Category Archives: Bombing

Flying Among Heroes by Norman Franks and Simon Muggleton

With the Bomber Command Memorial in London only having been unveiled a couple of days ago, I guess it is pretty fitting to be reviewing the story of a Second World War Bomber pilot. I’ve always been in awe of the job that these very brave young men did, and it’s always interesting to hear of their stories.

This book is the story of a Second World War RAF aviator, Squadron Leader Tom Cooke DFC AFC DFM AE. Joining the RAF as an 18 year old in 1939, he graduated to flying bombers. Cooke won the DFM as a Sergeant Pilot flying Whitlet Bombers, and was later commissioned as an officer. He later served tours flying Wellington’s and Stirlings. He was awarded the DFC and AFC. In between tours with Bomber Command Squadrons he also served as an instructor in Operational Conversion Units, teaching new pilots. In this capacity he took part in the famous thousand Bomber raids on Cologne and Essen, when Bomber Harris combed out the OCU’s in order to put up as many Bombers as possible.

He returned to operations flying Halifax Bombers, but this time in a slightly unorthdox manners – namely, Special Duties, dropping special agents behind the lines in occupied Europe. On his twelfth mission he was shot down over France, and managed to evade his way back over the Pyrenees, and home to Britain via Gibraltar. Having been in contact with the French Resistance he was not allowed to fly operationally over Europe again, as he knew too much about vulnerable contacts in occupied territory. Instead, after ‘escape leave’ he was transferred to South East Asia and Burma. After leaving the RAF in 1946 he re-enlisted, finally reaching the rank of Squadron Leader, and after finally leaving the service worked as a commerical airline pilot.

It’s quite possible to do a lot of research piecing together the career of RAF Bomber Crew. If the man’s log book survives then that’s a real bonus. Also, Squadron records state the aircraft that flew on specific missions, who exactly was on board, what bomb load they carried, when they took off and landed, and a brief report of their experiences. Some crewmembers, in particular gunners, filled out air combat reports when they encountered enemy fighters.

In an interesting way, this book is quite similar to some of the research I have done on Portsmouth RAF Bomber Crew, using the same sources. Only here, Franks and Muggleton were able to call on some oral history interviews in the Imperial War Museum, with not only Cooke but also some of his crew. My one criticism would be that the text does not perhaps flow as well as it could. The authors have chosen to include stories about other men, aircraft and raids, presumably to add context. Whilst these additions do this, they do have the side effect of breaking up the narrative of Cooke’s story. I would probably rather have read Cooke’s story, as there are plenty of good books on the Bomber Offensive in general. None the less, it is still very much an interesting and gripping read.

Flying Among Heroes is published by The History Press

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Bomber Command Memorial unveiled

Avro Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memori...

Avro Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at Royal International Air Tattoo 2005. . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, unveiled the new memorial to the RAF’s Bomber Command of World War Two. The memorial, in London’s Green Park, contains a centrepiece statue of Bomber crewmembers, surrounded by a Portland Stone structure. Part of the roof is constructed from metal rescued from a crashed Halifax Bomber, recovered in Belgium.

The ceremony was attended by many veterans of Bomber Command, who of course are now well  into their 80′s and 90′s. The event was also marked by an RAF Flypast, including the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight‘s Lancaster Bomber – the only surviving flying Lancaster in Britain – dropping thousands of Poppies.

Several years ago I wrote about the injustices that Bomber Command and its veterans have suffered since the end of the Second World War. While the few of the Battle of Britain have been feted, the history of the many of Bomber Command has been largely hushed up out of political expediency.

After the end of the war, the fear of images of wrecked german cities such as Dresden led the authorities – Winston Churchill among them – to unofficially cover-up the role of Bomber Command during the Second World War. Yet more than 55,000 men of Bomber Command were killed on operations – thats around half of all who flew in Bombers. Bomber Command suffered higher losses than any other comparable Command in the British armed forces during the whole war. And while the Battle of Britain raged for several months during the summer and early Autumn of 1940, Bombing raids on Germany and occupied Europe took place from September 1939 until April 1945, only weeks before the end of the war.

I’ve always felt very strongly about the perils of post-modernist history. In a sense, those of us who did not live through the traumatic period 1939 to 1945 should not be able to understand completely what it was like for young men to go up into the skies of Europe night after night as they did. We can’t. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at least try to form a grasp on what they experienced. And even more so, we shouldn’t try and airbrush parts of history just because they seem slightly unpalatable in the present – we are robbing future generations of their heritage.

I suppose a modern comparison would be the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland. As Ken Wharton‘s books have so eloquently shown us, the role of the British squaddie was a thankless task. Cast into a no-win situation, the British Army was effectively a sitting target for the various bands of terrorists and lawless thugs in the province. Although the British Army in Northern Ireland was often called an occupying force by the nationalist communities, it is usually conveniently forgotten that the Army was deployed to keep the pease after loyalists began targeting nationalists. No violence, no Army.

Yet as soon as the peace process gathered momentum, the role of the Army became marginalised. Instead, current affairs in Northern Ireland revolve around former hard-liners such as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, people who, in their own ways, did much to whip up and perpetuate the firestorm that the Army found itself in. Remembering he role of the Army would of course be embarassing to an ex IRA commander turned politician, so for the present, at least, it is consigned to the shadows.

It’s marvellous to see such a fine memorial being unveiled to the thousands of young men of Bomber Command, and I’m sure that it will become a well-known landmark in London.

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Mosquito Menacing the Reich: Combat Action in the Twin-Engine Wooden Wonder of World War II by Martin W. Bowman

I must confess I’ve always known OF the De Havilland Mosquito – apart from the fact that it was constructed from almost entirely from wood. But equally, I’ve never known very much about what it accomplished during the war. This book is an ideal remedy for what I suspect is a common affliction for those of us who know all about Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters but have a knowledge gap when it comes to other Second World War aircraft types!

The Mosquito was originally conceived as a Medium Bomber, but ended up serving a number of roles with the RAF, and indeed with the USAAF as well. With its speed and high operating altitude, it served as a medium bomber, a precision strike aircraft, a pathfinder and marker, an anti-shipping strike platform, in North West Europe and in South East Asia. That it was also used by the Americans speaks volumes of its reputation.

For much of its service, only the Luftwaffe’s new jets could outperform it, speed wise. It had a higher operational ceiling than most other aircraft, and indeed German flak, so could quite often avoid danger. It proved to be ideal for precision bombing, where accuracy was needed that could not be obtained by Heavy Bombers. Leonard Cheshire VC used a Mosquito to perfect precision bombing of railway yards in the run up to D-Day, and Mosquitos were also used against the Tirpitz. Perhaps the Mosquito’s most famous raids were those on German Headquarters in The Hague, Aarhus and Oslo. Popular consesus might think that precision bombing came with Tomahawk cruise missiles, but the Mosquito’s effectiveness came a clear 40 odd years before.

Mosquitos were also often used in daylight, and for diversionary raids at night when Bomber Command’s main force was attacking elsewhere. They also famously raided Berlin night after night, just as much for the nuisance value as anything else. Hermann Goring was apparently furious that a Mosquito raid knocked out a radio station, thus putting one of his speeches off air.

At times perhaps there are more personal accounts than there are history, but the story is much better told in the words of the men who were there. With a crew of only two -a pilot and a navigator – they seem to have had to show more initiative and shoulder much more of a responsibility than other aircrew, given the highly specialised roles in which their aircraft were employed, often with a much greater degree of independence than say a Bomber crew with the main force.

This is a brilliant book my Martin Bowman. It’s choc full of accounts from men who flew and navigated the Mosquito. I enjoyed reading it immensely. It’s a great tribute to not only a wonderful aircraft – which deserves a more prominent place in aviation history – but also the incredibly brave men who flew it. It’s such a shame that there aren’t any surviving in airworthy fashion – I’m sure it would be quite a sight.

Mosquito: Menacing the Reich is published by Pen and Sword

 

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Missing Believed Killed: Casualty Policy and the Missing Research Enquiry Service 1939-1952 by Stuart Hadaway

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has ever shed such light on something that I have worked on in the past. I’ve written about plenty of men – particularly airmen – who were lost during the Second World War – and reading about the work of the Missing Research Enquiry Service has helped me gain a much better understanding of the process involved in tracing missing men during and after the war. I guess it’s one of those things that we don’t tend to think about too much, but how did we get from the height of the war, with thousands of men being lost in action – many of fate unknown – to the neatly-kept Commonwealth War Cemeteries and Memorials to the Missing of today?

As the war was ongoing, the RAF maintained a Casualty Branch that dealt with information about men lost - either killed, taken prisoner or missing – over enemy territory. This involved collating intelligence – in some cases from the enemy via the Red Cross – to maintain personnel records, and inform next of kin. Many bereaved relatives of course received a terse Government Service telegram. But it is the fate of those thousands of missing airmen that concerns us most in this book. Early in the war it was recognised that the RAF’s apparatus for tracing missing airmen was inadequate – hence the birth of the Missing Research Section in 1941. Collecting and collating intelligence reports from a variety of sources, this information provided a basis for post-war inquiries.

With the liberation of Europe ongoing, in December 1944 the MRS was expanded into the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, and small teams were sent to France and then the rest of Europe to gradually seek the missing men. Initially the MRES consisted of only 14 men, which was soon found to be nowhere near enough. With 42,000 men missing in Europe alone, this was quite some task.

One thing that really struck me is how few people were working in this field, and dealing with so many cases. And it was extensive work – travelling, working on intelligence, talking to locals, and being present at exhumations. It certainly wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. Thousands of men were lost over thousands of square miles of Europe, let alone other continents such as South East Asia, which posed problems all of its own.

The manner in which some men were identified is quite intriguing. For the most part, RAF identity discs perished quickly in soil, so identification was left to items such as uniforms, rings, or even paperwork that had survived stuffed in pockets. It was detective work of the highest order, which in some respects a historian of war casualties can both sympathise with and admire.

I think especially of men such as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy DFC and Flight Sergeant Francis Compton DFM, men who were shot down over occupied Europe and must have gone through the process of having their crash sites and burial locations being traced and identified by the MRES.

This is a fascinating book, full of anecdotes. As I mentioned in my introduction, I can’t remember the last time I learnt so much from one book about a subject I knew very little about, and a subject that I should know a lot about at that. It certainly adds to my grasp of researching ‘missing’ airmen, and adds a vital puzzle to understanding their stories.

Missing Believed Killed is published by Pen and Sword

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The blitz re-examined

Burned-out buildings in Hamburg - picture poss...

Burned-out buildings in Hamburg (Image via Wikipedia)

As its recently passed the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz, there has been plenty in the news recently about people’s memories of the start of the bombing.

We hear about victors justice – about how the victors in any war are able to pronounce on rights and wrongs, and to dispense justice accordingly. It could be argued too that victors also have a near monopoly on the judgement of history. The outcome of any long process is bound to frame people’s perceptions when looking back. This can increase over time, especially when concerning something so emotive as a war, and even more so with a war where so much was at stake.

We hear plenty about ‘Blitz spirit’, in a similar fashion to ‘Dunkirk spirit‘. And indeed there is a certain stoicism in the British psyche. Look at Wellington’s thin red line at Waterloo, or the South Wales Borderers at Rorke’s Drift. Gandalf’s ‘you shall not pass’ could have been inspired by British military history. And, indeed, the British people did show a remarkable fortitude in some very testing circumstances in 1940 and 1941, when the Bombing was at its height. But one cannot help but feel that over the years the Blitz has been built up into part of the national spirit, out of all proportion to the actual historical events that took place 70 years ago. Britain is by no means the only country to build an event up out of all recognition (ie, the Alamo). But I feel that by embellising something as remarkable as the Blitz, you are taking away from what was already quite some story in its own right. The average person with a passing interest in the social history of wartime Britain is more than likely to buy into the myths than the reality, which is a pity.

I’m also baffled as to why the Blitz is remembered almost solely as a London event. Other parts of the country were hit too. London did receive a large number of raids and a high tonnage of bombs, but as the country’s capital and an important port in its own right, it was always going to be a target. But in 1940 it was still a huge city, and the attacks were concentrated largely in the centre. London was the home of the Government, and the high commands of the armed forces. Yet although it was an important port and a centre of large population, its importance was more symbolic than anything else. Whereas if we look at other cities, the danger was more stark – Coventry with its motor works and Sheffield and her steel works, for example.

The example of Portsmouth during the Blitz is useful to consider. Geographically a very small island city, being on the coast it was much easier for the Luftwaffe to locate and target. Population density was also very high, which no doubt reflected in casualty rates. A Bomb dropped over Portsmouth was almost certainly more likely to cause heavy casualties, as it had more chance of hitting a built up area than in a more spread-out city. Of course the Naval Dockyard was a prime target, and large housing areas such as Portsea, Buckland and Landport were virtually next door to the Dockyard’s walls. If the Luftwaffe had been targetting the Dockyard they were seriously at risk. According to Andrew Whitmarsh’s ‘Portsmouth At War’, however, the Knickebein radar beams intersected over Southsea Common, which would suggest, with the low level of accuracy that the Luftwaffe was capable of early in the war, that they were content to area bomb the city with a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs.

John Stedman’s Portsmouth Paper ‘Destruction and Reconstruction’ charts Portsmouth’s experience during the bombing of the war years, and in particular its effect on the people and the fabric of the city. Between July 1940 (the first raid) and July 1944 (the last V1rocket) 1,320 high explosive bombs, 38 parachute mines and 38,000 incendiaries were dropped on Portsmouth. Two V1′s also fell on Pompey. 930 civilians were killed, 1,216 were injured enough to be admitted to hospital, and 1,621 were injured less seriously. 6,625 properties were destroyed, and 80,000 damaged. This in a city of 200,000 people and 70,000 properties. Therefore some properties must have been damaged more than once. The damage was therefore more against property than person, although morale seems to have held up reasonably well. The most destructive individual raid came on 10 January 1941, when 300 planes dropped 25,000 incendiaries.  172 people were killed, and 430 injured.

No doubt these experiences were harrowing for the people of Portsmouth – in particular in a close-knit city. Yet to put these into perspective, when the Allied Air Forces began bombing Germany in earnest later in the war, Bomber Harris launched a number of 1,000 bomber raids. And Allied four-engine bombers, much larger than any planes the Luftwaffe had, could drop a much higher payload. With developments in navigation, and the use of pathfinders, raids generally hit the cities they were targetting. Lets take the example of Duisburg, Portsmouth’s twin city in Germany. The Duisburgers suffered 229 bombing raids. The first serious raid came on 12 May when 577 RAF bombers dropped 1,559 tons of bombs. The old town was destoyed and 96,000 people were made homeless. The during Operation Hurricane in 19 October 1944 967 bombers dropped 3,574 tons of high explosive and 820 tons of incendiaries. Then in a raid later the same night a further 4,040 tons of HE were dropped, and 500 tons of incendiaries. Although there are no statistics for Duisburg Casualties, it is estimated that up to 80% of the city was destroyed.

And it wasn’t just Duisburg. The Battle of Berlin between November 1943 and March 1944 killed 4,000 Berliners, injured 10,000 and made 450,000 homeless. The operation Gomorrah raids on Hamburg in July 1943 used successive waves of over 700 heavy Bombers, dropping over 9,000 tons of Bombs. In the huge firestorm an estimated 50,000 people were killed. And the most infamous raid on Germany, that on Dresden in February 1945, saw 1,300 bombers drop 3,900 tons. The casualty rate is disputed, but it is estimated that somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000 people perished.

The most infamous raid on Britain hit Coventry on 14 November 1940. 515 German Bombers dropped 500 tons of high explosive, and 36,000 incendiary bombs. Around 600 people were killed, and more than 1,000 injured. 4,000 homes were destroyed, and three quarters of the city’s industry. As harrowing as Coventry must have been for those who were caught up in it, the later raids on Hamburg, the Ruhr, Berlin and Dresden took on a whole new level of destruction and intensity. That is by no way to belittle the suffering of those who experience the blitz – much as hearing that someone else has lost two legs does not make you losing only one better, the knowledge that others had it worse was probably not as much comfort as hindsight would have us believe.

But in the modern day, when we have the benefit of numerous studies, statistics, and case studies looking at the various raids and cities, the popular media really should know better than to promulgate the myth of the blitz. Especially when the real picture is still pretty inspiring in its own right. While the good old-east end version of the Blitz would have us believe that everyone stood in the street defiantly shaking their fists at the Luftwaffe, the more realistic version of civilians calmly and quietly seeing the nights out in shelters and trying to go about their business is, to me, distinctly more British than the ‘knees up mother brown’ and jellied eels school of history.

Morale did not crack under sustained bombing, either in Britain or in Germany. Considering the onslaught that the Germans received, its incredible how their civilians kept on living. But then again, living under a brutal dictatorship might have had something to do with it. But for me, the key is, do German’s nowadays have their own version of the ‘blitz spirit’? I’ve never heard of it. And thats in a lot of studying of the Second World War, the bombing campaign, plenty of visits to Germany, including talking to elderly Germans who must have lived through it. The German experience of the Second World War means that their ordeal under bombing has been quietly left alone, whereas our eventual victory has shaped our history of the Blitz.

Is it an ironic coincidence that the 70th anniversary of the start of the blitz came during the same week that Peggy Mitchell left Eastenders?

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