Bomber County

Bomber County cover“In bombers named for girls, we burned/ The cities we had learned about in school –/ Till our lives wore out.”
-Randall Jarrell, a flying cadet and navigator in the USAF

Out of necessity, this blog has been quiet for a few months. Remembrance Day seems like a fitting moment to recapture the momentum and coax this project to its conclusion.

Having now amassed a good amount of original research materials, it is finally time to focus specifically on my grandfather- with one last, fitting book review to send us on our way.

Daniel Swift, a journalist and academic in his mid thirties, sets out to discover the fate of his grandfather. He begins his story with the knowledge that in June 1943, James Eric Swift, a pilot with 83 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, boarded his Lancaster bomber for a night raid on Münster and disappeared. He dedicates his book to his father, three years old when the airman – his father – died.

Swift’s book is part literary readings, part history and part personal memoir.

In researching the life of his grandfather, Daniel Swift becomes engrossed in the connections between air war and poetry. A narrative of the author’s search for his lost grandfather through military and civilian archives and in interviews conducted in the Netherlands, Germany and England, Bomber County is also an examination of the relationship between the bombing campaigns of the Second World War and poetry, an investigation into the experience of bombing and being bombed and a powerful reckoning with the morals and literature of a vanished moment.

Swift begins with the poet Robert Graves’s prediction, in 1941, that “no war poetry can be expected from the Royal Air Force”.

Inside a shoebox holding his grandfather’s Distinguished Flying Cross and other remnants, Swift uncovers a book called Air Force Poetry. It contains verse written by serving pilots. “I have never read a more mortal book than this one,” notes Swift. Of the 33 airmen who contributed to it, six had been killed by the time it was published

To Swift, there is “a special kinship between poetry and bombing”. The air crew’s story is a version of the oldest epics of battle: the British bomber pilot is both the soldier of The Iliad, burning the topless towers, and Odysseus, struggling against the odds to make it back to his island home.

Aerial bombardment was to the Second World War what the trenches were to the First: a shocking and new form of warfare, wretched and unexpected, and carried out at a terrible scale of loss. Just as the trenches produced the most remarkable poetry of the First World War, so too did the bombing campaigns foster a haunting set of poems during the Second.

Although using poetry to fill in the spaces between the dry, archival records seems the perfect way to add depth to this history, I found the excerpts discussing his grandfather the most compelling. I sped through the poetry to encounter the next episode in his grandfather’s life.

Journalist David Herman nicely summarises  the impact of the book: ‘...the real achievements are [Swift’s] own – the illuminating details and readings, the eye for the telling absence, the awareness of the importance of fantasy and myth in people’s versions of history.’

For my own work, it also releases me from the pressure of writing sympathetically or creatively. The more I discovered, the more I felt I needed to bind the information into a expertly written narrative. Although Swift writes very well indeed, the quiet facts and thoughtfully research details carry the weight of the story. I’ll leave the poetry to a better writer and will let the crumbling logbook of WO E.L. Britton speak for itself…

Read reviews of Bomber County  in The Observer and The Independent

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