George Kerevan: A long-overdue memorial to neglected heroes
CRITICISM of Bomber Command’s policy in the Second War World doesn’t stand up to analysis of the circumstances.
At some point during the night of 14-15 June, 1943, Lancaster ED396 PM of 103 Squadron RAF was shot down over Duisburg in Nazi Germany. All seven crew were killed, including my uncle, Sgt John Kerevan, the flight engineer. It was his first mission. His body was never found.
Uncle John was just one of more than 55,000 Bomber Command aircrew who lost their lives on active service during the Second World War. That is 55,000 killed out of 125,000 RAF bomber crew, a loss rate of 44 per cent. If you take into account another 10,000 who were shot down and captured, and some 8,400 wounded, then being a member of Bomber Command during the war was akin to suicide. Yet they were volunteers – a worthy band of heroes from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Commonwealth and other Allied nations.
Yesterday, the Queen unveiled a long-overdue memorial to these honoured dead, a 9ft bronze sculpture of the seven members of a Lancaster crew by Philip Jackson. You can view this piece as the image of a crew returned safely to base – exhausted, relieved to be alive, and pensive; but certainly not euphoric or triumphant. Or you can see in it, as I do, the lost crew of ED396 PM arriving in whatever Valhalla is reserved for them, their job done.
It has taken the best part of seven decades for a public memorial to be put up to the men of Bomber Command. In the post-war period, their exploits had fallen under a moral cloud. The policy of area bombing – dropping high explosives and fire bombs on German towns – has been condemned as immoral and even branded an expensive waste of time which did nothing to shorten the war. Allied bombing of German cities (including US daylight raids) killed between 300,000 and 600,000 civilians, many incinerated in firestorms.
Critics contend that precision bombing of German railways and oil production facilities (ostensibly favoured by the Americans) would have ended the European conflict sooner. A post-war US study of the RAF’s raids, led by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, claimed they had actually helped the Nazi war effort. He maintained that the destruction of German cities released personnel from unessential service occupations (such as restaurant workers) who then went to work in armament factories.
Such criticisms have not mitigated. This week Rowan Moore, a noted London architectural critic, decided to flex his moral indignation on the new memorial. Patronisingly, he intoned: “I don’t want to deny old men, who endured more than we can imagine, the ability to remember. But there could have been better ways than this.”
Moore denounced the memorial for being “defiant and triumphant” (which it certainly is not) before announcing how “bewildering” it was that Bomber Command crews could kill “hundreds of thousands of civilians” and get away with it. “If they had been gunned down by infantry”, he concluded, “it would count as the greatest ever atrocity by the British military”.
Of course, the deaths of German civilians are not cancelled out morally just because the Nazis were herding millions of innocent people into gas ovens, or blitzing my father’s house in Liverpool while he was in it. Wars should have rules of proportionality, even if you are fighting the greatest tyranny in modern times. Was area bombing proportionate?
Begin with the effectiveness of the RAF’s bombing campaign. If the RAF did not contribute to victory, then those German lives were lost out of military vanity. Contrary to its critics, then and now, Bomber Command did prove decisive in winning the war.
For a start, the Normandy invasion succeeded only because the Allies had total control of the air. The Luftwaffe did not show up – it was back in Germany defending against the RAF onslaught. In 1944, there were also 900,000 men in the flak units defending German cities, plus another million employed on bomb damage repairs, but only 500,000 troops guarding northern France from the Allies. Meanwhile, the inability of the Luftwaffe to defend German towns from the RAF led Hitler to lose faith in his air force, rupturing its command structure and denying it resources.
The alternative to area bombing, America’s much vaunted pin-point bombing, is a myth. America used systematic carpet-bombing with napalm to burn Japanese cities to cinders, then finished the job with atom bombs. US attempts to hit individual targets, such as ball-bearing plants, were a failure. Nor did RAF area bombing increase Nazi war production, as Galbraith contended (for political reasons). It went up after 1941 because until then – amazingly – German factories had only been running single shifts.
True, in the final year of the conflict, the German rail system was bombed into oblivion, halting the movement of oil and supplies. This selective bombing was possible only because the Luftwaffe had been swept from the skies. Even then, scattering thousands of tons of high explosive on urban marshalling yards is hardly precision bombing. And its military effectiveness was due to the fact that the Nazis had already been forced to disperse production to escape RAF area bombing.
In truth, Bomber Command bombed German cities because it did not possess the technology to do otherwise, and Britain had no other way of taking the war to the Nazis. It bombed industrial cities because that’s where tanks, planes and explosives were manufactured. The British spent the entire war trying to improve the accuracy of their bombing – hardly a sign that terror was their goal. Their’s was a measured response, given the circumstances.
Recently, former Labour MP Maria Fyfe took my name in vain in Tribune magazine: “I once read an article in which George Kerevan, a prominent Scottish Nationalist, complained about making model Spitfires in his boyhood. Presumably, he did not actually wish he had been making Messerschmitts.”
Actually, Maria, I loved building those Airfix Spitfires. But I preferred Lancasters.
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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