Destroying any one of; industry, military, civilian would cripple the enemy and likely lead to their defeat.

However the blitz failed to break the British people, for an assortment of reasons, and this was a lesson that was becoming apparent during the 2nd World War. Without the added threat of more direct military intervention (essentially some form of imminent invasion or capture of the city/country) bombing by itself was a limited tool. It killed people yes but it didn't capture ground. The channel and the Luftwaffe's inability to destroy the RAF meant that invasion was, at the very least, unlikely and more logically impossible.

Churchill and the War Office came to realise this as the Luftwaffe changed their focus to the USSR and the new Eastern Front. They knew that mass bombing of civilians by itself was not likely to break their spirit and lead to a defeat.

So now we come to Bomber Command. There are, in essence, 2 Bomber Commands. There is the leadership with Arthur 'Bomber Harris' and others, and then there are the actual bomber crews themselves. Identifying the difference is useful but doesn't really make it any easier to discuss the situation.

British and American bombing missions against the continent both before D-Day and then dramatically afterwards, devestated cities across Germany. The most famous of these are obviously Dresden, Hamburg and Berlin but there are just as many others.

I'm well aware of all the arguments that surround these missions. I dislike several of them, but that does not mean that I don't understand where they come from.

"The Germans had bombed our cities, why shouldn't they have to suffer?"
"The Bomber crews were following orders"
"It was a war"

You know the sort of thing I'm talking about.

To be clear there was a likely wider strategic reason for the bombing of Germany. Up until D-Day in 1944 Stalin had been demanding that the allies act to open up a second front and alleviate the pressure on the Soviet Union. Whilst the allies were either unable or unwilling to do so before 1944 the bombing of cities did show that they were doing something to take the war to Hitler. It also provided them the chance to avenge their own cities and show the British public that the Germans too must suffer the blitz.

Again I can understand the arguments, they make good strategic and military sense.

I often tell my students that one of the key skills of studying war is to learn how to suspend your 'modern morality' and to view a situation in the same context as those who were there at the time.

It is this issue that always raises the most difficult questions.

Bombing of civilian targets is wrong. We all know it's wrong. It is not civilians who make war in this way. It is leaders. Hitler was happy for everyone in Berlin to die at the end of the war for failing him. Those people had indeed reaped the rewards of the Germany's early victories, but did they deserve this other fate? Bombed from the air or left to the Red Army?

At the same time the bombing of Dresden is so contentious because the war was as good as over. The raids coming in February 1945 when the need (if there ever had been one) to destroy cities like this had passed. The battle was to be for Berlin and the German army was beaten in the field. This did not need to happen.

When people argue about things like the Bomber Command issue, I can't help but feel they're not actually arguing about the events themselves. It's not about that. It's about them as an indivudal. They are being forced to answer the question; what would you have done?

So I can only answer some of those questions.

If I'd been part of a bomber crew during the war would I have flown to Germany and bombed their cities? Yes I imagine I probably would have done.

Do I believe that the bomber crews were 'just following orders' in a manner that differentiates them from the SS? Yes, although it is difficult to fully explain why.

Do I believe the bomber crews deserve this new monument? Yes. They died in war doing what was perceived to be their duty. The Second World War is all of the terrible things that people believe the First to be and then many, many more. People and countries did things in it that defy explanation. We shouldn't run away from those events.

But that's not the big question. The big question is, as always, if I was in Arthur Harris' shoes, would I have ordered my bombers to raze Germany to the ground?

It's very difficult when you essentially have to try and answer a question that, in a sense, defines what sort of man you are. How good you really are. How many of your beliefs and morals are really concrete and how many you would trade away given the right circumstances. Would I trade the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children if I believed that it would end the most brutal war imaginable? Would I do the same even if I knew that it would not end the war, but would simply make a statement or give me my revenge?

Nobody ever said studying war was easy...


  1. Interestingly, I'm reading Anthony Burgess's 'Man of Nazareth'in which he has several of Herod's soldiers refuse to massacre the children at Bethlehem. No idea if this has any foundation in fact - or even myth. Consciousness does seem to have shifted - even if certain countries do nurture terrorists or even goverments that are to our eyes 'evil', somehow these days we make a clear distinction between those powers and the 'ordinary' population. Is it the information revolution? The Age of Aquarius? Sting singing about Russians loving their children...? Or perhaps lack of that certainty (on both sides) that God is 'mit uns' any more...(because of lack of certainty about God, full stop...)

  2. I'm not overly sure we do see a difference between the people and the power.

    Admittedly it's a right-wing trait, but with the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan I can think of several occasions where it was suggested that there was no real fundamental difference between the civilians and the soldiers hiding in their midst. This is often linked in with a religious argument though and the suggestion that Islam is somehow inherently dangerous.

    I think that, by and large, advances in technology have made it easier to target the opponent's military formations and centre and, as a result of that, reducded the need to target civilians.

    I think though that might just be a byproduct of the technology rather than a great leap forwards in ideology. Militaries still try and avoid killing civilians generally as it's bad PR, but it's not unusual for military strikes to be carried out on civilian areas if it completes an objective. I'm thinking of Israel in particular here.

    Also if we consider that we still have nuclear weapons and there's nothing particularly military target focused about them.

    I think we've reached a point where we don't need to target civilians so we can be more open about how it's not the right thing to do. If for any given situation it was argued that it might be beneficial, then I imagine we'd do it all over again.

  3. I fear you may be right. I hope you're not. Living in a place like Brighton does tend to distort one's idea of how the rest of the world is perceived - I'm guessing people here are a little more tolerant than some other places!