Bomber Command and the Canadian War Museum

Bomber Command and the Canadian War Museum

I was a little frustrated after Public History seminar today. We ran out of time when it came to discussing the Bomber Command controversy that consumed the Canadian War Museum one decade ago. This is a topic that I’m highly passionate about — in fact, I see the commemoration of the RCAF in Canada as a potential PhD dissertation topic. So I wanted to vent my frustration here on my blog for all to see!

no6_hq_crestHere’s a brief backgrounder on the controversy, for those who aren’t aware. The Canadian War Museum was preparing a new exhibit in their Second World War gallery on Canada’s contribution to the Combined Bomber Offensive. Nearly one-third of airmen who served in RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War were Canadian. This included men who served in one of 15 squadrons as part of No. 6 Group, a uniquely Canadian formation, and those who served with British and other commonwealth squadrons. Approximately 10,000 Canadian airmen lost their lives serving in the formation during the years 1940-1945. Museum staff, in the course of putting together this exhibit, consulted with veterans, some of whom took issue with the following text panel entitled “An Enduring Controversy”:

The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested. Bomber Command’s aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead, and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war.

The above was originally situated at the end of the exhibit, and followed another panel called “Bombing to Win.” This panel described the Allied strategy behind the bombing war and provided what could be considered a more balanced assessment, noting both the civilian losses and the military value of these raids.

Unfortunately for the exhibit, the context didn’t matter a whole lot to many Canadian veterans. Some were concerned that the text above painted Bomber Command veterans as war criminals. The resulting backlash led the museum to have four independent historians review the exhibit. All four agreed that the exhibit was commendable, although two of the four did offer significant criticisms (both were mainly concerned that this final panel tended to favour one side of the debate over the other).


A Handley Page Halifax of Bomber Command over its daylight target

The museum felt that this was enough to conclude that no further changes were necessary. They were concerned that giving into the veterans would censor history. Yet the public backed the veterans over the scholars: a Senate of Canada sub-committee eventually forced the museum to make changes to the exhibit. The offending panel, retitled “The Bombing Campaign,” now reads:

The strategic bombing campaign against Germany, an important part of the Allied effort that achieved victory, remains a source of controversy today. Strategic bombing enjoyed wide public and political support and a symbol of Allied resolve and a response to German aggression. In its first years, the air offensive achieved few of its objectives and suffered heavy losses. Advances in technology and tactics, combined with Allied successes on other fronts, led to improved results. By war’s end, Allied bombers had razed portions of every major city in Germany and damaged many other targets, including oil facilities and transportation networks. The attacks blunted Germany’s economic and military potential, and drew scarce resources into air defence, damage repair, and the protection of critical industries. Allied aircrew conducted this gruelling offensive with great courage against heavy odds. It required vast material and industrial efforts and claimed over 80,000 Allied lives, including more than 10,000 Canadians. While the campaign contributed greatly to enemy war weariness, German society did not collapse despite 600,000 dead and more than five million left homeless. Industrial output fell substantially, but not until late in the war. The effectiveness and the morality of bombing heavy-populated areas in war continue to be debated.

The text of this new panel is, in my opinion, better than the text of the original panel, if one treats the original panel as if it were in isolation. Everything in that first paragraph of text is historically accurate — although that 600,000 number (which is also in the newer text) is an estimate that typically includes non-Germans, such as the over 100,000 French and Italian civilians killed by bombs dropped by both sides, and even the British who suffered some 60,000 dead for the war. The real line that I would take issue with is the final one, “the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war.” (A variation of this line also makes it into the second version, although it is well-qualified by what comes in the lines above.) It’s not that it isn’t factually accurate — because it is. It’s just that there’s more to the story.

To assess the effectiveness of the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO), the Americans established the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS). Two members of the USSBS were John K. Galbraith and Burton Klein, the director and deputy respectively of the Overall Economic Effects Division of the survey. Galbraith found that based on quantitative production indexes for primary types of armaments, German production actually increased until late 1944. For him, the CBO did not have a significant effect on Germany’s defeat.

Klein took a different approach. He took the same raw data as his director but asked a very different question. What were the secondary effects of Allied bombing on German industry? As it turns out, the CBO had forced the Germans to pool their resources behind the manufacture of air defences — day fighters, night fighters, flak guns and their ammunition, radar networks and other high-tech devices — instead of tanks and other armaments that could help Germany on the battlefield. Perhaps the CBO had helped speed Germany’s defeat. Even an authoritarian regime run by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis couldn’t stand by while its citizens were being killed in the country’s great cities.

Dangerous Moonlight

Dangerous Moonlight by Nicolas Trudgian

There’s another important point here. Galbraith may have been right that German production didn’t decrease until late 1944, but how much did the CBO help in limiting what increases were made? Without the bombing, how much higher would the German production figures have been and how much longer would it have taken the Allied armies to defeat these forces on the battlefield?

In my estimation, the “An Enduring Controversy” panel, when placed in the context of the rest of the exhibit (including the “Bombing to Win” panel) succeeds at including both sides of this debate. However, on its own, this panel doesn’t provide enough context for the reader to make up his or her own mind.

Ultimately, however, my opinion that the second panel is better matters little. What matters is that certain veterans managed to galvanize popular support in such a way that forced an academically sound (and arguably balanced) display (when viewed as a whole) to change because it might force people to deal with uncomfortable truths.

This is one of the best things about studying history. Canadians should be aware of Canada’s role in Bomber Command so that, as citizens, we can each decide whether we support sending the RCAF abroad to conduct bombing missions. Bombing may help end a war sooner, but are we okay with the consequences that go with that? Hopefully, there will never again be a scenario where the deliberate targeting of civilians becomes an acceptable military strategy. History’s value to society isn’t creating a common narrative that we can rally around. History’s value is to give us knowledge so that we can improve as a people.


Greenwood Military Aviation Museum

Hailing from central Canada, maritime military aviation is something I am less familiar with. Having now made my home in Atlantic Canada, I have more opportunities to learn about this subject beyond reading. I recently visited Greenwood Military Aviation Museum. The museum is located at CFB Greenwood, an air base with a storied history. Constructed in the early years of the Second World War, the base began operations in 1942 as No. 36 Operational Training Unit (OTU). The friendly skies of Canada were a great place to train pilots and aircrew. This Royal Air Force (RAF) unit primarily flew Hudson Mk IIIs, training in the maritime reconnaissance role. U-boat successes in 1942 prompted the unit to begin focusing on anti-submarine work. In 1943, the OTU converted to training on Mosquitos. In 1944, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) took command of the station.


Avro Anson Mk II restored between 2003 and 2009.

The Greenwood Military Aviation Museum has done a splendid job of capturing the history of the station, its various squadrons, and the role of maritime air power, especially in the years since the end of the Second World War. The museum proudly displays a Lancaster Mk X, now converted to a Mk III version in the colours of 405 Squadron, the RCAF’s only pathfinder squadron in Bomber Command. This aircraft served in the Combined Bomber Offensive before the RCAF employed it in the maritime reconnaissance role after the war.


Avro Lancaster Mk III in 405 Squadron colours.

The Lancaster needed a replacement in the mid-1950s. As an interim replacement, the RCAF selected the US Navy’s Neptune P2V, designated the CP-127. It was the first aircraft developed specifically for anti-submarine warfare, a role Canada had played during the Battle of the Atlantic and would continue to play throughout the Cold War. The museum displays the only Neptune in Canada, an aircraft on loan from the US Navy.


CP-127 Neptune

The museum also owns a CP-107 Argus. These aircraft arrived to replace the Neptune in the late 1950s. Canadair built the aircraft under licence as the airframe was actually that of the Bristol Britannia, a 1950s turboprop airliner. The Argus was the backbone of the RCAF’s maritime air capability throughout the hot years of the Cold War. It could stay aloft for as long as 31 hours. The Argus was designed to fly 1,000 miles, remain on-station for 8 hours, return home, and have enough fuel to divert 500 miles to an alternate airfield. These aircraft played a critical role during the Cuban Missile Crisis. When President John F. Kennedy declared a quarantine of Cuba in response to the presence of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles there, Argus aircraft flew patrols over the Atlantic, searching for Soviet submarines and vessels attempting to challenge the blockade. The CP-140 Aurora replaced the Argus in the early 1980s and remains the RCAF’s maritime patrol aircraft to the present.


CP-107 Argus

Inside the museum building, there are a number of great exhibits honouring Greenwood squadrons and aircrew. The standout is the tribute to 404 Squadron RCAF’s “Black Friday”. On 9 February 1945, the squadron participated in an attack on Z33, a German Narvik-class destroyer, and her escorts, sheltered in Førde Fjord, Norway. Of 11 aircraft, 404 Squadron lost six Beaufighters, with all but one of their 12 aircrew dying in crashes around the fjord. The museum has a lovely diorama of the fjord on display, indicating the positions of the 404 Squadron crashes. Z33 escaped destruction, although the destroyer was hardly operational for the remainder of the war.


404 Squadron war and peacetime dead. The “Black Friday” losses are visible under Dec. 9, 1944, a dating error.

Outside the museum, there is a Commemorative Garden honouring the war and peacetime dead of the various units stationed at Greenwood. It also honours the accomplishments of these various units and their airmen and women. The museum and its gardens are a keen reminder of the importance of maritime air power to the history of Canada and our allies. You can learn more about the museum’s aircraft displays and projects here. A team is presently working to restore a Bristol Bolingbroke, a support aircraft for the Mosquito OTU.