Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Bomber Boys: Fighting Back 1940-1945 - Patrick Bishop

Title: Bomber Boys: Fighting Back 1940-1945
Author: Patrick Bishop
ISBN: 978-0-00-719215-1
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Pages: 429
Photos/Maps: 61/6

Little in the study of the Second World War has elicited  more controversy than the bombing campaign wrought by the RAF (and Dominion nations) and the USAAF against mainland Europe. Questions abound regarding the morality and effectiveness of this campaign. Regardless however, of ones ethical position on the subject, the fact remains that the campaign did occur and was undertaken by young men, following orders, who suffered the highest casualty rate amongst the Allied war effort. A total of 125,000 aircrew served by the end of the war (this figure includes those still in training); of these, 55,573 were killed, 8,403 wounded and 9,838 made prisoner of war; a 44% casualty figure - and if one reduces the number of aircrew to those who flew operationally the casualty rate is closer to 65%.

Bishops book is not primarily a study of the success or failure of the bombing campaign, it is a look at the people who manned the bombers; how they trained, their recruitment, experiences, aircraft and recollections all set within the context of the war and the pressures therein. It provides a fascinating insight into their world and how different it was from that of the fighter or coastal patrol communities. Additionally, it encompasses a narrative on the ethical dilemma that crews dealt with relating to the doctrine of area bombing in a comparison of official policy, personal experience and national expectation.

In many respects, Bomber Command was a study in contrasts. On one hand, the casual way in which crews were formed (all new crew members regardless of rank or flying position were put into a room together and told to 'sort themselves out) into crews versus the controversy associated with the formality of rank amongst the crew members. The granting of commissions (officer status) was not consistent thus pilots could be sergeants or officers (as an example) and it differed on each crew. Yet, not only was the pilot viewed as the crew commander he was also expected to be the last to leave the aircraft in the event of a necessity to bale out. Additionally, this resulted in crews being broken up between Messes and receiving differing pay and benefits;a source of some irritation. Conversely, these crews were highly professional and amongst the most highly trained technicians in the war. All the more so due to the fact that this was the first true air campaign undertaken and many technical advances in such areas as navigation and bomb-aiming were needed to be learned and assimilated as the war progressed

It is perhaps fair to say that those associated with the bombing campaign became Kipling's  'Tommy Atkins'  of World War Two - needed by the population and the politicians during the war but quickly dismissed and ignored as an awkward and unseemly topic once their services were no longer required. Bishop has written an excellent study of those that undertook this thankless campaign and has shed light upon who they were and why they did what they did at a very personal level. An important read for leaders and politicians who call upon their military to undertake a distasteful task and their responsibility to acknowledge the sacrifices made, despite the potential cost.

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