My mother’s boyfriend was 19 when he was shot down during the Battle of Berlin in November 1943. He was one of the 55,573 casualties from Bomber Command, around half of the total force. The bombs that they dropped killed more than ten times that number of Germans.
He was a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber and had developed a nervous rash on previous flights. Like most of these airmen he must have been terrified. He was told that he could have leave after completing 30 flights. He was killed on his 30th flight.
I knew him only from the picture in his RAF uniform that my mother always kept secretly.
Today poppies were dropped in Green Park in memory of these airmen, and a memorial unveiled by the queen. Much has been made of the fact that this has taken so long, and that this is simply a mark of respect for the dead.
But the memorial took so long because the bombing of Germany was so controversial. It involved the deliberate targeting of civilians, the deliberate destruction of homes, and a disregard for human life that is quite breathtaking.
That is why it was regarded by many as a war crime.
Its chief architect was Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris. Harris had a record of bombing in India and Mesopotamia (Iraq and Syria) in the period just after the First World War. His racist and brutal attitude can be summed up in the phrase, ‘the only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand.’ He lived up to his word and bombed Iraqis organising against British occupation (sounds familiar?)
Harris is best known for his area bombing during the Second World War. From 1942 the British cabinet took a strategic decision to bomb densely packed working class areas and housing, since this would cause firestorms and disrupt industrial war production. While the pretence was kept up that military targets were being attacked, it was cities that were the main target.
Cologne, Hamburg and then Berlin were targeted in raids involving enormous numbers of planes.
Harris continued the policy right to the end of the war. The ancient city of Dresden was bombed in February 1945. Its population --swollen by refugees -- was caught in a firestorm that destroyed the city and killed tens of thousands of people. In March 1945 the RAF dropped its highest level of ordnance for the entire war, and carried out its final raid on Berlin towards the end of April 1945, just days before Russian soldiers entered the city.
There was no question by 1945 that the Nazis had been defeated. Invading armies to east and west surrounded Germany. All these raids achieved was to destroy lives and buildings and create huge numbers of refugees.
The tactics were highly dubious. Harris always claimed that they would be decisive in winning the war but that was false. The Russian victory at Stalingrad and subsequent advance to Germany, plus the D-day landings, were the main factors in defeating Hitler. The bombings were to inflict shock and awe on the German population.
In the 1920s and 30s there was serious discussion of outlawing aerial bombing altogether as a war crime. This did not happen and the populations of Spain, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Japan paid a very high price. Subsequent bombing of Vietnam and the Middle East has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
So we should remember the dead from all sides. But we should not allow this sympathy to justify present and future wars.
From Stop The War site.
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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