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Bomber Command and War Guilt July 9, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

One of the most terrifying statistics of the Second World War is that more died in planes flying out of British airfields than in British cities. Leaving the US out of this around 60,000 British and Dominion aircrew were killed defending British airspace or attacking enemy territory. About 40,000 British civilians, meanwhile, died in the Blitz. Sixty years on the most controversial question of the entire British war effort concerns those who lost their lives in bombers. An incredible 55,573 perished flying towards or over enemy nations: typically Germany. They in turn, with their American colleagues, took the lives of about half a million Germans; overwhelmingly, of course, civilians.

The rights and wrongs of this have been endlessly discussed. The debate is probably best split into the moral and the practical. Morally had Germany pushed so far ‘beyond good and evil’ that it deserved total war on this scale? And practically could the appalling Allied causalities be justified in terms of the damage being done to the Reich? The moral question has to be left to individual conscience. The answer to the practical side is among experts, a half-hearted ‘no’. It would be wrong to say that those in the bomber crews died in vane. But their blood was given cheaply in terms of the only war aim that mattered: defeating Germany as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

In all the confusion a certainty is that the more innocent, idealistic Britain of 1939 would have been horrified to see what was being done in its name in 1944 and 1945. Remember that in the first months of the war one bureaucrat had scotched plans to drop incendiaries on the Black Forest, because there ‘was private property there’: while Chamberlain had attacked the bombing of civilian targets as being against international law. Then, still in the first part of the war, a Conservative MP caused discomfort in the House, by suggesting that Britain should bomb a German village for every German atrocity Churchill brushed this aside saying ‘if we did that there would be no German villages left’. And while not agreeing with them Beachcombing has always felt a certain fondness for the likes of George Bell and those other Britons who spoke out against area bombing from 1941 onwards.

The British aircrew that survived the terrors of bombing Germany had their own problems after the war. They were shunned by the country for which they had fought: area bombing became quickly unpopular in the 1950s. Their fate was that ultimately of American soldiers in Vietnam, abandoned (morally) by those who had send them to kill. Here is a chilling passage from Max Hasting’s book on the British bomber crews:

One night after I visited a much-decorated pilot in the north of England in the course of writing this book, he drove me to the station. Suddenly turning to me in the car, he asked: ‘Has anybody else mentioned having nightmares about it?’ He said that in the past ten years he had been troubled by increasingly vivid and terrible dreams about his experiences over Germany. A teacher by profession, he thought nothing of the war for years afterwards. Then a younger generation of his colleagues began to ask with repetitive, inquisitive distaste: ‘How could you have done it? How could you have flown over Germany night after night to bomb women and children?’ He began to brood more and more deeply about his past. He changed his job and started to teach mentally-handicapped children, which he saw as a kind of restitution. Yet, still more than thirty years after, his memories of the war haunt him.  

It is interesting that guilt did not arise spontaneously. It came in step with changing views in society. Other examples of this contagious war guilt – drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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9/7/12: Southern Man is very quick this morning: ‘‘A couple of thoughts on Bomber Command. First, read Roald Dahl’s excellent short stories on his experience as a bomber. I remember one very vividly that describes how a bomber crew in a bar talks of the sheer randomness of it all. If they press ‘the drop’ button a moment before or later then different families will die. Another thought comes from J.R.R Tolkien. JRRT was once asked whether the Lord of the Rings was a metaphor for the Second World War. He replied no and said that if it had been then Frodo would have used the ring. In other words, by bombing (and let’s not forget the atom bomb) civilians, Britain, the US and their allies had become little better than the enemy they had set out to defeat. Isn’t there a sentence in Nietzsche about those who fight dragons become dragons?’ Thanks SM!

11/7/12:

Wise words from JEC: Dr. B, what strikes me about this issue is that these are questions which plague successive generations of the winners  and cannot be asked unless victory was achieved. The vast majority of those sent…required, compelled…to commit what are so blithely termed atrocities by some today, did not have the luxury of assurance that there would be succeeding generations to whom their actions would possibly need justification. They had to fight and die and win first. Those who demand “How could you?” of the old warrior strike me as graceless, not just because of the whiff of moral certitude which they carry, but because they almost certainly have no personal experience with the subject, and thus no possible true understanding of what it is to live with not just the literal specter of death hovering above, but the very real possibility of the utter end of one’s country and all that makes life worth living. I’m not saying the issue shouldn’t be examined: it must. But there is accusation inherent in so much of this discussion, and great care must be taken.  WWII for Britain was, literally, a war for survival. For some time bombing was the only way in which Britain could strike, and be seen to strike, the Germans. It was not until early 1945 that victory was reasonably assured, the western Allies’ mistaken hubris of late Fall ’44 notwithstanding. To say now the only weapon available at the time should not have been drawn seems unrealistic. And we should never forget WWII was a war of Nazi aggression, which Hitler and the German people who chose him had many chances to avoid. Embarking on a war for territory is asking for the whirlwind to be unleashed, and no one can foresee where it goes. Ultimately I think the dehousing policy of Harris was misguided and even wrong. But, remember, the British made a reasonable decision that daytime bombing was not sustainable – and for them it probably wasn’t. So nighttime bombing, with its inherent inaccuracy, made area bombing the only game in town. Yes, if they could have managed daytime bombing, greater war gains would have been attained if industrial targets alone had been pursued. But that is hindsight, in which things are much more clear than if they are hurtling toward us at infinite speed.      And this from Dr Turkey over at the Medical History Blogspot: Memory is a strange old thing and what can be buried at the time, might not stay buried, particularly in the face of persistent reminders.  Witness victims of post traumatic stress disorder who are often able to bury traumatic memories for years, even decades, only to have them suddenly reemerge at the onset of another seemingly innocuous event.  (The more extreme version of that is disassociative identity disorder or multiple personality disorder where the memories are never processed and instead form a unique identiy of their own).  I suspect post war Britain of the Stiff Upper Lip, talking and processing trauma was simply Not Done, particularly when those atrocities needed to be hidden from the public.  In the last few decades many doctors working with the elderly Vets will tell you that there’s been remerging trauma around unresolved WWII issues, particularly as people start experiencing new loss of partners, or simply the onset of dementia which makes it harder to suppress memories.  I remember one particular patient I worked with who would wake the ward up screaming every night, recounting horrible nightmares of what he had seen during the campaign in Europe.  He used to be so embarrassed, because, “love, I haven’t thought about this in years,” but as his own end came closer, so did the thoughts.  In short, I suspect that the guilt and the trauma was always there to an extent – but they had a job to do and a societal expectation to do it, and so they did.  Where we failed them was in expecting that they could do that, live that, and that it would be ok.  (And even worse, we have the audacity to judge them for it)  The more we learn about the human brain is that some people can really only take so much, and then the guilt just gets too much! (Unless you’ve got an antisocial personality disorder.  But that’s another story).’ Here is KMH There is quite a bit to the argument against the bombing, but wars can’t really be fought on a completely logical basis. Governments have no solution to the war problem, although the UN was originally not a bad idea. If we go back  to the middle ages we find the Church rather successfully imposing rules of warfare on participants. Since then as church authority has declined and technology has advanced  the rules have been cast aside. Under Napoleon all men were inducted, not just the  aristocrats. Under Hitler, any and  all civilians became a target of the military. Now in the atomic era there is the problem of leaving targeted areas totally uninhabitable for thousands of years.  Thanks JEC, KMH and DocTurkey!