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From hero to villain

4 April 2007

2:32 PM

4 April 2007

2:32 PM

Bomber Boys: Fighting Back, 1940-45 Patrick Bishop

Harper Press, pp.395, 20

Patrick Bishop’s much praised Fighter Boys brought new life to the story of the Battle of Britain; by analysing the backgrounds of the pilots he added a dimension of who-they-were to the well-known what-they-did. Rescued from the status of national myth, they became people again.

Trying the same with Bomber Boys is harder. Flying bombers had not the same dash: Guy Gibson likened it to driving a bus. And they were many, not a Few: 125,000 passed through Bomber Command. Hardest is the highly contested reputation of the bombing offensive. Once the scale of its devastation and carnage passed the point of comparability with that suffered in England, and then rose to apocalyptic levels, there was no moral high ground left. No knightly jousting in the clouds, just total war, fought in freezing darkness, with hideous death above and below. ‘Bomber’ Harris saw the root of the problem: ‘People didn’t like being bombed and therefore they didn’t like bombers on principle.’

Bishop faces this awkward aspect head on; his subtitle, ‘Fighting Back’, sets the tone. He details the history of the bombing offensive from its very shaky start to its end as an all-obliterating juggernaut, arguing the case for and against, and from both sides. This honesty makes his main theme, the personal stories of the many Boys (and some attached Girls) all the more vivid: they stand out clearer against a murky moral background. Their courage, resolution, skill and loyalty, in the face of undisguised terror, shine out of Bishop’s meticulous, cool narrative.

Fifty-five thousand, five hundred and seventy-three died, of many countries, and received little gratitude from a nation a bit ashamed, in the deflation of peace, of what it had done in the heat of war. With no campaign medal and little honour for their leader, shorn of hero status, finally insulted by accusations of war crime, they were shuffled out of the spotlight like an embarrassment. But their defenders don’t give up and the sole surviving Lancaster thunders yearly over London, however much German visitors may wince.

Bishop speaks up loud and clear for the Bomber Boys. On makeshift airfields dotted all over the east and north, living in comfortless conditions in freezing Nissen huts, and with ‘a life expectancy considerably shorter than that of a junior infantry officer in 1916’, they inhabited a ‘schizophrenic’ world between the birdsong of the English countryside by day and the flak and exploding aircraft by night: ‘at 8 walking with a girl whose nearness denied all possibility of sudden death at 12.’

Coming from every country, class and condition, partially trained, they were thrown into a melting pot to emerge in the one survival mode, that of a crew, bonded into a unit by interdependence: ‘You were your own little band of seven and that was that’. Intelligently, the RAF let the crews select themselves, by chance or instinct, and often improbable mixtures would produce great strength. Conditions might be intolerable, but ‘to demean them was impossible’. Crews had their special survival rituals; there were many rabbits’ feet in cockpits.

Their attitude was one of ‘studied lightheartedness’: ‘We should all be alight with a flame to inspire us on this crusade, but nobody is.’ They doubled up with laughter at the solemn patriotism of a US propaganda film. Martha Gelhorn admired their ‘humble, comradely little jokes’. In the pre-D-Day phase they were the only force hitting directly at Germany and they were the heroes, lionised in films and poems. Britons, safe in their beds, could hear with pride the drone of their departure. ‘Lie in the dark and listen,’ wrote Noël Coward. Richard Dimbleby bravely flew on raids to report for the BBC. To the non-protesting majority, what happened under the bombs was secondary, and anyway richly deserved, Germans of every stripe being beyond the pale. All that mattered was ending, i. e. winning, the war.

Nevertheless there were protests about bombing civilians and questions in Parliament as to whether they were deliberately targeted. This ministers hotly, and falsely, denied, but consciences were still uneasy. Lord Salisbury summed it up: ‘Of course the Germans started it, but we do not take the Devil as our example,’ and the Bishop of Chichester called in Parliament for ‘a fair balance between the means employed and the purpose achieved’.

Bishop runs hair-raising descriptions of the raids in parallel with lucid dissection of the bombing strategy. It sprang from the Zeppelin raids of the first world war via colonial bombing of dissident locals (e. g. Iraq) to the searing images of Guernica and the Stukas screaming down on Rotterdam. Harris was only pursuing the same logic with better technology, one that precluded humane considerations because it did not recognise civilians as such.

The Blitz was the justification of Bomber Command: revenge. If the Germans invented the word ‘koventrieren’, the British reply was ‘Berliminate’. After all, 41,000 civilians had been killed, and reprisals raised morale. Immense resources were channelled into the only form of offensive available, which also served the political purpose of proving to the hard-pressed and suspicious Russians that we were doing all we could. Churchill firmly supported Harris in believing that area bombing = social collapse = change = peace, with minimum friendly casualties. It would take the atom bomb in 1945 to validate this sequence; mere high explosive versus German stoicism was not enough.

Harris called the campaign a series of battles, the battle of the Ruhr, of Hamburg, of Berlin, a mounting wave of destruction that would end in surrender. Only it didn’t; the last was a disastrous defeat with 1,047 bombers lost, the city being too far away, too well defended, too spread out, the winter weather too dreadful. The Bomber Boys were relieved to turn to softening up France prior to invasion; it was less dangerous, the targets more clearly military, and they earnestly tried not to kill French civilians. Then they were switched back to flattening cities, and sometimes quite minor towns. By now they were very good at it and the Luftwaffe was exhausted. Matters culminated in the notorious Dresden raid, designed both to help the Russians and to be the knock-out blow.

Facile moralising, aided by hindsight, later pushed the Bomber Boys off their heroes’ plinth. The destruction, viewed at ground level, was seen as futile, then shameful, even criminal; Harris was cast as a scapegoat, as Haig had been for trench warfare. The unseen results of the bombing were ignored: its forcing the Luftwaffe on to the defensive, with their incompetent regime developing no bombers like the Halifax or the Lancaster, so no more Blitz, the vast German anti-aircraft programme and the huge resources spent on dealing with the damage. Hitler had had other plans for them, but the bombers helped the invasion, speeded the capture of the V1 and V2 launch sites and cut short his counter-revenge. In simple terms, no Bomber Boys = no London.

This is a terrific book, so riveting, exciting and moving that it must help bring back the Bomber Boys to their rightful place of honour. A true war memorial.

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