David Bashow has sent me a copy of his latest book, Soldiers Blue, in which he uses facts, figures, and eloquent arguments to refute all those who, over the years, have accused me of being a despicable murderer of women and children and a destroyer of famed cities. David claims that actually I contributed to the force that played a major role in winning WWII. Why do I agree with both assessments?
David and I share many characteristics. We both suffer from verbal diarrhea, and have both channelled this into books, articles, and lectures, as well as teaching history. David did his teaching at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. Our Air Force hung on to him for 36 years while they dismissed me after 25 back in 1966 when the compulsory retirement age was 47. David retired in 2004 after flying those frivolous Starfighters and Hornets whereas I was an Observer, you know - that triple threat that combined navigation, bomb aiming, and gunnery - in the more sedate Wellingtons and Halifaxes.
As a veteran of 17 (3 mining, all precision, and 14 bombing, only 4 precision) Bomber Command operations and 800 days as a prisoner of war, I have watched films, attended talks, and read articles and books that ran the gamut from high praise to high condemnation. So, I published my own book on my RCAF career, wrote hundreds of letters and articles, and gave over 200 hour-long talks on the topic.
Some of us, who were history buffs and who analysed the news, knew what we were getting into back in 1939. The slaughter of WWI was still a painful part of our boyhood, yet far too many, on seeing how devastating our old Lee Enfield rifles or our venerable artillery 25 pounders were, believed we could easily blast our way to Berlin. But, really, what choice did any of us have? Basically we were, in all countries, a bunch of kids caught up in the folly of war so prevalent in our last 10,000 years as a species. Those of us directed into the stream feeding Bomber Command discovered immediately on joining an operational squadron that our chances of survival were too low to contemplate, but still better than for those fed into the Kriegsmarine U-Boat stream. Our average life expectany was 5 operations and we were tasked to complete 30 before our first break of 6 months, usually to train others, then to do another 30. Mathematically close to impossible. Something in human nature tells us that we will survive and that it will be our friends who get the chop, but almost all of us adopted an appearance of courage and duty to hide gnawing fear and a growing fatalism.
We knew we had a dirty job to do. We were our only weapon that could hit deeply into Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy so winning the war was up to us. We had to convince ourselves that we were innocent in creating the environment that permitted monsters like Hitler to prevail. Daylight operation had proven disastrous, so we flew at night over a blacked-out Europe with, for the first few years, only astro-navigation to guide us. This meant holding the aircraft steady for 5 minutes, an easy target for flak and fighters, to get a 2-star fix which, if we were good, gave an accuracy of under 10 nautical miles. New electronic aids were soon jammed by the Germans. This, we knew, meant area bombing and the fact that most of our victims would be civilians. We were not to see the dead, dying, and wounded, but visions of mutilated people and animals have haunted us survivors for the rest of our lives. These deep wounds have been repeatedly re-opened by the many who have argued that were were immoral and that area bombing had little effect on the war's outcome. They praise the accuracy of daylight USAAF bombing, ignoring the fact that widespread USAAF formations all dropped when the lead bomber did - thus also area bombing. David provides many instances of Bomber Command precision and USAAF area bombings. I was to endure a score of Bomber Command raids and two USAAF, one of which rained down on us hundreds of fragments of female clothing from a nearby school or factory they had hit.
Of the 125,000 who flew with Bomber Command, 73,741 became casualties: 55,500 killed, 9,838 POWs, and 8,403 wounded. For the most part POWs were well treated by the civilians who captured them and by the Luftwaffe. I consider Stalag Luft III my Alma Mater. German newspapers and magazines had fairly honest reporting, but revealed increasing pain from bombings by us Luftgangsters. For us, with years to discuss Life with intelligent aircrew from over a score of countries and with interaction with the Luftwaffe we learned that people are people with good, bad, and indifferent in every culture. Proportions vary. For instance there was a world of difference between the Luftwaffe and the Gestapo and SS. I met over a hundred German civilians. All were respectful. Yet, in those weeks between liberation and repatriation I was to know of numerous cases of rape, most by freed slave labourers but also by ex-POWs, fortunately by none whom I called friend. There was harsh treatment to some of our guards who had been kind to us and our Kommandant, a gentleman and WWI ace, was jailed and denied access to his destitute wife for 2 years.
As a POW I was incarcerated in 5 different camps, was on the long march westwards fleeing the Soviets, and was also transported 3 times by very crowded boxcars. On the first of these we had just pulled out of Dresden when it was hit. Ageing German engines required frequent stops for repairs and we had stopped in Dresden. The station was crowded with women and children and a few old men, I saw no soldiers. David tells me there were military plants there, but to me it was much too late in the war and the raids were overkill whose only purpose was to impress the advancing Soviets. Later I got to talk briefly to the train driver whose family was in Dresden. It amazed me that he remained civil to us. We had to stop again in what was left of the city of Plauen, now little but rubble with numerous rain-filled craters containing bits of human and horse remains. Scores of female French, Dutch, and Polish forced labourrs were repairing the rails so we could roll through. We were ashamed of being human beings. Our universe was no better when we crept into Nurnberg, another devastated city. We walked to a camp on its outskirts where the hut to which I was assigned had no beds but hundreds of bed bugs. With the Germans we got to know the cravings of hunger and growing apathy about survival. A frequent visitor, Bomber Command ventilated many of our huts. It denied the German transportation system the ability to get Red Cross food to us so our daily ration was a ladle of wormy soup, 2 rotten potatoes, and 4 thin slices of black bread. Our guards had little more. On days after raids they were pressed into rescue and cleanup allowing no time to bring our food in. It was a diet I do not recommend.
I came much too close to being killed by friendly fire on far too many occasions. I was strafed by 3 passes of 9 Thunderbolts, bombed twice by the USAAF and many times by Bomber Command. Other than for a few stray bombs and bullets I did miss the same treatment from the Soviets by a few hours but for weeks was well with earshot of their bombardments. I spent a memorable night locked in a boxcar in the Munich marshalling yards rocked by the heat and blast of 4,000 pound bombs and a low-flying Mosquito disassembling our engine. The train of boxcars on the adjacent siding was packed with creatures that had one been human - destined for the Dachau ovens and a reminder of why we fought. In the morning it was a this-life-is-not-worth-living sight to see the man-made destruction of fine edifices man had built.
Later, as I slowly made my way from Bavaria to wrecked Le Have for airlift to England I saw Bomber Command's handiwork everywhere. Frequent were the detours around large bomb craters.
I had admired the stubborn British who refused to give in to the blitz, but what the Germans endured was far in excess of this, not to mention the Belgians, Dutch, and French. I do agree with David that Bomber Command tactics were a major winning factor and that tanks and artillery are also cruel weapons. Yet, while bombing I could never escape the feeling that all Life is one and what I was doing to others I was actually doing to myself and a lifetime of remorse and guilt has borne this out. Some 125 valued friends who perished have remained painfully with me.
What annoys me still is that we have not learned. We continue to devote an excess of resources to arming ourselves against a few real and many imaginary threats while doing far too little to remove the causes of war: greed, over-population, huge populations confined to insufficiently-fertile areas, the chasm between rich and poor, female subjugation, man-made climate change, environmental destruction, and the like.
Are we really Homo sapiens or simply Homo the Sap?
Yes, I do appreciate David's concern and his portrayal of the human spirit in two world wars as well as current conflicts. May it help convince those who hold power to realize that wars beget wars and that salvation lies in directing our energies to the long-past-due task of setting humanity on a more peaceful voyage. RIP (Rest In Peace) belongs to more than tombstones.