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Let’s Rejoice As We Commemorate The Heroes Of Bomber Command

Today Her Majesty the Queen will unveil in London an imposing but controversial memorial to Bomber Command. Specifically the memorial honours the memory of the 55,573 British and Commonwealth airmen who gave their lives as crew-members of Bomber Command during the Second World War.  Some of these (like my uncle, the late Sargeant Henry Landau, who flew as the “air bomber” in a Mark III Lancaster in 166 Squadron: ) have no known graves, and their names are therefore already memorialised at the RAF memorial at Runnymede, opened by the Queen in 1953. The memorial that the Queen will unveil today commemorates them and their comrades whose last resting places are known. But it also includes an inscription remembering “those of all nations who lost their lives in the bombing of 1939 – 1945.”

Behind this curious wording – and the fact that it appears following what has been described as a “negotiation” with Germany – there lies sixty years and more of totally misplaced controversy over the exploits of Bomber Command, and specifically over the policy of Area Bombing devised by Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris (whose own statue, in The Strand, London, was vandalised within 24 hours of its unveiling in 1992).

Area bombing undoubtedly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of German civilians. It is too easy to moralise now about these deaths, and it is an act of intellectual laziness into the bargain.  The past can only be understood, and judged, in its own terms. For several years after the British defeat at Dunkirk in 1940 the sorties of Bomber Command offered the only way in which the struggle against Nazi Germany could be taken into Germany itself – right into the heart of the enemy’s camp.

Among the many accomplishments of the brave men who flew in Bomber Command (and of the ground crews who serviced their aircraft) was that their exploits forced the Nazis to concentrate on the manufacture of defensive weaponry (such as anti-aircraft guns) rather than offensive armaments (such as tanks). Arthur Harris’s Strategic Air Campaign also resulted in very substantial rates of absenteeism from German factories dedicated to the production of munitions of war. We know that the Dambusters’ raid (May 1943) resulted in the deaths of civilians.  But it also led to the movement of bricklayers and stonemasons back to Germany (to repair the damage) from France, where, as Rommel later pointed out, they might have been employed strengthening Nazi defences against the D-Day landings. Yes, Hamburg was fire-bombed (July 1943), leading to the deaths of some 42,600 civilians. But we need to recall that the port of Hamburg housed numerous shipyards, U-boat pens and munitions factories. And can we please remember that Dresden (destroyed by bombing February 1945) was an important railway junction, that the city housed many small factories and workshops making armament components, and that its bombing was actually requested by the USSRBritain’s wartime ally?

We also need to recall that every member of Bomber Command was a volunteer - no-one was forced to enlist into its ranks – and that its activities were extremely popular at the time. The bombing of German cities was popular. This is the truth that must be faced: the killing of German civilians met with widespread approval in blitz-hardened Britain. The “Bomber Boys” were all national heroes.

If, today, some commentators find this truth unpalatable, that’s just too bad. What I find unpalatable is that the memorial which the Queen will unveil today, to honour the memory of my late uncle (shot down in a raid on the rocket factories at Magdeburg in January 1944) and his fallen comrades, also honours – apparently – all those who lost their lives in the bombing of 1939-45.  All? Including paid-up members of the Nazi party? Including German air-crews shot down over the United Kingdom?

I have been told that it is “bad form” to be triumphalist? Why? Bomber Command was about beating the Germans. The Strategic Air Campaign was about winning the war. The activities of Bomber Command were entirely praiseworthy. A memorial to them all – and to them alone - is long overdue.


Mike Goldstein said…
Well, Geoffrey, as you know I lost my father in a Bomber Command raid on Germany too - in the final stages of WW2, 16 March 1945. I too shuddered a bit when I found out the breadth of the dedication, and wondered what would have been the case if this were a German memorial of the bombing of England - having been in London during the blitz, and when the doodlebug rockets came down, I have some understanding of the terror, destruction and death caused. I guess I just console myself that there is a memorial.

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