Randall Hansen, 2008, Fire and Fury – The Allied Bombing of Germany 1942-45, Doubleday Canada

The treatment of civilians in conflict situations always give rise to questions of morality. It did so during the second world war with the bombing of European cities, the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and with civilian deaths in Russia and in German concentration camps. Today, civilians are suffering as a result of armed conflicts in Rwanda, the Congo and Darfur. In Afghanistan and other conflict zones, fighters deliberately mingle with civilians. Tomorrow, civilians will be at risk if Iranian leaders fulfill their promise to obliterate Israel. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of material in the debate over the fate of civilians.

I started reading Professor Hansen’s book to become informed about the allied bombing of Germany during world war two. I was not disappointed. The facts are well documented and clearly discussed and the impact on German civilians is based in part on interviews with survivors from the bombing who were children at the time. The author concludes that targeted bombing by the allies of military and industrial sites was more effective than blanket bombing of German cities, and that this became clear as the war progressed. At the time there were two schools of thought among wartime leaders. One felt that blanket bombing, despite the civilian casualties, would end the war sooner than targeted bombing. The US airforce is said to have favoured a targeted approach.

The morality of killing civilians became an issue in 2007, when a dispute arose concerning a plaque posted in the Canadian War Museum describing the role of Bomber Command, in which Canadian pilots served during the Second World War. The original wording questioned the morality of the bombing offensive and stated in part, “Bomber Command’s aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations.”

The revised wording now reads (From Canadian war Museum website):

BOMBER COMMAND
1943-1945
Canada’s largest air force commitment overseas was to Britain’s Bomber Command.
The Allied strategic bomber offensive was meant to destroy Germany’s ability to wage war. Therefore, most targets were cities with military and industrial facilities. Canada’s contribution to this campaign was an extremely powerful aerial striking force. Organized in January 1943 as No. 6 (R.C.A.F.) Group of Bomber Command, it eventually included nearly 300 four-engined Halifax or Lancaster heavy bombers, each carrying several tons of bombs. At first, No. 6 Group suffered heavy losses but better equipment, training, and tactics improved the situation. Some 9980 Canadian airmen were killed during Bomber Command operations.
Historians have hotly debated the morality and effectiveness of strategic bombing.

Professor Hansen’s book deals with this period. I have no trouble with his facts about the allied bombing of Germany. He knows more than I ever will. But before drawing conclusions about questions of morality one needs to set out the context of the raids. What, for example, was the other side doing? In the interests of full disclosure, I lived throughout the war in southeast England, about 30 miles from London, and like the German children can recall the raids but from their side.

Between 1940 and 1945, the German airforce bombed cities in the UK including London, Coventry, Bristol and Plymouth as well as continental cities such as Rotterdam. Later in the war they dispatched V1 and V2 rockets which were not able to reach pinpoint targets even if the intention was to do so. Their effect was to kill or terrify civilians when the missiles landed in towns and cities. Within Germany, the Nazis were shipping large numbers of civilians to death camps.

Nasty things happen in war and the facts need to be known, but all the relevant facts need to be on the table before judging the morality of actions taken by one side. For example, if the US airforce favoured targeting versus blanket bombing in Europe, this attitude appears to have changed when it firebombed Japanese cities before obliterating two of them with atomic bombs.

Are there lessons for today? First, the distinction between military and civilian personnel is never clear cut. Should the adult members of families of the military and the workers engaged in wartime production be considered as civilians or military persons? How do you fight military personnel if they mix with civilians as occurs in Afghanistan and in many places of unconventional warfare such as Rwanda, the Sudan and Somalia?

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