From the June 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
It says a lot about the society we live in that there are so many war memorials. The latest addition to London's collection is to the men of RAF Bomber Command who were killed in operations over enemy territory during the 1939/45 war. Wait a minute; that war ended nearly seventy years ago. What took so long? Well to answer that we might do worse than think about Terry, who does not rate a place on a memorial because, although he flew in many of those operations he avoided being killed in them. Strip away his agonising dependence on alcohol and nicotine and you are left with Terry as a nice guy – gentle, caring, sociable. Restless, mind you, which may have been related to his comfortably-off family whose farming allowed them to plonk him into a posh nearby grammar school, but which infected him with an addiction to fast motor bikes and big, powerful goods lorries. And which then led to his partaking in a cruelly prolonged and deliberate act of mass destruction and killing.
At the time the gossip was that a desire to escape from his family drove Terry, when he was seventeen, to volunteer for Royal Air Force aircrew. Perhaps he dreamed of being a Spitfire pilot - Winston Churchill and The Few and all that. But he was forced to contain such energies when he was classified as a rear gunner - the coldest, most isolated, most dangerous position - in a squadron of Lancaster bombers. This aircraft was regarded as a marvel of speed, operating ceiling and bomb load, useful to the policy of what came to be known as area - saturation - bombing which emphatically laid waste to a number of great German cities and killed between 300,000 and 600,000 civilians. The casualties in Bomber Command exceeded 55,000 killed - one seventh of all British deaths in action during the course of the war. But the Lancaster offered its rear gunner one hopeful feature, for in an emergency he could use a mechanism to spin the turret so that the armoured doors he had entered through opened out at the tail end of the aircraft; he could then escape by tipping himself backwards and operating his parachute.
Coincidence And Cowardice
Terry contributed to the horror, as he recalled, by completing over sixty operations - well above the average or any expectation - which he survived through a combination of beneficial coincidences and cowardice. On one occasion, in terror while under attack, he used the aircraft Elsan and came back to his turret to find it had been blasted away. On another, soon after taking off and while still in English air space, he heard the pilot shouting that he could smell someone smoking; Terry heard only the word “smoke” so without asking any questions he spun his turret and threw himself out into the evening air. He could give a vivid account of dangling calmly from his parachute while watching the bomber continue on its way to the flak and night fighters. The most colourful incident was when the pilot found, after landing safely from an operation, that Terry had fallen asleep - which was strictly forbidden. He ordered the crew to leave Terry there while he took the aircraft out to the dispersal point at the remotest fringes of the airfield. When Terry eventually woke up his first, immediate sensation took in only the absence of vibration and engine noise so again he threw himself out – except that in this case he was only a few feet off the ground and had a long walk back to the airfield buildings, dragging an open parachute with him. In the years after the war he could laugh at these experiences but he could not laugh - could not even talk about - two incidents when his pilot could not get a badly damaged bomber back to base and crashed it into the sea, or another when his squadron came back to be told that they had seriously failed to hit their target and so must return at once to do it as ordered, flying in the daylight formation for which they had no training. Terry's dominating memory of that raid was of spotting another Lancaster alongside, in which he knew a close friend was the rear gunner. As he watched the bomber dissolved into a ball of fire.
By the time Terry was flying on operations, the effectiveness of RAF bombers, in terms of their range, power, technological equipment and bomb load, had been vastly improved. Which must also be said about the disciplined brutality of the raids. Now it was all controlled over the target by a designated Leader Marker who dropped a first flare. This was followed by the Pathfinders dropping aiming marker flares, which the main bomber force then used (once the Marker Leader was satisfied it had all been carried out accurately) to aim their bomb load onto the buildings and people below. And while this was happening the higher levels of command, where the policy was laid down, were involved in a long debate about the most effective – the most damaging and most murderous – method of wielding that terrifying force. Should it be against targets such as aircraft factories, oil plants, railways? Or should it be straightforwardly used against human beings, smashing their homes and all around them and killing as many as possible with the object of undermining their morale and affecting the German war effort. In the process of this argument a number of German cities - Berlin, Cologne, Essen and others - had to pay a savage price. A passionate devotee of the policy of area bombing was then at the head of the RAF Bomber Command - Air Marshall Arthur Harris (known, for obvious reasons, as “Bomber” Harris). Air Marshall Harris persisted in the face of some influential opposition and attempts to sack him: “ . . . in the last eighteen months Bomber Command has virtually destroyed forty-five out of the leading sixty German cities. There are not many industrial centres of population now left intact. Are we going to abandon this vast task, which the German themselves have long admitted to be their worst headache, just as it nears completion?” (1 November 1944). The rancour in this dispute over the most likely way to kill the largest number of the enemy was unusually enduring; Harris had to wait until 1953 for the government to award him a baronetcy, there was no campaign medal for the crews and only recently has there been that permanent memorial.
Against the odds Terry survived into civilian life, got married, had kids and was soon brought up against the fact that being one of yesterday's heroes - one of the glorious Bomber Boys - was not unfailingly attractive to employers. And then there was the ever-present need to control the more erratic features in his personality, which may have been acceptable up in the air above some burning German city but not so useful on the ground in peacetime. In bald terms, he and his family had a hard time of it. He split from his wife and was told that he suffered from an aggressive cancer in his lungs. In his last days in hospital he once blurted out that he “...could fight all those fucking Germans but I can't fight this.” At that time the ravaged cities were being re-built, the places of those who had died were being taken by others. And now, in a most blatant example of ruling-class hypocrisy, there is offered a monument to the men who died while they did their bit to make it happen. All of them were victims of the propaganda which insisted that there was an enemy who needed to be fought to exhaustion when in truth all of their interests were in unity. Terry was there because he accepted those lies – allowed them to wreck what should have been another useful life.