The May 1996 issue offers another in the series of reflective articles addressed to veterans by Douglas Fisher, in which he tries to explain why Canadians take “such little pride in the mighty achievements of WW II,” comparatively less than their American or British counterparts. He offers a number of reasons, including the tendency of postwar writers and producers to focus on “what had gone wrong, not on what had gone well.”Fisher continues, “In this litany of agony and injustice were the capture of Hong Kong, the removal of the Japanese and Japanese Canadians from the British Columbia coast, the Dieppe raid, the western Atlantic convoy troubles, and the brutal bombing of German cities and civilians by the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force…a catalogue of Canadian disasters and brutalities.

It has become evident that the critics of Bomber Command are winning the struggle to influence the collective memory of Canadians. When The Valour And The Horror was shown on television, most veterans knew that–whatever else was right or wrong about the series–what was missing was any understanding of the context of events. “It wasn’t like that,” RCAF veterans insisted. “We were not dupes or victims, we knew what we were bombing. We understood the odds of surviving a tour, and we knew what we were fighting for.”

The absence of any appreciation of what the war was about could be understood, if not forgiven, in a television series. But the publication in 1994 of the third volume of the RCAF’s official history, The Crucible Of War 1939-1945, presented the public–and especially serious students of the war years–with a version of events remarkably similar to the one portrayed on television.

Written by Brereton Greenhous, Stephen Harris, William Johnston and William Rawling, the book is well-researched and free of the factual errors that marred the television shows. It contains some highly original, well-argued sections on the technical development of Bomber Command’s navigation aids and the German countermeasures. The authors also provide examples of RCAF operational failures and achievements in a reasonably balanced manner, but the book removes the bomber offensive from the context of war and presents it as a brutal, costly and largely ineffective campaign lacking purpose or justification. It is not surprising that many Canadians view it in this light.

The authors of The Crucible Of War would no doubt argue that their task was to write an operational history of the RCAF, not to study the larger issues of the war. This approach to military history is all too common, and is largely responsible for the discipline’s poor reputation in Canadian universities. Military historians are far too ready to focus on operational detail, weapons systems and the exploits of individuals without attempting to attach broader meaning to what they are studying. War becomes a closed system within such a historiography, and only those with specialized interests find satisfaction in such a pursuit.

The historian’s primary task is to try to determine what happened in the past as thoroughly as possible. To do this he or she must, in the words of R.G. Collingwood, “rethink the thoughts behind past actions.” This is a long, complex process, but when applied to Bomber Command it requires a clear understanding of the ideas, values and state of knowledge of those who made the crucial decisions and those who carried them out. It also means the historian must recognize that, while hindsight can help to raise questions about the past, intellectual honesty requires that we avoid using it to judge the actions of those who came before.

As the British–but not the Canadian–official history makes clear, historians must not fall into the error of “expecting commanders and their staffs to know facts which the historian has found out but which could not be known or inferred from information available when the war was in progress.” For example, it is clearly impossible to understand the first night offensive against German cities in the winter of 1940-41 without assessing the impact of the Blitz on public and parliamentary opinion in Britain and Canada. By the spring of 1941, 44,000 British civilians had died and more than 86,000 more were seriously injured. Almost a quarter of a million homes had been destroyed.

Yet this book’s authors barely mention the Blitz. They argue “there was also an emotional element to policy-making, tied to public demands and fed by the media, that the RAF must respond in kind to the bombing of British cities.” They suggest the attack on Coventry provided the “excuse” for an RAF offensive in enemy territory against German civilians.

Whether Coventry was an excuse or a significant cause of the shift in British strategy is, of course, a matter of opinion. What is not in dispute is the failure of the RAF-RCAF night bombing offensive in 1940-41. Doubts about the accuracy and effectiveness of bombing were expressed by many observers before the Butt report of August 1941 offered irrefutable evidence that of all aircraft recorded as having attacked their targets, only one-third got within five miles of them and, over the Ruhr, only one in 10 got within five miles with moonlight, or one in 15 without.

The cabinet’s response to the devastating news was immediate, and probably inevitable. The situation on the Russian front, where the Germans were encircling Kiev and threatening Moscow and Leningrad, filled the newspapers and dominated discussion at all levels. With the Royal Navy and its Canadian partner stretched to breaking point in the North Atlantic and the Commonwealth armies struggling to acquire modern weapons and an appropriate battle doctrine, the air force–especially Bomber Command–was the only force available to carry the war to the enemy, providing assistance to Russia and beginning the process of wearing down Germany.

Nations make war as they can, not as they might wish to–and in the fall of 1941 there was broad consensus on the need to improve night bombing through increased training, technical development of navigation aids, a program to construct thousands of the new four-engined bombers and a further expansion of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP).

No other decision was possible at that time. Churchill’s oft-quoted reply to Bomber Command’s request for 4,000 heavy bombers “which could break Germany in six months” must not be confused with the government’s decision. Churchill told Sir Charles Portal that he doubted whether bombing by itself would be a “decisive” factor in the war, but his government authorized a construction program that came to absorb 50 per cent of the British war effort and, through the BCATP, a large part of Canada’s contribution.

Thus began a new phase of “the never-ending struggle to circumvent the law that we cannot see in the dark.” The struggle took the form of intensive efforts to develop electronic navigation aids while a targeting policy, known to the world as area bombing, was implemented in the hope of maximizing the destruction inflicted on Germany.

In March 1942, high loss rates and further evidence of navigation and bombing errors led the chiefs of staff to order a review of air strategy. The Joint Intelligence Committee reported it was unable to estimate the impact of bombing on Germany and suggested a study of the effects of Luftwaffe bombing of British cities. This sparked the famous debate between Churchill’s scientific adviser, ‘The Prof’ Lord Cherwell, and Sir Henry Tizard over the weight of bombs required to destroy the homes of German workers. The controversy led the cabinet to ask Mr. Justice Singleton to estimate “what results we are likely to achieve from continuing our air attacks on Germany at the greatest possible strength for periods of six, 12 and 18 months.”

The Singleton Report, the political and strategic basis of the offensive carried out under the leadership of Sir Arthur Harris, is barely mentioned in the Canadian official history, but is of vital importance to understanding the broad political and public support for the bombing offensive. Throughout 1942 demands for a ‘Second Front’ dominated much of the debate over grand strategy. A second front in France was quite impossible, but Singleton believed a stepped-up bombing offensive might not only affect German industry but would force the Germans to divert fighter aircraft to defensive activities and “keep large numbers of men and guns on anti-aircraft work and searchlights and a very large number on air raid precautions.”

In his conclusion, Singleton wrote: “I do not think it (the bombing offensive) ought to be regarded as of itself sufficient to win the war or to produce decisive results; the area is too vast for the effort we can put forth: on the other hand, if Germany does not achieve great success on land before the winter it may well turn out to have a decisive effect, and in the meantime, if carried out on the lines suggested, it must impede Germany and help Russia. If Germany succeeds in her attack on Russia there will be little apparent gain from our bombing policy in six months’ time, but the drain on Germany will be present all the time: and if Russia stands it will remain a powerful weapon on our hands. It is impossible to say what its effect will be in 12 or 18 months without considering the position of Russia. If Russia can hold Germany on land I doubt whether Germany will stand 12 or 18 months’ continuous, intensified and increased bombing, affecting, as it must, her war production, her power of resistance, her industries and her will to resist (by which I mean morale).”

The Commonwealth aircrew who risked their lives to attack the Third Reich in 1942-43 opened the true ‘Second Front,’ engaging German forces desperately needed on the Eastern Front. It is crucial that this contribution to victory be recognized. Even The Crucible Of War authors recognize this, noting the Germans “used 500,000 to 800,000 workers to repair bomb damage and organize the dispersal of vital industries…while the Flak arm required some 900,000 men in 1943….” Thanks to the Commonwealth airmen, German aircraft and 88-mm guns were also kept away from Russia to defend the Reich.

These men who brought the war directly to the heart of Germany may not have won the war by themselves, as the bomber enthusiasts promised, but it is difficult to imagine how we could have won the war without them.

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine, on September 1st 1996.