Monday, 17 September 2012

Liberal Minister and civilian bombing

Cycling to the NLC for Viv Bingham's memorial event I detoured into Green Park to look at the new memorial to Bomber Command. I have no doubt that Viv would have opposed the 'carpet bombing ' campaign undertaken under the leadership of 'Bomber Harris' the political cover came from the Minister for Air, Leader of the Liberal Party, Archibald Sinclair. His biography makes no mention of the campaign waged by Vera Britten and Bishop Bell against the indiscriminate bombing of residential areas in Germany.
It is of easy to judge such actions from the comfort of a Britain not involved in a European war which threatened its existence. Many looked to air power as a way of avoiding the protracted surface combat of WW1. Enthusiasts like the Italian military strategist Guilip Douhet believed that civilian populations would be unable to withstand air bombardment. Few would now argue that civilian morale did crumble under bombing. Churchill abandoned the civilian bombing.

It is not just the unveiling of the Green Park monument that has brought these issues to the fore again. There have been TV documentaries and revivals of Terance Rattigan's play Flare path both on Radio 3 and in the theatre.

As I noted earlier there was opposition to the air strategy pursued by Sinclair and Harris. This was led by Bishop Bell who challenged the government in a House of Lords speech and letters.George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (a rare voice of dissent within the Anglican Church) wrote 'If Europe is civilised at all, what can excuse the bombing of towns by night and terrorising non-combatants.' Bell called on both Germany and Britain to forswear such tactics.' Vera Britten who was part of the Bombing Restriction Committee and worked with the Peace Pledge Union. Her book 'The Seeds of Chaos' was key to the campaign, she wrote; '‘We must decide whether we want the government to continue to carry out through Bomber Command a policy of murder and massacre in our name. Has any nation the right to make its young men the instruments of such a policy?’

Whatever view you take about the carpet bombing few would deny the bravery of the young man who took part but the question should be asked whether  this is the proper memorial to the bravery . As a recent article pondered:

No amount of stone and bronze can ever end the ethical debate about Britain's bombing strategy during the second world war. Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris insisted on an explicit and systematic campaign of "area bombing", that is, the carpet bombing of German cities . His policy rejected the idea of precision raids on industrial targets – which, to be fair, did not work well because bomb-aiming with 1940s technology was not accurate enough – and deliberately sought to weaken morale in Germany. In other words, the job was to bomb civilians. This strategy was not accidental or unconscious. It worried Britain's commanders. Churchill went from encouraging it to – eventually, after Dresden – worrying about it. By that time many thousands of civilians had died horrible deaths in firestorms that left terrible relics of shrivelled, blackened victims in the cellars and streets of cities, including Hamburg and Cologne

As I pedalled off towards Whitehall I too felt this very confident Portland stone edifice did not properly reflect the debt we owed to those young men. Viv would have asked about the cost of their sacrifice and the moral issues that the policy raised.

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