In Bomber County Daniel Swift describes how he started to research the life of his grandfather (also Daniel Swift) who was lost at sea when his the Lancaster bomber he was flying was shot down over Holland. His researches, which included visits to military graves and other memorable sites in western Europe, led him to think about the nature of the Allied bombing campaign over Germany.
Then, being conscious of the poetic legacy of the First World War (Wilfrid Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke etc), he began to wonder why the Second World War did not produce a similar crop of memorable poetry. The result is a book part history, part memoir, part poetic history, but all beautifully written, with a style that befits a teacher of English Literature and a writer for the New York Times Book Review.
The work of Bomber Command in the latter years of Word War II is of course mired in controversy. It seems impossible to speak of what they did with unconditional admiration, despite the fact that the Allies would probably not have won the war without the massive contribution of so many brave young men who flew in Wellingtons and Lancaster to wreak destruction on German industrial centres – and ancient cities. As Winston Churchill said, “the fighters are our salvation, but the bombers are our means of victory”.
So great has been our embarrassment at the scale of the bombing campaign that it is only now that Bomber Command are going to get a memorial in Central London. It takes a book like Bomber County to remind us of the sacrifice made by the airmen who flew dangerous missions over and over again, usually until they eventually failed to return from that fatal run when anti-aircraft fire finally brought them down.
Despite the fact that 55,000 Allied airmen were killed during the five years of the bombing campaign, film of the destruction of German cities shows such devestation and suffering that the achievments of Bomber Command seem to be forever tainted. We should of course remember that the German blitz on London, Coventry, Liverpool, Plymouth and Glasgow preceded the assembly of the lethal force of aeroplanes which hit back at Germany in an attempt to force Hitler to surrender.
Daniel Swift begins his book by describing a visit with his father to the site at which his grandfather’s body was washed up after his Lancaster came down after a raid on Munster.
The beach where the body was washed up is wide and white, with cafés raised on stilts and couples drinking beer in the sand. There are windsurfers, children smacking the waves. He came to land in the middle of a summer holiday, and the mismatch is startling . . . what we are doing is looking for the memory of a corpse. But there is no sense of him here . . .
They find the the bright red lighthouse where the dunes fall into the sea where his grandfather was first buried in a “shambolic, rambling” cemetry, and find a café nearby with faded sepia photos on the walls and tables of children eating plates of chips and drinking Coke. The events they have come to commemorate all seem so very long ago.
The next few chapters are as much reflection as history, although the terrible circumstances of the campaign keep breaking in – the hosing out of bodily remains from gun turrets, the deaths by incineration, and down below, the fire-storms, the melting tarmac which clogged the shoes of people trying to run away, the sheer atrocity of fire falling from the sky. Daniel Swift turns to poets and writers of the time to try to get a feeling of humanity among the machinery of death. We read firstly of Virginia Woolf walking through London on a January afternoon in 1941 (perhaps reminding us that we were bombed first) –
. . . by the Tube to the Temple; and there wandered in the desolate ruins of my old squares; gashed, dismantled; the old red bricks all white powder, something like a builders yard. Grey dirt and broken windows; sightseers; all that completeness ravished and demolished.
She writes in her diary of “going to London to be bombed”, and speaks of the searchlights converging on a spot exactly above her roof – “at any moment a bomb may fall on this very room. Even down in peaceful Sussex, at Monks House, she thinks she hears the guns on the channel ports and remained haunted by the air raids, some friends later blaming the bombers for her eventual suicide.
Daniel Swift moves on to the poetry of Cecil Day Lewis, not quite a “war poet” but with some cogent contributions to the literature of the period –
Speak for the air, your element, you hunters
Who range across the ribbed and shifting sky;
Speak for whatever gives you mastery –
Wings that bear out your purpose, quick responsive
Finger, a fighting heart, a kestrel’s eye.
Daniel reads on through Mervyn Peake, T S Eliot, and American poets Randall Jarrett and John Ciaridi, each making their attempts to make human sense out of the mindless suffering which results from flinging high-explosives through the air to land on unwitting citizens below.
While writing the book, Daniel visited cities which his grandfather bombed and met elderly people who remembered the war years. In Cologne, he meets Herr Boll who tells him that as a schoolboy the early raids provided excitement and spectacle, with competitions among the boys to find the biggest piece of shrapnel. By the time of the Grossangriff, the big raid, thousands were being killed and injured and the city was devastated – “the city administration stopped repairing damaged buildings in December 1943” and a report stated that “money as a medium of exchange is limited to a smaller sector of the economy”. By October 1944 even the firefighters had given up and “Cologne was the perfect ruin, and what survived like the front of the cathedral, stood only to mark its loss”.
Daniel’s grandfather dropped seven 500lb bombs over Munster. Daniel visits the city archives and discovered reports of the pitiful state of the population as the war continued. He goes on to meet an elderly clergyman who became a flak assistant at the age of 15, and he tells Daniel of how he read Dante’s Inferno while waiting for the bombers to arrive. Later he meets two elderly sisters who treat him as a friend and express regret that his grandfather died “too young”.
The sixth chapter of Bomber County, The Sadness of Soldiers, goes into the incredibly painful matter of the morality of the campaign. “Those who want to memorialise the bombers founder here in the last week of May 1943”. The case for justifying the campaign seems to stumble over the classic just-war principles such as “indiscriminate attacks must be avoided” and “loss of civilian life must be proportional to the military advantage anticipated”. But George Orwell, while accepting the terrible nature of the campaign wrote “there is something very distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsiblity for its more obviously barbarous features. War is by its nature barbarous, it is better to admit that”.
To say I enjoyed reading this book would probably sound callous, as though one could read of such things and not be moved, even dismayed. I am glad I read it however, and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of the era or in the morality of war in general. Its strong point is the personal history of Daniel and his family and the valiant way he has tried to find out everything about his grandfather’s part in the war. The book successfully combines biography, history, travelogue, and a more philosophical reflection on the nature of the war and the poetry and prose it inspired. It deserves a significant place in the literature about the period.
The book is beautifully designed and produced. It has a simple white binding with lettering suggestive of a war grave, and then a three-quarter length slip cover containing a sepia reproduction of a Paul Nash painting of bombers over Berlin. It is printed on creamy paper with elegant type-setting.
Title: Bomber County
Author: Daniel Swift
Publication: Hamish Hamilton (5 August 2010), Hardback, 304 pages
The image of Dresden comes from the German Federal Archive