Bomber Command deserves its WWII memorial – and here's why

Jun 22, 2012
Crispin Black

Distaste over memorial to the airmen who obliterated Dresden ignores the extreme danger they faced

THE QUEEN will unveil a memorial to the men of wartime Bomber Command in Green Park on 28 June. The late Queen Mother would strongly approve. As our wartime Queen, she understood what they had been through and their contribution to ultimate victory.

She was also a great admirer of their uncompromising and single-minded commander-in-chief, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, whose statue she unveiled in 1992 outside St Clement Danes on the Strand.

There was a lot of whingeing when she did this from various Germans who somehow view the bombing of their country as unfair - including the German far right who disgracefully describe the Anglo-American strategic bombing offensive as 'Bombenholocaust'.

Twenty years later the whingeing has already begun in the British media about the "glorification" of the tactic of area bombing - the memorial, they say, is "insensitive" or "inappropriate".

The ever politically correct BBC has relegated live coverage of the unveiling to its news channel - a blessing in disguise, perhaps, given its laughably poor coverage of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Bomber Command's achievement in the Second World War was astonishing.

After Dunkirk, until D-Day four long and bitter years later, its planes and pilots provided our only offensive capability against Hitler's madness. Its aircrew experienced extreme danger. The cockpit of a Lancaster bomber over Germany was the most dangerous place a British serviceman could be anywhere in the war. Each cohort of 100 airmen could typically expect one of the following fates:

  • 55 killed on ops or as a result of wounds
  • 3 injured on ops (usually anti-aircraft shrapnel penetrating the body or burns)
  • 12 POWs
  • 2 shot down and evaded capture (most spirited home by various resistance organisations)
  • 27 survived a tour of operations.

The odds were better on the Death Railway where only one in four perished as a result of Japanese cruelty.

But at the end of the war, as British ground troops entered the Reich and saw the scale of the destruction, war guilt began to play an active part in denying Bomber Command a campaign medal of their own and ultimately a fitting memorial in the centre of London.

More than anything else, the bombing of the Saxon city of Dresden on the night of 13 February 1945 has come to represent to many refined sensibilities all that was wrong and excessive about Bomber Command.

In the UK a distaste for Bomber Command is often based on snobbery.
The names of its glorious dead are more likely to be inscribed on village and town memorials than in the chapels of the great public schools and Oxbridge colleges.

Other criticism is based on a misplaced affection for the monuments of German high culture. One English historian of the war who was critical of the raids described Dresden thus: "The home of so much charm and beauty, a refuge for Trollope's heroines, a landmark of the Grand Tour."  Please.

A snapshot of the state of the war in Europe that night might be useful for perspective.

First, an obvious fact - the German High Command did not surrender until 8 May 1945, so the war in Europe still had three ghastly months to run.

Second, a little background - the Allied entry into Germany had been delayed by the Battle of the Bulge, the Wehrmacht's last offensive in the west. Thirteen German divisions attacked all along the American-held front line on 16 December 1944. By the time the offensive was eventually contained and repulsed in late January, the US Army had sustained more than 100,000 casualties, including more than 19,000 dead GIs, and experienced their toughest fighting in the European war.

The experience of a typical British Army formation is instructive.
Let's take 11th Armoured Division, which was in action constantly since D-Day and was to liberate Belsen concentration camp on 15 April.
The night Dresden was bombed the division was resting and refitting. Anne Frank and her sister Margot were still alive in Belsen on that night.

Sadly, two months of hard fighting lay ahead for 11th Armoured - by men who probably just wanted to go home - before they could bring any relief to the wretched souls in Belsen. By then Anne and Margot Frank and thousands of others had perished miserably.

Even back in Blighty the Third Reich was still managing to kill our fellow countrymen: 2,754 of them to be exact. They were almost entirely civilians and were killed by German V2 rockets launched on London. The last one fell on 27 March, killing 34-year-old Mrs Ivy Milichamp in her home in Orpington – six weeks after the incineration of Dresden. Oh, and 20,000 prisoners died in the concentration camp that supplied the slave labourers to the project.

We now know that the European war was in its last phase, but it did not necessarily look like that to contemporary combatants. Hitler was still alive and the Wehrmacht was still fighting. A military coup would have been comparatively easy to organise in Berlin, but none was forthcoming. The German officer corps, which still controlled the vast bulk of the German armed forces could have called it a day at any point.  But they did not.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris justified Dresden a few days after the raid thus: "I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier. The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden, could be easily explained by any psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses. Actually, Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East.
It is now none of those things."

Bomber Command deserves its belated memorial. It is 67 years overdue.

They were and are brave men brilliantly led by Harris and his senior officers. We should salute them all.

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Disqus - noscript

It is interesting to read your apparent justification of the bombing of Dresden, Crispin. There has been much debate of whether Dresden was indeed a military target and whether it deserved to be turned into the raging firestorm it became but since facts speak for themselves let us look at some for a moment.

Dresden was bombed on several occasions during the war (4 times between 12-15 Feb. 1945) but for the main bombing raids on Dresden on the nights of 13 & 14 of February, Bomber Command apparently used 805 aircraft , lost 9 and dropped 2,735 tonnes of bombs. This does not include the commitment from the US air force who employed 311 aircraft dropping a further 771 tonnes on 14 Feb.

The loss of civilians in Dresden was apparently recorded on the 2 March 1945 as being 202,040 many of whom were either burnt to ash or suffocated in their cellars due to the resulting firestorm. At the time it was thought that the death toll could reach some 248,000.

That's 248,000 civilians from one city in two nights...a sobering thought that.

I leave it up to others to judge whether that was excessive or justified.

Nightgaunt does, of course, have a point.
But only when discussing the fate of normal people in normal times. Germany started a war that killed millions upon millions of innocents with whom they disagreed.
Dresden was indeed a tragedy, but taken in perspective with the further tragedies that may have continued, it was not just justified but an immensely brave act.

Was Auswitz, Belsen, Dachau justified? Was the annihilation by Nazis of several villages around Europe justified? Was the mass murder at Trondheim by us justified? Was dropping nukes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified? Was any of the whole damn war justified? The answer is no but to those who died in bomber command and their relatives, as the saying goes, "Ours is not to wonder why, ours is but to do or die". They were doing their duty, as commanded by their superior officers of the time and deserve equal recognition for that.

Don't get me wrong, the valiant crews of Bomber Command should all be be remembered and recognised for their ultimate sacrifice. Of course they should, I was not doubting that at all.

I was simply offering some figures in response to Crispin's article as "food for thought" with regards to the bombing of Dresden.

Spot on, Crispin. Nazi Germany was a nightmare antithesis of civilization, and sadly the vast majority of Germans supported or acquiesced to Nazi rule. Arthur Harris brought the horror of modern war to the German home front, which fed and supplied their war machine. We have the leisure now to moralise on what he did, but also should have the awareness that he is partly responsible for turning modern Germany into a thoroughly non-aggressive, if not pacifist society. That is no mean achievement.

Why this fixation on Dresden? What about Guernica, Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, Plymouth or Coventry? The Germans were the first and most enthusiastic adopters of area bombing in the 1930's. They reaped what they had sown.

Further, it is undoubtedly true that Bomber Command and the US Eight Air Force saved countless British lives through forcing the Luftwaffe to abandon large scale bomber operations in order to focus on fighters for defence of the Fatherland. As someone whose parents lived in the Bomb Alley of southeast England, I can only give thanks to the men of Bomber Command for offering me a chance at life.

if Hitler had the heavy bombers available to the allied airforces do you think he had cared how many civilians were killed lets face it he he had the v2 earlier london and many other cities would have been entirely wiped out. this was all out war,

Nightgaunt, who on earth did you get your statistics from - David Irving or Joseph Goebbels? The only people who suggest 200,000 as the Dresden toll are the Nazis immediately after the fact and the latter day Holocaust deniers, who are trying to establish a spurious moral equivalence between area bombing and the Nazi catastrophe. Dresden City council ordered a thorough review several years ago, and the most reliable number they can come up with is 25,000 - smaller than your figure by a factor of eight!

You owe to yourself and to the men you are defaming to at least use accurate numbers.

Why use statistics as the moral arbiter?
"Total War" was practised by Sherman in the American Civil War, to undermine Southern miltary capacity. By WW1, war production was already being taken on by women. In 1943, Joseph Goebbels asked a vast audience if they wanted Total War (they said yes). The move away from mediaeval ideas of war as something only by degree grislier than Rugby and involving only professionals had already been completed. "Civilians" were now in the front line.
Given a desire not to be exterminated (I can almost hear the Daleks), we had to decide how to fight. When one side practices Total War, the other must choose the same or go under. Precision bombing of supposed bottleneck targets was never possibe before the era of cruise missiles, and factories were not conveniently placed by the enemy at a long bus ride remove from housing (or by oursekves).
Dresden and the atom bombs were spectacular, but caused less attrition to the enemy than the many nightly fire bombings of the Ruhr and Tokyo - and "attrition" was the name of the game. Every 88mm gun trained upwards from a German city was one less aimed at Soviet tanks. And it was Soviet blood sacrifice, as much as American production and doughty resistance from the British Empire and its many friends that led to victory.
If people must play a numbers game we are now comfortable enough to play, look at Soviet losses. Stalin had some right to demand a second front to take pressure off the USSR, and Churchill's answer that the night bombing offensive was exactly this was apt.
My Uncle, mentioned in despatches at Normandy, rather admired the germans whose land he came to occupy. Anti German sayings were not uttered in my parents' house, though the Nazis and Hitelr got their share. It was the behaviour that was hated.
Everything I say above is epigrammatic: it would be easy to pick holes in a necessarily short history, but I stick by my points.
Killing is bad, and that gives you the right to self defence and that of the victims, and to. bring down the aggressor (in fact, the USA bankrolled the economic recovery of post war W germay and Japan).
German culture is one of the world's greatest, and no disrespect for it follows from gratitude to those who helped destroy the Nazis
To recognise and thank those who fought expresses gratitude for freedom to be able do just that - or to refuse, not glorification of war.

Winston Churchill comes out of all of this rather shabbily, don't you think? - despite his, undoubted brilliant wartime leadership of the nation; rather like a dog owner who has been embarrassed by his dog's aggressive behaviour, Churchill chose to walk away and disown Bomber Command after all that magnificent entity had done for the morale of the nation during its darkest hours, and the almost unbelievable sacrifices that the very young men of Bomber Command had been asked to make (by Churchill!)

Sadly, I feel, politics and politicians have not changed!

when the allies were entering berlin..hitler apparently commented that the german people didnt deserve to survive.he called them cowards..
drastic actions are needed to end wars created by egotistical warlords..who sentence to death .the worlds innocents for their own gains .