In this post, Malcolm Cavanagh looks at the legacy of RAF Bomber Command from the Second World War. He argues that Bomber Command’s role in the war is one of the most controversial aspects of Allied strategy, but that reckoning with it is important for public discourses on how modern wars should be waged.
Across the street from LSE’s Clement House, in front of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Chapel, a bronze figure gazes westward along The Strand. The statue depicts Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, Air Marshal and head of RAF Bomber Command from 1942 to 1945. Despite playing a critical role in the Allied victory in the Second World War, at a terrible cost of airmen’s lives, today there are few material commemorations of this force. Only in 2011, more than 65 years after the war, was a Bomber Command memorial unveiled in Green Park, the last of the armed forces branches to be accorded a memorial in London, and only then with great controversy. The question begs: Why is it so difficult for modern society to commemorate and confront this branch of service?
Any reluctance to publicly honour the sacrifices of the airmen of Bomber Command is due to the nature of the role they were ordered to carry out. Under Harris’ leadership, operations were shaped around strategic bombardment that damaged not only key Nazi industrial sites, but also adjacent areas of civilian inhabitation: the German populace. By 1942, after civilians all over Britain had suffered through the intense, deadly bombing attacks known as the Blitz, many felt that the sole way of breaking Nazi domination over Europe was a wide-ranging bombing campaign. A 1942 recording of “Bomber Harris” perfectly captures such thinking:
The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.
Even during the war, this strategy was challenged by many as unethical and ineffective, and Harris’ moniker of ‘Bomber’ was often substituted with ‘Butcher’ by airmen serving under him. Following the war’s end in 1945, a significant portion of Bomber Command veterans refused to speak of their experiences due to their morally nebulous role in the targeting of non-belligerents in order to bring about an end to the conflict, further burying the topic. The British collective memory of wartime aviation preferred to coalesce around Fighter Command and its heroism in the Battle of Britain, and the noble narrative that its operations only targeted belligerent combatants. Despite the unappealing connotations of strategic bombing, the strategy persisted in the postwar years. In the 1950s the RAF reprised its wartime practice in supressing the Mau Mau independence movement in colonial Kenya, and it is estimated that 20 percent of North Korea’s population was killed and 85 percent of its buildings destroyed in the area bombardment of that country during the Korean War.
Challenges to the justness of Bomber Command’s Second World War operations, and the guilt of ordinary aircrew, have often been characterized in terms of war crimes. Red paint has in the past been splashed across the Arthur Harris monument, and today Tripadvisor reviews about the Green Park memorial are festooned with acrimonious commentaries referring to the air marshal and Bomber Command as war criminals. Because of the aversion to discussing Bomber Command, something resembling a societal amnesia has occurred. When the topic does come up, discourses are often highly emotional between those proclaiming a universal moral standard, and those who posit that the cruel realities of Nazi tactics in the Second World War demanded extraordinary actions. As a result, the British collective consciousness has tended to gloss over the fact that, of the 125,000 airmen who served in Bomber Command, some 55,573 were killed. That’s a mortality rate of 44.4 percent, the highest of all the armed forces branches during the Second World War. The lateness of commemoration speaks to the emotions surrounding the mission of Bomber Command, and more than seven decades later the memorialization remains as contentious as ever.
Historian Margaret MacMillan comments in her latest book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, that total war blurs the line between combatant and non-combatant in a manner that is difficult to comprehend for modern societies which are accustomed to peace. In a situation such as the Second World War, where the conflict was indeed ‘total,’ were there any truly non-belligerents? Such questions fortunately no longer accompany modern wars, fought by professional soldiers whose attacks tend to stay focused on military adversaries and targets, so any lingering present-day debates about Allied bombing in the Second World War do not exist in the same conceptual space as did those wartime discourses which resulted in the strategy of area bombardment. Few veterans would claim that their operations were morally unblemished, however the obvious need to defeat a Nazi regime which threatened the very existence of free society must also be accounted for. The Second World War was an existential conflict, and the space of 70-odd years which have passed since the war’s end have of course enabled many to retrospectively question the strategies which brough about victory in 1945.
The place of ius in bello – justness in the conduct of war – in international law has developed significantly since 1945, and the wholesale destruction of urban centres by state military forces would be unjustifiable to many today on the grounds of human rights protections. The advent of ‘virtual war,’ a term pioneered by Michael Ignatieff in his book Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond, challenges modern understandings of war as organized violence. With the introduction of unmanned drones and high-altitude precision-guided ordinance, social relationships with war have become abstracted as violence increasingly becomes the concern of smaller segments of the population. As well, risks are reduced, allowing for populaces to live apart from conflict in a way which would be inconceivable in a situation of total war, as was the case in wartime Europe. And yet the targeting of civilians is still common practice in modern warfare; for instance, Saudi bombardment of Houthi villages in Yemen, and the continued targeting of rebel populations in the Syrian Civil War.
The legacy of Bomber Command is still innately connected to the fabric of British society and is irrevocably part of its heritage, indeed its pop culture. The test track and studio of the immensely popular BBC motoring programme Top Gear is located at Dunsford Aerodrome, a former bomber base. Across the UK, many civil airfields have similar origins. Yet actual discussion of the history of Bomber Command remains discreet, and what commemorations have taken place have been limited. The aforementioned Green Park memorial was only partially funded by the Ministry of Defence, the majority of the six-million-pound price tag coming through personal contributions from surviving veterans. Also, uniquely among war memorials, the inscription on the memorial does not solely commemorate the airmen who served, but also the civilians of all nations killed during bomber raids.
Across Lincoln’s Inn Fields from the LSE campus — just a ten-minute walk from the Arthur Harris statue — is a typical central London white rowhouse. Except for a small plaque near the front door, the building’s past might be entirely obscured by the inevitable march of history. This is the former British headquarters of the Royal Canadian Air Force, a commonwealth partner which contributed nearly 50,000 airmen to Bomber Command. Any reluctance to recognize Bomber Command’s wartime contributions is the result of its contentious role within Allied strategy during the Second World War, an issue which continues to surround and define discourses on how wars ought to be waged. As 21st century Western society becomes ever more insulated from the reality of war, and as we think of past conflicts, it is imperative that public discourses surrounding conflict, both past and present, not be abstracted from the contexts within which violence is employed.
Malcolm Cavanagh is a candidate in the MSc Theory and History of International Relations program at LSE. His research focuses around the historical processes through which identities are formed and expressed, and how these processes have impacted social worldviews over time.
Featured Image: A Boeing B-29A Superfortress of No. 90 Squadron Royal Air Force at the 1952 Battle of Britain show at RAF Hooton Park, Cheshire, England. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.