- 'Are we beasts?' asked Winston Churchill one night in
1943 after watching a film of the bomb damage done to Germany. The question
was probably rhetorical: Churchill had authorised the bombing campaign
from its puny beginnings in 1940 to the massive Combined Offensive launched
with the American air forces in the last two years of war. His language
was always intemperate and flowery - 'extermination', 'annihilation' and
so on. Did he mean it? Did the British military machine set out deliberately
in the Second World War on a path to the genocide of the German people?
- This issue lies at the heart of Jörg Friedrich's
searing account of the bombing of around 150 German cities between 1940
and 1945. In Germany his book sold half-a-million copies. He is the first
German historian to expose in remorseless, almost unreadable detail just
what the millions of tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs did to
Germany's people and its cultural heritage. Most British readers will be
familiar with Dresden, which has come to symbolise the awful horror of
a ruthless total war. What they will not know is the fate of a host of
other small cities - Kassel, Paderborn, Aachen, Swinemünde, and many
more - which were all but obliterated by the bombing, or of the many large
cities such as Cologne or Essen which experienced more than 250 raids each,
so many that at the end the bombers were simply turning ruins into ruins.
- Friedrich never quite says that this campaign was genocidal,
but his language, too, is immoderate and reproachful. These are massacres,
the cellars in which ordinary Germans were roasted to death become 'crematoria',
and the bomber crews are exterminating the enemy, not simply destroying
his will to resist. He places blame for this squarely on Winston Churchill,
whose 'bloody will', as he calls it, drove on the campaign, and whose occasional
second thoughts were always suppressed in favour of doing more of the same
until the famous point just after Dresden when he finally, and far too
late, told Bomber Command not to bomb just for the sake of pure terror.
He finds reasons for Churchill's attitude: Britain's ineffectual war effort
could do little else for three years after expulsion from France in 1940;
the radicalisation of bombing policy reflected the limitations of the air
weapon; the necessity of showing Stalin that Britain meant business compelled
a raising of the stakes of horror for the political effect it might have.
But killing as many German civilians as possible in ways that became progressively
more grotesque was Britain's strategy from 1940 to the last attacks in
- This is a point of view that will probably not go down
well with the British public and this is all to the good. For too long
the obsession with the Second World War has sustained cosy myths about
the Blitz spirit. Schoolchildren are invited to share the Blitz experience
or imagine themselves as wistful evacuees. Friedrich's book should explode
this domesticated bombing culture once and for all. Bombing was horrific
above everything that civilians had to endure from warfare; Friedrich's
book is a raw account of how it was under the bombs for five years. The
more remarkable thing is just how the German population endured it without
the 'collapse of morale' that the Allied planners sought. Friedrich has
little explanation of how or why; his intention is to restore a lost narrative
of the war and to remind the British public that it was their grandparents'
generation who did this.
- Friedrich does not, however, tell it just as it was,
and this is a pity. The central claims in the book scarcely stand up to
historical scrutiny. It was not just Bomber Command that was responsible
for the estimated 450,000 dead; the US air forces soon abandoned any pretence
that they could bomb with precision, and two-thirds of their bombs were
dropped blind through cloud and smog. A staggering 87 per cent of all bombs
missed their target. American planes also killed tens of thousands of civilians.
Nor was Bomber Command ever ordered exclusively to murder the German population.
The directive for 'area attacks' of 14 February 1942 contained a long appendix,
not mentioned by Friedrich, which listed more precise military and economic
target systems, while limiting attacks on cities to those with large industrial
areas and extensive workers' housing. For much of the last year of war,
Bomber Command was ordered to attack transport, oil and other military
targets linked with the war on land as it rolled across the German homeland
in 1945. Of course all these attacks, British and American, resulted in
massive civilian casualty and the destruction of city centres, but it is
important to get the history right before trying to argue that Bomber Command
alone undertook deliberate and sustained campaigns to annihilate the civil
population. In any assessment of crime, motive must be properly established.
- The bomber was a terribly blunt instrument in the Second
World War. Even with smart bombs in today's wars, civilians suffer all
the time. Recognising that, the British and Americans ought to have abandoned
the attack on the home front since it clearly violated the agreed rules
of engagement in war, even if it did not formally violate international
law. Neville Chamberlain in September 1939 ordered Bomber Command to avoid
any attacks that ran the risk of killing a single civilian; Churchill,
his successor early in May 1940, ordered bombing to begin at once. Friedrich
is right to see Churchill as the driving force behind the campaign, and
to recognise that his ruthless bellicosity might even have embraced gas
or germ warfare if there had been sufficient threat from the enemy. The
important thing to learn from this is just why the two major democracies
engaged in the end in forms of total war that abandoned altogether the
moral high ground they had tried to occupy in the 1930s. Even Truman, no
flamboyant warrior like Churchill, authorised the dropping of the atomic
bombs. This is a question Friedrich makes little attempt to answer beyond
asserting that killing civilians was Britain's soft option.
- There was something almost biblical about the bombing
campaign, with its vocabulary of retribution and destruction. It is therefore
not so surprising that the plan to destroy Hamburg in 1943 was code-named
Operation Gomorrah, Harris's version of 'Shock and Awe'. Keith Lowe's Inferno
tells a story that is well-known in outline, if less familiar in the detail.
He has searched German sources well and, like Friedrich, focuses on the
story on the ground. His tone is matter-of-fact rather than literary, but
the history is scrupulous. Hamburg endured the first firestorm, losing
perhaps 45,000 people. This had not been planned, but a combination of
bomb density and meteorological conditions made it possible. Hamburg had
been an Anglophile city, with strong liberal and, more recently, social-democrat
and communist politics. Yet the working-class, anti-Nazi districts were
the ones to be destroyed. Lowe's account is sensitive to all the paradoxes
of the bombing war and in a no-nonsense conclusion he reminds readers that
at least the bombing finally knocked militarism out of the German people.
A point of view, perhaps, but not one that Friedrich would much care for.
- There is no doubt that The Fire will create a stir. Reading
it more than sixty years after the event, it seems hard to believe that
the countries of the Western world battered each other's cities and killed
in excess of 650,000 people to save their particular versions of civilisation.
The real merit of both these books may be the realisation once and for
all among those Western democratic publics that bombing should be confined
- Winston Churchill was knighted after World War 2 and
buried from Westminster Abbey, perhaps the highest tribute that could be
paid to him, while Adolf Hitler has been accorded the status of perhaps
the most evil politician in human history.
- WINSTON CHURCHILL in July 1940
- "When I look around to see how we can win the war
I see that there is only one sure path. We have no Continental army which
can defeat the German military power.. Should [Hitler].. not try invasion
[of Britain].. there is one thing that will bring him back and bring him
down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by
very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland. We must be
able to overwhelm them by this means, without which I do not see a way
through. We cannot accept any aim lower than air mastery. When can it be
obtained?" [Extract from Winston S Churchill The Second World
War (Volume 2 Their Finest Hour Appendix A), Memo from Prime
Minister to Minister of Aircraft Production, 8.July 1940].
- ADOLF HITLER in May 1940
- Britain and France declared war on Germany, not the other
way around. Hitler actually wanted peace with Britain, as the German generals
admitted (Basil Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill 1948,
Pan Books 1983) with regard to the so-called Halt Order of 24 May 1940
at Dunkirk, where Hitler had the opportunity to capture the entire British
Army, but chose not to. Liddell Hart, one of Britain's most respected military
historians, quotes the German General von Blumentritt with regard to this
- "He (Hitler) then astonished us by speaking with
admiration of the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence, and
of the civilization that Britain had brought into the world. He remarked,
with a shrug of the shoulders, that the creation of its Empire had been
achieved by means that were often harsh, but 'where there is planing, there
are shavings flying'. He compared the British Empire with the Catholic
Church saying they were both essential elements of stability in the
world. He said that all he wanted from Britain was that she should acknowledge
Germany's position on the Continent. The return of Germany's colonies would
be desirable but not essential, and he would even offer to support Britain
with troops if she should be involved in difficulties anywhere.."
- According to Liddell Hart, "At the time we believed
that the repulse of the Luftwaffe in the 'Battle over Britain' had saved
her. That is only part of the explanation, the last part of it. The original
cause, which goes much deeper, is that Hitler did not want to conquer
England. He took little interest in the invasion preparations, and for
weeks did nothing to spur them on; then, after a brief impulse to invade,
he veered around again and suspended the preparations. He was preparing,
instead, to invade Russia" (p140).
- David Irving in the foreword to his book The Warpath (1978)
refers to "the discovery.. that at no time did this man (Hitler) pose
or intend a real threat to Britain or the Empire."
- A major awkwardness concerning Churchill's conduct of
the war lies in the secret British policy of so-called 'area bombing',
adopted early in 1942 and outlined by (Lord) CP Snow in the 1960 Godkin
Lectures at Harvard University (published in his book Science and
Government, Oxford University Press 1961). Snow had an insider's view
of the development of this policy. He outlines how the sinister Professor
FA Lindemann (later to become Lord Cherwell, Churchill's chief scientific
adviser), persuaded the British Cabinet to adopt the policy of directing
bombing campaigns primarily against German working-class housing. 'Middle-class
houses have too much space around them, and so are bound to waste bombs;
factories and "military objectives" had long since been forgotten,
except in official bulletins, since they were much too difficult to find
and hit' (p 48). Snow asks, 'What will people of the future think of us?
Will they say.. we were wolves with the minds of men? Will they think that
we had resigned our humanity? They will have the right.' (p 49). Fortunately,
Snow needn't have worried. There have been and remain such powerful vested
interests committed to preserving the myths of World War II that even the
history departments of universities have in most cases assisted with the
- The respected British military historian Martin Middlebrook
says, 'In some ways, Area Bombing was a three-year period of deceit practiced
upon the British public and on world opinion. It was felt to be necessary
that the exact nature of R.A.F. bombing should not be revealed. It could
not be concealed that German cities were being hit hard, and that residential
areas in those cities were receiving many of the bombs, but the impression
was usually given that industry was the main target and that any bombing
of workers' housing areas was an unavoidable necessity. Charges of 'indiscriminate
bombing' were consistently denied.. The deceit lay in the concealment of
the fact that the areas being most heavily bombed were nearly always either
city centres or densely populated residential areas, which rarely contained
any industry.. The vital links in the dissemination of this view were the
press and the radio upon which the public depended for all wartime news..
Neutral reports [of the campaign against the residential areas of the German
city of Hamburg, for example] that 20,000 or 30,000 people had been killed
were dismissed as 'Nazi-inspired stories'.. The military historian Sir
Basil Liddell Hart [after the Thousand Bomber Raid on Cologne with its
claim of so many acres of city destroyed] wrote: "It will be ironical
if the defenders of civilization depend for victory upon the most barbaric
and unskilled way of winning a war that the modern world has seen."
' (Middlebrook, The Battle of Hamburg (1980) pp 343-4]. In his
foreword, Middlebrook notes 'I am likely to be criticized.. for choosing
a series of raids which produced such extremes of horror on the ground.
But I must point out that a large proportion of the raids carried out by
R.A.F. Bomber Command in the Second World War were devoted to this type
of bombing. What happened at Hamburg was when Bomber Command 'got everything
right' (p 12). In reality many of these raids consisted of initial attacks
using high explosive bombs to break up the buildings, followed with attacks
using thousands of incendiary bombs to set alight all the fabrics, furnishing
and upholstery exposed by the explosives. In this way firestorms were created
under the right conditions which burned tens of thousands of people alive,
especially the women and children at home while the men were at the front.
- Churchill himself ordered the firebomb raid on the city
of Dresden (David Irving The Destruction of Dresden (1966) pp.
96-100), Alexander McKee Dresden 1945 (1982) p 300, 306, 310)
in the last months of the war, producing the most spectacular deliberate
firestorm in the history of Europe. This action was probably the major
war crime committed in Europe Dresden was not in any way a military
target, and was packed with refugees fleeing the advancing Russians, mainly
women and children and the elderly who were unfit to fight. It is therefore
understandable that it has been necessary to distract attention away from
this viciously and appallingly barbaric act by fabricating war crimes afterwards
and attributing them to the other side, a procedure that is finally starting
to come unstuck. The Bush-Blair attack on Iraq at the behest of Zionists
in the US administration such as Paul Wolfowitz has demonstrated before
a world audience the lies that can be used to start wars, and in fact usually
do. The transparency and scale of Bush Administration lies, together with
the support given to the lies by a diverse array of other governments,
is producing a revulsion for professional politicians and their handlers
and spin doctors and sponsors.
- While Churchill has been given titles such as "the
greatest Englishman who ever lived', this does not stand up to any scrutiny.
While he had unquestioned gifts of oratory - he may have been one of the
most bombastic Englishmen who ever lived. His ego was awesome. At a time
when he and his wife were short of finance:
- "Clemmie (Mrs Churchill).. told me that Winston
was most extravagant about his underclothes. They were made of very finely
woven silk (pale pink) and came from the Army & Navy Stores and cost
the eyes out of the head. This year according to her calculations he spent
something like eighty pounds on them. When I taxed him with this curious
form of self-indulgence he replied: 'It is essential to my well-being.
I have a very delicate and sensitive cuticle which demands the finest covering.
Look at the texture of my cuticle - feel it (uncovering his forearm by
rolling up his sleeve). I have a cuticle without blemish - except on one
small portion of my anatomy where I sacrificed a piece of skin to accommodate
a wounded brother-officer on my way back from the Sudan campaign'."
- [quoted from Paul Johnson, The Oxford Book of Political Anecdotes (1989)
- Churchill was also quoted as having the belief that 'in
wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard
of lies.' Just what truth was he referring to - the British guarantee to
Poland, which turned out not to apply to FD Roosevelt's Yalta-agreed Communist
control of Poland, for instance?