Category Archives: Bomber Command

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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One Author’s Personal Tribute to the men of RAF Bomber Command

“Although author George Stratford’s  novel, Buried Pasts, consists entirely of fictional characters and events, his inspiration to create this story came from an all too real source – his Canadian father, a pilot who was killed in action on the 19th July 1944 whilst serving with 78 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command. George was just six weeks old at the time.”

Read a sample chapter. 


Using themselves up

“Beyond those who died flying for Bomber Command, many more outstanding men somehow used themselves up in the Second World War, leaving pathetically little energy and imagination to support them through the balance of their lives. Surviving aircrew often felt deeply betrayed by criticism of the strategic air offensive, It is disgraceful that they were never awarded a campaign Medal after surviving the extraordinary battle that they fought for so long against such odds, and in which so many of them died. One night after I visited a much-decorated pilot in the North of England in the course of writing this book, he drove me to the station. Suddenly turning to me in the car, he asked: ‘Has anybody else mentioned having nightmares about it?’ He said that in the past ten years he had been troubled by increasingly vivid and terrible dreasm about his experiences over Germany.

A teacher by profession, he had thought nothing of the war for years afterwards. The a younger generation of his colleagues began to ask with repetitive, inquisitive distaste: ‘How could you have done it? How could you have flown over Germany night after night to bomb women and children?’ He began to brood more and more deeply about the past. He changed his job and started to teach mentally-handicapped children, which he saw as a kind of restitution.  Yet still, more than thirty years after, his memories of the war haunt him.

It is wrong that it should be so. He was a brave man who achieved an outstanding record in the RAF. The aircrew of Bomber Command went out to do what they had been told had to be done for the survival of Britain and for Allied victory. Historic judgements on the bomber offensive can do nothing to mar the honour of such an epitaph.”

-Max Hastings, 458-459.


How should we remember Bomber Command?

Sixty five years after VE Day, a monument to the bomber crews who helped defeat Nazi Germany raises difficult questions


The cost of the bomber offensive

“We want- that is, the people who served in Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force and their next of kin- a categorical assurance that the work we did was militarily and strategically justified.”

-Wing-Commander Ernest Millington MP, House of Commons, 1946

Having taken a long look at Bomber Command over the last few weeks, I think the time has come to start shifting our focus. There are two pieces of work to be done before I start adding the specific details from the log book: further consideration of memoirs and memory (all the work we have looked at thus far has been written by historians; I’d like to look at some first-hand accounts- one written during the war and one written long after it).  I also need to build a better understanding of the situation in North Africa, working from the ground up.

But, before we depart from the topic of Bomber Command, I’d like to collect and post a few final thoughts on the balance sheet and why it remains such a difficult topic even today.

Here is Hasting’s summation:

“After the War, beneath a thin layer of perfunctory good will, it was soon apparent that…in the safety of peace the bombers’ part in the war was one that many politicians and civilians would prefer to forget. The laurels and romantic adulation were reserved for Fighter Command, the defenders. The men of the Army Occupation were first awed, then increasingly dismayed, by the devastation of Germany (451).”

“The bomber offensive partly fulfilled useful purposes for the Allied war effort. Bomber Command entirely satisfied Churchill’s hopes…by fighting a long-holding action to buy time before launching Overlord on overwhelmingly favourable terms. If the airmen had pitched their demands for resources, their own hopes and their subsequent claims more modestly, history might have judged them more kindly. As it was, the cost of the bomber offensive in life, treasure and moral superiority over the enemy tragically outstripped the results that it achieved (458).”


The wireless operator, Douglas Radcliffe MBE

Warrant Officer Douglas Radcliffe MBE flew a full operational tour as a Wireless Operator, flying in Wellingtons with No. 425 Squadron


A final tally

All RAF aircrews were volunteers. They had an average age of 22.

Of 125,000 bomber aircrew involved, more than 55,000 were killed, over 8,000 were wounded and nearly 10,000 were prisoners of war. This was on a scale proportionate to British casualties in the trenches during the worst period of World War One.

43,000 British civilians were killed during the Blitz.

Through the bombing offensive, 593,000 German civilians died and 3.37 million dwellings were destroyed, including 600,000 in Berlin alone.

Hastings’ final judgment reads:

“The bomber offensive partly fulfilled useful purposes for the Allied war effort. Bomber Command entirely satisfied Churchill’s hopes… by fighting a long holding-action to buy time before launching Overlord on overwhelmingly favourable terms. If airmen had pitched their demands for resources, their own hopes and their subsequent claims more modestly, history might have judged them more kindly. As it was, the cost of the bomber offensive in life, treasure and moral superiority over the enemy tragically outstripped the results that it achieved” (458).