The timing on this one is perfect*. A couple of weeks ago, they finally unveiled the memorial to RAF Bomber Command on Green Park. Hastings’ book is from 1979, but feels like it could have been written last year. Interestingly, and I’d like to be able to investigate this, he claims at the start that “it is unlikely that important new evidence will be found about the nature of what was done to Germany by the bomber offensive”, which seems like an awfully risky thing to say.
I’m a big fan of military history books, especially World War Two ones. However, I had my doubts going into this one. The impersonal nature of a bomber offensive would seem to lend itself less well to the emotional narratives that can make military history so powerful. Furthermore, the terrible grey area Bomber Command inhabits would make it all much harder to identify with. I was wrong on both counts.
Max Hastings portrays the live of the aircrews, their leaders, and also, in one excellent chapter, their victims, in moving detail. The astonishing casualty rate – 55, 573 dead out of 125,000 air crew – is an ever present reality. Many of the chapters focus on one squadron, with its aircrews as minor characters in the book. But George R.R Martin himself is more sparing on character death. The troubling thing is, for the most part, how casually the deaths are described, both by Hastings and the men he talks about. It’s understandable, in a way – you couldn’t really have a ceremony at Wooton Bassett for every casualty when a few men died every week. Come to think of it, 55,000 over 6 years is just under 10,000 a year, so 200 a week? It hardly bears thinking about.
Yet every now and then, a death really slaps you in the face, as they should. Hastings quotes at length one pilot writing to his fiancée. He very calmly discusses the possibility of his own death and his wish for her to move on after he is gone. Immediately after the letter, Hastings writes
“John Bufton never married, for he was killed a month later.”
And I nearly cried.
Beyond the personal stories, there’s everything else that makes WW2 history so fascinating. The colossal scale of everything. Tragedy, heroism, cruelty, kindness, ingenuity, sacrifice, they are all here in buckets.
It’s worth reading simply to be able to fully grasp the Bomber Command debate. While I don’t know that it is of any value to sit in 2012 and shake our fists at the decisions made 67 years ago, it is certainly a bad move to do so on the basis of a sketchy understanding of them.
The strange thing about WW2 is that the scale of it does tend to play havoc with any moral judgements. It’s almost too big to understand, let alone condemn. At the end of the book, I’m left with the sense that the firestorms of Cologne, Hamburg, (perhaps not Dresden) were utterly horrifying, yet it’s hard to say how I would have done differently. For this sense of moral unease alone, Bomber Command is well worth reading – I think it’s really refreshing not to know where you stand and maybe to be OK with that.
*This was perfect timing – I started reading the book the day after the memorial was unveiled, finished it a week later, and then sat on the review for a week. I was considering bundling this post up with another Max Hastings review and a general post on WW2, but decided they’d largely stand up as three separate posts.