The bombing of German cities and industry in World War II remains a contentious subject in British history and memory. While celebrated during the War, Bomber Command’s morality and contribution to defeating Germany were immediately called into question upon Allied victory. A closer examination of the specific language evoked in criticism of Bomber Command reveals that popular memory of the bombing campaign was grounded in the experience of the Blitz, and was further intertwined with larger narratives of the construction and maintenance of British national identity.
Over the course of two weeks this summer, I visited five different archives in and around London collecting a variety of primary source material, including personal letters and diaries, memoirs, newspapers, wartime speeches, and top secret military reports, correspondences and memorandum. These sources covered a wide range of experiences and relationships to the bombing campaign, but nonetheless revealed many shared perspectives and underlying trends. This served to show how the lived experience of the Blitz contributed to the way in which British citizens remembered the bombing of Germany, and how both events posed serious challenges to preconceived notions of national identity, and the diametric understanding of the War as one between good and evil.
Studying history where it happened always lends itself to more valuable insights: it is not only in the proximity to the original documents that allows for more serendipitous findings, but in the physical geographic surroundings, and interactions with the people. In a taxi in Cambridge, I struck up a conversation with the driver about my thesis topic. He shared how he had recently visited Dresden, one of the cities most heavily effected by British bombing, and the shame he felt upon seeing how modern most of the city was, because the ancient architecture had been destroyed in the War. This conversation was just as valuable as the documents I was collecting: it brought to life many of the conclusions I had begun to make on my own, and gave me real-life exposure to how British people think and speak about this event in their history.