Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Peter Hitchens on the bombing of Dresden

A very interesting post from Hitchens where he responds to readers of his blog who have posted comments in defence of the British bombing of Dresden.

"Now to the bombing of Dresden. I am accused of hindsight. Well, I personally can have no other sort of sight in this case, since I was born more than six years after the Dresden events. I hope I should have had the courage to object at the time. Others certainly did. There were notable voices raised against the indiscriminate bombing of German civilians at the time, particularly by the most impressive and courageous George Bell, then Bishop of Chichester and (until he raised his voice) likely to have become a very distinguished Archbishop of Canterbury. Bell was a powerful intellect, not a naive sentimentalist, and had maintained good contacts with the anti-Hitler resistance in Germany since before the war.

As A.C. Grayling says in his book (p.181) ‘George Bell's attitude to the conduct of the war was not a function of other-wordly innocence. He knew rather better than most what was at stake in Nazi Germany. Before the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, he was active in helping people of Jewish origin gain asylum in Britain, and he had maintained contact with people engaged in opposition to Hitler.’

Bell called what the RAF was doing 'obliteration bombing'. He had supporters in both the Lords and the Commons, including Richard Stokes MP and the then Marquess of Salisbury. Others opposed the decision to engage in this sort of bombing on the grounds that it would do little to end the war, would draw valuable resources away from the decisive battle against the U-boats, and would cost horrendous numbers of lives (an interesting insight is given into this in C.P. Snow's novel 'The Light and the Dark' in which (spoiler warning) a brilliant academic who was at one time sympathetic to the Nazis eventually joins the RAF as a bomber pilot and (knowing full well that this fate is virtually certain) is killed while bombing Berlin. Snow wrote from personal knowledge of the debate, as a senior scientific civil servant. He was horrified at the losses, comparable to those on the Somme in 1916, and it is plain from his account that many experts argued against the Harris campaign, on the grounds of the casualties, which by their nature destroyed the lives of some of the country's best young men, and the military futility of the action.

In answer to 'Roy,' and Michael Williamson, Grayling also notes a surprising (to some) lack of enthusiasm for the bombing of German civilians by British civilians who had themselves been subjected to this uniquely horrible form of attack. When a British pacifist , Vera Brittain, wrote a book attacking the bombing, it was most savagely denounced in the USA, a country which had at that time never experienced aerial attack on civilians. I should stress here that I have little time for Miss Brittain, whose silly attitude between the wars contributed to calls for British military weakness in the 1930s and so helped lead to a war in which we felt the need to resort to bombing.

George Orwell, who justified bombing during the war, wrote after touring the scenes of destruction in Germany when the war was over: ‘To walk through the ruined cities of Germany is to feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilization.’

And I should say here that the destruction visited on Germany by British bombs was immeasurably greater than that suffered by British cities. Even the famous raid on Coventry was small by the standards of Harris's thousand bomber raids (600 people died in the Coventry raid. This would be equalled or exceeded in many British raids which nobody has heard of - Stuttgart, April 1943, Dortmund, twice in May 1943, Wuppertal, 3,400 dead in May 1943, 1,800 dead in a second raid soon afterwards, Dusseldorf, 1,292 dead, June 1943, Krefeld, 1056 dead, June 1943, Hamburg, 1,500 dead, July 1943, then two days later, 35,000 dead in the firestorm of 'Operation Gomorrah' - these are a mere selection from the catalogue of carnage). Nothing Germany ever did compared with 'Operation Gomorrah', which destroyed the houses and people of much of Hamburg, or the Dresden raid, in which the numbers of dead are not known but were probably around 25,000. As many as 20,000 may have died in Pforzheim a few days later. There was no German equivalent of the Lancaster bomber.

And 'Roy' should note that most Germans, while they still remained free from secret-police terror (under which even he might have found himself voting for someone he didn't like. Can he be sure he wouldn't have?) did not vote for Hitler, and that the principal opposition to him (and the last brave voice raised in the Reichstag against him before the darkness fell, that of Otto Wels) came from the Social Democratic Party, whose support was concentrated in the close-packed working-class housing which Harris destroyed. What were these poor people supposed to do to avoid the supposed 'justice' of Arthur Harris's incendiaries and high explosives? Emigrate in protest?

'Brian T' says: ‘As far as I know, the people who prevented the demonstration in Dresden were not peaceful residents of the city, but violent left-wing extremists.’ He does not know very far in that case. Such extremists were present, mainly in the area round the Neustadt Station (used for the deportation of Jews to the death camps) which is some way from, and on the other side of the Elbe from, the historic centre. One might expect such people to be present. But, in a report which can be found with ease on the English site of 'Der Spiegel', and also from the account in the International Herald Tribune, it is clear that the human chain was composed of ordinary citizens. Their action was applauded by the city's Christian Democrat Mayor, and by civilised people all over Germany. Why, I wonder, would anyone want to give a different impression?

Mr Barnes's curious remarks on the Holocaust (15th February, 6.52 pm) are worth serious study, despite being partly incoherent. I shall certainly read his future contributions more closely, in the light of this one.

James Shaw (among others) dismisses as 'nonsense' my argument that: 'It is my suspicion that the moral shrivelling of Britain since 1945, the increased violence and delinquency, the readiness to accept the abortion massacre, the general coarsening of culture and the growth of callousness have at least something to do with our willingness to shrug off - or even defend - Arthur Harris's deliberate 'de-housing' of German civilians.'

I think he has missed my point. He can explain whether this was accidental or deliberate. I am obviously not offering a direct line between Arthur Harris and the 1967 Abortion Act, nor (as he fails to note) is abortion my only example of the effects of the wartime demoralisation of Britain. If I were, his instances would be of some value. But I am not. I am saying that such actions helped to coarsen and brutalise a nation which was formerly notable for its gentleness, kindness and Christian charity.

Other countries started from different places and came under different influences. Sweden, which enthusiastically sterilised some of its citizens before 1939, may have other reasons for its demoralisation, rooted in its enthusiastic worldly utopianism. Few would question that the Spanish Civil War, with its legacy of horror and unrestrained brutality, has poisoned that country for generations, and also associated the Catholic Church with the discredited Franco tyranny.

He also makes two other remarks which I find irritating and rather low: ‘Presumably you would have rather that the RAF had allowed German industry production to peak even higher, and take a terrible toll on the Russian front.’

Well, if he had made any attempt to study my argument, let alone to read Professor Grayling's book, or even studied the subject marginally, he would know that the effect of bombing German civilians on German industry was startlingly small, especially in comparison to the awful losses of our young men, and the hecatombs of German dead.

People were angry and defiant, rather than demoralised. Germany remained able to restore basic services in its bombed cities until a very late stage in the war. Its air defences by night were frighteningly effective, as any Lancaster veteran can recount - not all that much less effective than by day. And the factories were untouched except by accident. The main damage to German industry was done by the accurate daylight bombing of the USAAF, especially its attacks on oil installations rather late in the war. The Americans sacrificed bomb load for protection, and developed, as we could have done, long-range escort fighters which made such bombing practicable. Harris didn't like being asked to do this, and resisted his Army colleagues' demands for help in attacking transport targets in the run-up to D-Day. When he did assent, the attack was highly effective. A policy of bombing industrial targets by day under fighter escort would also have absorbed just as much, if not more, of the German war effort as did the indefensible alternative of killing women and children in their homes, by indiscriminate carpet-bombing.

Mr Shaw adds: ‘It's also worth remembering that the British government only came to the conclusion that the bombing of German cities would work after examining the effect of German bombing on British cities.’

Did it? What is his evidence for this claim? He seems very assured, verging on the smug. Has he any reason to feel so? British civilian morale did not break during the London Blitz or after the Coventry massacre. So why should the Germans behave differently? (They didn't either, as it turned out). The main reason for the de-housing policy was that we couldn't hit proper targets by night. The devastating Butt Report (look it up) demonstrated that Bomber Command's night attacks were mostly dropping bombs on German cows, if they were lucky. The reason for attacking big cities, rather than industrial or military targets, was because they could reliably hit them by night.

The bombing of civilians from the air may have appeased Stalin a little and given the British people the (wrong) impression that they were doing serious damage to Hitler's war effort. But it squandered valuable young lives, and was a poor substitute for direct engagement with the enemy on the ground, the only way in which wars are won.

This we were unable to do because our army in 1940 had been so small and weak that it had been abruptly ejected from continental Europe at Dunkirk (which was, by the way, a defeat, not a victory). It could not get back there for many years and then at horrendous cost in lives, invasion from the sea being a terribly bloody form of fighting. No wonder Churchill (who could not forget the disaster of his attempted landings at Gallipoli) hesitated so long. The bombing's only good effects, the diversion of strength from the Eastern front, could have been achieved by American-style accurate daylight attacks, with well-armed bombers under fighter escort, which would have been morally defensible while simultaneously doing real damage to the Nazi war effort. I doubt if the casualties on our side would have been much worse, either. Admit it. Bombing civilians deliberately was both wrong and ineffectual, and robbed us of much moral authority. Its roots lie in British weakness, brainless pacifism and dumb diplomacy during the 1920s and 1930s. It is time we recognised it.'

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