The International Bomber Command Centre recently published online a selection of accounts from those who took part in, or experienced, the fateful raid on Kassel of 22/23 October 1943. It was a particularly devastating raid with widespread destruction and loss of life both in the air and on the ground. Was Kassel a legitimate target? The city was host to Gerhard Fieseler Werke GmbH, who manufactured aircraft for the Luftwaffe, and were involved in the production of the V1 flying bomb. On 3rd November, at one of Field Marshall Erhard Milch’s conferences, an Air Staff Engineer Bree reported, in regard V1 production, ‘Because Kassel has been lost, Rothwesten is to all intents and purposes lost as well. The men live in Kassel and their homes and transport are wrecked. In consequence the final trials of the weapon power unit, control-gear, diving mechanism, compass and air log were held up’. Does this alone justify Kassel being a legitimate target?
While researching the story of Bomber Command, for over twenty years, the need to examine the justification of the bomber offensive is ever present when speaking to veterans, examining archives, giving talks, or visiting Germany and speaking to German civilians. The answer to the justification question is complex and nuanced. However the concept of ‘intentionality’ is particularly powerful. The bomber offensive, as part of the overall Allied strategy was not one of conquest. The purpose was to defeat a tyranny and to liberate. I recently spent time with two veterans who were involved in bombing Berlin in the winter of 1943/44. Both these men, a few years after the war, were involved in the Berlin Airlift, flying in essential supplies and humanitarian aid to their former enemy, trapped within the Soviet blockade of West Berlin.
I have just finished watching the BBC’s excellent documentary about Northern Ireland, ‘Spotlight on the Troubles’, and found a particular interview pertinent to the concept of justification. Sir Keith Chilcott (Permanent Secretary in the Northern Ireland Office 1990 – 1997) in commenting on finding a joint approach, with the republicans, to end the conflict stated, ‘The security situation was not a win lose. It was a nobody wins and the only forward path was through some political dimension.’ Contrast that directly with the situation during the Second World War, there could never have existed an agreed political solution between the Nazis and Allies. The only option was win or lose. Hence arises the argument that the greatest evil would have been a Nazi victory. And what follows is the tragic costs associated with having to compromise on any absolutes of morality, in order to defeat Nazism.
Was Kassel a legitimate target? Intentionality and the win or lose moral dilemma suggest it was. That suggestion is subject to an associated cost as demonstrated by the harrowing accounts of those who were there.