Review: Bomber County – Daniel Swift

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.

No 619 Squadon Avro Lancaster III

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”.

Dresden after the bombing

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
ISBN:  9780241144176

The image of Dresden comes from the German Federal Archive

11 comments to Review: Bomber County – Daniel Swift

  • Orwell, as usual, put his finger on it. Excellent, thoughtful – and thought-provoking – review, Tom. The book sounds very poignant as well as unflinching: not for the faint-hearted, so thanks all the more for your piece.
    My mother sometimes spoke of how beautiful London was before WWII – not to mention those cities devastated by ‘Baedecker raids’.
    A family friend, Jewish refugee from Germany, returned to rescue his fiancée (got out just in time; all other family members on both sides were lost). He joined the RAF, participating in bombing raids upon his former country. Wonder how that must have been for him, & wish I’d asked (but would he have told me?).

  • Tom

    Minnie – thanks for visiting. Its the sheer literary quality of the book which makes it exceptional – very fine writing indeed. I tend towards pacificism but would probably have set it to one side in WW2

  • Lovely review. I have this sitting on my shelf right now waiting to be read, and the cover along is enough to recommend it.

  • Tom

    Lija – thanks for visiting. Its an unusual book as its as much about poetry as it is about the bombing campaign. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it

  • Robert Murdoch

    My uncle, also Robert Murdoch, enlisted in the Australian airforce but served in the RAF 97 Squadron as a rear gunner. He was killed in February 1944 when his Lancaster was shot down over Denmark en route to bomb Berlin.It was his 15th mission. I have located his grave in Denmark and hope to visit soon. I have read several books on the Bomber War and yours has been recommended to me. There is a Lancaster Bomber in the Canberra War Museum that flew over 80 missions and I can almost imagine what it would be like sitting in the rear gunner’s turret watching the search lights, gun flashes and fighter’s flashing past. It must have been terrifying. Look forward to reading your book.

  • Tom

    Robert – thanks for the comments, which I find very interesting. However, I did not write the book, I merely reviewed it. I wish I had written it as its very good and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. I hope you get to visit your uncle’s grave in Denmark – what a tragedy to reach such an untimely end.

  • Daniel, Firstly I live in Australia – but Iam English – I heard you on the ABC this morning – and this interested me.
    One of my mothers cousins was shot down over Madeberg, in January 1945 – his name was Oliver Old – he flew in Lancasters. This was very
    sad – also his brother who was in the Army, was killed in action a week or so before the war ended. I was still at school at the time and I remember thinking how sad it was. I don’t think his parents ever got over it.
    Just thought you might be interested.
    Mary Brown formerly of Hatfielkd Peverel, Essex.England

  • Tom

    Mary – thanks for visiting. I am not the author of the book just the reviewer. No doubt the author will read your comment sometims.

  • Elva Kielly

    I too heard the interview with Daniel on ABC. It took my interest because he spoke of a picture and a story of wolves, and of escaping and being saved by a rifleman. He said it was his Grandfathers story. We just happen to have a woven rug of a scene as Daniel described it. We wondered what story lay behind this rug/mat and now I can adopt Daniels story.

  • Tom

    Elva – thanks for visiting. Interesting that the story has some relevance to you – who’d have thought that there would have been another rug much the same

  • Pam Merrigan

    I recently purchased and read Daniel Swift’s Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of WW2 on the strength of its title and, an interview I heard Swift give on the ABC (Sydney, Aust), probably the same one as your previous respondent. I began reading this book with great enthusiasm but by the end I found myself feeling rather angry.
    I have three main issues with this book:

    I find the title, Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of WW2 to be opportunistic, misleading to say the least and, in the extreme dishonest. Swift jumped on the name when he went to the 57 Sqn reunion at East Kirkby and obviously thought it would make a good title for his book for whatever reasons. The book however, if you dissect it, has less to do with “Bomber County and lost airmen”. It is rather, a treatise on the poetry of WW2 and the morality of the bombing campaign. Swift of course is entitled to discuss these topics but he cloaks them in his grandfather’s story which, as I got further into the book seemed more an excuse for the book and, while it is craftily woven into the fabric of his narrative the focus is far from what the title promises.

    The other thing I began to pick up on as I read was the overall tone of the work which I thought was subtly demeaning towards the airmen who served in Bomber Command and especially those who died.
    He refers to the airmen as “bombers”, in a way that totally dehumanises them, as if they are like the machines in which they flew and are in some way inseparable from them. Then, on p.183 he says:
    “He (my grandfather) was lost, neatly, at just the right time, and so I could tell the story of a hero: a pilot of the early bombing, justified and absent from the atrocities of later history. He was not in Hamburg or at Dresden….”
    This demonises all those airmen who came after.

    Swift got a lot of interesting stories from the veterans when he and his father first attended the 57 Sqn reunion. These are great stories when they surface through the book, stories about the day to day lives of these extraordinary men who flew out night after night, in the Lancasters. But, there is a disparaging undercurrent throughout. Quote:
    “The old bombers wear blue blazers, with rows of medals on their left breast pocket…. Each time we ask, were you at Feltwell in 1941, and each time there is a pause before they answer, no. These are survivors, and they joined later, in ’43 and ’44 and so their
    stories are of the last raids of the war, when Berlin was lit with fire.”
    It was one of these veterans who paid for Swift to do the taxi run in Just Jane so he could experience what it was like to be inside a Landcaster but later, in the last paragraph of chapter six he says:
    “I returned to the 57 Squadron reunion at East Kirkby……. I wanted to see the
    bombers together again, and to see who my grandfather might have become, had he grown old…. As before, the women had fixed hair and brooches in the shape of Lancasters, and the men in blue blazers drank more. As before, my father and I looked around the room and thought, no, he wouldn’t have been like that at all.”

    Considering that the stories from these men were some of the best parts of Swift’s book, to describe them in this way is, to say the least rather undignified. And, when Swift discusses the book or gives readings these stories are at the forefront not so much the poetry and especially the morality issues.

    The dissertation on poetry, which makes up the bulk of Swift’s work is ponderous in my view and far from effective (James Purdon, The Observer, Sunday 29 August 2010 notes this in his review). In terms of Swift’s discussion of the morality of the bombing campaign, a contentious issue as you yourself mentioned Tom, my problem here is not in the discussion of it but in the lack of balance when talking about the bombing in UK as against the bombing in Germany and the use of highly emotive references when discussing the latter quote:
    “from 45,000 dead in Hamburg to Berlin in early February 1945…. and …. British and American planes burned down Dresden, killing 60,000″.

    I was disappointed in this book. Swift, I’m sure feels he achieved what he set out to do and in the accademic world it a matter of “publish or perish”. I have since found that this book was published in the US under the title Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War which, given the nature of the book might have been a more appropriate title all round. My uncle was one who gave his life in Bomber Command in 1945 and rather than think, “It takes a book like Bomber County to remind us of the sacrifice made by the airmen” it is as if someone has walked on his grave.

    Somebody walked on my grave.
    I dreamed I was an airman
    Lying in the soft earth of France,
    And somebody walked on my grave.

    With regards
    Pam Merrigan

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