Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two

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ISBN: 978-0-241-14417-6
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It was probably in high school many years ago that I read a title that leaned toward the poetic side of things. Dislike would be too strong a word for the reason why this was. I would say that it was probably because I never felt comfortable with poetry; I just did not get them most of the time. When I was presented with the opportunity to review Daniel Swift's Bomber County, I thought perhaps this marriage of WW2 history, something I enjoyed, would make my second attempt into the realm of poetry a bit easier. It did, and in fact, I enjoyed the book quite a bit, for that poetry and history of the bombing campaign were the main topics of the book on the surface only; deep beneath them were thought-provoking explorations of the philosophy of bombing.

Bomber County loosely follows the author Daniel Swift's journey to find out more about his grandfather, a British Royal Air Force pilot, who was killed in action during the war. He journeyed both on paper, going through a great many diaries and official government and military records, and on foot, traveling in Europe for interviews and site visits, to put back together what his grandfather's life was like and the circumstances of his death. Along the journey, Swift, an English professor, quickly discovered that this project on family history diverged into various different thoughts, many of which centered around literary elements, that he had came across along the way. At a certain point in his quest, for example, he thought about the relationship between bombing and the natural cycles in the following passage.

Like vegetables, bombing is seasonal, and although the summer nights are short, there are fewer clouds in Western Europe than in the winter. Like the tides, it follows the moon, and this week the weather was warm and clear and the moon was filling out.

Note: The above passage referred to the week containing Saturday, 5 Jul 1941

When his thoughts pondered on the development of aerial bombardment as an instrument of war, he thought that the "history of bombing is a history of imagining destruction", and that human imagination definitely preceded invention, and the humans imagining the destruction were surprisingly authors rather than generals.

In Robert W. Coles's fantasy novel The Struggle for Empire, published in 1900, the Sirians of planet Kairet bomb London, but the heroic Anglo-Saxons invent a device to bring down Sirian spaceships, and in retaliation bomb the Sirian capital into unconditional surrender. H. G. Wells's War in the Air (1908) opens with German airships bombing New York, and all these violent daydreams predate the first plane flight across the Channel, in June 1909, and then on 1 November 1911 an Italian airman called Giulio Cavotti dropped a hand grenade on rebellious Arabs in Tripoli, and bombing began.

Finally, another one of the many paths Swift embarked upon led him to consider the contrast between the reality and the perceived reality about the future of those about to take off on a mission. "The greatest fiction of the bombers is that they come back", he said. Bomber crews were taught the local language in case they were shot down, they were given maps, and they were taught to give only name, rank, and number when captured. In reality, a great percentage of those who were shot down would die before needing any of that knowledge. Movies like "Twelve O'Clock High" and "Command Decision", too, often feature happy endings that represented the exception rather than the rule. Thus as real as bombing was, the information surrounding it was, like Swift noted, unreal. "Fiction", he said, "is life's parasite."

Bomber County did a great job balancing family history, history of the bombing war, and the philosophy of bombing, all explained through a poetic lens. Perhaps it was because I rarely venture into this genre that I thought this book was unique, but in either case, I would highly recommend this book to all WW2 history enthusiasts as it presented the war from a vastly different angle than most of the titles available.

As noted earlier, poetry and literature in general tended not to be my thing. With that said, I had passed along this copy of Bomber County to fellow WW2DB contributor Bryan Hiatt who is at home with this subject. Please also check out his review of Bomber County.



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