Week 4 reflection

January 29, 2009

Not a week that went as I had thought it would when I planned the course, but one which I think had some very useful outcomes. Read the rest of this entry »


… One of Our Aircraft is Missing

January 28, 2009

Is the film from which I showed a clip in the lecture today to demonstrate different leadership roles within an aircraft. You can find out more about the film here. We’ll be talking about it more in a few weeks time, but there is a copy of the film in the library if you want to see it in advance! There are some clips on youtube – but the quality is not high, and they don’t really give a flavour of the film as a whole.

The organisation and command structure of Bomber Command

January 28, 2009

In putting together today’s lecture, these are some of the sites I found useful:

Bomber Command – Chain of Command and Order of Battle

Air of Authority – History of RAF Organisation – bit less easily accessible but more detail.

Target for Tonight

January 26, 2009

One of the areas I’ve tried to discuss as the course moves on is the way in which the bombing campaign was represented at the time. Below is one of the key films relating to this subject, the Crown Film Unit’s Target for Tonight (1941), in five youtube clips. Further details of the film can be found at screenonline. Again, think about what this film tells us both as a source on Bomber Command itself, and as a source on how it was represented. Bear in mind the situation the Command was in when the film was made, and its reception both within the RAF and amongst the general public. Those interested could read – K.R.M. Short ‘RAF Bomber Command’s Target for Tonight (1941)’, Historical Journal of Radio, Film and Television 17, 2, 1997.

Read the rest of this entry »

What do I talk about when I talk about ‘rightness’?

January 26, 2009

One question from a student a couple of weeks ago – why did I keep asking whether Bomber Command – and strategic bombing generally – was the ‘right’ thing to do? Did it matter? Weren’t historians supposed to be dispassionate observers, analysing the past without judging it?

These are all interesting questions – but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the whole thing is that I hadn’t realised how often I was speaking in these terms. It’s an excellent example of how teaching can make you question the basic, unarticulated assumptions you apply to your subject.

I guess that when I ask – often to challenge a seminar – ‘was it the right thing to do?’ I have two things in mind. 1) Was it militarily effective – ie did it bring the end of the war closer? This is a question which needs to be answered bearing in mind what we might call the case for the defence – we need to bear in mind the knowledge, restrictions on action and mindsets of the time. 2) Was it morally, legally, ethically ‘right’? In the first seminar we discussed definitions of just war. Bearing in mind that so much of the writing, popular and academic, on Bomber Command adopts this language, I think we have to engage with it. But I also think that we have a responsibility to ourselves not simply to approach the past dispassionately. If you can read about strategic bombing and completely shut off your sense of shock, I doubt your humanity. To come to terms with this aspect of our collective past, we are required to make judgements. And as I said at the start of the course, I don’t want students to take away a ‘party-line’ on Bomber Command. I’m not sure I have one. I do want them to be able to make up their own minds.

Weeks Two and Three reflection

January 26, 2009

In the second and third weeks of the course, I’ve lectured on The European Air War, first from 1939 to 1942, then from 1942 to 1945. This is part of the course that I’ve called ‘Chronologies’, in which I want to lay out a framework of events for students (so you can fit subsequent, more tightly focused weeks into their place in the war as a whole), as well as introducing key themes.

So in the first lecture I covered ‘The Great Cat Massacre of 1939’ – the slaughter of domestic pets at the outbreak of war in expectation of a horrific aerial attack, followed by a period when expectations were not fulfilled – the so called ‘Bore War’. I tried to explain the range of factors that resulted in that anti=climax, including not just the capabilities of the RAF and the Luftwaffe, but also the limited war strategy which Britain attempted to pursue. I went on to examine the pressure for escalation at the start of 1940, the role of the Luftwaffe in Germany’s victory over France and its failure during the Battle of Britain, before looking at Bomber Command’s unsuccessful campaign from 1940-1942. I closed with the Butt Report and the shift towards ‘area bombing’ at the start of 1942. The key issues I wanted to raise were the range of factors which influenced the exercise of airpower, and the difficulties in working out how, if at all, this weapon could be used to achieve a decisive victory.

These same issues raised their heads again in the following week, where I discussed the second half of the European air war. Here I covered the development of the Combined Bomber Offensive – more competition than cooperation, as the Official Historians put it. I also discussed Bomber Command’s year of transition under Sir Arthur Harris in 1942, its success against the Ruhr and Hamburg in 1943, and its failure against Berlin in the winter of 1943-44, before looking at the air campaign to support the land invasion of NW Europe and the final air battles over Germany. Here, I wanted to highlight three things – first, the fact that the Command’s progress was not uni-directional (it could achieve success, but then fail – and one problem was how to turn tactical success into strategic decision), second, that whilst historians have generally been interested in the extensive policy debates that took place between different commanders and planners, we also need to bear in mind the gap between these and what was technically possible, and finally the need to explore the difference between the sort of success achieved by the USAAF and the RAF over Germany, 1943-45.

As this suggests, there was a lot to pack in, so I was quite pleased just to get through it. It’s always interesting to see what comes through from the lectures to students in the seminars, and I don’t think I quite stresed enough in the second one the role of American escort fighters in achieving air superiority in 1944. The good thing about lecturing and running all the seminars is that I get the chance to reemphasise some of the points I might otherwise let slide!

I was really happy with the results of the reading I’d set for the seminars. Koch’s article on early war bombing is provocative and challenging, and both in substance and in style it gave students a lot to get their teeth into. Combining an article by Zuckermann with a chapter from Adam Tooze’s The Wages of Destruction gave students a sight into the debates that still exist around bombing, the range of different sources and analyses that are used, and raised the issue of the degree to which the history of bombing has been dominated by the interpretations of participants, or those with a close personal connection (such as Koch). Perhaps we’re still too close to write this bit of the past dispassionately?

That raises the issue of ‘rightness’, which I’ll discuss in  a moment.

In terms of the blogging – A bit of a break in what I’d promised myself would be at least a weekly posting, thanks to a sudden influx of unexpected departmental administration. One of the problems of blogging a course is factoring in the extra time it will take. Whilst I can allow for this, I also have to be strict about limiting the amount of time I spend on teaching and administration if I’m going to get research and writing done as well. But maybe I should have let another piece of departmental work slide, rather than get out of the habit of posting regularly. I’m still keen to get students using the blog a bit more, but I might need to have taught it for a year before I work out how best to do that.

AC Grayling on the morality of strategic bombing

January 13, 2009

AC Grayling is a philosopher, who has written about the air campaign against Germany in his book Amongst the Dead Cities. Thanks to course participant Anthy, who pointed me in the direction of this podcast, from the website Philosophy Bites, of Grayling discussing the moral and philosophical issues raised by bombing. Whilst he speaks with great authority, it’s fair to point out that the depth of his historical analysis has been questioned. Here, however, I think he sets out the moral case against bombing very clearly.

Anthy’s contribution has made me think about how I’d like to use this blog, which is still very much in an experimental phase. It would be great if, as other students searched through the mass of online material that there is relating to Bomber Command and strategic bombing, you felt you wanted to send me anything you think is particularly good, so I can build up a better archive and guide in one place.