by Roddy MacKenzie
Yorkshire / Philadelphia: Air World Pen & Sword, 2023. Pp. xx, 345+.
Illus., maps, appends, notes, biblio., index. £25.00 / $49.95. ISBN: 1399017721
A Personal Look at Bomber Command
The literary scholar Harold Bloom was paraphrasing Oscar Wilde when he said, “all bad poetry is sincere”. This book is, indeed, sincere and the author has a lot to say. It is primarily about his father, who was, during the Second World War, a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) pilot. After instructing in Canada, he survived a tour of duty with a Royal Air Force (RAF) Lancaster squadron in 1944, winning a Distinguished Flying Cross. The author also writes about the combined bomber offensive, its contribution to victory and its place in history, commemoration and memory in Britain, Canada, and Germany, with excursions into areas such as family history.
There is no evidence that the author has thoroughly researched any of these subjects, despite a lengthy bibliography of published sources. This book covers material that could be developed into one of several potential projects. As it stands, what appears consists of issues and topics connected through the author’s interests, each drawn from a few published sources and filled in with information from Wikipedia. This effort has not produced a cohesive book-length narrative.
The author’s father talked and wrote but little about his wartime experience. The narrative of his role in the bomber offensive is drawn largely from his father’s service record and logbook. This makes it a challenge to reconstruct his story. However, the author did not focus on filling out his father’s story through research. The names of the crew members of his father’s Lancaster – mentioned only in passing -- leave the reader guessing as to their positions, ranks, nationalities and whether they had anything to say about their combat missions. The author apparently did not attempt to use Canadian or British archival sources to provide more of his father’s story. Nor is there much on his father’s tour of duty as an instructor pilot; without a massive worldwide training effort, there could have been no bomber offensive.
The historiography of the bomber offensive has certainly evolved in recent decades. Increased access to primary documents has enabled revisions of the interpretations found in earlier sources such as the US Strategic Bombing Survey, The British Bombing Survey, the four volumes of the British official history, or popular accounts such as David Irving’s The Destruction of Dresden. These earlier accounts – accepted wisdom for many years – presented the bomber offensive as militarily ineffective despite its enormous cost in lives, resources and forgone opportunities. The author obviously sympathizes with revisionist history but does not set out to explain what it says or why.
The same applies to the book’s treatment of how the bomber offensive is remembered and commemorated. The study of memory, remembrance, and commemoration,
which has emerged as part of military history. In recent years, this has become a subject that has frequently spread into popular consciousness and fueled political and cultural divisions.
Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”. Any cultural memory – but especially that of wars and the lives touched by war – is enduring because it is curated through collective remembrance. In this book, the memory may relate to that of the combined bomber offensive but the story is individual, the author’s personal story about his father and the bomber offensive he participated in.
Our Reviewer: David Isby’s writings on current and historical airpower include The Decisive Duel: Spitfire vs. 109 (London: Little Brown, 2012) and Fighter Combat in the Jet Age (London: Harper Collins, 1997) and articles for Air International, Air Forces Monthly and other magazines. A veteran historian, defense analyst, and war game designer, Isby has quite a number of other books, articles, and games to his credit covering the Second World War, the military institutions of the Soviet Union, and military aviation in general. During the Soviet-Afghan War he observed the fighting on the front lines, and he is the author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland (New York: Pegasus, 2011). His previous reviews include A Military History of Afghanistan, The Elite: The A–Z of Modern Special Operations Forces, Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, Airpower in the War against ISIS, Korean Air War: Sabres, MiGs and Meteors, 1950–53, How the Army Made Britain a Global Power, Modern South Korean Air Power, Dirty Eddie's War, Air Battle for Moscow, 1941-1942, The Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean, A History of the Mediterranean Air War, 1940-45, Volume Five, From the Fall of Rome to the End of the War, 1944-1945, The Mighty Eighth, Under the Southern Cross: The South Pacific Air Campaign Against Rabaul, Rearming the RAF for the Second World War , Red Dragon 'Flankers': China's Prolific 'Flanker' Family, The Cactus Air Force, and Eagles Overhead.
Note: Bomber Command is also available in e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium