A memorial to honour the 55,573 men of Bomber Command who lost their lives in the Second World War is to be unveiled today in London. How should we remember their role in the war? Authors Keith Lowe and Patrick Bishop discuss…
Keith Lowe says:
“The men of Bomber Command were heroes. At a time when Britain had no other effective method of waging war, they stepped forward to face dangers that few of us can imagine. And how did we repay them? By denying them campaign medals, omitting them from our 1945 victory speeches, and ignoring their commander-in-chief in the honours lists.
The new memorial to Bomber Command in London’s Green Park is supposed to atone for such snubs, but there are many things about it that make me profoundly uneasy. To begin with, the insults suffered by Bomber Command are now largely the stuff of history. The controversy over civilian deaths in cities like Hamburg and Dresden has been receding recently, and for the past 20 years there has been a general consensus that, horrific as area bombing was, Britain had little choice but to carry it out, especially in the middle part of the war.
The vilification of Bomber Command, once real, is now largely imagined, inflated by politicians and newspapers looking for easy ways to exploit a sense of indignation. I can’t help feeling that this is not really a monument to the men at all, but to a bandwagon.
And what a huge, sprawling monument it is! It dwarfs every other memorial in London, including the cenotaph. There are so many things wrong with the design that I hardly know where to begin. Its long row of Doric columns is reminiscent of neoclassical fascist architecture – surely an unfortunate choice of styles. It is covered in quotes from Churchill claiming that bombers alone were “our means of victory” – a statement that is not only historically dubious, but pregnant with irony given Churchill’s own role in snubbing Bomber Command. And is there any mention of the controversy that prevented this memorial being built 60 years ago – the half a million Germans who died beneath the bombs? Since I am writing this before the unveiling I don’t know – but I suspect not. In which case an opportunity to confront the issue head-on, and say openly that we are celebrating the bravery of our bomber boys despite the terrible things they were forced to do, has been lost.
The men of Bomber Command deserve better than this – something more modest, and more honest, like the men themselves. This triumphalist monolith says more about our unhealthy fetishism of the war than it does about the men who died trying to bring it to an early end.
Keith Lowe is the author of Savage Continent (Viking, 2012) and Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943 (Penguin, 2012)
Patrick Bishop says:
The argument that the Strategic Air Campaign was not only ineffective but immoral is an old one. The passing of time has not made it any more convincing. It was certainly true that at the outset, Bomber Command failed dismally to achieve the results that the RAF hierarchy had forecast. The blame lay not with the crews but with inadequate aircraft and primitive navigation aids which meant targets were rarely hit. As equipment improved, so did performance. Bombers were still incapable of hitting anything smaller than a city, however, and it was not until towards the end that genuine precision was possible.
These attacks did not bring about the collapse of civilian morale that at one point was their partial aim. But they nonetheless had a drastic effect on Germany and made a decisive contribution to victory. Vast numbers of soldiers were brought in to man anti-aircraft batteries – men and guns that would otherwise have been used against the Soviets on the eastern front and us in the west.
The Luftwaffe was also diverted away from offensive operations to deal with the attacks. The defensive battle, and Allied bombing attacks on aviation factories and infrastructure, ended in the virtual destruction of the German air force, making the invasion of the continent a much easier proposition.
German war industry may have proved surprisingly resilient to endless bombardment. It would have been a lot more productive, however, if it had not been subject to constant attack.
As to the ethics of area bombing, German ruthlessness inevitably caused those who had the courage to fight them to harden their hearts. Britain was locked in an existential struggle with an evil foe.
It is hard to disagree with the official historian of the Strategic Air Campaign, Noble Frankland, who experienced it himself as a navigator with Bomber Command. “The great immorality open to us in 1940 and 1941,” he said, “was to lose the war against Hitler’s Germany. To have abandoned the only means of direct attack which we had at our disposal would have been a long step in that direction.”
There is a final point, an awkward one to acknowledge nowadays. The bombing campaign altered Germany’s personality. The utter devastation it wrought taught the Germans a lesson about the folly of aggression and the benefits of peaceful democracy that has lasted to this day.
Patrick Bishop is the author of Bomber Boys: Fighting Back 1940–1945 (Harper, 2008)
About the memorial
- The Portland stone memorial, designed by architect Liam O’Connor features a bronze sculpture of airmen by Phillip Jackson
- The memorial’s roof is made from metal reclaimed from a downed Second World War Halifax
- The memorial commemorates people of all nations who lost their lives in bombing campaigns between 1939–45