BY PAUL GESSELL
Late on July 24, 1943, close to 800 Canadian and British bombers flew from England to Germany’s second largest city, Hamburg, to begin an unprecedented four-day aerial assault by the Allies on that industrial city. during the Second World War.
By July 28, approximately 42,600 residents of Hamburg were killed and 37,000 wounded. The city was destroyed. More people in that one city were killed than in all of the six-month Blitz of Britain during 1940-41. Germany began to fear defeat.
The much decorated Ottawa author and military historian, Tim Cook, recounts the horror visited upon Hamburg in his new book The Necessary War: Canadians Fighting the Second World War 1939-43, Volume I. Much of the book deals with the still controversial issue of Canada’s participation in Bomber Command, whose daily flights over Germany killed tens of thousands of civilians, like those in Hamburg. The goal was to crush morale, decimate factory workers, and pressure Germany to move troops, which were stationed from the Eastern Front in Russia, back to protect the homeland.
The debate over the morality of Bomber Command continues. Just seven years ago, the Canadian War Museum was embroiled in a very public controversy over a text panel in an exhibition about Bomber Command. Some veterans and politicians claimed the text panel turned the airmen into “war criminals” wantonly killing civilians. The text panel was eventually changed, but only after the museum’s director Joe Geurts lost his job, becoming yet one more casualty of Bomber Command.
And now Tim Cook has joined the debate. Cook is a historian at the war museum and a much published author, mainly on the First World War. Now he’s turned his attention to the Second World War in the first of a planned two-volume book detailing major battles and issues involving Canadian troops. The book does not claim to speak for the war museum. Yet, one can not ignore the fact that Cook is a very influential historian at the museum and has input into the way history is treated there.
Cook does not pontificate in the book. Instead, he provides facts — the reasons for the aerial campaign and its bloody effects.
In the description of the destruction of Hamburg, Cook notes that unusual weather, combined with the incendiary bombs, created a massive firestorm sucking in oxygen from streets and buildings to fan the flames: “Entire blocks were consumed in the blaze, terrified civilians were cooked alive in the streets, cowering mothers and children suffocated from lack of oxygen in shelters and even those who dived into the canals for safety were later found boiled alive. In the scorched streets, corpses were reduced to charred bones, mummified remains and coagulated human body fat.”
The result was pure horror. But one must also remember that during the bombing of German cities, the Nazis were well into their program of ethnic cleansing, which killed six million Jews, plus millions of other groups and minorities. Germany had to be stopped. And eventually it was, at least partially by the actions of Bomber Command.