A day to remember

G for George

Here in Australia, yesterday, the first Sunday in June, was Bomber Command Commemorative Day. The occasion was marked with ceremonies in most state capitals. The major event, at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra, spanned the whole weekend and included a flypast by a RAAF Hornet and a wreathlaying ceremony, which remarkably is claimed to be the third-most attended commemoration at the AWM, after Anzac Day and Remembrance Day.

Even more remarkably (to me!), I've somehow managed not to hear of it until this year, despite the fact that in 2010 I wrote about the forgetting of Australia's part in Bomber Command, by which time the fourth Bomber Command Commemorative Day was fast approaching. That probably says more about my own inattention than anything else; it's very easy to propose a day of commemoration, but very hard to get anyone else to observe it, so the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation has clearly done a fantastic job in getting this one embedded in the already crowded national calendar.

However, while I welcome the recognition this day brings to Australia's participation in Bomber Command, I do worry that it will just become another day for ritualised memory without history. Days such as these are supposedly for reflection on the horrors of war, but in reality there seems to be increasing resistance to any kind of questioning of the populist Anzac narrative at all. This year, Yassmin Abdel-Magied -- who happens to be young, outspoken, female, Muslim, and perhaps above all, not white -- was the subject of weeks of press hysteria (often from self-proclaimed defenders of free speech) after posting the -- quickly retracted -- words 'LEST.WE.FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine...)' on her personal Facebook page on Anzac Day. The show she hosted on the ABC was eventually cancelled, supposedly for unrelated reasons but which nevertheless recalls the sacking of SBS journalist Scott McIntyre after a series of contentious Anzac Day tweets in 2015. Such attempts to close down debate should be resisted by historians. It's easy (and necessary) to mourn the dead and respect the survivors, but we should also be asking why they fought, and who they killed.

The early signs for Bomber Command Commemorative Day are mixed. This year was billed as commemorating 'the 75th Anniversary of Australian Squadrons in Bomber Command'. Naively, 2017 minus 75 is 1942, but as Kristen Alexander pointed out the first RAAF squadron, 455, took part in Bomber Command operations over Europe in 1941. Now, as Kristen found out by simply asking the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation, the discrepancy is because the 75th anniversary of the first ops was in August last year, after the Commemorative Day in June last year, and so the Commemorative Day this year still falls within the 75th year. This is admirably precise in a mathematical sense, but I don't think it's how most people would interpret an anniversary. Moreover, nowhere is any of this explained on any of the (surprisingly numerous) associated websites. In fact very few of them have much in the way of historical information about Bomber Command's activities; the most I could find was here.

Of course, there are other places that can tell the story of Australians in Bomber Command; in particular, the AWM, host of the main ceremony and the most important keeper of the nation's memories of its wars. However, there is little on its website specific to the commemoration, apart from an event listing and a registration page, and even here there are no links to the useful page in the Striking by Night exhibition site (the mission tally for G for George, centrepiece of the exhihibition, can be seen above: one bomb equals one mission).

But the AWM is not just its website, or even its exhibitions and memorials. I was glad to see that Lachlan Grant, a senior historian at the AWM, wrote an excellent article on Bomber Command which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald the day before the commemoration itself. As well as recounting the shocking casualty statistics (more than one in every three Australians serving in Bomber Command were killed, nearly 20 per cent of all Australian combat deaths in the war), Lachlan also addresses the moral questions:

Regardless of its aircrews' bravery, Bomber Command left a controversial legacy. During the war's early stages, there were expectations that long-range bombing would be a decisive factor in securing victory. The difficulty of hitting specified targets soon became apparent, however, and, in February 1942, a new directive authorised attacks on area targets. The aim of area bombing was to undermine the morale of German civilians and affect German industry by destroying the homes of workers as well as industrial areas. At this point in the war, Britain had limited opportunities to take the fight to the enemy, so moral concerns were swept aside. Historians estimate that allied bombing killed 350,000 German civilians and 70,000 civilians in occupied Europe.

He further argues that:

While questions regarding the morality of the bomber offensive are crucial to an understanding of the conduct of the war, those in command were driven by the desperation of combating a fanatical enemy. The allied bombing campaign did not deliver decisive victory, but it damaged Germany's ability to fight. It engaged and destroyed the German air force, and occupied manpower and resources that would otherwise have been deployed against allied forces elsewhere.

Volunteer aircrews were told they were bombing military targets, and did so in dangerous conditions. The chances of survival were slim, and they undertook their duty in the face of extreme danger like any soldier in the trenches.

I can't argue with much of that. But it still seems to be difficult to come out directly and say, for example, that Australians bombed Dresden. The choice of the airman commemorated in Saturday's Last Post Ceremony seems entirely consistent with this discomfort. He was Flying Officer Charles Rowland Williams of 617 Squadron, a wireless operator who was killed when his Lancaster hit an electricity pylon in the early stages of Operation Chastise, that is to say the May 1943 dambusters raid -- the most famously precise and hence least representative Bomber Command raid of all, and the one that for this very reason stands in for the rest in collective memory. I'll have to remember to see how next year's Bomber Command Commemorative Day deals with Hamburg.

Image source: Nathanael Coyne.

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2 thoughts on “A day to remember

  1. Good post, Brett, and one that the organisers of the various Bomber Command events around the country would do well to read. There's a lot of emotion around Bomber Command, particularly among the children of veterans as the veterans die out, and I suspect that that emotion is affecting a somewhat more dispassionate or balanced look at things. It's complicated by the multiple groups that are involved behind the scenes, not all of whom get along (which explains the preponderance of websites you found!). That's no excuse for bad history, of course, but it perhaps explains the lack of cohesion in the message.

  2. Post author

    Thanks, Adam. Your comments about the different groups wth different ideas is interesting. I think it's a big ask just to get recognition for a new commemorative occasion, and nuance doesn't really help with that, so that side of things is understandable. It just means it's up to the rest of us to pipe up if they fall short!

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