Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Two Laments for Cologne 30th May 1942 -First Thousand Bomber Raid

                 Cologne 30th May 1942  -Thousand Bomber Raid 
                                             Mary E. Harrison/Vera Brittain


                                         The National Archives UK (Mass bomber raid on Cologne)-artist unknown

          On the night of 30th May 1942/31st May 1942 the first of Bomber Command's Thousand Bomber Raids was directed against Cologne.  Found two poems related to the attack, both by British women. 

Mary E. Harrison 

 As a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force ( WAAF) and an artist, Mary E. Harrison made a model of Cologne that was used in the planning of the raid of 30th May/31st May 1942. She was horrified to see photographs of the results of the bombing, which inspired her poem 'My Hands'

The poem was published in two Oasis Salamander Trust anthologies,  'More Poems of the Second World War ;the Oasis Selection''. (1989), also in 'The Voice of War' Poems of the Second World War ' (1995) . Then again in  'Shadows of War- British Women's Poetry of the Second World War' edited by Anne Powell, ( 1999). Not clear when it was first written or published. 

The biographical information on Mary in the 1995 'Oasis' anthology advised that she trained as a model maker at RAF Nuneham Courtney, Oxfordshire, and posted to Allied Central Interpretation Unit (Photographic Intelligence) RAF Medmenham , Bucks. 'My Hands' is the only poem that I have found by her in print, or referenced on line.

The poem's strength is the way that  forged connections between an artist's model and  reality. There is no attempt to talk about war in oblique detached terms. 

My Hands

" Do you know what it is like to have death in your hands?
When you haven't a murderer's mind?
Do you know how it feels when you could be the cause
Of a child being blind?.
How many people have died through me
From the skill in my finger tips?
For I fashion the clay and portray the landscape
As the fliers are briefed for their trips."

I have reproduced the first verse, a longer extract can be found on the Oasis Trust Website

Vera Brittain  

Vera Brittain was a pacifist  during World War 2, and leading member of the Peace Pledge Union. Though more famous for her writing relating to World War 1, Vera wrote extensively about World War 2 as well. 

Lament for Cologne 

"You stood so proudly on the flowing Rhine,
Your history mankind's, your climbing spires
Crowned with the living light that man desires
To gild his path from bestial to divine
Today, consumed by war's unpitying fires,
You lie in ruins,weeping for your dead
Your shattered monuments the funeral pyres

Perhaps, when passions die and slaughters cease
The mothers on whose homes destruction fell,
Who waiting sought their children through the hell
Of London, Warsaw, Rotterdam, Belgrade, 
Will seek Cologne's sad women, unafraid
And cry's God's cause is ours. Let there be peace.! " 

Reproduced by kind permission of Mark Bostridge and T.J. Brittain-Catlin, Literary Executors for the Estate of Vera Brittain 1970.

The poem was re-published in Vera's 'Seed of Chaos' (1944) ,but  originally published in 'The Friend' magazine on 19th June 1942. 'Seeds of Chaos' contained a  survey of Allied attacks on German cities. Vera stated that  Cologne had been subjected to repeated raids as from 30th May 1942 and by the time of writing the devastation of this  city was the equivalent of 'seventeen Coventries ' ; a reference to the notorious Coventry air raid of the 14th November 1940. In her memoir of 1925- 1950, 'Testament of Experience' ( 1957),, Vera claimed that  "news bulletins, boasted that 70,000 were killed or injured " during the 30th May 1942 night raid on Cologne : RAF figures mention 500 dead, with 5,000 injured. 

I am fascinated, and sometimes exasperated, by the writing of Vera Brittain and other pacifists of World War 2. The hopeless naivete, , the endless call for 'negotiations' with Germany when Appeasement had clearly failed, and their  lack of any coherent tactics to oppose Nazism. Moreover, I totally understand criticism  that the deaths incurred during the raid on Cologne 30th May 1942 are not extensive  compared with the millions of casualties incurred during the Eastern Front, the Holocaust. the Japanese invasion of China, the vast numbers of Polish slave labourers worked to death by the Germans, the hundreds of thousands of victims of the pro-Nazi Croatian Ustasha let loose in Yugoslavia, and more. 

 I can even see the objection that George Orwell and also some 'absolutist' pacifists had, albeit from opposing viewpoints, that Vera and the Bombing Restriction Committee were somehow trying to 'humanize' war via campaigning against the 'saturation' bombing of cities. 

But it's hard to remain aloof when Vera connects Cologne with other bombed cities of Europe. Her poem was drawing on the notion that there is something essential about all human experience during a bombing raid. That there's still a human price to pay in fighting even a 'just' war. Poetry is an obvious vehicle to remind one of this fact. Most of all, a writer of Vera's standing, publishing a statement lamenting the German losses that resulted from RAF bombing, was a courageous act in 1942. 

'Seed of Chaos' was reprinted along with 'Humiliation of Honour' under the title 'One Voice-Pacifist Writings from the Second World War' -Vera Brittain, with a foreword by Shirley Williams. ( Continuum, 2005) 

An alternative view : George Orwell v, Vera Brittain

George Orwell was highly critical of 'Seed of Chaos' . 

 " Pacifism is a tenable position, provided that you are willing to take the consequences. But all talk of 'limiting' or 'humanizing' (sic) war is sheer humbug, based on the fact that the average human being never bother to examine catchwords. "

Tribune 19th May 1944.

The George Orwell v. Vera Brittain disagreement re-emerged in recent years, with an accusation that Vera falsely claimed that George Orwell changed his views on civilian bombing  in her book 'Testament of Experience' , which was  published well after Orwell's death in 1950.  The Orwell Society website  below links to a piece 'Vera Brittain v. George Orwell' by Richard Westwood , from February 12th 2012. 

Orwell Society

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