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Tail-End Charlies: The Last Battles of the Bomber War, 1944-1945.
John Nichols & Tony Rennel
London: Viking, 2004.
£18.99, 496 pages, ISBN 0670914568

Philippe Rouyer
Université de Rouen


"Tail End Charlies" designated the aircraft occupying the tail (and most vulnerable) position in a USAAF formation. "Tail End Charlies" were also the men who stayed at the very end of the aircraft (named rear gunners in the RAF, and tail gunners in the USAAF). Eventually, "Tail End Charlies" were known as those who fought during the final year of the war. This is the story of all "Tail End Charlies," British and American alike.

So much has been written about the strategic bombing campaign that writing something new on the subject is a challenge. But this book is brilliant, combining the precision and rigor of a scholarly essay with the ingredients of a good novel.

It tells the truth, without political or ideological prejudices. The reason is quite simple; it tells the story of the final year of the strategic bombing of Germany through the eyes of those who were there: airmen, politicians, journalists, clergymen. It is not very difficult to find writings of the military, political or religious leaders, since most have been published. It is another matter to gather firsthand accounts of "Tail End Charlies," those unknown heroes. Nichols and Rennel went through hundreds of diaries, interviewed dozens of veterans-at least those they could find, considering that the rate of attrition of WWII veterans is 1000 per day.

For the first time, no subject, however embarrassing, is set aside. Nichols and Rennel cover the physical strain of flying for 8 to 10 hours in rarefied air, the misgivings, the fear of having to bail out over enemy territory-with the risk of being lynched by civilians-the doubts about the morality of bombing, heavy drinking, wounds, death, returning to civilian life; even the indifferent and very soon hostile attitude of the public towards Bomber Command and its crews in the years following the war.

The authors express obvious empathy for bombers: the book is not a justification of strategic bombing, but a tribute to WWII airmen and the 55,000 killed or missing in action in Bomber Command. So much has been written by revisionist historians that it is necessary to re-assert that "Tail End Charlies" were not war criminals. In practice, only semantics made a difference between precision bombing and area bombing. The new weapons developed by the Third Reich were no gimmicks, but serious threats. The Battle of the Bulge had given evidence that Germany was still able to build up strong opposition. It should be remembered that the Allies had not crossed the Rhine by the end of 1944, and the possibility of a ferocious resistance from Germans defending their homeland could not be discarded.

There were many other reasons than revenge for the bombing of German cities in 1945: recent studies bring evidence that cities such as Dresden were actually military targets. Nichol and Rennel point out the fact that the USAAF was never accused of indiscriminate bombing, though the 8th Air Force was equally responsible for many casualties among civilians. It should also be remembered that the 9th Air Force achieved in Japan Arthur Harris's plans for Germany: driving the enemy to surrender through aerial bombing alone, sparing the live of ground troops.

Though they sometimes questioned the morality of bombing, bomber crews never failed to perform their task. Indiscriminate bombing was in most cases the result of the impossibility of attacking selected targets. In retrospect, it is all too easy to bear moral judgement on the last months of the Combined Bombing Offensive. Post-war reports have tried to evaluate the efficiency of aerial bombing, with very little success. The psychology of "terror" bombing may be questioned, but the CBO had a positive effect on the morale of the British and the people of occupied countries: "During the occupation, the throb of your bombers overhead at night sounded like music in our ears. It was an anchor to which we clung in the dark days," (a Dutch civilian).

There should be no controversies about Tail-End Charlies: The Last Battles of the Bomber War, 1944-1945, it is not about the ethics of bombing but about the moving stories of those who lived it. While retaining the value of a primary document for researchers, it should appeal to a wide audience.


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