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!
Here’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).
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.
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.