Beauty eked out from the carnage
MEMOIR: Bomber CountyBy Daniel Swift Hamish Hamilton, 269pp. £20
MY FATHER TOLD ME that he wrote poetry on the night of June 5th, 1944, as he sat in his tank aboard a landing craft en route from Portsmouth to Normandy. At 6.30am the next day he rolled down into a fast-running tide and up a beach into the most intensive firefight ever seen in military history. Shortly afterwards, when his tank was disabled, he commandeered another, but that too was hit. He disembarked and with another soldier climbed up the sand dunes and spent the next 20 minutes disarming landmines by hand in order to let the surviving tanks through.
He was unbelievably lucky: three of his fellow officers in his squadron were dead by 8am. Of course, as my father did not marry until after the war I too was lucky, as are my children and grandchildren. I sometimes wonder, as he sallied through that epic morning, if the words of the poetry he had composed the night before spun around my father like a magic shield.
Daniel Swift’s search is for his grandfather, a squadron leader with 83 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command, and he uses poetry to illuminate his way. Eric Swift died in June 1943 when his Lancaster was shot down over the coast of the Netherlands as it returned from a bombing raid on Münster. His body was washed up on the Dutch coast and is buried there.
In official circles, even before the end of the second World War there was an uneasy attitude to Bomber Command, which had reduced the main German cities and its industrial heartland to rubble. While Churchill mentioned almost every other part of the military at the end of the war, he declined to mention Bomber Command. Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris never received a peerage and emigrated to South Africa. Only this year, 65 years after the end of the war, has a way been cleared to erect a memorial in London to the 55,573 men of Bomber Command who died.
The origins of this troubled relationship go back to the beginning of the war, when official British policy made it clear that “His Majesty’s Government will never resort to the deliberate attack on women, children and other civilians”. By July 1941 this had changed, albeit in the tortured syntax of official high-level directives: “The military situation discloses that the weakest points in [the enemy’s] armour lie in the morale of the civil population.” The way was now open for 1,000 nightly bomber sorties over Düsseldorf and Cologne, raids in which Swift’s grandfather participated.
By early 1943 it was obvious not only that the morale of the civilian population had been broken but also that tens of thousands of civilians had been obliterated. And yet the bombing went on, an action that would in time be likened to genocide. Bomber Command may have pulverised the fighting spirit out of Germany, and so ultimately ensured victory, but the consequences of so doing were appalling.
Swift recognises that bombing “was to the Second World War what the trenches were to the First: a shocking and new form of warfare, wretched and unexpected, and carried out at a terrible scale of loss”. The author ekes out beauty from this carnage, seeing “bombers” as both planes and men. Just as the trenches of the first World War were immortalised by Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen, so too as the second World War ground along, into its epic tragedies and set pieces, poets such as Dylan Thomas, TS Eliot and Stephen Spender, Auden and Isherwood wrote poetry about what they saw. The men who flew in the Lancasters, Wellingtons and Pathfinders also wrote poetry, perhaps to keep them sane, or to keep in touch with their humanity, or just to be remembered.
Swift’s original, elegantly written and moving search for his grandfather has to walk a thin line between hagiography and justification. He tells of the day his grandfather went up to London to stand in the aftermath of the Blitz, as if the squadron leader was trying to visualise what he was doing every night to German cities. Eric Swift was an educated man who had travelled in Europe before the war, and he was familiar with the German cities he was bombing.
All war is brutal, and only fools and young men think otherwise. Poetry tries to mitigate between the bombers and the bombed, to make a balance between the unthinkable and the unavoidable. Whether on a beach in Normandy or in the clouds over Münster, poetry’s work is to restore the human to the inhuman. Swift’s book adds to our belief in the redemptive power of poetry.
In A Refusal to Mourn, the war’s most famous poem, written in 1945 in response to the destruction in London, Dylan Thomas concluded: After the first death, there is no other.
Peter Cunningham’s most recent novel, Capital Sins, is published by New Island