Bomber County

Daniel Swift. Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2010.

This book is a very different way to approach the Allied bomber offensives of the Second World War. It is not a history of strategic bombing policy, nor is it a history of the machines used to carry it out, of the men who flew them, or the damage they did. While it is well-researched and has elements of all of these types of history, Bomber County is not really a history at all, but an account of a personal quest to understand the life and death of one airman, and more originally a plea for recognising the importance of the genre of bomber poetry.

One of Daniel Swift's grandfathers was the great Australian war correspondent Alan Moorehead, who after the war lived in a villa in Tuscany and received literary visitors of the calibre of Hemingway. But it's his other grandfather who concerns him here, Squadron Leader James Swift, a Lancaster pilot in the Pathfinders who was shot down over the North Sea in 1943. His body washed ashore on the Dutch coast and was buried by the German occupation forces with full military honours -- despite the fact that he was on his way to rain bombs down on the city of M√ľnster in their homeland. Swift starts here, and then jumps back to try and work out how his grandfather got to this point, reading his letters, service record, squadron diaries and in fact anything relevant he can lay his hands on. He makes effective use, for example, of an account by one of his grandfather's fellow trainee pilots, who passed through a training camp in Lancashire at exactly the same time. Swift also talks to surviving RAF veterans, most memorably a lively 85-year-old WAAF driver named Alma, who gives him (and his readers) a sense of the urgency of the life led by these young people on a bomber base, constantly in the presence of death. Their need now for their war to be remembered and acknowledged is almost as touching. There are many gaps in the story he is able to tell of his grandfather, but while he sometimes speculates Swift is always candid about what he can and can't know, always grounding his text in the primary sources.

This is probably to be expected, since Swift is a scholar, a professor of English at an American college. Which leads to the second, and I think it is fair to say more substantial, thread in his book: the poetry of bombing. He starts here by noting the almost universally-held opinion that where the First World War produced great poetry, the Second did not. (Intriguingly, Swift shows that this idea surfaced among poets and critics as early as the winter of 1939-40, hardly long enough to give the new war a chance.) At first glance this seems incontestable. Great War poetry is practically a genre all to itself, one which many people encounter in school. But I suspect far fewer people could come up with the name of a major poet whose work is in some sense defined by the Second World War as that of Owen or Gurney, say, is by the First. (I couldn't have, for what it's worth.)

In Bomber County Swift makes a good case that this is all wrong. Great poetry did come out of the Second World War, out of the bombing war, to be specific. He argues that (38):

Bombing was to the Second World War what the trenches were to the First: a shocking and new form of warfare, wretched and unexpected, and carried out at a terrible scale of loss. Just as the trenches produced the most remarkable poetry of the First World War, so too did the bombing campaigns foster a haunting set of poems during the Second. But this is no simple process, for they are not equivalent geographies. Bombing, if we take the whole of it, is always double. It was a kind of war conducted in the cities and the planes, shared between the bombers and the bombed, and so it asks for a split reckoning, a thinking in two places.

Except for the word 'unexpected' this seems right to me.

As for the poets themselves, there were those who were already established, or were establishing themselves, when the war began: Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden. These men were all affected by the air war, and wrote poems such as Eliot's 'Little Gidding' (1942), which Swift explains as being 'rooted in the inside-out physics of bomb damage' (127):

Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house --
The walls, the wainscot and the mouse

But none of them actually flew in it: they spent their war on the ground, at most being bombed. And sometimes not even that: Auden stayed in the United States for the duration (though he had experienced bombing in China in 1938). Afterwards, Spender and Auden saw the results of the Allied raids on Germany firsthand, Spender with the Allied Control Commission, Auden with the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, leading respectively to 'Responsibility: to the pilots who destroyed Germany, spring 1945' and 'Memorial for the city'.

A second group of poets were airmen, though they achieved their fame after the war and not necessarily because of it: Randall Jarrell, James Dickey (both later Poet Laureates), John Ciardi. Dickey and Ciardi both served in the Pacific theatre, Ciardi as a B-29 gunner, Dickey in night fighters (though as Swift shows, the latter considerably exaggerated his war service, falsely claiming to have been over Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped, for example). Jarrell washed out of flying training, but stayed in the USAAF as ground crew. Even so, to my mind he wrote some of the best poetry of the air war. This is from 'Eighth Air Force' (1948), about what bombers crews did after a raid:

The other murderers troop in yawning;
Three of them play Pitch, one sleeps, and one
Lies counting missions, lies there sweating
Till even his heart beats: One; One; One.

Swift doesn't remark on the fact that these three are all Americans (perhaps because his book is not structured as clumsily as this review). Vietnam perhaps had something to do with this; American bombers were again in action over (against) enemy cities, and now much more controversially. Dickey's poems about the firebombing of Japan found an appreciative audience among some critics of US involvement in south-east Asia.

A final group of bomber poets were also airmen, but never achieved fame for their poetry. Often this is because they died in the war, though as Swift notes, this hadn't harmed the posthumous career of Owen from the earlier war. To be honest, it's also because they weren't great poets. Nor did they aspire to be. They mostly wrote poetry for themselves, sometimes just a few lines of doggerel in a boyish scrapbook account of their war, as a way of expressing their feelings about what they were doing. This is the work of Pilot Officer John Byrne, writing in 1944:

Is it not fitting
That we also honour the many
That gave their lives in smashing
The heart of the Nazi war machine
In the Ruhr-valley.

To his credit, Swift does not denigrate these humbler poets for their lack of skill, but reads them as closely as he does Eliot or Jarrell.

Bomber County is impressively researched, both in terms of primary and secondary sources, and very well written. I do have some reservations, mostly because I would like to know more. Where are the female voices? Women didn't bomb, but they were bombed. Did none of them write poetry about it? (Virginia Woolf is an important figure early on in the book -- an anecdote of her exulting in a German air raid is striking -- but she wasn't a poet.) The origins of bombing in the First World War are rather glossed over (though it's interesting to learn that at one point Owen became enamoured of flying, and tried to transfer to the RFC): D. H. Lawrence's 'Bombardment' might have been worth considering here. More importantly, even though the book is very personal in many ways, it's hard to make out what Swift himself thinks about his grandfather: about his being someone who, having flown dozens of missions over Germany, must have been responsible for the deaths and maiming of many civilians, some in places that he knew well (he met his future wife, Daniel Swift's grandmother, in Hamburg). He certainly discusses the moral question -- in fact, he suggests that it is what makes bomber poetry both possible and powerful -- but indirectly, through discussing the opinions of others, both then and later. Poetry depends upon indirectness, and academics practice it to a fault, but this book is neither poetry nor academic and a little more bluntness, at least at the end, would have made it more powerful.

Still, Bomber County is an excellent book which I'd recommend to anyone interested in a different look at the bomber war, or even as a first book for someone uninitiated in it.

NB. Review copy provided by Penguin.

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5 thoughts on “Bomber County

  1. Nicholas Waller

    I liked the sound of this book when I first heard of it, partly from the resonances with my all-time favourite film, Powell and Pressburger's A Matter Of Life And Death.

    In that Peter Carter, also a Lancaster Pathfinder pilot, is washed up on a beach after jumping from his doomed aircraft with no parachute. Of course he, played by David Niven, survives when he expected to die - part of the point of the film (which I see mainly as addressing survivor guilt, despite all the other things it is also about). Plus the Carter character is a published poet.

  2. Kevin Mears

    I was left with far more questions than answers. And I would question Swift's understanding of his own Grandfather. He seems to me to have little respect for the airmen of whom he writes and assumes that his Grandfather felt guilt over his role yet never even attempts to substantiate that guilt or to explain how he ascribes that guilt to his Grandfather. The book is littered with slights against the men, of whom his Grandfather was one, who flew, fought and died in the service of Bomber Command.

    Swift uses language which is both patronising and flawed on several occasions throughout the book. He describes his Grandfather's letters to his Grandmother as 'affectionate nothings' without acknowledging that to his Grandmother they would have been affectionate everythings. He calls aircrew 'bombers' and suggests that 'what bombers do is die.' It is incredible to think that he can consider his own Grandfather in this totally dispassionate way. He forgets that his 'bombers', including his own Grandfather, lived, loved, were loved and fought. Far too many of them died, of that there is no question, but Swift concentrates on their deaths, not lives well lived.

    Astonishingly, he writes that 'Grandfather's are myths.' Squadron Leader J E Swift, DFC, MiD, was on his second tour and flying as a Pathfinder at the time of his death. Wherein lies the myth? Squadron Leader Swift's service is recorded in both his own logbook and Squadron and OTU ORB's. There is nothing mythical there. Legendary maybe, but not mythical.

    He also subscribes to a theory that the airmen of Bomber Command should have had the moral fortitude to refuse to bomb German cities after a moment in May 1943 when the twin milestones of 100,000 sorties had been flown and 100,000 tons of bombs dropped on Germany. He does not suggest that any such moratorium be placed upon the German forces.

    Throughout the book he refers to Bomber County even though his Grandfather is stationed at Wyton for his second tour. I may be wrong but I always thought it was Lincolnshire that was referred to as Bomber County?

    He does Searby a great disservice by suggesting that his letters to the loved ones of missing airmen are formulaic. When you are writing so many how can they be other than formulaic?

    I can't comment on his other theme of poetry as I do not have the intellect to analyse all of it. However, I did learn some things from this theme but remain somewhat puzzled by the disjointed nature of his treatment of the topic.

    Perhaps a clue to Swift's style is provided in the fact that Swift is an academic and it seems to me that much of his writing in this book serves as a vehicle in which he can flex his intellectual muscle. His passion for poetry is obvious, his compassion for his Grandfather and the other veterans of Bomber Command, fallen or otherwise, is largely conspicuous by its absence.

  3. Post author

    Thanks, Kevin, it's interesting to hear your views. I can see where you're coming from -- though I'd probably differ with your interpretation of what Swift is on about at some points. I think you're right that Swift being an academic is key. And clearly he loves words and their arrangements, and sometimes this gets in the way of clear writing, I think.

    I thought his use of 'bombers' to describe bomber aircrew was a bit strange too, and maybe he did that precisely because it was better suited for his wordplay. But I didn't get the sense that he was patronising towards the airmen he writes about, it's just that this is his particular way of approaching them, as an academic and a poetry critic. So to describe something as a myth (which I've done before myself, for example, the myth of 1940) is not necessarily to say it isn't 'true', but that it's a story which has been constructed around (some of) the facts, and takes on a reality of its own independent of and resistant to them. So when Swift says that grandfathers are myths, I take him to mean not that they aren't real in some sense, but that grandchildren never know the reality of their grandfathers' lives -- they understand them through childhood memories, family stories, old photographs. Similarly, I can't find the Searby section (I wish the book had an index!) but looking for formulaic writing is something that English scholars do with any piece of writing, as it helps them assign it to a genre. It's not necessarily a criticism -- at least that's not how I recall it.

    The question of morality is an interesting one. As I say in my review, I actually wish Swift had been more forthcoming with respect to his own position on it. I agree that it's ludicrous to expect that Bomber Command would have downed arms at some point during the war; that was never going to happen. But the morality of the bombing war is something that I feel we must reflect upon. You're right that it can't be onesided, though -- the actions of both Axis and Allies must be accounted for. As Don's comment today on another post suggests, not everyone is willing to do that when it cuts the other way. If the Germans were wrong to bomb Coventry, weren't the British wrong to bomb Dresden too? Or does the cause for which they fight make a difference, or the context of how the war was progressing, or the precision of the bombing, etc. Or does total war excuse all such city bombing? Difficult questions, which Swift nods towards but doesn't try to answer. In the end I sort of see his book as being analogous to a poem, actually -- it's value is not so much in giving answers as in prompting questions.

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