The lesser evil

Cologne in 1945



The next series of posts will relate to the outcomes of Bomber Command’s strategic air offensive in Europe. I’ve segmented the analysis into three topics: How did they do it- both in the moral and the operational sense? What were the results? How is it remembered and recorded?

In the early phases of the war, all raids were directed against military targets. As it became increasingly apparent that it was not possible to attack such specific destinations with precision, the campaign was shifted to area bombing.

Operation Millennium

In 1942 , Sir Arthur Harris knew that the future of Bomber Command was still in doubt. He approached both Winston Churchill and Sir Charles Portal with the bold idea of assembling a force of 1,000 bombers and sending them out in one massive raid on a German city.

Final orders were ready on 26 May with the full moon approaching. The force stood ready, waiting for the weather. His first choice of target was Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany and a great port. But the weather over Germany was unfavourable for three days running and, on 30 May, Harris decided to send the bombers to his second target choice – Cologne, the third largest city in Germany. Soon after noon on that day, the order to attack Cologne went out to the groups and squadrons and the raid took place that night.

The moral reckoning

The raid was deemed a great success, with devastating fires and casualties fueling the Allied propaganda machine. But not all agreed…

A report was sent to the Air Ministry analysing a sample of civilian letters opened by the censor after the raid: “There are those who are pleased, and those who regret that so much suffering should have to be inflicted.” (Hastings 216).

Distinguished military thinker Captain Basil Liddell Hart wrote a private reflection (219):

“It will be ironical if the defenders of civilization depend for victory upon the most barbaric, and unskilled, way of winning a war that the modern world has seen…it should be a sobering thought that but for Hitler’s folly in attacking Russia we and the Germans would now be ‘Cologning’ each other’s cities with the advantage on Germany’s side, in this mad competition in mutual devastation…”

Many of Britain’s churchmen supported the bomber offensive. The Archbishop of York wrote in 1943 “Often in life, there is no clear choice between absolute right and wrong; frequently the choice has to be made of the lesser of two evils, and it is a lesser evil to bomb a war-loving Germany than to sacrifice the lives of our fellow country-men who long for peace, and to delay delivering millions now held in slavery”.

George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (in the heart of 11 Group Territory and only a few miles from Westhampnett, where our story began) was unable to accept this compromise. He addressed the House of Lords in 1944:

“The Allies stand for something greater than power. The chief name inscribed on our banner is ‘Law’. It is of supreme importance that we, who, with our Allies, are the Liberators of Europe, should so use power that it is always under the control of law.”

Revd. John Collins was Chaplain at Bomber Command. He was also a permanent thorn in the side of authority. After the war he wrote:

“Bomber Command Headquarters was perhaps the most soul-destroying, the most depressing of the places…which I had been to serve. For there, in contrast with the natural beauty of the surroundings, the evil…policy of the carpet bombing of German cities was planned.”

How to navigate this moral battlefield?  In so many ways, little seems to have changed. The news this evening leads with more strategic air strikes on Libya. After months of highly technical precision bombing and enforcement of the ‘no fly zone’, Quadafi remains in power. And there is dismay that the airforce hasn’t yet finished the job.

History now seems uncertain about how to understand what happened from 1942 and how to reconcile the moral disgrace of the destruction with the youthful, extraordinarily brave aircrew. It explains why there are still so many people passionately campaigning for a permanent memorial- and why one has yet to be created.

A view looking up

The last word on this thought goes to Germany.

Klaus Schmit recorded the stories of Darmstadt, a town ferrociously bombed towards the end of war:

“At the turn of the century, I travelled through Germany’s towns, and each one had its own soul and face. Shortly before the war I ventured again through the same towns, and it seemed that their souls and faces were gone, as if they were dead in themselves. Now, as I walk through the ruins of the same towns, I am overcome by the terrible awareness that they have fulfilled the promise that was made before the war. Instead of living corpses they have become truly dead ones.”


2 responses to “The lesser evil

  • Amy Scott

    Even before it mentioned Libya, your post on the Bomber offensive and its position somewhere in the grey area between right and wrong, just and evil, called to mind the events of the last decade. Does the end really justify the means? I think 99% of the world’s population would agree that the Iraq war was not justified, and the war in Afghanistan has become increasingly hard to justify. It brings to mind the idea of the grey zone – a place where right and wrong are indiscernible. In my Holocaust literature course, I learned of the Sonderkommando – they were Jewish concentration camp prisoners who were forced to carry out the horrific task of cremating their fellow prisoners. There was no way for them to refuse this duty and survive (in fact, they were killed and cremated themselves at regular intervals), so it seems there was simply no choice. And yet I can recall interviews with members of the sonderkommando who had miraculously managed to survive in which they struggled deeply (and for the rest of their lives) with guilt. How could it be otherwise?

    War does indeed bring mutual destruction and it makes villains of heroes, heroes of villains. I think the ideal of ethical action is rendered woefully inadquate by war. In fact, right and wrong become almost irrelevant. But perhaps those that objected to the atrocities perpetrated by Bomber command signal to us that even in the absence of a clear right and wrong, a voice of critique (like the Chaplain’s at bomber command) is the closest we can come to remaining responsible for what we do.

  • Angels 14

    You add a critical word to the debate- guilt. How to live with what you did, or didn’t do. Guilt for surviving or for killing someone else. Guilt must be one of the worst emotions- it’s so ineffective (I am sure that anger or even saddness has a greater capacity for provoking change than the endless burden of guilt).

    It seems sensible that the Chaplain at Bomber Command objected to the campaign, but he was despised at the time. And how easy for him to comment, when he was so far from the front line. And did he know anything of the concentration camps…would he have thought that destruction at any price was sensible to stop the camps? Surely the Holocaust is the ultmiate lexicon for evil.

    A cheery topic for a Monday morning! Let’s go back to thinking abot Top Gun…

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