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Challenging untruths

The Bombing Restriction Committee published posters and leaflets and Vera Brittain, prompted by the fire bombing of Hamburg and the triumphalist reporting of the event in the press, started work on a pamphlet which became a short book with an explosive impact when unexpectedly first published in the US.

The Seeds of Chaos argues that the government has been concealing the true nature of ‘obliteration bombing’ using such phrases as ‘softening up an area’ or ‘neutralising the target’ – obfuscation that we have become familiar with.

Until late 1943 there was little reporting of bombing raids but this changed in late 1943 with the first attacks of the Battle of Berlin which ‘were apparently treated as a gala occasion on which the whole Press was permitted to let itself go’. When the facts are known, Brittain wrote, we realise the terrible sum of suffering this represents.

People try, noted Brittain, to hide their discomfort at this by arguing that bombing will shorten the war, ‘a contention much favoured by Ministers, officials, Members of Parliament, and some leading Churchmen’, and  arguing the ‘we too have suffered from obliteration bombing attacks’, and so are entitled to bomb in return.

Brittain counter-argued, pointing out that there was no certainty that the bombing would shorten the war (as indeed it did not). Churchill himself called the mass bombing an ‘experiment’, suggesting some doubt on his part that it would shorten the war. Brittain also asked what ‘shortening the war’ might mean. Is killing more people more quickly shortening the war? Mass bombing she further argues does not cause revolt or collapse of morale as is argued by its proponents but ‘when they recover, who can doubt that there will be, amongst the majority at any rate, the desire for revenge.' Think Iraq, think Afghanistan. The blind faith in the usefulness of violence, despite generations of evidence to the contrary, seems hard to shake off.

Retaliation in kind simply reduces one to the level of one’s enemies, and it is the perverted values of our enemies that made us fight them in the first place. Those in Britain who understood this most clearly were those who had suffered most from bombing.

An opinion poll was conducted in April 1941 when the Blitz was still happening, on the question: ‘Would you approve or disapprove if the RAF adopted a policy of bombing the civilian population of Germany?’ In heavily bombed areas such as inner London 47% disapproved of reprisals, 45% approved, whereas in the northernmost countries of England where there was no bombing at all, 76% approved.

Just two months later in a speech at County Hall Churchill claimed: ‘If tonight the people of London were asked to cast their vote whether a convention should be entered into to stop bombing of all cities, the overwhelming majority would cry, “No, we will mete out to the German the measure, and more than the measure, that they have meted out to us”.

Brittain was indicating how the progress of the war effected a regress in the moral standards of its conduct and contrasted the County Hall speech with one Churchill made in January 1940 before he became Prime Minister, condemning the German bombing of urban targets in Poland as ‘a new and odious form of attack.’