When I first heard that A.L. Kennedy’s new novel was about a tailgunner in an RAF Lancaster bomber in World War II, I was frankly astonished. Nothing in this writer’s previous work or life, as far as I was acquainted with them, apart from the fact that she writes quite frequently from a male point of view, made her choice of subject seem anything other than utterly surprising—and risky. She is one of the most respected of younger British fiction writers, especially admired for her stylistic virtuosity and droll, dark sense of humor; but her novels and short stories to date have been mostly about personal relationships, domestic conflicts, and various kinds of social and psychological dysfunction like abuse, addiction, and depression, set against a contemporary background, especially in Scotland, where she was born in 1965 and brought up. How, I wondered, would such a writer set about recreating the experience of an RAF tailgunner in the war that ended in 1945? And why?
Of course women have written well about combat, the sharp edge of war, especially in historical fiction. But I can’t think offhand of any novel about the Allied bombing campaigns of World War II, or indeed about aerial warfare in general, by a woman writer, and the best-known examples of this subgenre are certainly by men, whether based on personal experience like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, or on research like Len Deighton’s Bomber.
It is not hard to understand why this should be so. When gender roles were still clearly defined, the technical aspects of aerial warfare held more fascination for male writers and readers than for their female counterparts, as did the particular type of heroism it required. The home-based pilots and aircrews of the RAF in World War II experienced combat differently from other servicemen, who were often separated from their homes and families for years on end, but by all accounts suffered more boredom and discomfort than danger most of the time. The airmen, in contrast, made frequent, brief, terrifyingly dangerous sorties, either to engage the attacking enemy (spurring their Spitfires and Hurricanes into the sky in the Battle of Britain) or to rain down destruction on his homeland in the teeth of ferocious resistance; returning after a few hours, if they were lucky, to rest and recover in relatively civilized conditions, and prepare themselves for another sortie, very soon. For soldiers and sailors, going into battle was usually determined by chance rather than choice. Fighter pilots and bomber aircrews were volunteers, existentially responsible for their own fates.
The French structuralist critic A.J. Greimas distinguished three basic types of narrative, which may be combined: the disjunctive (i.e., stories of departure and return), the performative, and the contractual.1 Popular versions of the World War II bombing story, especially in movies, usually combine the first two. Departure and return constitute its essential structure, and pose the narrative question with the primary emotional pull: Will our heroes survive? Survival, however, only has value if they perform their mission, to drop their bombs on the target. This is the performative element, and in some examples, like the true story The Dam Busters (book and film), it can be the dominant one.
In fact there was also a contractual element in the bombing story, which was not apparent in popular, patriotic examples of the genre, but is important in literary fiction: namely that bomber crews were required to do a certain number of “trips” or “ops,” thirty in the case of the RAF, which made up a tour of duty, after which they would be given a long respite from combat and possibly retire from it with honor. This contract was the dominant source of psychological stress in the lives of bomber crews. Len Deighton has an instructive passage about it in Bomber. The survival prospects of aircrews could be calculated actuarially on the basis of an average loss of 5 percent of planes per raid. Five percent sounds like a low risk, but not if you have to confront it thirty times in conditions of extreme jeopardy, compounded of darkness, cold, flak, searchlights, and night fighters:
There was…another graph that could be drawn, a morale line charted by psychiatrists. Its curves recorded the effect of stress as men were asked to face repeatedly the mathematical probability of death. This graph—unlike the others—began at the highest point. Granted courage by ignorance and the inhibitory effect that curiosity has upon fear, the men’s morale was high for the first five operations, after which the line descended until a crack-up point was reached by the eleventh or twelfth trip. Perhaps it was the relief of surviving the thirteenth operation that made the graph turn upward after it. Men had seen death at close quarters and were shocked to discover their own fear of it. But recognizing the same shameful fears in the eyes of their friends helped their morale, and after a slight recovery it remained constant until about the twenty-second trip, after which it sloped downward without recovery.
The bomber crews’ increasing preoccupation with their own chances of survival tended to dissipate the chivalric spirit in which they had volunteered. Deighton recalls that the origin of Bomber
goes back to an afternoon in 1944 when my boyhood friend Colin Smith—a flight engineer freshly returned from his first bombing raid—told me that during his briefing the crews had cheered when they heard that the more vulnerable Stirling bombers would be accompanying them.
There was another source of psychological stress which some members of bomber crews felt more than others, namely anxiety about the ethics of the kind of bombing they were ordered to carry out in the latter part of the war: area or “carpet” bombing of German cities, by massive armadas of aircraft which saturated the target with layers of high explosives and incendiaries, creating firestorms that killed civilians, including women and children, in tens of thousands and destroyed historic city centers—most notoriously and controversially, the raid on Dresden in February 1945 when the end of the war was in sight.
This is a subject that has since been exhaustively researched and analyzed by historians, but it was slow to appear in fictional accounts of the war. The popular view was that Nazi Germany had started the war and initiated the bombing of civilian targets, and thus deserved retaliation in kind. In the often quoted words of Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, “They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.” Then the exposure of the horror of the death camps and the Final Solution at the end of the war seemed to brush aside all scruples about the methods used to bring this hateful regime to an end.
The Germans themselves, burdened with war guilt, busied themselves with rebuilding the fabric of their country, and it is only very recently that a German historian has directly confronted and condemned the Allied “terror bombing” campaign.2 In British political circles sentiment turned against it, and against its principal architect Harris, in the aftermath of war. Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee excluded Harris from the Victory Honours List, and rejected his request for a campaign medal for Bomber Command—a mean gesture which did an injustice to the courage and self-sacrifice of aircrews who were not responsible for the strategy they carried out.
But the general public’s consciousness, and conscience, concerning this subject were not fully awakened until the publication in 1963 of David Irving’s book The Destruction of Dresden, where many people, including myself, encountered for the first time some uncomfortable facts about the strategic bombing campaign, its dubious efficacy, and its appalling toll of lives: some half a million Germans, mostly civilians, killed at the cost of more than 100,000 Allied aircrew divided more or less equally between the RAF and the USAAF, who bombed by night and day respectively in a coordinated campaign. Irving, who became notorious in due course as a Holocaust denier and apologist for Hitler, was at this stage of his career perceived as an enlightened and enlightening historian.
All these aspects of the bombing story—the disjunctive, the performative, the contractual, and the ethical—are combined in A.L. Kennedy’s remarkable novel.
Day is a novel in the modernist mode. It doesn’t have the mythical dimension one finds in The Waste Land or Ulysses, but it employs other formal characteristics of modernist writing, like narrative discontinuity, the representation of consciousness as a stream of associations, a wide spectrum of linguistic registers, and a dominantly metaphorical rendering of perception, to give poetic intensity to the fictional representation of a violent chapter in modern history. It contrasts in this respect with two other novels about bombing in World War II already mentioned.
Len Deighton’s Bomber (or, to give it its full title, Events relating to the last flight of an RAF Bomber over Germany on the night of June 31, 1943), published in 1970, is a thoroughly realist novel. Panoramic in scope (it deals with the German experience of the raid, as well as the British, with civilians as well as servicemen in its huge cast of characters), exhaustively researched (Deighton claims to have read more than two hundred books in its preparation), and packed with technical facts about aeronautic engineering, bombs, guns, radar, meteorology, Pathfinder targeting, and German night-fighter tactics, as well as unflinching descriptions of death and injury in the air and on the ground, it gives a convincing and impartial account of what area bombing entailed for its participants and victims. The characterization at times is a little formulaic, and the comparisons by some reviewers with Balzac and Tolstoy were overenthusiastic, but it is a book of considerable literary merit, far better than the average airport bookstall bestseller which it superficially resembles.
Near the opposite end of the generic spectrum is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), in which the terror and violence of aerial warfare (in this case tactical rather than strategic, supporting the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943) is rendered in a postmodern style of black farce and witty paradox. Its hero, Yossarian,
was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live for ever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.
In this novel the repeated departure-and-return story is dominated by self-preservation, the performative aspect is disparaged, and the contractual basis of the hero’s service is subject to absurdist manipulation by his superiors: they keep revising upward the number of missions that constitute a tour of duty, and when Yossarian tries to get out of flying by pleading mental breakdown he is trapped by the famous catch: nobody who wants to avoid danger can be considered insane.
Algirdas Julien Greimas, Du Sens: Essais Sémiotiques (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1970).↩
See Ian Buruma's review of Jörg Friedrich, Der Brand: Deutschland in Bombenkrieg 1940–1945 (The Fire: Germany in the Bombing War, 1940– 1945; Berlin: Propyläen, 2002), in The New York Review, October 21, 2004.↩
Algirdas Julien Greimas, Du Sens: Essais Sémiotiques (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1970).↩
See Ian Buruma’s review of Jörg Friedrich, Der Brand: Deutschland in Bombenkrieg 1940–1945 (The Fire: Germany in the Bombing War, 1940– 1945; Berlin: Propyläen, 2002), in The New York Review, October 21, 2004.↩