On Googling British terror bombing

Recentlyish, someone called dedonarrival left the following comment here on a post about the British demand for reprisal bombing of Germany in return for the Blitz:

Such gross ignorance. Google: British terror bombing and note when it started and when Germany retaliated with its twin engined medium bombers and range limited fighter escort .

I don't know who dedonarrival is; and they apparently never returned to read the responses. Not that they deserved much of one. But I thought I'd do what they suggested and Google British terror bombing to see what came up. Actually, most results refer to terror bombing of, rather than by, Britain, particularly the 7/7 attacks. So I added dedonarrival to the search terms to see if they had discussed this topic before, and it turns out that they (or someone with the same pseudonym) had. I found a comment on a New Statesman article about Hiroshima as a war crime which reads, in part:

2. 'It may be Inconvenient History but England rather than Germany initiated the murderous slaughter of bombing civilians thus bringing about retaliation. Chamberlain conceded that it was "absolutely contrary to International law." The Peoples' War, Angus Calder. London, Jonathan Cape, 1969.*

'Hitler only undertook the bombing of British civilian targets reluctantly three months after the RAF had commenced bombing German civilian targets. Hitler would have been willing at any time to stop the slaughter. Hitler was genuinely anxious to reach with Britain an agreement confining the action of aircraft to battle zones J.M. Spaight, CB, CBE, Principal
Secretary to the Air Ministry,
Bombing Vindicated.

'The inhabitants of Coventry, for example, continued to imagine that their sufferings were due to the innate villainy of Adolf Hitler without a suspicion that a decision, splendid or otherwise, of the British War Cabinet, was the decisive factor in the case.' F.J.P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism, p. 169.

Advice: mentioning such facts while grandads in the vicinity generally proves inexpedient.

Assuming it's the same dedonarrival, it at least shows where they are coming from; and makes some sort of argument which can be examined and critiqued. Moreover, as I'll come to later these quotes can be found elsewhere on the Internet being used for the same purpose, so they're worth treating seriously. Except for the fact that they're mostly bogus.

Firstly, let's check the sources. I'm familiar with Angus Calder, a historian who wrote two important works relating to the Blitz, The People's War and The Myth of the Blitz; and with J. M. Spaight, a senior Air Ministry civil servant whose writing career on airpower issues stretched from just before the First World War until just after the Second. These quotes don't sound like their writing; and they aren't. Both The People's War and Bombing Vindicated can be searched online, and I can't find any passages resembling the ones quoted above.

That the quotes are fabricated doesn't necessarily mean that their sense is inaccurate, in the sense that they may still be fair summaries of what Calder or Spaight did write. In Calder's case it's not. Although he quite bluntly speaks of British terror raids, he equally clearly says these were in response to the Blitz and started with the attack on Mannheim on 16 December 1940:

Churchill, very soon after the Blitz had started, began to press for retaliation in kind. On October 30th [1940], the War Cabinet agreed that 'the civilian population around the target areas must be made to feel the weight of the war.' Six weeks later, it sanctioned an experimental 'terror raid' on Mannheim, by a hundred and thirty-four British bombers. 'Thus British and Germans alike', writes Basil Collier, one of the official historians, 'were soon engaged in destroying cathedrals and hospitals and killing non-combatants of all ages and both sexes, either in the course of impracticable attempts to bomb strictly military objectives, or in accordance with the theory that built-up areas were themselves military objectives and that any course of action which promised to shorten the war was both legitimate and sound.'1

The table of contents' summary of chapter 5, which begins in October 1940, even includes the phrase 'Terror bombing of Germany begins'. So this supposed quote from Calder is absolutely false.

At first blush, the supposed quote from Spaight is a fairer precis of his views in Bombing Vindicated. But it's still misleading, in its way. Spaight does says that

because we were doubtful about the psychological effect of propagandist distortion of the truth that it was we who started the strategic offensive, we have shrunk from giving our great decision of May, 1940, the publicity which it deserved. That, surely, was a mistake. It was a splendid decision. It was as heroic, as self-sacrificing, as Russia's decision, to adopt her policy of 'scorched earth'. It gave Coventry and Birmingham, Sheffield and Southampton, the right to look Kief [sic] and Kharkov, Stalingrad and Sebastopol, in the face.2

The 'splendid decision' of May 1940 Spaight refers to here was the decision, made by Churchill's War Cabinet just after he became prime minister and in the heat of the German offensive in the West, to initiate strategic bombing of targets inside Germany, as opposed to bombing naval targets or dropping pamphlets. He also argued, as in the supposed quote, that Hitler was worried about strategic bombing and would happily have observed a formal or a tacit ban on it. Writing of a German proposal in 1935-6 for an international agreement to restrict bombing only to the immediate battlezone, Spaight broke into the first person:

I am personally convinced that the proposal, was seriously meant, that is, that it was intended to be accepted. I can not subscribe to the view that Hitler brought it forward in 1935 and 1936 with his tongue in his cheek; not in the least because he was incapable of doing so, but simply because it was unquestionably in his interest to have such a restriction accepted. He was scared of the possible effect of a bombing offensive upon Germany's war effort and the morale of the German population. He would infinitely have preferred to fight out the war in another way, a way that was not our way but was his way. He did not want our kind of war. That is why it is right and proper that he should get our kind of war from now to the end.3

So here is Spaight, a senior figure in the Air Ministry, admitting that Britain started slaughtering German civilians first, right? Actually, it's nothing of the kind. For example, regarding the failure to publicise the 'splendid decision' to begin strategic bombing, he says:

It could have harmed us morally only if it were equivalent to an admission that we were the first to bomb towns. It was nothing of the sort. The German airmen were the first to do that in the present war. (They had done it long before, too -- at Durango and Guernica in 1937, nay, at London in 1915-18.) It was they, not the British airmen, who created a precedent for 'war against the civilian population'.4

The key point is that Spaight never says that Bomber Command is targeting German civilians as such. He does say that Britain started the 'strategic offensive', and that Germany probably wouldn't have started the Blitz if it hadn't, but then spends several chapters explaining how Britain only attacks military and industrial targets, and that civilian casualties are purely incidental. For example:

Much is heard in the German official reports of the damage caused in suburban and other residential districts by our raids. Nothing is ever said about the fact that the war-factories are often in the same districts [...] Areas covering 5,000 acres in all were devastated in that great raid [on Cologne on 30 May 1942]. Naturally they included a large number of private houses -- but they also included very many factories, and it was the destruction or damaging of 250 of these which justified the attack and made it worth while as an operation of war.5

Spaight's purpose is all there in his book's title: he wanted to vindicate, justify, defend British strategic bombing policy -- while it was still being carried out. He never would have admitted, especially during wartime, that Britain was doing anything unjust, and only a shallow reading, or one with an agenda, would have him doing so. So the supposed quote from him at the top of this post is unfair to what he wrote because it (subtly, I'll admit) conflates the 'strategic offensive' with the 'slaughter' of civilians.

Now on to the third supposed quote, from F. J. P. Veale's Advance to Barbarism, first published in 1948; the last edition was in 1968. Veale was a British solicitor who was involved in defending several former German officers in the minor war crimes trials after the Second World War. Indeed, his book is largely a condemnation of the Nuremberg trials as victor's justice; Maurice Hankey, who was also very publicly associated with Nuremberg scepticism, provided a foreword, as did Dean Inge. A big part of his case is that was Britain, not Germany, which had initiated terror bombing. And the quote is verbatim as far as the words go, though it ought to have an ellipsis at the start to indicate that words have been cut. The sense of the passage is unaltered by the omissions; however the context is clearer -- in fact he is responding to the 'splendid decision' passage from Spaight quoted above:

In passing, the comment must be made that Mr. Spaight in this passage does much less than justice to the services rendered to him and his colleagues of the Air Ministry by the emotional engineers of the Ministry of Information. Without their aid, this splendid decision might well have led to disastrous consequences; it was entirely thanks to what he is pleased to term “propagandist distortion” that the inhabitants of Coventry, for example, continued to imagine that their sufferings were due to the innate villainy of Adolf Hitler without a suspicion that a decision, splendid or otherwise, of the British War Cabinet was the decisive factor in the case. Had this suspicion existed, their reaction might have been somewhat different.6

Veale's argument here, supported by his misreading of Spaight, is essentially that the British started it. There would be nothing wrong with that, if true; after all, the British spent the war arguing the opposite. But it's not clearcut. Bomber Command was indeed already attacking German cities before the Blitz; for example, Hamburg was raided thirty-eight times between June and October 1940. But these were not terror attacks, but nominal (very nominal) precision raids on legitimate military and industrial targets. Nor were they particularly damaging: those thirty-eight Hamburg raids killed just nineteen people, whether civilians, workers, soldiers, or Nazis.7 Conversely, part of the German aim in the Blitz was to terrorise and kill British civilians, and they were much more effective at it too. Later in the war, the British became even more efficient at killing civilians through bombing, and they were intentionally doing so as well. The line was not a sharp one; both sides inched over it but they did so knowingly. And in my judgement the Germans did so first. (And I'm even ignoring Warsaw and Rotterdam here.)

These quotes from Calder, Spaight and Veale, fake and real, always seem to appear together and always on the same sort of sites -- the sort I don't care to link to. The Adelaide Institue. CODOH. Stormfront. Holocaust deniers, anti-semites, white supremacists.8 The objective is clearly to prove moral equivalence: the Allies did bad things too so that excuses German war crimes. Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on moral equivalence names Veale as one of several 'authors not sympathetic to Nazism' who make this argument (Nicholson Baker is another). His legal defence of accused Nazi war criminals doesn't undercut this, but I rather think his prewar membership of the Brighton branch of the British Union of Fascists should.9 The first edition of Advance to Barbarism was even published by Alexander Raven Thomson. Veale provides scholarly support for today's neofascists, and he'd presumably have been happy with that. Calder and Spaight do not deserve to lumped in with him.

  1. Angus Calder, The People's War: Britain 1939-1945 (London: Pimlico, 1992 [1969]), 229. 

  2. J. M. Spaight, Bombing Vindicated (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1944), 74. 

  3. Ibid., 41; emphasis in original. 

  4. Ibid., 74-5. 

  5. Ibid., 96-7. 

  6. F. J. P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism: The Development of Total Warfare from Sarajevo to Hiroshima (New York: Devin-Adair Company, 1968), 169. 

  7. Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everett, The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book, 1939-1945 (Hersham: Midland Publishing, 2011 [1996]), 58. 

  8. The online versions of Bombing Vindicated and Advance to Barbarism hosted at the Internet Archive originally came from one such site, JR's Rare Books and Commentary. As far as I can tell, they are perfectly accurate. 

  9. Graham Macklin, Very Deeply Dyed in Black: Sir Oswald Mosley and the Postwar Reconstruction of British Fascism (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 129. 

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