Reaping The Whirl Wind
“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.”
To some these are the words of a hero, to others the words of a war criminal; no Allied Second World War military commander has stirred up such fierce controversy and debate as Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris.
Assuming the position of the Royal Air Force’s Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command 70 years ago today, “Bomber” Harris’ name became eponymous with the campaign of widespread, continuous bombing (“area bombing”) of Germany. Of the 55,500 British, Canadian, and other Empire-Commonwealth servicemen that lost their lives conducting bombing raids over continental Europe, the majority were killed on Harris’ watch. A hefty butcher’s bill by most accounts. However, Harris’ tag as a “war criminal” was directly correlated to the deaths of an estimated 300,000 - 600,000 German civilians, along with the destruction of Germany’s urban cultural centres.
When a memorial to Harris was opened in England in 1993, the Queen Mother and other Bomber Command veterans present were heckled by a crowd of protestors, mostly from the pacifist Peace Pledge Union (PPU). “I don't know how brave they were,” commented a PPU representative. “Is it brave to sit in a plane and drop bombs on people you've never met, knowing that the chances are you won't be coming back?” A year earlier, two Canadian filmmakers stirred up an intense historical debate amongst veterans and historians with their CBC-aired film, Death by Moonlight. This film was still being criticized two decades later. At a party commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the Memory Project Speakers’ Bureau in November 2011, D-Day veteran Charles Scot-Brown stated, “They took Bomber Command and they immediately tried to stigma all our air force Bomber Command as killers of women and children, but they didn’t say that from 1939 until late 1940 when the Brits went over to Berlin every second day, what did they drop? Pamphlets! And it wasn’t until Coventry, when the Germans hit Coventry that we said ‘for every bomb you drop on England, we’ll drop 10 on Germany.’ And God bless Bomber Command they did it!”
The war is still very personal to all of us. Both sides of my family were victims of bombing campaigns. As a little girl living in London, it was a nightly routine for my English grandmother to collect up her baby sister and run under the stairs, hiding from German bombs and later V1 and V2 rockets. My German grandmother was residing in Dresden when 3,900 tonnes of explosives hit the city and the ensuing firestorm claimed 25,000 lives.
Hindsight is an incredible thing; it is easy to place our contemporary judgments on our forbearers without fully understanding their historical context. While Canada has traditionally deployed many troops and resources across the globe, Canadians have not faced a foreign invader since the War of 1812. In 1940, Great Britain was on the brink of invasion and occupation by an enemy determined to totally destroy the liberties we still hold dear today. Defeat was not an option.
Popular media has overwhelmingly emphasized the role of the D-Day landings in winning the war. The film Saving Private Ryan, along with recent Canadian documentaries Storming Juno and D-Day to Victory, shape much of our psyche about the war. Indeed such was the hype about D-Day that in June 1944 one politician referred to British and Canadian forces engaged in Italy as “D-Day Dodgers.”
Without belittling the contribution of the D-Day landings, they should be appropriately seen as one of many operations that won the war. Until the 1943 landings in Sicily, the Allies’ major offensive option against Germany was air bombing. In February 1942, when the British government sanctioned the policy of area bombing, 80% of Hitler’s forces (some 3,000,000 German troops) were fighting the Soviet Union. Until plans for a second front in Western Europe could fully materialize, bombing took the war to Germany and forced the transfer of close to a million men, and countless fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft guns, from the Eastern Front to defend the German heartlands from air raids. In combination with the Soviet Union’s infliction of 70% of German casualties and the engagement of the vast majority of its armed forces, Bomber Command’s campaign was an critical factor in the downfall of Hitler.
The controversy surrounding area bombing and Harris’ role in it will persist. We are always influenced by the most shocking and destructive images of warfare - the aerial bombardment of Dresden, Hamburg, London, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Vietnam. It must be remembered, however, that for those who lived and fought during the Second World War, the most shocking, ingrained images were those of trench warfare in the First World War. Harris was both a contemporary of the 1916 Battle of the Somme, in which the British suffered 60,000 casualties in a single day, and served as a young observation officer who flew over the carnage at the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele. Harris’ generation viewed it as a moral obligation to avoid repeating those horrors.
I am not suggesting that the destruction of cities and their civilian population is something that should be praised - but far from it. However, Sir Arthur Harris’ actions (and those of his superiors and subordinates) must be put in the proper historical context. In the words of Bomber Command veteran Ernest Bone, “There is no black or white in war, only gradations with much grey in between. There isn’t a simple matter of idealism; there’s no morality in war. It’s useless and stupid to look for morality in war because war isn’t moral. War is evil and killing people is evil. But there are times when it has to be done.”