Don Charlwood's No Moon Tonight has a reputation as one of the best Bomber Command memoirs. Charlwood was a Victorian who joined the RAAF in 1941, trained as a navigator in Canada under the Empire Air Training Scheme, and then flew in Halifaxes and Lancasters with 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds. Having survived his tour of 30 ops in 1942 and 1943, he stayed in aviation after the war, albeit on the ground as a civil air traffic controller. No Moon Tonight was originally published in 1956 and was the first of more than a dozen books by Charlwood, some memoirs, some aviation history, some Victorian history. In 1986 he wrote that the book was 'kindly received both in Australia and Britain', and that 'letters from ex-aircrew men of various nationalities began to tell me I had not been alone in my response to the Bomber Command experience'. 1 It's one aspect of that response I'm interested in here: his feelings about the morality of area bombing.
Charlwood wrote himself that this had been one of his reasons for writing No Moon Tonight:
I wanted to give some thought to the morality of the task we were called upon to do -- something that after the war led to widespread condemnation of the bomber offensive. 2
It's not a question that he ever gives a final judgement on, or even really tries to weigh up; but it does from time to time puncture the narrative with great force. Often it is tied up with the fear of death, his own and that of his comrades. This is a theme which is much in evidence throughout the book, much more so than the morality of area bombing per se, as he notes the loss of other members of his squadron and, which touched him more deeply, of many of the 'Twenty Men', as he called them, his fellow Australian classmates from Canada: twelve were killed flying for Bomber Command.
Charlwood initially questions whether area bombing was just enough to justify the deaths of so many good Allied airmen, not enemy civilians. For example, shortly after joining 103 Squadron, before starting on ops himself (apart from one during operational training), Charlwood learns that another Halifax crew has gone missing after a raid on Cologne. Although he only knew their navigator, Munns, slightly, he knew he was a family man and he starts to brood over the loss (I've added the bold emphasis in all the quotations which follow):
In ten years, would the loss of his [Munns's] life appear justifiable, or would it be evident that he had been led into a wrong or unnecessary course, that he had cast the pearl of his life before swine? Perhaps the only man who should go to Bomber Command was the man who had seen for himself that mass killing was the only way to a better world.
I knew, that day, that I had no such conviction. I felt in need of it. I wished that I could believe that we were bombing evil and making way for good. I wished that I could feel this with the intensity that a father would feel in defending his family with no thought of himself. The only alternative was not to think. We had committed ourselves and could now do nothing. If our service life conflicted with our thinking then our thinking must cease. We could not afford to fritter our strength on endless questioning, or in the luxury of frustration or sorrow. 3
Similarly, being on ops didn't change his feelings about bombing, but being part of a crew did change how he dealt with them: essentially, he had to suppress them. Late in the winter of 1942-3, Max Bryant, one of the Twenty Men, is posted to Elsham. After talking to Max about squadron life, Charlwood realises that he has found what he never had before, something he calls 'enthusiasm':
I still had little belief in the rectitude of our war or any other war, nor could I believe that more good than evil would arise from our mass bombing. That Keith [Webber] and Wilf Burrows and Col Miller and now, probably, Max himself should die, was still something too ghastly to contemplate. And yet, on the squadron one could not for long admit cynicism, or pessimism, even in the face of the worst. Whatever my frame of mind had been when we had come to Elsham, I realized that now it had changed. Then I had been alone; now I had become one with a crew and a squadron. To demean them was impossible. 4
Thoughts of what they were actually doing to the people below sometimes intruded during operations. Sort of. Here is Charlwood on an attack on Essen, I think on the night of 13 January 1943. (The photo above was taken of Essen's centre after a raid on 5 March.)
I would try to tell myself then that this was a city, a place inhabited by beings such as ourselves, a place with the familiar sights of civilization. But the thought would carry little conviction. A German city was always this, this hellish picture of flame, gunfire and searchlights, an unreal picture because we could not hear it or feel its breath. Sometimes, when the smoke rolled back and we saw streets or buildings, I felt startled. Perhaps if we had seen the white, upturned faces of people, as over England we sometimes did, our hearts would have rebelled.... 5
That last sentence suggests that, in fact, their hearts did not rebel. They were still troubled, though. Of a raid on Turin on the night of 4 February 1943, Charlwood wrote:
We looked down incredulously. Under the light of the moon the city was mercilessly exposed -- houses, churches, gardens, even statuary along the streets. The crews wheeled and dived, exulting as the Germans exulted over lightly-defended Britain in 1940. And yet, perhaps the minds of the attackers would have been easier if the Italians had attempted to defend their city. As it was, we blew women and children to pieces, unopposed by their men. 6
To say 'we blew women and children to pieces' is quite explicit. It's almost self-incriminating, except that the blame is displaced onto Italian men for failing to defend their women and children. If it wasn't for that, Charlwood seems to say, he would have felt much better about blowing the women and children of Turin to pieces.
After completing his tour, Charlwood was posted to Lichfield as a navigation instructor. From this period, early summer 1943, he quotes a letter from another of the Twenty Men, Johnnie Gordon, who also has finished his first tour. Gordon is even blunter about his qualms:
'Sometimes my conscience troubles me about the blind mass-murdering of the "main force". I think Bomber Command's policy is fixed too relentlessly on mere victory by annihilation. That is impossible. Britain at present seems to lack men who can look beyond the victory. I think Bomber Command's policy, though it makes the victory more certain and earlier, may make a real peace impossible.' 7
Here, the 'blind mass-murdering of the "main force"' (the heavy bomber groups which comprised the bulk of Bomber Command), which used area bombing tactics, is implicitly contrasted with the precision bombing of the Pathfinders and, even more, 617 Squadron, which had spectacularly broken the Ruhr dams only a month or two before. In fact soon afterwards, Gordon turns up in Lichfield on leave and tells Charlwood that he has volunteered for another tour, this time with the Dam Busters. Charlwood asks him straight out what he thinks of area bombing (which he usually refers to as 'mass bombing'):
'What is your opinion of the mass bombing the main force do?' I said.
'I don't like it,' he answered. 'I suppose it achieves its purpose, but it's wrong. Now it has reached fantastic proportions and we haven't anyone big enough to stop it. I suppose it will go on until all the beauty and culture are bombed out of Europe.' 8
Later Gordon asks Charlwood why he thinks he volunteered for 617 Squadron:
'[...] Why do you think I volunteered for special duties? Tell me honestly now. I have such a poor opinion of my own motives that I won't mind what you say.'
I said, 'It might have been because you believed mass bombing to be wrong and this move was perhaps a sort of atonement. That and the fascination of ops life.' 9
Nowhere in this section does Charlwood indicate his own opinion of area bombing, whether he agreed with his friend's critique or not. He himself tried unsuccessfully to get back onto ops with a regular squadron, but tellingly only as part of his old crew: comradeship was more important than life or death, his own or others.
Because No Moon Tonight was written in the decade after the war, it is difficult to know to what extent Charlwood's memory of his thoughts and feelings during it might have changed by the time he came to set them down in writing. 1956 was not 1943 and, whether consciously or not, events in the years in between might have introduced biases. As noted above, he himself referred to 'widespread condemnation of the bomber offensive' after the war as a reason why he discussed the morality question. 10 That could have led him to give more weight to it in his book than he had done during the war itself. (Though 'widespread condemnation' strikes me as more characteristic of the 1980s, when he wrote those words, than the 1950s, and more of Britain than Australia.)
The passage about 617 Squadron and the suggestion that it carried out a less morally suspect form of strategic bombing is also interesting. The film version of The Dam Busters came out in 1955, the year before Charlwood's book, and was a big success in Australia as in Britain. Perhaps, just as Charlwood suggested Gordon joined the Dam Busters as an atonement, the success of the film functioned as a sort of atonement by proxy for him. But he doesn't mention the film (or Paul Brickhill's book) so that's only speculation on my part.
Finally, one postwar context which can be glimpsed in No Moon Tonight is the Cold War. Of the briefing before his crew's final op, Charlwood writes:
Burton and Harding his Canadian navigator peered at the screen, listening to the usual recitation of defences, Pathfinder plans and weather. So it would go on after tonight had passed; so it might go on for another generation in another war against another enemy. 11
In 1956, 'another war against another enemy' was very much a possibility. The wartime alliance had fractured into opposing camps. The former enemy had itself been split into two: in May 1955 West Germany was admitted into NATO and the same month East Germany became a founding member of the Warsaw Pact. A war would have been fought with new weapons: both the United States and the Soviet Union now had hydrogen bombs, the latter first testing its version in 1955. But Charlwood's intuition that the same scenes he had witnessed would be reenacted probably wasn't too far off the mark: the year before Sputnik, nukes were still carried by bombers. Not long after Charlwood's No Moon Tonight was published and not many miles away, Nevil Shute would have been writing On The Beach. Is it fanciful to suggest that in his own way Charlwood was responding to the same existential threat to civilisation as Shute?
Charlwood did keep a wartime diary, which he quoted from occasionally, both here and probably in Journeys Into Night (which I haven't read, but is based on the diaries and letters of The Twenty). The State Library of Victoria holds a copy of his diary; if I'm there with a spare hour or two I must have a look at it.
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- Don Charlwood, No Moon Tonight (Ringwood: Penguin Books Australia, 1991 ), xi.
- Ibid., 59.
- Ibid., 119.
- Ibid., 111.
- Ibid., 120-1.
- Ibid., 171.
- Ibid., 172-3.
- Ibid., 173.
- Ibid., xi.
- Ibid., 156.