RAF 100

Think about it. Have you ever seen graphic footage of the Blitz? Not cheery chaps sifting through some light rubble with the WVS serving tea nearby. No, nothing like that. But bodies and horror.

The footage exists. A little was shown in the 1970s in the series “The World at War” but generally we are much more familiar with appalling images of the Holocaust than we are with the facts of area bombing either in Germany or Britain. The scale is hard to grasp now. Over 600 dead and nearly 900 injured in two nights of bombing in Southampton alone.

A few weeks ago Royal Mail issued a series of stamps to mark the RAF’s centenary. Inevitably they show chocolate box images of bright blue skies, fighter planes and Red Arrows without a wartime heavy bomber in sight. Perhaps the Royal Mail felt that images of the Lancaster had been “done to death” already. Done to death indeed.

People like my late Dad, AC2 W H Clark, an RAF wireless operator during WW2, knew exactly what area bombing meant. What is rarely realised today is that there was a massive backlash about the carnage at the time. In the current sentimental climate it is hard to believe but both during and after the war in many quarters Bomber Command was an embarrassment and so were its veterans. Like many of his generation Dad felt that stigma. He did not collect his service medals. Also, like many of his generation, he frequently messed up his life in an era when there was little sympathy for “combat stress” and little compassion about the lost opportunities of survivors who had given up precious years of youth to war service.

The lingering mental health toll of those years is incalculable. They are even being felt now. As late as 2014 I had the privilege of working with a group of older people in Bermondsey where three attendees had suffered the loss of a parent in World War 2.

Dad was crystal clear. It was not worth it. He disliked paper poppies and fly-pasts and British Legion marches. He largely failed in so doing but he just wanted to move on. 

Rather guiltily I took receipt of his service medals just last month (spouses and children can still claim them).  They came with a scruffy mass produced card of thanks from the Ministry of Defence and they nestle on the sideboard next to the suncream and teddies and household bits and bobs. 

What Bomber Command did was grotesque but necessary. Those medals make me a tiny bit proud but mainly, overwhelmingly, they make me sad for the loss, the waste and the suffering.

* Ruth Bright has been a councillor in Southwark and Parliamentary Candidate for Hampshire East

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  • “Grotesque, probably not necessary, but believed to be so at the time” is probably more accurate.

    The USAAF did a comprehensive strategic bombing survey after the war, that eventually concluded that some of the targetted bombing campaigns had a significant effect on the war effort, but that the majority of the bombing – including all the area bombing of civilians – had almost none at all.

    But both the USAAF and the RAF definitely believed strategic bombing to be necessary during the the war.

    That has to be the most awful thing to tell to someone who has served in the military: “it was a waste of time and a waste of lives, but we didn’t know that until too late”. But so much more awful to be told it.

  • Ruth Bright 10th Jul '18 - 8:06pm

    David – you would smile. My efforts to avoid the fly past were unsuccessful. Went to make a cup of tea after reading your comments and saw Spitfires from my kitchen window!

    Joseph – thank you. Yes as you say Dad like many WW2 veterans was son of a traumatised WW1 veteran.

    Richard – we are not miles apart in our analysis. Arthur Harris pretty much admits in the “World at War” that area bombing was carried out not because it was particularly effective but because for a time there wasn’t anything else. Antony Beevor lauds the pressure it took from the Eastern Front. Area bombing certainly saved some of the last Jewish people in Dresden. A very great mercy but at a terrible price.

    Regarding the legacy. The backlash against Polish immigration has been a painful part of the woe that is Brexit. A few more people could do with honouring the breathtaking courage of Poles in the RAF and remembering the inhuman discrimination they faced from a Communist regime after the war.

  • Belated thanks and affection to my Lib Dem “family”, RAF “family” and actual long-lost family members who have contacted me about this piece!

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