Firestorms darken our past: Those who defend 'Bomber' Harris's destruction of German cities are wrong, Geoffrey Wheatcroft argues

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Sunday 07 August 1994 00:02 BST

NOT long ago, The Dam Busters most famous of all the British war films, was shown on television. Seeing it again after 40 years, I thought I detected two changes.

Group Captain Guy Gibson's black labrador is run over just before the raid on the Ruhr dams, in which his name is used as a code-word. In the original (and in real life) the dog's name was 'Nigger'; in the latest version, it is dubbed as 'Trigger'. An acceptable piece of political correction, one might say, an example of how our attitudes have improved. The other change was more interesting. A passage had been removed from the original, which exultantly showed the effects of the breached dams: torrential water poured over farmland, through factories, and into mines, drowning terrified workers.

This excision suggests that our view of the wartime bombing campaign has altered, but not necessarily that we have become more honest. We still can't make up our minds about Bomber Command and Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, its commander.

Two years ago a statue of Harris was unveiled in the Strand by the Queen Mother despite the protests of the Mayor of Dresden among others. The Queen Mother is said to have objected also to Death by Moonlight, a Canadian drama-documentary to be shown tonight on Channel 4. The programme has already aroused vehement criticism, and even a lawsuit, in Canada, a country which made a disproportionately large contribution to Bomber Command and suffered disproportionately large losses, almost 10,000 killed.

The Queen Mother's loyalty to the old air crew is admirable, and the insistence of some, though not all, of the airmen that what they did was necessary and right is understandable. Nevertheless, I believe they are wrong, and that it is still important to say so 50 years on.

Bomber Command made the most distinctive single British contribution to the Second World War, perhaps even to the history of warfare. For the first time a fleet of aircraft was built for the purpose of bombing another country. From 1942-5, a campaign of 'strategic' - or 'area', or 'terror' - bombing destroyed most of the cities of Germany and killed 600,000 people, most of them women and children.

If television coverage of war had been then what it is now, a Rwandan who saw what was done to those cities might have wondered about the claims made for the superiority of European civilisation. The destruction of the German cities by fire-bombing was no different in degree from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was the direct progenitor of subsequent bombing of civilians, from Vietnam to Afghanistan; the precursor, indeed, of the 'mutual assured destruction' implied by the contest between nuclear super-powers.

Harris was appointed chief of Bomber Command in February 1942. His first raids were largely publicity stunts, like the bombing of medieval Lubeck ('more like a fire-lighter than a human habitation', in Harris's words) and the 1,000-bomber raid on Cologne. The propaganda value of the Dam Busters raid itself was much greater than the damage done to the German war economy.

In 1943, the Ruhr cities, Hamburg and Berlin, were bombed in turn. The Operations Order for the bombing of Hamburg in July envisaged the 'total destruction' of the city. That was practically achieved. On the night of 27-28 July, several square miles of the residential and commercial heart of the city were engulfed in a firestorm which burned for several hours at a temperature of 1,000 degrees centigrade. More than 40,000 people were killed.

But there was worse to come. More bombs were dropped on Germany in the last three months of 1944 than in all of 1943. Two- thirds of the entire weight of bombs dropped on Germany during the war were dropped in the 11 months from D-Day to VE Day. In this last phase there were no great industrial cities like Hamburg or Essen left, and so scores of smaller towns of no conceivable military or industrial importance were obliterated, like Darmstadt or Wurzburg, razed on 11 September 1944 and 16 March 1945 respectively.

How did this happen? Like most historical events, it was a product of design and accident together. The RAF was the first independent air force created by any great power, instituted with the purpose of winning wars by aerial bombardment. Bombing gained in prestige when a tribal uprising in Iraq was bombed into submission and when rebellious Arab villages in Palestine were held down by 'air pin'. The officer in command in both cases was Arthur Harris.

The outbreak of war in 1939 found the RAF equipped with a large fleet of bombing aircraft; it was supposed that, in Baldwin's words, they would 'always get through', flying unopposed in daylight to bomb precise targets at will. But in 1939-40 Bomber Command discovered that the bomber did not get through in daylight: its squadrons were torn to pieces by the newly-developed monoplane fighter. So it turned to night bombing, for which it was quite unprepared technically. In August 1941, an independent survey for the War Cabinet discovered that only one bomber in nine was bombing within five miles of its intended target. More RAF aircrew than Germans had been killed, and the offensive was broken off.

But it was renewed in 1942 with far greater resources. Accepting that it could not hit precise targets, Bomber Command developed 'area bombing': large forces dropped quantities of high explosives and incendiaries to set whole cities alight. Harris did not invent this policy. When he arrived at Bomber Command, he found a directive from the Air Ministry: 'the primary object of your operation should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civilian population and, in particular, of the industrial workers'. But he applied it with a relish.

Up to his death in 1984 Harris always defended the campaign but his defence fails on its own terms. He had claimed in 1942 that Bomber Command would win the war single-handed within two years. Yet the Germans were still fighting in the rubble of their cities in the spring of 1945. German war production reached its peak in the summer of 1944, and was seriously checked only when American bombers, protected at last by long-range fighters, were able to bomb accurately by day.

Harris also claimed that 'bombing proved a comparatively humane method', because 'it saved the flower of this country from being mown down by the military in the field' as had happened in the previous war. That is even more specious. When Harris took over at Bomber Command, its casualties were no more than 7,448. By the end of the war they were 72,530; 55,573 of them killed. They were indeed the flower of the country, a lost generation who had been sent over the top like their predecessors on the Somme.

At least Harris was honest: his aim was to destroy whole German cities and their inhabitants. Others were not. The official British line was doubly dishonest. First, the government had said, at the beginning of the war, that it would always refrain 'from attacking the civilian population as such for the purpose of demoralisation'. Britain was a signatory to the 1922 Washington Treaty which outlawed the bombing of civilians. More strikingly still, Sir John Steel, who was to become the first commanding officer of Bomber Command, had scorned 'a lot of nonsense talked about killing women and children. Every objective I have given my bombers is a point of military importance . . . otherwise the pilots, if captured, would be liable to be treated as war criminals.'

Yet by June 1940, Churchill was musing about 'a devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers on the Nazi homeland'. In October the War Cabinet decided that 'the civilian population around the target areas must be made to feel the weight of the war'.

But - and this was the second dishonesty - these were private communications. Throughout the bombing campaign, ministers lied to the public. They repeated what Attlee, as deputy prime minister, told the Commons in 1943: 'There is no indiscriminate bombing.' This was untrue, as he knew, as everyone in the government knew, as all in Bomber Command knew.

There was another justification in the background. In the blasted German cities in 1943-4 a cynical joke was sometimes made about 'judische Rachung'. Of course bombing wasn't 'Jewish revenge'; but an awareness on the British side of German wickedness towards the Jews, and the other atrocities of National Socialism made this terrible punishment easier to inflict. When British troops reached the German cities in 1945 they were appalled at the devastation. If they also belonged to the units which liberated concentration camps, they were inclined, as one former soldier has recorded, to think that 'the buggers got what they deserved'.

And yet, in the end, it is impossible to defend what was done in our name. To say that the Germans started it and that they got what they asked for was answered at the time by the Tory statesman, Lord Salisbury, in a private letter to Sir Archibald Sinclair, head of the Air Ministry: 'We do not take the devil as our example.' Was the war really no more than a contest in frightfulness, or was it fought for a good cause which could be, and was, sullied?

For all the protests of the Bomber Command Association against programmes like the one shown tonight, there were many airmen who were gravely disturbed by what they did. Their dead comrades were as much the victims of a misbegotten policy as the 100,000 children who were killed. Or should we take such pride in the bombing campaign as to make another war film, showing how those children died?

(Photograph omitted)

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