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Churchill’s response to Dresden

LAURENCE REES: There’s this extraordinary moment after Dresden, isn’t there, when Churchill seems to condemn the Dresden raid? And this, given the background, seems phenomenally unfair.

TAMI BIDDLE: Dresden is in some ways catalyzed by Churchill who’s nervous about how the war is going. This is the eve of Yalta, he wants to convince the Russians that the Americans and the British have made an important contribution to the war effort, and perhaps there’s a part of him that wants to impress the Russians with Anglo-American power. I think at this moment he says: 'what are you planning to do about these cities that are in the path of the fighting on the Eastern Front?' Well, Dresden, if you look on a map is directly west, and I think he was caught up in it at that moment and he was caught up in a variety of things that were going through his head on the eve of Yalta.

He wanted to advance the war effort, get the thing over with and convince the Russians that we had been making contributions and that we were in fact a powerful military force on our own terms. When the raid turns out the way it does I think he sort of takes a second look and he thinks, my God, this is one of the great cultural treasures of the western world. And it’s not until late March when it is really clear that now the Germans are done. It wasn’t so clear in January and even early February. But once you’re convinced that they are done you might start to have troubled second thoughts, and you might think to yourself maybe we ought not to have done that, and maybe this was a mistake and maybe this is going to be a black mark for the Anglo-Americans as we start to write our history of the war.

I think because Churchill realises things often before everybody else realises them - he’s very prescient - and he understands the way the things are going to look when we look back on them. He’s brilliant at that. And I think he gets very nervous and he gets very uneasy and I think he then, maybe in a childish way, starts to try to blame other people. The bomber offensive is kind of closed down after that and by early April there aren’t that many targets left.

LAURENCE REES: Was it unfair of Churchill to criticize Bomber Command in this way?

TAMI BIDDLE: I think after sending the original memo [earlier in the war] that he did back to Sinclair saying: what are you doing, and his first response back is we’re doing what we’ve been doing all along, we’re attacking oil, communications targets and transport, Churchill’s not happy with that answer. And so it’s the Prime Minister intervening and saying, no, I want a different answer, that gets you the bomber directive that takes you to places like Dresden and gets that array of raids that are pretty horrendous. And then he turns around and says, 'why did you do that?' Portal doesn’t think it’s fair, Harris doesn’t think it’s fair and, in fact, they request that he withdraw his original minute and he does submit a much toned down minute.

I think it is an attempt to push-back from Bomber Command, saying, wait a minute, we were doing one thing and you told us to do something else, and then you’re coming back and telling us we shouldn’t have done what you told us to do. So I think they are very unhappy at that moment, but it’s Churchill really coming out of this moment of fear and terror when he thinks, my God, what if the war really starts to go south here? This is the moment where he thinks he can impress the Russians and he’s stepping back and thinking how it will look 20 years on, and how is it going to look by the end of this year. It might start to look like we did something that was unacceptable. When V2s are landing on your territory you have a different calculation, but once they stop landing and once you start to think, my God, did we start to become the enemy we were fighting; did we start to become like them? That’s a sure sign that at some level you’ve given up something terribly important.

I tell my students, you know, never get to the point where you are the enemy you’re fighting. Never sink so low that you’re convincing yourself that you are more moral than they are and once the war’s over you’ll prove that. In the middle of fighting the war you’re actually at the same level. Once you get to that point you have to start asking yourself some very hard questions.

LAURENCE REES: And did the Allies reach that point then?

TAMI BIDDLE: I think Dresden at some level gets the Allies to that point, at least in terms of the war in Europe. When you look at the war in Japan the Americans go on because they can’t fight the war the way they want to with precision bombing in Japan -  because of the jet-stream and the inability to do precision bombing and to fly tight patterns, because of cloud cover and the winds. They tell Curtis Le May essentially the same thing that the British had told Arthur Harris; find a way to make this work. If you can make bombers end the war and make it less costly and less horrific, then for the British the model is the Western Front in World War One and for the Americans it’s what if we have to do at Iwo Jima, Okinawa, on the Japanese home islands. Is there a way to head that off? Can we use the B29 to make that irrelevant? Can we find some other alternative way to fight this war than to have to land American boys on the shores of the Japanese home islands? So General Le May’s told ‘do whatever it takes’, in the same way that Arthur Harris was told.

LAURENCE REES: So can you draw the conclusion from all this that there is no black and white morality in the methods used to fight this war at all. It’s all simply a sliding scale of shades of grey - depending in large part on how badly or well you perceive the war as going?

TAMI BIDDLE: I think that’s probably one way of putting it. I don’t think there’s any black and white.

Michael Walzer’s great book “Just and Unjust Wars” says in a case of what he calls 'a supreme emergency' where you really have the existence of your world, your society, your culture - and it’s worth fighting for - if it’s threatened by a force that is prepared to do anything to destroy you then you probably at that moment have a right to do whatever it takes to survive. Once you get to the point where survival itself isn’t an issue you have to recalculate the morality, you have to then start to step back and say no I can’t attack their civilians any more because it’s not my survival that’s at stake.

What happens in war is that your population is in a situation where they’re saying we’re losing an awful lot of people and if we have to attack the Japanese home islands through amphibious assault we’re going to lose tens of thousands of our own, the flower of our youth. If there’s some alternative that we can use against this heinous enemy, and of course once you’re in a war you are painting the enemy in pretty heinous terms, maybe we can use this other instrument and maybe it’s legitimate. Or your population may start to back the idea that in fact we don’t want to make careful distinctions between civilians. If it means that we have to land on the shores of Honshū or Kyūshū; maybe we’re much more comfortable blurring that line and saying, well, the enemy is the enemy and if we can attack with airplanes and spare ourselves the blood and the horrific battles that would occur if we have to land on the home islands, then the moral calculus starts to look very different.

LAURENCE REES: So, by that logic, if we were hugely threatened would we have committed the Holocaust?

TAMI BIDDLE: At that level, no. I don‘t think there’s a parallel at all. I mean the Anglo-Americans were forced into war by the Germans, they didn’t want to fight the war and they weren’t out to provoke the war. They were out trying to appease it; they were trying to do everything in their power to figure out what the man wanted so that the war could be headed off. They’re forced into war. It quickly becomes a heinous war, by 1944 we really understand what’s happening at the death camps, that they’re not just labour camps but death camps, and this is a man who is trying to eliminate entire populations and has a vision for how the world is going to look that has nothing to do with the enlightenment or democracy or anything to do with what most of us in the West believe is the height of civilization and something worth protecting. I don’t think there’s any parallel between what we became in war and what Hitler became without a war. He was killing his own population, he was killing his own disabled people, mentally retarded people, people who were injured in the First World War. He was starting to kill disabled veterans prior to World War Two. This was a very different thing than collateral damage in the course of war.

What I will say that is that surely after five years people who thought themselves prior to the war to be very moral had been brutalised into a way of looking at morality that was quite different from the way they had looked at it in 1939. There is a corrosive effect of war that can affect any one of us. It’s not as if there were good people and there were bad people. In trying to fight for existence and in being forced to fight against the most heinous of enemies that one could imagine, truly someone who was exterminating populations, this is where we got to. I’m terribly uneasy and upset and I will always feel that somehow something collapsed or something gave way or some barrier that should have been erected was breached and pushed away in the course of this war. I deeply regret that these things happened and I think as a mother if I’d been living in Germany I don’t think if my child had been lost in a bombing raid I would have been thinking very much about the politics that preceded the loss of my child. I would have been thinking about what it meant to me in human terms.

This is the tragedy of warfare, and in so many ways it truly is tragedy when it occurs. The events start to create their own momentum and our ability to make sensible 'civilised' moral judgements escapes because we’re so caught up in the moment and we’re so fearful of what might happen next and we’ve got V2s landing and we’re not sure what’s going to be the next step and what the enemy might have up his sleeve if he isn’t stopped. And so typical constraints that ought to be there start falling away.