The Blitz Companion

Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, 23 January 1941

Mark Clapson. The Blitz Companion: Aerial Warfare, Civilians and the City Since 1911. London: University of Westminster Press, 2019, https://doi.org/10.16997/book26.

Open access has had its travails, but one welcome recent development, particularly in the UK, seems to be the rise of open access monographs and textbooks. An example of the former is Gabriel Moshenska's Material Cultures of Childhood in Second World War Britain, a historical anthropology which focuses largely on the material culture of air raids, and is the product of many years of research brought out by a respected academic publisher. You can buy a physical copy at the usual moderate prices, or if you'd rather pay nothing you can read it online or download the ebook. Brilliant!

Another example of this trend, and the subject of this review, is Mark Clapson's The Blitz Companion, which again can be purchased in physical format (this time at an actually moderate price), or read online or downloaded for free, from here (and it's on JSTOR too). This is more of a textbook aimed at undergraduates, though upper secondary students would also profit from it, and postgraduates might find it a useful introduction to the topic. And it's a big topic: the title suggests that it's going to be about the British experience of bombing during the Second World War, but in fact it covers a whole century (and counting) and much of Western Europe beyond Britain, as well as extended discussions of Japan, Korea and Vietnam, and, to a lesser extent, the Middle East. Indeed, Clapson sees 'Blitz' as a transnational phenomenon, hence the title (though this could have used a bit more unpacking, and I'd put it in lower-case when using it in this sense).

The bibliography is fairly up-to-date for a textbook: in my own little corner of the literature, Grayzel, Haapamaki and myself are cited, as are recent major interventions like Overy, Süss, and Adey, Cox and Godfrey. (Something small I nevertheless greatly appreciated: the endnotes are numbered sequentially for the whole book, as opposed to for each chapter, making it much easier to find the one you're looking for. Why don't more books do this?) Adding to the book's value for students is a chapter on finding and evaluating primary sources, at major cultural institutions as well as some more regional archives. It's written with an eye to the fact that the vast majority of its readers will find their way to such sources via the web. That's a good thing, but some of the URLs provided are too specific and won't work after a website upgrade or two. Some of the descriptions could be clearer: the Imperial War Museum is described as 'not strictly a repository of printed materials' (233), which is strictly true, and yet it does hold valuable collections of printed materials (which, to be fair, are mentioned) as well as oral histories (which are not).

The first half of The Blitz Companion is organised largely chronologically, with about the first half of the book dealing with the two world wars (and the bit in between), and the rest with post-war bombing as well the consequences of the previous rounds. Second World War Britain, which as Clapson says 'hosted the paradigmatic Blitz of the twentieth century' (9), gets a chapter to itself. He gives a full treatment of the blitzes on provincial cities, not just London, and for that matter of the suburbs which are too easily forgotten in comparison to the inner cities. (Clapson is a specialist on suburban history, and he gives a fascinating critique of Angus Calder's anti-suburbanism in The Myth of the Blitz, 64-66.) Throughout, he emphasises the resilience of ordinary people under aerial bombardment. For example, after quoting a Picture Post description of a small boy writing on the side of a bombed-out warehouse, 'HITLER IS MAD', he notes that

The derangement of the enemy was secondary to the narrative that, despite the war coming to the East End, the bravery of Londoners was winning through against Nazi barbarism. In a cartoon for the Evening News David Low depicted the so-called 'Cockney Heart' as battered but unbowed by German bombs while the leering face of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, looked down from on high. The 'cockney' was the historic personification of the East End, a cheerful yet defiant working-class character despite the deprivations and poverty of living in East London. (43)

The famous photograph of St Paul's unscathed by bombs though wreathed in smoke, was unsurprisingly much used in British propaganda -- but it was also used in German propaganda too (above), as evidence for the success of the Luftwaffe's attacks! (48)

Clapson is as interested in what happens after bombing in terms of reconstruction and memory as during, or before. This is probably where I learned the most, especially in relation to Asia where there are fascinating discussions of the influence of Soviet urban planning theory on North Korea's reconstruction (152-3), and the attempts of Nagasaki hibakusha (survivors) to recreate in word and map the city that had been destroyed and which only they now remembered (207-8). The discussions of various air raids are occasionally leavened with references to later literary or cinematic representations, but these are more in the ways of illustration than anything else, and the penultimate chapter on 'commemoration and controversy' allows for much more analysis of Barefoot Gen, Goodnight Sweetheart and other texts. There is an excellent section on British monuments to the Blitz, which are surprisingly rather understated, if not underwhelming; and when Clapson argues that 'a more significant statement commemorating civilian endurance and suffering during the Blitz would make a powerful contribution to the sites of memory in the capital city' (176), it's hard to disagree.

There are places where I do disagree, though. Some of this is fairly trivial stuff. I'd love to claim Tennyson's 'Locksley Hall', written in 1835, as evidence that 'Anxiety about the potential of bombing from the air emerged even before mechanised flight was invented' (15), but it seems to me to only discuss air-to-air combat (I think the 'ghastly dew' raining down from 'the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue' is blood). Airmindedness is discussed only in negative terms of 'the growing awareness of the terrible potential of bombing in future wars' (22), ignoring the tremendous optimism about progress it also tapped into (a refreshing inversion of my usual complaint). The North Vietnamese did not shoot down 'hundreds' (157) of B-52s during Operation Rolling Thunder; the USAF lost just 31 during the entire war. There are some things I would have included, had I written this book. It's surprising, given the attention paid to the atomic bombing of Japan, that there is little about fears of nuclear war during the Cold War era. Perhaps this is because, unlike Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it never actually happened, which would be fair enough -- but as it was the analogue of and indeed the continuation of the interwar bomber fear, this seems like a missed opportunity. At the other end of the scale, there's not much about drone attacks, either, but then this perhaps is still too recent a development to feature in a historical survey.

A more serious concern is Clapson's treatment of the ethical questions around strategic bombing. Admittedly this is a hugely difficult area, and it's certainly not one I've ever dealt with to my own satisfaction myself, so full credit to him for addressing it. But I did find myself troubled by his approach. His basic argument is that

any blanket denunciation of bombing campaigns as essentially immoral and militarily unsuccessful ignores historical realities. While many air raids were indeed notoriously brutal and led to unnecessary civilian casualties, other air campaigns did assist in defeating dictatorships. So for example, while the air raids on London and other major British cities during the Second World War ultimately failed to defeat the British, the atomic bombing by the USA of Japan in August 1945 may be judged to have hastened the end of the war in the Pacific. (8-9)

So this would seem to hinge on the question of effectiveness: if bombing worked, then it was (or at least could be) acceptable. To this end, he explores the question of Japan's surrender at some length, concluding that the atomic bombs 'alone did not end the war', but were just 'the most spectacular manifestation of the air campaign over Japan' (109) working in conjunction with the advances made by the US Navy and the Red Army. That's a reasonable argument, though if bombing wasn't sufficient for surrender then it does lead to the question of whether it was necessary. But effectiveness turns out to be not the only criterion. Clapson quotes Truman as saying that 'Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic' (105), the United States 'cannot drop this terrible bomb' on Kyoto or Tokyo, adding that

Accusations of racism sometimes form too quickly on the lips and keypads of many left and liberal academics today, but it is not unreasonable to highlight the brutal behaviour that led to the stereotypes. (106)

He then goes on to discuss various atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers, such as when 'Over 150 Australian soldiers were bayoneted to death after being tied to trees' (106; perhaps a reference to the Japanese massacre of Australian POWs at Laha in 1942). I assume he's trying to explain the contemporary American mindset, but it's uncomfortably close to excusing it.

While Clapson is clearly sympathetic to the trauma of the hibakusha as well as the German victims of Allied bombings, he is highly critical of their attempts to 'promote an identity based upon shared suffering' which he sees as leading to 'a pernicious relativism' when they are 'compared with the dead of other conflicts during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries' (223).

Following his visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 1983 the Tunisian Ambassador likened the suffering of the Lebanese people to the Japanese in 1945, while the Syrian ambassador, 'conveniently forgetting his own government’s massacre of 10,000 civilians in Hama' stated that 'the slaughter of non-combatants is what brings Hiroshima and Israel's genocide in Lebanon together.' (223)

Again, he has a point; but the problem is that his argument only ever goes one way. For example, he notes 'that the Israeli Air Force issues warnings to Palestinians, known as "roof knocking", when an air raid is imminent' (224), without pointing out that the practice is controversial and has been condemned by Amnesty International. Nor does he discuss the disproportionate level of violence inflicted by Israeli bombing: even on Israel's own figures, 761 Palestinian civilians were killed in the 2014 Gaza conflict, for example, compared with 5 in Israel. He does, quite correctly, dismiss attempts to 'equate the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip in Palestine not only with the American bombing of Japan but with the Holocaust' (223-4), but we can't wait for that level of violence before we can start talking about whether air raids might be war crimes.

As far as I can tell, bombing by the West is always presented as legitimate, while criticism of it is always presented as illegitimate. This is tied to the democratic nature of the states carrying out the attacks. Discussing the lack of public criticism in the United States about bombing of German and Japanese civilians, Clapson argues that 'The Americans were fighting for democracy [...] whereas the Axis powers attempted to brutally impose fascism upon the world' (170), adding that 'American air raids on civilians did not take place in a neutral context, and civilians in fascist dictatorships were often ruthlessly sacrificed by their own side' (171), as if that means they can be sacrificed by their enemies just as ruthlessly. He describes an incident in 1995, when the British ambassador to Germany was at a ceremony marking the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Kassel. A heckler called out 'Ambassador, when are you going to pull down the statue to Bomber Harris?' and complained 'about the absence of any permanent fixture to the memory of Herman Goering' (201). So, probably a fascist of some stripe; easy enough to dismiss. But Clapson's comment here is, I think, quite revealing: 'Unlike the fascist leader Goering, however, Harris was fighting for democracy' (201). So is bombing by democracies always justified? Is there nothing a democracy can do that would constitute a war crime? If Hitler had been legitimately elected, and Göring the leader of the air force of a democracy, would that make Guernica alright?

I enjoyed The Blitz Companion: Clapson is never less than interesting to read. I learned a lot from it, and I expect students will too. (And, again, it's free!) They should think very hard about Clapson's position on the ethical problems of bombing civilians, but then you would hope that they do so with any book on this topic. Because these questions will be with us for a long time yet.

Image source: History Today.

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