Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why Should I Read...?

Patrick Bishop, 1997

I recently read this remarkable book--a history of Bomber Command's activities in World War II--as research for my latest fantasy novel.  Bomber Boys is far more than a research source, though: it's a meticulously researched and morally balanced survey which also packs considerable emotional power.

The story of Bomber Command is more complex than any other branch of the British military.  The astonishing bravery of the aircrew, and the appalling risks they encountered, is beyond dispute.  Figures vary, but most sources agree that around 75,000 airmen flew active missions during the war; 50,000--two-thirds--were killed.  A tour of duty was 30 operations, and at the height of the casualties, 1943, only one crew in six survived to complete a tour; only one in forty made it through a second.  The crews knew the odds, and still they carried on volunteering.

But the bomber crews are not remembered today in the same way that other branches of the armed services are.  There is no national memorial, and no campaign medal.  The reason is easy to find: the nature of the missions they flew.  The technology of the age was not adequate to bomb small targets precisely, and the strategy, under Sir Arther 'Bomber' Harris, was to bomb German cities into oblivion.  Over 40,000 civilians were killed in one raid on Hamburg, nearly as many in the more notorious Dresden attack when the war was nearly over.  After the war, the Allied leadership felt it necessary to distance itself from these tactics.

Bishop is to be commended for even-handed treatment of the issues.  His account has eyewitness testimony from German survivors of the raids, and he never seeks to minimise their impact.  He does not allow his undoubted admiration for the aircrew to blur the difficult moral question of whether the strategy was justified.  He presents the evidence, and lets the reader decide.

Bomber Boys is a moving, troubling account of a grotesque period of human history.  Recommended for anyone with an interest in the period or the morality of warfare.

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