Bomber Boys: Fighting back 1940-1945

Night after night and at great risk, the daring young men of RAF Bomber Command rained indiscriminate death and destruction on Nazi Germany.

They scored bulls-eyes on industrial and military targets. They also slaughtered innocents. “It’s a fair assumption that when Tom dropped our bombs women and boys and girls were killed,” one wrote home.

Most were not much older than their child victims. “Twenty-one with a face far too sensitive for this business,” was Martha Gellhorn’s verdict on the pilot of a tightly knit, impenetrable bomber crew, “…anyone who had not done what they did could not understand.”

Following the success of Fighter Boys, Patrick Bishop, whose own war reporting includes the Falklands and Afghanistan, has produced another thoughtful and superbly written book about courage and comradeship. But this time the contest is not as clear- cut as 1940’s summer vapour trails over southern England.

It took until 1962 to establish that the Anglo-American bombing of Germany wiped out some 593,000 civilians. This is almost 10 times what Britain lost in air raids and V-rocket attacks. Air Marshall Sir Arthur”Bomber” Harris declared, “They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.”

The Germans called Harris’s squadrons Terrorflieger. Yet they were the only war criminals who stood a better chance of dying than their potential victims. Bomber aircrew 25 per cent from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and white Southern Africa provided one in 10 of British and Commonwealth war dead. Fifty-five thousand died.

Almost 10,000 were taken prisoner, often having been injured when their aircraft were hit. The survival rate for a first tour of 30 missions was about fifty-fifty.

On about 350 occasions, outraged civilians butchered parachuted aircrew. Five weeks before Hitler’s suicide, a badly wounded sergeant pilot surrounded by a screaming mob in the Ruhr “feebly raised his arms to surrender.” One Friedrich Fischer sent a child for a hammer to finish him off. An Allied court, dismissing Fischer’s pleas that he had been driven crazy by bombing, hanged him.

“Victor’s justice,” says Bishop. But, while honouring British churchmen who dared to protest against aerial massacre, his absorbing book is an unqualified tribute to the men who enjoyed the “overwhelming approval of the people they were fighting for.”

Harper Press £20