Cogs in a Fighting Machine

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While reading Len Deighton’s Bomber (1970), I was reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s line – ‘To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good.’ Bomber is a novel about the area bombing of Germany during the Second World War. Targeting German cities and civilians is a part of Britain’s war that is still extremely controversial. It doesn’t fit into the heroic narrative of the Battle of Britain, the Blitz or D-Day. Almost alone among British forces, bomber crews were not issued with a campaign medal when the war ended. The debate as to whether the bombing was a necessary evil or simply just evil continues to exercise historians and writers to this day.

Deighton is perhaps uniquely placed to answer the question. By the time he had completed Bomber, he probably knew more about the bombing campaign from both the Allied and the Axis perspectives than anybody, for his book was based on years of research. The acknowledgements, with their long list of veterans to whom he spoke, give you some idea of just how much work he put into Bomber – he even flew as a passenger in a Heinkel so he could understand what German fighter crews had experienced.

The story takes place over twenty-four hours in June 1943 in three main locations: a British bomber airfield in East Anglia, a German radar station in Holland and a small German town called Altgarten near the Dutch border. The cast is vast but there are a few principal characters around whom the narrative is anchored. On the British side there’s Samuel Lambert who pilots a Lancaster bomber known as the Creaking Door. Despite captaining the plane, he isn’t an officer. In fact he is disliked by some of his seniors because he’s not what would now be described as a ‘team player’ – literally in this case, since he refuses to play for his squadron cricket eleven despite his skill as a bowler. This annoys the Group Captain, a man fond of sporting meta

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About the contributor

Henry Jeffreys’ book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass was published in 2016.

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