Robert Fisk: Israeli disinformation sullies a rare moment of wartime compassion

For years, the Israelis have used this wartime operation to justify their mass killing of civilians

When will the Israeli government stop misusing the RAF’s wartime raid on the Gestapo’s Danish headquarters to justify their killing of children? Their shameful and dishonest version of the 1945 air attack in Copenhagen is repeated constantly by Israeli spokesmen whenever the world responds in horror to the country’s pulverisation of Arab civilians. It popped up again last week when the Israeli spokesman, Mark Regev, tried to avoid Channel 4’s questions about the UN’s latest report on the 2014 Gaza bloodbath and the killing of four children on a beach a year ago.

The four had been playing next to a fisherman’s hut – witnessed by many foreign journalists at the time. A tragic mistake, announced Regev. The Israelis had not intended to kill the children. And he launched into an old canard. The RAF had attacked Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen, he said, “and the bombs went astray and hit an orphanage and that was a tragedy, a real tragedy”. It wasn’t an orphanage, but no matter. The Israelis went on promiscuously shooting into built-up areas of Gaza, eventually killing around 2,200 Palestinians – 1,492 of whom were civilians.

I loathe the habit of our politicians and their propagandists to use the Second World War to provide cheap ballast to their arguments and excuses. So let’s nail this particular perversion of the truth while we have the chance. Thus we must go back to 21 March 1945, as a flight of RAF Mosquito fighter bombers race at 50ft across the North Sea to attack Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen, a grim institution housed in the old Shell building in the centre of the Danish capital. The Danish resistance had requested the raid. Several of their leaders were being held on the top floor, under interrogation and torture, and a mass of incriminating documents about the entire maquis movement was stored in the building. The first aircraft, led by RAF master navigator Ted Sismore, identified the Gestapo building correctly and bombed the target.

Unlike other RAF raids – Dresden comes to mind – the British crews and their US Mustang escorts were told to fly at rooftop height to save civilian lives. Film footage taken by the Danes shows the planes, under German anti-aircraft fire, almost shaving the roofs of city-centre buildings. But one of the Mosquitoes, piloted by Peter Kleboe, flew so low to avoid mistaking his target that his wing tip clipped a railway signal outside Copenhagen station and his plane crashed into a street close to the Jeanne d’Arc French school. The following RAF aircraft, confused by the smoke and flames, believed that the school must be the target – and released their bombs onto the hapless pupils. Eighty-six children were killed and 13 adults – most of them nuns teaching at the school. The Gestapo headquarters was destroyed, and some of the Danish resistance leaders on the top floor escaped.

 

In very old age, Sismore would speak of his horror at the school carnage, explaining in detail the reason for the rooftop height of the aircraft – a safety precaution to avoid civilian casualties – and how this tactic had ironically killed the innocent. He also recounted how, only a few weeks later, when the war had ended, he and his comrades visited Copenhagen and met the parents of the dead children – so much for Mark Regev’s “orphanage” – and was deeply moved by their response. “They all said the same thing – ‘we do understand’ – [but] I don’t know how they could understand,” Sismore recalled.

Yet for years, the Israelis have used this wartime operation to justify their mass killing of civilians – a constant feature of every Israeli attack on Arab cities. It started in 1982, when European nations were outraged at civilian losses during Israel’s brutal siege of Beirut. The then Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, resorted, for the first time, to the Copenhagen raid. Even then, the parallel was clearly dishonest.

Israeli aircraft over Beirut were killing thousands of civilians in the summer of 1982 because their pilots flew at such high altitudes – to avoid being shot down by Palestinian missiles – that they could not see their targets clearly. The RAF crews over Copenhagen were risking their lives under German fire to fly low enough to avoid killing civilians – a tactic which led directly to Kleboe’s plane crash and the subsequent destruction of the school. No Israeli planes ever attacked Beirut or Gaza at such low altitudes to avoid civilian casualties.

Yet the cynical use of the Copenhagen raid did not end in 1982. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about the same operation when excusing Israel’s killing of civilians in the previous Gaza war. Then, in June 2014, Mark Regev used the very event to explain civilian casualties in a Channel 4 interview during the latest Gaza conflict. And then, yet again on Channel 4, Regev rolled out the same old story a week ago.

The fact that Israel’s Hamas enemies are corrupt, ruthless and fire their hopelessly inaccurate missiles into Israel, does not change the dishonesty of Israel’s propaganda. Needless to say, Palestinian parents were never going to express their “understanding” for the death of their children as the Danish parents did to Sismore and his RAF crews; because the Israelis were not fighting to “liberate” “Palestine” from the Nazis in 2014, but to crush armed Palestinian resistance to Israel, whatever the cost. If Israel wanted to imitate the Copenhagen raid, it could easily attack Islamist fighters on the Golan who are kidnapping and killing Druze civilians, some of whose families live inside Israel. But Israel is in fact now attacking the enemies of the Islamists – and giving wounded Islamist fighters medical assistance inside Israel. No Second World War parallels there.

However, since this nonsense began more than 30 years ago and continues to this day, I suppose we’re going to have to listen to Regev dredge up the RAF raid on Copenhagen for another decade or two. At least now, however, we can reply with the full story of a wartime operation where, after the war crimes of Hamburg and Dresden, British pilots flew and fought with honour to save the lives of civilians – in a way Israeli pilots have never demonstrated over enemy-held territory.