An Australian Comes to the Support of Bomber Command Veterans - Polemic

By Roger Marchant, 2007

These thoughts were prompted after recently watching a TV program on SBS, the Australian national 'multi–cultural' broadcaster.

It's sad to witness any less than even–handed treatment of a theme in a broadcast medium, whether it be print or electronic, because the question immediately arises: 'If I, who happen to know a bit about it, recognise this as unfair, slanted or outright libellous, or even merely bullshit, what am I to believe when watching "documentary" comment on the million and one other subjects of which I wot not?' Regrettably the answer is that propaganda is always with us and whereas cynicism may be confined to the truly innocent it is as well to keep a very open mind when confronted with the general assertions that TV, particularly, presents to us as fact.

The subject in question is 'Death by Moonlight', a film about the exploits of Bomber Command, from the Canadian Broadcasting Company's 'The Valour and the Horror' series. My complaint about the airing of this 'documentary' (in Australia anyway) is that it was proffered with no introduction or comment concerning the extensive litigation carried out in Canada on behalf of surviving WWII aircrew (and, incidentally, defending Harris), alleging gross defamation. But I expect most readers are well aware of the content and thrust of film makers Brian and Terrence McKenna's thesis.

Over the years, the roles of Bomber Command in general and its 'Chief Bomber' Harris in particular have been comprehensively deconstructed by revisionist historians such as Irving, Alexander McKee and now the Mc Kenna brothers The offensive upon German industry itself was devalued after the war by the likes of American economist John Galbraith who, 'as a matter of intellectual honesty' revealed in 1945 that bombing had accelerated rather than reduced production. This opinion enjoyed much support: 'In 1943, the USAF joined the RAF in striking, it was hoped at the time, crippling blows to the German war industry and at Germany's will to continue the struggle. Yet it was all a delusion; German war production actually increased and it was discovered too late that air–raids made the German population more, not less, determined'. (Arnold–Foster)

Assessments by contemporary military academics seem to be more positive about the results achieved: 'These provocative claims [of Galbraith et al] have solidified since WWII into historical orthodoxy and the bombing of Germany has generally been regarded as a waste of effort. Yet much of the argument remains speculative, and even where issues might be quantitatively verifiable little effort has gone into their historical verification. Was strategic bombing a wasted effort? The balance of evidence suggests it was not…The test for judging bombing is the effect it actually had, rather than the effect it might have had with different priorities and different tactics. On this criterion the impact of bombing was wide–ranging and ultimately devastating for the German war effort. Bombing…placed a clear ceiling on the German war production in 1944, and undermined it fatally in 1945…' (Overy)

In the light of this it is instructive to see what opinion was a little nearer the time in question, when the need to win the war was paramount and convictions reflected the feelings of those who had either witnessed the results of Hitler's offensives or had been on the receiving end of the Luftwaffe's blitz or, indeed, who had been charged with overcoming the Nazi threat.

Harris, for example, carried out a running battle against the—to say the least—disapprobation of the other two services: 'It is a most extraordinary thing that you hear a great deal about the bombing of a place like Dresden and the attacks on German cities as being invented by the bloody–minded air force against a civilian population. All major wars are always against a civilian population in the outcome. What navy, including our own, ever had any strategy except blockade, preventing the whole enemy nation from getting anything that makes it possible for them to carry on the struggle from armaments to food? Have you ever heard of any army investing a city, besieging it, that ever invited the civilian population to come out? What about the main strategy of the [Anglo–] Boer War? Scorched earth. Burn the farms. Destroy the crops. Slaughter the cattle. And with what result? 14 000 Boer men and boys died in the field of battle. 39 000 Boer women and children died in concentration camps. It was not done deliberately but that was the effect. Do you hear any criticism of the destruction of St Nazaire and Lorient [in WWII]. They were our allies, those people. You hear no criticisms of that, simply because the destruction was ordered by the Navy and not by the bloody Air Force.'

And he had no doubt as to the 'force multiplier effect' as it might now be called, of attack from the air: '…what shouts of victory would arise if a Commando wrecked the entire Renault factory in a night, with the loss of seven men! What credible assumptions of an early end to the war would follow upon the destruction of Cologne in an hour and a half by a swift mechanised force which, with but 200 casualties, withdrew and was ready to repeat the operation twenty–four hours later! What acclaim would greet the virtual destruction of Rostock and the Heinkel main and subsidiary factories by a naval bombardment! All this, and far more, has been achieved by Bomber Command; yet there are many who still avert their gaze, pass by on the other side, and question whether the thirty squadrons of night–bombers make any worthwhile contribution to the war.''

He enjoyed the support of his political masters, initially at least: 'The War Cabinet have asked me to convey to you their compliments on the recent successes of Bomber Command, whose deeds in the first week of October mark another stage in the offensive against Germany…Your Command, with the day bombers of the Eighth Air Force fighting alongside it, is playing a foremost part in the converging attack upon Germany now being conducted by the forces of United Nations on a prodigious scale. Your officers and men will, I know, continue their efforts despite of the intense resistance offered until they are rewarded by the final downfall of the enemy. I request you bring this message to the attention of all members of your Command.' (WSC to AH, October 1943)

At the same time, there were those who noted the 'Hollywoodisation' of war in the air: 'One of the oddest [stories in circulation] concerned the colonel or general in the Air Force whose duty required that he stay in the reluctant comfort on the ground and who ate his heart out to be with his "boys" out on mission over Germany among the red flak. It was hard, stern duty that kept him grounded, and much harder than flying missions. I don't know where this one started, but it doesn't sound as though it came from enlisted personnel. I never met a bomber crew which wouldn't have taken on this sterner duty at the drop of a hat. They may have been a little wild, but they weren't that crazy.' (John Steinbeck, well before Heller)

Although he was an enthusiastic proponent of the theory that retribution from the heavens would cause Germany to collapse psychologically and physically, Harris would have had no argument with Wavell's dictum that 'wars are won, as they always have been, by ordering Private Snodgrass to climb from his trench and advance to his front' (even if it was in the role of a policeman). After Hiroshima he had no illusions about air power in future global conflict: 'My part in the next [world] war will be to be destroyed by it'.

Nevertheless, interviewed in the 1980s, he remained stalwart in support of the strategy of which government policy made him the instrument: 'I'd say, and I'd challenge anybody to gainsay it on the evidence available, that the strategic bombers won the biggest land battle of the war. And the biggest naval battle of the war. And I would defy anybody to disprove that on the evidence.'

The CIC had asked for a Bomber Command Medal (cf 8th Army) for his aircrew and bitterly resented that his 'boys' were given only the ubiquitous Defence Medal, whereas, he complained 'any clerk, butcher or baker (worthy as he might be) in the rear of the armies overseas received a campaign medal'. The truth was that by the end of the war the British Government was ashamed of area bombing—which was equated to indiscriminate warfare again civilians—and treated Bomber Command as though it never existed. In vain did the Chief Bomber point out that he was literally carrying out High Command orders against an aggressor (not to be confused with the 'Nuremburg defence'). Embarrassed, the politicians decreed that Harris would not be included in the Victory Honours list and it wasn't until 1953 that he was created a baronet.

'Butch' he may have been called, and with good reason, but Harris retained the support of his troops, who might be said to be the only character referees worth considering: 'When he came in he received a standing ovation. No one would stop clapping…and had he said to his old lags, as he called us, "Will you fellows go back to Dresden, or Nuremberg, or Berlin tonight?" every man there would have stepped forward and said "Yes, sir, we will go'.––recollection by an NCO, possibly tired and emotional at the time, of an Air Gunners Association reunion, attended by their old commander (but see Steinbeck above).

I suppose that anyone engaged in any form of human endeavour must face deliberate obfuscation, lies, doublethink and slander on the part of those who oppose their aims. It does seem a pity that in this case the opprobrium has been directed towards the 55,000 Bomber Command aircrew who paid the supreme sacrifice in defence of the Allied cause.

Selected Sources

Arnold–Foster, M, The World at War, London, 1974

Churchill, WSC, Onwards to Victory (Speeches), London, 1944

Galbraith, J K, A Life in Our Times: Memoirs, London, 1981

Harris, Sir Arthur, Bomber Offensive, London, 1947

Hodson, J L, 'Bomber's Life' (1944), collected in Articles of War, The Spectator Book of WWII Glass, F & Marsden–Smedly, P, (eds) London, 1989

Knightly, P, The First Casualty, London, 1975

McKenna, Brian & Terrence (dir) Death by Moonlight (TV film)

Overy, R, 'WWII—The Bombing of Germany' in The War In The Air 1914–1994, (proceedings of a conference held by the RAAF in Canberra, 1994).

Steinbeck, J, Once there was a War, London, 1958

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