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Brief of C.G. Gifford, DFC on “Death by Moonlight: Bomber Command”

For presentation to Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs on Friday, November 6, 1992. To be read by Prof. Jordan Bishop.

Honourable Senators, I appreciate this opportunity to have my views placed before you, and am grateful to Jordan Bishop for his willingness to do this since an unexpected medical crisis has prevented me from coming to Ottawa in person.

These observations are a sequel to my letter of July 25 to Senator Marshall which I assume has been circulated to you all. The views in that letter have been enriched by reading Max Hastings’ 1979 book, Bomber Command. It is the most comprehensive and sympathetic book on the subject I have seen.

My own questions and those of my squadron-mates about Bomber Command’s city-destroying policy began when we were briefed to attack Dresden on February 13/14, 1945, and were told by our Wing Commander, “Well boys, we’ve got a juicy one tonight, full of refugees.” When this raid in particular and area bombing in general became subjects of open debate in Britain after the War, I began to read the literature and continue to do so.

Later reflection on what we were ordered to do, publication of the clashes over policy that existed at the time, and publication Of the actual effects of the bombing in the British and American Strategic Bombing surveys and other studies, all caused some of us to revise in the 70s and 80s our opinions of what we were ordered to do in 1940 to 1945. The Controversy around “Death By Moonlight” has continued that process.

The difference I have with veterans who are upset by the film is that I think our problem is with history, not with the CBC and this film. The errors and objections in the films are slight compared with the evidence presented for the main point, which is that in war, both those in uniform and non-combattants pay the price of the errors, illusions, and personal tragedies of political and military chiefs.

What Bomber Command types like myself face is the fact that the city-blasting that was such an important part of our wartime work was controversial from its early conception in 1919. Although an estimated 25% of Britain’s war effort in World War II went into the bombing offensive, it never achieved the grand goal subscribed to by its authors. Some of Britain’s ablest defence scientists and even some leaders within the RAF itself thought Bomber Command should have been given different priorities.

Bomber Command achieved a great deal—it tied up 2,000,000 German personnel, important specific targets like the Peenemunde rocket development base were crippled, it contributed to the Normandy invasion, it hurt German industry. But it failed, for example, to stop Blohm and Voss from building submarines in Hamburg, even with the huge 1943 firestorm and many other raids on that city.

The RAF chiefs’ goal of ending the war through a collapse of German morale was a delusion from the start, and German war production continued to expand up to mid-1944 in spite of the previous five years of bombing.

Most of all we face the question put to Air Minister Sir Archibald Sinclair in 1943 by the head of Britain’s leading Conservative family, Lord Salisbury. He wrote: “There is a great deal of evidence that makes some of us afraid that we are losing moral superiority to the Germans…of course the Germans began it, but we do not take the devil for our example…”

The Air Ministry had told its Commands in 1942:

“1. The following rules govern our bombardment policy in …territory occupied by the enemy:… (1) The intentional bombardment of civilian populations…is forbidden…

“2. German, Italian, and Japanese Territory… the Cabinet have authorized a bombing policy which includes the attack of enemy morale. The foregoing rules do not, therefore, apply to our… air warfare against German, Italian, and Japanese territory.” In other words, on these territories, the intentional bombardment of civilians was permitted.

Sinclair replied to Lord Salisbury: “Our aim is the progressive dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system. (This necessarily involves)… terrible civilian casualties… but… (we have) adhered fully to the principle that we would attack none but military targets.” He deliberately said nothing about attacking German morale and denied the Feb. 14/15 directive that the main target was to be the living areas of the German working population. He admitted that he did this to avoid public debate which might affect the morale of the bomber crews.

In Britain, these questions were debated, after the war. Winston Churchill seems to have put them behind him, and the favour with which he viewed Sir Arthur Harris in the middle of the war, faded in the final year. He withheld from Harris the reward of being made a lord which he gave to men of equal or lesser prominence in Britain’s war effort. Harris wrote a self-justifying book and his recognition came from some—not all—of the surviving aircrews. Thousands of these contributed after 40 years to erect a statue of him. (I wish they had spent their money on a sculpture of a bomber crew, honouring the men who faced the flak and the nightfighters over Germany that Harris never himself faced. 55,000 died, almost 10 thousand of them Canadian. Another 10,000 parachuted from crippled aircraft to become Prisoners of War.)

In Canada, there was no debate. After the war, those interested were content to savour the glory surrounding us boys in Air Force blue. Dieppe and Hong Kong might be black with mistakes at the top, but there was no similar questioning of the bombing policies. Now, belatedly, “Death By Moonlight” has brought us into this long controversy.

We are all well aware that in 1940 and 41, Britain’s armies had been defeated, her navy was suffering disasters at sea, she was standing alone against the Nazi juggernaut. Only the fighter squadrons of the RAF won a victory, in the Battle of Britain, and only Bomber Command could carry the war to Germany itself. It was reports of Bomber Command’s attacks on German territory, giving back some of what the Germans had given to Coventry and London, that buoyed British and Canadian morale.

This audience needs no reminding, also, of the horrendous odds faced by the bomber crews. A few couldn’t handle it, but the astonishing thing was that so many did. They showed what Max Hastings calls “…their marvelous courage…” Nothing can dim the memory of that collective fortitude, and “Death By Moonlight” does indeed honour it.

We had no idea that the bombing of cities had ever been controversial. We could not know that there were critics of the city-blasting policy within the RAF itself. Group Captain Bufton in the Air Ministry, who, unlike Harris and his headquarters associates, had flown operations against the flak and nightfighters of Germany, “was dedicated to the concept of precision bombing, and had the gravest doubts about the value of area attack.”

Nor could we know that in 1943 the results of research on bombing in the North African and Sicilian campaigns had convinced Harris’s superiors that more precise targets should be chosen in place of “area” targets. In the fall of 1944, Air Chief Marshal Portal sought to persuade Harris to give oil installations top priority in place of area bombing. But Harris was not interested in new, more realistic evidence. He had finally obeyed orders to concentrate on railways before and after the invasion of Normandy. But after that he gave oil low priority and returned to the cities in the fall of 1944. Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister of war production, said of this, “Thus the Allies threw away success when it was already in their hands…Had they continued the attacks (on oil and railways) of March and April with the same energy, we would quickly have been at our last gasp.” In other words, the war might well have been over before Christmas, 1944, if Harris had obeyed Portal. Many lives would have been saved. But when Harris refused to change, Portal did not have the nerve to fire him.

One of the veterans’ key accusations against “Death By Moonlight” is that it besmirches the reputation of Harris, whom they regard as a great commander. Harris was an aggressive, tough, blunt, single-minded chief, with a great capacity for inspiring loyalty in his associates. Among his gifts was a strong sense of the dramatic, which he used effectively both to boost his crews’ morale and to support Bomber Command politically. Whether or not the Dambusters raid was motivated by public relations concerns as the film says, his choice of the wooden medieval city of Lubeck for burning in March 1942 and his inclusion of training squadrons to fill out the numbers for the first 1000 bomber raid in May 1942 had crucial public relations aspects.

But along with his positive qualities were important negatives. He was certain of his own rightness, exaggerated Bomber Command’s achievements, was not interested in evidence conflicting with his own views, was often contemptuous of those with whom he disagreed, and resisted important innovations in the RAF. Some of these, especially the creation of the Pathfinder Force that so improved the accuracy of his crews, and the five month shift to railway bombing in mid-1944, had to be forced on him.

His strength was his weakness. In the opinion of some, including myself, his devotion to destroying German cities and his refusal to learn from new evidence were, in the end, fatal flaws and a disservice to his crews and his country. His worst intransigence came when the forces under his command had reached their peak—75% of all tonnage of Allied bombs dropped on Germany came in the last nine months of the war. The film does not violate Harris’s essential character.

Another key allegation is that the films are too sympathetic to German bombing victims, and do not emphasize German atrocities, seeming to show us, the aircrews, as monsters. We are in bad shape indeed if any Canadian audience, even down to quite a young age, has not heard of Hitler, the Holocaust, the Nuremberg Trials, war criminals tracked down in Canada, and if therefore no film should be circulated that does not repeat this story. It is entirely appropriate for the films to focus on matters not widely known and discussed, and they do not have to justify themselves by teaching aspects of World War II that have been the subject of many books, films, and television and press coverage.

So far as the German civilians are concerned, we rarely thought about them as we dropped our bombs from 18,000 feet above their cities. Half a century after seems to me to be not too soon to listen to what they have to say. We did our jobs with a clear conscience, proudly, and fearfully. In my own crew, we looked down with satisfaction on flames sweeping across Hamburg. The one time we were ashamed was on being told by our squadron commander that “we have a juicy one tonight”. That briefing has stayed with me and others in the squadron ever since.

We were young, energetic, fun-loving, voluntarily but often fearfully doing the tasks our military and political leaders set before us. My own 49 raids began in August, 1944, just before the hidden struggle between Portal and Harris over shifting Bomber Command’s priorities. Most of the raids I took part in were part of Harris’s city-destroying policy. I have never felt guilt. What I have felt, and very deeply, has been grief—for my friends, for the slave labourers and the Allied prisoners of war, for the German women and children, old and handicapped people, who suffered and died in those raids. The fact that there was a more effective alternative means that it was an unworthy policy. Our youth, and willingness to sacrifice, was expended in that period more for Harris’s obsession, and less for ending the war.

The National Film Board’s “Death by Moonlight” is a largely accurate expression of a point of view that has existed for 70 years. The veterans who want “Death By Moonlight” withdrawn from circulation have failed to deal with this view. But suppressing it will still leave Hastings and Keegan and Zuckerman and the Official British History and the two Strategic Bombing Surveys for other film-makers and for other Canadians to read. They still need to find a better answer than suppression to Keegan and Hastings and the others. I believe the film has done a service, by opening up these issues for discussion.

And as for your Subcommittee, you should know that it is only in communist and other authoritarian societies that political interference with the media is accepted. It is strange indeed that, just when we are much concerned about our constitution, patronage-appointed Conservative Senators are violating a basic principle of our system—the freedom of the media from political interference.


  1. That members of the Subcommittee read Max Hastings’ Bomber Command. It is a very good read, and it covers all aspects of both operations and of policy development, including the struggle between Harris and Portal in late 1944 over destroying cities vs destroying railways and oil installations.
  2. That the Subcommittee refrain from making any judgment on the films itself, and restrict its activity to facilitating communication and mutual understanding among veterans of different views, and between veterans and the CBC and National Film Board.
  3. It seems to me to be “a tempest in a teapot” to suggest prohibition of purchase of the film by high schools. How many classes are going to watch a two hour film on one segment of the war? A proposal to limit circulation of the film I believe would only demean the Subcommittee.

Thank you, again for giving me this opportunity. I will welcome further communication with you, if that becomes appropriate.

C. G. Gifford, DFC,
3370 Prescott St.,
Halifax, N.S. B3K 4Y4.
(902) 455 3852.


Numbers in brackets below refer to pages in Max Hastings, Bomber Command, Dial Press, New York, 1979.

25% of Britain’s war effort: Estimates range between seven and 33 per cent. Sir Henry Tizard’s summary of the equation was “The actual effort expended on bombing Germany, in manpower and resources, was greater than the value in manpower and resources of the damage caused.” (349)

Sinclair / Lord Salisbury rules. (pp. 170-173) I have also read a more detailed description of this and similar episodes in the Official British History of the Strategic Air Offensive.

“Marvelous courage…” (351)


Struggle over bombing policy re Normandy Invasion, From Apes to Warlords, first volume of the autobiography of Lord Solly Zuckerman, science adviser to Air Chief Marshal Tedder in North Africa and Sicily, several chapters. Zuckerman does note that once Roosevelt had laid down the law to back up Eisenhower’s authority over Harris, Harris fulfilled Eisenhower’s wishes fully.

Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich, p. 286, quoted in (334).

Portal and the question of “sacking” Harris (350)


Cologne, (150/4)

75% of all tonnage: Dr. Steve Harris, Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, June 25, 1992, Proceedings, p. 3-31.