One of the sketches was called Aftermyth of War. It made fun of legends created during wartime and already planted deep in Britain’s consciousness. There was quite a list. It mocked Neville Chamberlain and his ‘piece of paper’, stoical working class Londoners and the Blitz spirit and even the Battle of Britain. Then it was the turn of the men who flew in the aeroplanes that bombed Germany.
The sequence opens with Peter Cook, in the uniform of a senior RAF officer, entering to the sound of airmen singing heartily around a piano.
Cook Perkins! (Jonathan Miller breaks away from the singing) Sorry to drag you away from the fun, old boy. War’s not going very well, you know.
Miller Oh my God!
Cook …war is a pyschological thing, Perkins, rather like a game of football. You know how in a game of football ten men often play better than eleven?
Miller Yes, sir.
Cook Perkins, we are asking you to be that one man. I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war. Get up in a crate, Perkins, pop over to Bremen, take a shufti, don’t come back.
Goodbye, Perkins. God, I wish I was going too.
Miller Goodbye, sir – or is it – au revoir?,’
Cook No, Perkins.
The last lines got one of the biggest laughs of the night. In the stalls, sitting with his wife Margery Baker, Tony Iveson, tried to laugh along with the rest. They both worked in the new world of television and were part of the emerging Britain. But not very long before he had been Squadron Leader Tony Iveson DFC of 617 Squadron, and at the front of the bombing war. ‘I didn’t like it,’ he said forty-four years later. ‘I remember being upset. I probably wouldn’t be now but at the time it seemed unnecessary, in view of how many we lost.’
Of the 125,000 airmen who passed through Bomber Command during the war, about 55,000 were killed. Twenty-one of them were called Perkins. The first to die was Flying Officer Reginald Perkins of 54 Squadron who was killed on the night of 14/15 November, 1940. He was the pilot of a Hampden which took off from Waddington in Lincolnshire to bomb Berlin. Little is known about his death or that of his three crew mates. Their aircraft is ‘believed to have exploded in the air and crashed on the outskirts of Berlin.’(2.) The last to die was Flying Officer Robert Perkins of 49 Squadron, the pilot of a Lancaster who was killed with the rest of his crew while bombing the Lutzkendorf oil refinery.(3.) Nothing at all is known about how they were lost.
As far as I am aware, no Perkins died bombing Bremen, but one might well have done. From 18 May 1940 until the end of the war it was attacked some seventy times. As a result, about 575 aircrew were killed. So too were 3,562 residents. It is this aspect of Bomber Command’s war, the death of German civilians, that has pre-occupied historians in the years since the Beyond the Fringe sketch. All the myths that were the butt of its jokes have since been re-examined and turned out to be remarkably resilient. It is Bomber Command’s reputation that has sufferered the most. Re-evaluations have found the crews efforts to be at best, misdirected, at worst little better than war crimes.
This last accusation is false and insults truth and justice. Bomber Command, as I have said, attacked Bremen frequently. The first bombs killed thirteen people. They also burned down two warehouses full of furniture confiscated from Jews who had seen what was coming and fled. Bombers were busy again over the city on the night of 17/18 January 1942. Only eight of the eighty-three aircraft despatched found the target and little damage appears to have been done. The Nazi newspapers in the days following denounced the raiders as ‘terror fliers.’ As they did so, sixteen Nazi bureaucrats met on 20 January in a villa at Wannsee outside Berlin to co-ordinate the extermination of the entire Jewish population of Europe.
The Nazis were to good as a black hole is to light. The effects of British and American bombing on Germany and, it should not be forgotten, the lands the Germans conquered, were dreadful and it is right that they should be recorded and remembered. But the Allies’ real crime would have been to hold back from using any of the means at their disposal to destroy Hitler and those who sustained his war.
The argument over what exactly what Bomber Command achieved will never be settled. One undeniable success, an awkward one to acknowledge nowadays, is that it altered Germany’s personality. Saturation bombing may not, as intended, have broken the Germans’ spirit. But it helped powerfully to bring about their post war conversion to peaceful democracy.
History in its current mood has paid limited attention to the ethos and character of the men who fought this most extraordinary war. This book sets out to correct that imbalance. It is for, and about, Perkins. In the process I want also to redress a wrong. There is no national memorial to the men of Bomber Command, no one place where their sacrifice and contribution to victory is properly and thankfully commemorated. I hope that Bomber Boys will mark a first step in changing that.
1. Chorley, WR, Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, 1939-40, Midland Publishing, 2005.
3. Friedrich, Jörg, The Fire, The Bombing of Germany 1940-45, Columbia University Press, 2007.