With the news that Penguin is reissuing the Len Deighton back catalogue with snazzy new covers from April this year, I thought it was as good a time as any to post this article I wrote for Slightly Foxed on one of my favourite Deighton novels, Bomber.
Whilst reading Len Deighton’s Bomber, 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. 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, D Day or the Blitz. Almost alone amongst British forces in World War Two, bomber crews were not issued with a campaign medal when the war ended. The debate as to whether area bombing was a necessary evil or simply just evil inspires historians and writers to this day.
Deighton is perhaps uniquely placed to answer this question. After completing Bomber, he probably knew more about the entirety of the bombing campaign from both Allied and Axis perspectives than any man. It is based on years of research. The acknowledgements give you some idea of how much work Deighton put into the book. He flew as a passenger in a Heinkel so he could understand the experience of German fighter crew. He spoke not just with veterans and historians but also, in order to get the details right, to “Don Elms and Mike Wooller (who) helped me to find Anglo-American and German popular songs.”
Bomber takes place over over 24 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 principles 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 Lambert is disliked by some of the senior officers because he’s not what would be described now as a “team player.” Literally in this case, it is his refusal to play for his squadron cricket team despite his skill as a bowler that so annoys the Group Captain, a man fond of sporting metaphors. He says at one point: “cricket’s a little like flying in combat. . . . long leisurely times in the pavilion followed by brief moment when a chap faces some fast bowling.” There’s something of the Angry Young Man about Lambert in his disdain for this public school insouciance.
As with other Deighton novels such as The Ipcress File (memorably made into a film with Michael Caine), class permeate the interactions of the British. The RAF is presented as snobbish and hidebound by rules: “the English believe that only gentlemen can be leaders” a character says at one point. But the class system isn’t Lambert’s only problem, early in the novel, he speaks out against bombing civilian targets and is quickly slapped down. Far more to the taste of the senior officers is Captain Sweet, an unpleasant scheming figure who lacks both Lambert’s experience and leadership qualities but was “regarded as office material from the day he joined up. He had a clear, high voice, energy, enthusiasm and an unquestioning readiness to flatter and defer to the voice of authority.”
The German scenes revolve around Auguste Bach, a widower and commander of the radar station in Holland, whose young family are over the border in Altgarten. He is falling in love with the children’s nanny, Anna-Luisa, who is barely out of her teens. Initially she is portrayed as a dreamer and a naif but she’s not quite all she seems. The other principal Germans include the mayor of Altgarten, the Burgomaster, who is more preoccupied with organising his birthday party than the war and Lowenherz, a ace fighter pilot whose job it is to intercept RAF bombers. He’s from an old military family and torn between doing his patriotic duty and speaking out against the full horrors of the Nazi regime.
The German sections are often the richest because we see more of the family life of the characters. There are no caricatures of heel-clicking Germans. Even the characters who commit the worst deeds are humanised and even made appealing such as the amoral Viennese doctor Hans Furth. Deighton has done this before in his novel Winter: a Berlin Family 1899-1945 where the only Nazi in the Winter family is also the most charismatic character.
The main plot is simple. A huge force of British aeroplanes, some 400, fly over to Germany to destroy the industrial city of Krefeld. It is the job of the Germans such as Lowenherz and Bache to stop them. Such bare bones don’t do justice to the swirl of subplots beneath the surface. Characters scheme, plot, fall in love, have personal triumphs and failures, and all the time we never forget that every single one of them is a human being. Bomber’s enormous cast includes airmen, soldiers, firemen, nurses, doctors, wives and civilians of all descriptions. Deighton’s skill is in sketching them so deftly that the reader is never confused. For example Reinecke, Bach’s senior NCO, is both a “senior NCO of the old school” and a keen bird watcher. The first half of the novel is involved in establishing the characters.
It’s not only the characters who have back stories. The sleepy German market town of Altgarten is given such a rich history that you will be surprised to learn that it is not a real place. Deighton is particularly good at writing about inanimate objects. Each Lancaster bomber, such as the aptly-named “Creaking Door”, has its own personality. Julian Symons, a crime writer and contemporary, once remarked that Deighton was the only person he knew who actually liked machines. In Bomber the men are merely tiny cogs in a fighting machine. “It’s as though the plane goes to bomb Germany of its own predatory volition, as though it takes us along just for the ride” as a character notes.
Men and machines come together in a cinematic climax. The cuts between Germany, Holland and Britain that had taken place over chapters now take place over paragraphs or even lines. Deighton describes aerial combat as “three groups of men using every device that science could invent began to grope around the blackness like gunmen in a sewer.” If intercepting aircraft is a haphazard affair then precision aerial bombing is a chimera. Quickly the British plan unravels. A German fighter shoots down a light British aircraft, a Mosquito. The crew jettison their marker bombs over Altgarten rather than on the industrial city of Krefeld: “by now attention has centred on Altgarten and the plan had began to go terribly wrong.” The British were convinced they’d got the right target because Altgarten’s greenhouses looked to radar like “enormous factories”.
The dry weather and wind whip the partly wooden town into a fireball. The portrait of a town being destroyed building by building is a tour de force. Area bombing as practised by the Allies is presented in horrific detail: “even after the last of the bombers had departed the effectiveness of the fire-fighting and salvage teams would be hampered by the delayed-action bombs. They would continue to explode for two more days.” Even those that survive are terribly damaged: “for some survivors it was the beginning of a mental breakdown from which they would never recover.”
Rather as in Game of Thrones, characters with which we have become invested in are discarded with shocking suddenness and often appalling violence. The death of Kokke, a German pilot, killed by a bird through the windscreen, is described like this: “it was impossible to distinguish where the bird’s remains ended and Kokke’s face began.” A major character survives the raid and then dies in a motorcycle accident after he has landed. Deighton follows his characters’ thoughts right to the bitter end; there is an epilogue where the surviving characters lives are sketched in a way that is both bathetic, humorous and peculiarly moving: “Peterson lives in Montreal and is vice-president of a small company that makes camping equipment.”
It is at times a very funny novel: “you don’t believe in this war” Cohen says. “Believe in it? . . . you make it sound like a rumour.” Lambert replies. It’s endlessly quotable: Hans Furth is described as “nibbling the German language like sachertorte. . “ For Gerda Pippert crashing the Burgomaster dinner is “the most exciting prospect she could remember since her holiday in Heidelberg in 1938”. Voss, a German tailor, thinks: “some people said things against them, but the Nazis had done wonders for the uniform business, whatever other faults they might have.”
We are used to World War One art being bleak but the popular view of the British role in World War Two is largely a creation of stirring films such as The Dam Busters or sentimental songs. In Bomber there are no patriotic cliches, nobody is ennobled by war. Sweet is still an unpleasant fool (spoiler alert here) as he crashes into the ground at 300mph. When an unnamed airman dies we are told that “they never mentioned his name again”. Ruth Taylor, Lambert’s wife sums up the antiheroic ethos of the novel: “Disgrace is only for men. Save talk of that for your schools and your clubs and your old comrades’ dinners. Save talk of disgrace until you lose your cricket match or for your next hesitant hero.”
Apart from the epilogue, the novel ends with the return of the surviving British bombers to East Anglia. The crew congratulate themselves on a job well done but a lowly WAAF corporal looks at the photos taken from the aircraft and realises that they have missed their target. It’s then that you realise that the men are going to have to go back on the next clear night and finish the job. This ending reminded me of Solzhenitsyn again, this time One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. All that struggle and to survive one day in the Gulag; Bomber shows only one day in one small corner of the war. Tomorrow there will be more bombing raids over Germany, occupied Europe and Japan. The horrors of a botched raid on a town such as Altgarten won’t even get a mention in histories of World War Two. Deighton leaves the reader to make up their own mind about the morality of area bombing. He is simply saying, this is how it was, and it’s impossible to argue with.