In June of 2007, Daniel Swift and his father went to Holland in search of what he calls the “memory of a corpse,” the corpse being Swift’s grandfather, his father’s father, Pilot Officer James Eric Swift, killed during a bombing raid on Munster on June 12, 1943. Pilot Officer Swift’s Lancaster bomber went down over the sea, his body washed up on a Dutch beach sometime later, and he was buried by the Dutch in row 32B of Bergen op Zoom cemetery, alongside other British airmen.
In searching for the memory of his grandfather, Swift came to two realizations. One was that the Second World War, unlike the First, produced little or no great war poetry. The other was that the bombing campaign conducted by Bomber Command over German cities can accurately be described as an atrocity.
Swift says that English poets “did not simply turn away: they felt the need to explain, and to give a theory to the absence. They began to tell a story about the war, about how it was ignoble and somehow did not deserve their poetry. In October 1941, Robert Graves—famous for his bestselling memoir of service in the First World War, Good-Bye to All That—gave a radio talk on the question of “Why has this war produced no war poets?’. In his talk, he explained that the answer lay with the difference between the two wars. During the first, ‘Poems about the horrors of the trenches were originally written to stir the ignorant and complacent people at home’, but now, he insisted, nobody has any doubts ‘about the justice of the British cause or about the necessity of the war’s continuance’.”
But he was wrong. Some people did have doubts about the justice of the British cause, particularly the justice of bombing German cities. It is true that the poetry of World War I was in the pity, as Owen famously remarked, but the pity was displaced during WWII. When the English began bombing Germany, the life span of an English airman was measured in days or weeks, just as had been the case for the infantry a generation before. And once again, the poetry came out of the pity. When the bombing of London began, Dylan Thomas, for example, was haunted by the destruction and produced the profound “A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London.”
I shall not murder The mankind of her going with a grave truth Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath With any further Elegy of innocence and youth. Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter, Robed in the long friends, The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother, Secret by the unmourning water Of the riding Thames. After the first death, there is no other.
In fact, there were many others, most chalked up to the RAF and the USAAF bombers flying over Germany, or so, at least, some felt. In 1997, W.G. Sebald lectured on the air war over Europe, later publishing those lectures as On the Natural History of Destruction (2003). He points out that the RAF “attacked 131 German towns and cities, and destroyed three and a half million homes during their bombing campaigns; they dropped close to a million tons of bombs and yet ‘The images of this horrifying chapter of our history have never really crossed the threshold of our national consciousness.’ Sebald went on to suggest that ‘There was a tacit agreement, equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described’, and points particularly to the refusal of writers to break ‘the well-kept secret of the corpses built into the foundations of our state’” (Swift 17).
Perhaps, Swift seems to suggest, the reason the public has refused to accept that any poetry came out of the second war is that the public wants to forget about the bombing. And as poets like Owen, famously in poems like “Dulce et Decorum Est” refused to let the public ignore the suffering of the troops in trenches (no, death for one’s country is not sweet and fitting; it is god-awful) poets of World War II refuse to allow their countrymen to avoid the morality of area bombing of German cities.
Swift writes that “The poets of the Second World War saw in bombing a promise of verse, and a force as fierce as gravity pulls them back, time upon time, to its scenes.” He quotes “Rhyme of a Flying Bomb” to show how bomber/poets’ imaginations saw not just the suffering of their own side, but the suffering they caused. The poet, Mervyn Peake, tells of the “boisterous tune” of the falling bombs:
But a singular song it was, for the house As it rattled its ribs and danced, Had a chorus of doors that slammed their jaws And a chorus of chairs that pranced. And the thud of the double-bass was shot With the wail of the floating strings, And the murderous notes of the ice-bright glass Set sail with a clink of wings—
English bombers killed civilians, lots of them; English airmen wrote poetry, good and bad, about the bombing. When Daniel Swift went in search of his grandfather, that is what he learned.