© 1970 Len Deighton
June 1943. The world is at war. Hitler’s armies have encompassed the bulk of Europe, and the Allies are not yet prepared for a land invasion of Europe. For now, the United States and United Kingdom are engaged in an extensive strategic bombing campaign of Hitler’s gains, sometimes carpet-bombing whole cities in an effort to disrupt the production of arms, equipment, and munitions. One such raid has been planned for the town of Krefeld, in the Ruhr valley — Germany’s industrial heart. On the ground and in the air, Englishmen and Germans like struggle in combat against one another and against their consciences, debating the justice of their respective causes. When a pathfinder squadron jettisons its flares in a futile attempt to stay in the air, waves of bombers assault the wrong target — the small town of Altgarden, where all the paths of our German and English characters converge in disaster.
I first heard of Bomber as the most authentic fictional account of a bombing run ever written. It’s certainly consistent with a nonfiction account of a bombing run I’ve read, and replete with small, technical details that provide for a gritty and realistic story, but Deighton’s unanticipated story of men at war with their consciences interested me more. The two lead characters are Sergeant Lambert, a bombing pilot whose politics and increasing discomfort with the prospect of bombing civilians makes him a target for his superiors, and Oberleutnant Victor Löwenherz (“Lionheart”), a German night fighter whose partner Himmel discovers chilling state secrets that force both of them to question their loyalties. Löwenherz and the other German characters who feature are written as real people. They see Hitler as a necessary evil, or as at least better than the Bolshevik alternative, but they’re people — and when reading of their efforts to resist a terrifying night attack and save their city from a firestorm, I was hard-pressed not to root for them while at the same wishing the bomber crews a safe mission. Although this is a novel set during the ‘good war’, Deighton’s portrayal is of decent people being forced to hurt and hate the other by circumstances beyond their control. The villains of the novel are the petty politicians who attack Lambert and Himmel for following their consciences rather than blindly accepting what they’re “supposed” to.
It is thus a stirring and detailed account of conscience amid a bombing run gone badly, one with anti-war overtones.
- The Airman’s War, Albert Marrin