Posts Tagged ‘bombing’

WW2 Anniversary

|   10 February 2012

Bombing Germany

German civilians living in cities like this were now legitimate targets for the British

Seventy years ago this month the British took a decision which, just before the war, they would have considered against International Law – they decided that German civilians were a legitimate target for RAF Bomber Command.

An Air Ministry directive of February 1942 authorised this new and terrible destruction: ‘The primary objective of your [ie British bomber] operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular of the industrial workers.’ It was an instruction that would lead to the indiscriminate killing of women and children in attacks like the fire-bombing of Hamburg.

There isn’t space here to debate the morals or merits of this new development in British policy – one which was driven not by an ethical discussion but a practical one. The fact was that British bombers were too inaccurate to precision bomb military targets and so were now directed against cities instead.

I’m familiar with the arguments on both sides about the legitimacy of these attacks. I’ve met former bomber pilots, Germans who suffered at their hands and discussed all the relevant issues with expert academics in this field of study, like the brilliant Professor Tami Biddle. I know enough to know that the questions around the British decision are not simple ones. But, in essence, I guess what concerns me is the question of ‘proportionality’. If you feel under threat, is it OK to do anything to survive and beat the enemy? If we could only have destroyed Nazism by bombing every school and hospital and kindergarten in Germany and killing all their children would we have? But suppose we didn’t need to do that to survive, but by killing all their children we would shorten the war by six months and save thousands of our servicemen’s lives as a consequence. Should we have done that? Is there an equation here – say a thousand German children equal one British soldier?

That’s not so fanciful an argument. After all, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who took over RAF Bomber Command in spring 1942, said three years later at the height of the destruction of Germany: ‘I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.’

Really, was he right?

WW2 People

|   7 March 2011

Bombing Japan

Tokyo, after the American fire-bombing in March 1945.

We’ve just added onto the site for subscribers the testimony of Paul Montgomery who was a member of a B29 bomber crew during the war against Japan.

I’ll never forget meeting Paul Montgomery nearly a dozen years ago on his farm in the flat lands of Oklahoma. He was one of  the nicest people I ever met on my travels. Kind, forthright and compassionate. Yet he had helped take part in the killing of more people than probably anyone else I ever encountered.


WW2 Competitions

|   1 October 2010

Ethics of bombing – and the September competition result.

Where is this?

Congratulations to Ray Mitchell of Suffolk, Paul Oliver of Norfolk and Alistair Hollington of Essex who were the first three people drawn at random from subscribers to who correctly identified the city in which this photo was taken as – Coventry. A signed hardback copy of Juliet Gardiner’s brilliant ‘The Blitz’ is on its way to each of you.

Coventry, in the Midlands of Britain, was subjected to a horrendous bombing raid by the Germans in November 1940. The ruins of the cathedral (on the left of the photo) have been kept as a permanent memorial to the destruction and suffering.

But, of course, it was Germany that went on, by the end of the war, to endure far more intense bombing than Britain did. Many in Britain believed (then and today) that, as the bible says, the Germans had ‘sown the wind’ and so it was right that they should subsequently ‘reap the whirlwind’.

Was it? Was it right to bomb the ancient city of Dresden in 1945 and kill 35,000 people in one night? Was it right to create the world’s first firestorm at Hamburg? Or target the medieval city of Wurzburg in part because its old wooden buildings were ‘burnable’?


WW2 Anniversary

|   9 September 2010


Of all British cities, London suffered the most during the Blitz but how could the British endure the Blitz? Why could they ‘take it’?

I saw an amazing film this week about the Blitz – one that was made nearly 40 years ago.

It was an episode of the famous documentary series ‘The World at War’ produced by Jeremy Isaacs. It was called ‘Alone’ and was directed by David Elstein. I watched it in a newly restored format at the Imperial War Museum, and later took part in a panel discussion with Sir Jeremy, David and others to talk about the immense impact the ‘World at War’ has had on our understanding of the conflict.

Many things were remarkable about the documentary. As a filmmaker I admired the swift pacing of the programme – something which made the the work still seem very modern. (Often the older the documentary the slower and more ponderous it appears today – but most certainly not in this case). But it was as a historian that I was most entranced. Because the quality of the interviewees was breathtaking – from Sir Anthony Eden to Sir Max Aitken, a whole host of important figures from the war were represented.

However, it was the interviews with the ‘ordinary’ people of London that made the greatest impression upon me. David Elstein had the clever idea of interviewing a whole group of Eastenders in a pub, and the convivial setting contributed hugely to the relaxed way in which people talked. One thing was clear. These people were not prepared to be beaten by the German bombers. They were the living embodiment of the famous phrase ‘Britain can take it!’  But why, I wondered? Why could Britain take it in 1940?