The Shaping of Testimony of Bomber Command Veterans: Memory, Catharsis, Performance and Critique.
This article is based upon a paper presented to delegates at the RAF Museum Conference, London, on 6 September 2022. The theme of the conference was ‘Meaning, Memory and the Mis-Remembered Past’.
In this piece, I will consider some of the factors which have shaped the testimony of Bomber Command Veterans over the last eight decades, and how this ‘shaping of testimony’ can pose problems for present day historians.
In his ground-breaking work on Holocaust survivor testimony, Christopher Browning cautioned against the unquestioning acceptance of testimony. He argued that the greatest challenge to the historian in the use of survivor testimony as historical evidence is posed ‘not by those who are inherently hostile to it but by those who embrace it too uncritically and emotionally.’ Can this criticism be levelled at students and academics researching the work and men and women of the Royal Air Force, and Bomber Command in particular? It is perhaps something we have all been guilty of at some stage – which of us hasn’t been mesmerised by a particular veteran sharing his story?
But why do veterans relay their accounts of their experiences in a particular way? What influences their decision-making process, in terms of the information they decide to share, and the information they keep private? To what extent are their accounts influenced by ‘collective memory’ and ‘accepted narrative,’ a need for catharsis, and the cultural, social, and political context of the time in which that testimony is given? Is there a danger that the giving of testimony has taken on a performative element, and that the finely-honed and oft-repeated account has gained in the telling over the years and bears no relation to actual historical events? What traps await historians in the ‘memory minefield’?
Does it matter?
In recent years, as the last of our beloved Bomber Command aircrew fade away and the Second World War begins rapidly to fade from living memory, in our haste to accord veterans due respect, there has perhaps been a tendency towards a belief that that the authenticity of veteran accounts is more important than their factual accuracy.
In this paper I will advocate the adoption of a forensic, critical approach to veteran testimony, and will consider what aviation historians, particularly in this context those working with the accounts of Bomber Command veterans, can learn from academic approaches in other areas of historical research. I will focus on some of the methodologies advocated by Holocaust historians when dealing with difficult issues surrounding eyewitness testimony.
I will consider three fundamental issues which have arisen in the course of my research discussions with veterans, and in particular my work with 10 Squadron Association.
- What is ‘ historical accuracy’? Does it matter?
- Getting at the facts. How do we reconcile the potential conflict between affording due respect and our duties as historians?
- Testimony as catharsis and performance.
Finally, I will examine how some Holocaust historians have approached the thorny and often controversial issue of survivor testimony.
What do we mean by ‘historical accuracy’?
Holocaust Survivor Charlotte Delbo recalled of her own testimony, ‘Today I am not sure that what I wrote is true: I am certain that it is truthful’. Likewise, Primo Levi believed that, ‘The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by but often, they change or even increase by incorporating extraneous features’.
This acknowledgment and acceptance by those giving testimony of the vagaries and variation of memory reinforces the necessity for the historian to take a step back and analyse testimony critically and forensically. Those critical judgements must include a thorough examination of the context in which the veteran testimony is being given, and an analysis of the agenda behind the taking/giving of that testimony.
Holocaust historian Dori Laub concluded that the listener/questioner actively contributes to the construction of testimonial narrative. He noted that the receiving of testimony ‘involves a process’ of selection and omission, attention and inattention, highlighting and overshadowing, for which the listener/questioner remains responsible. To put it another way, the content, shape, and context of veteran testimony says as much about us as interrogators as it does about the veteran themselves. What is OUR agenda? What pressures have we placed upon veterans by framing our questions in a particular way, in order to obtain the answers, we want to hear?
Some historians emphasise the psychological aspect and intimate details of the veteran’s daily life; the focus is on the personal, the intimate and the traumatic, which lends the interviews a psychological dimension, in what Byford termed “the blending of psychological and historical approaches.” The role of the historian is to question critically both approaches, and to analyse how and why the agenda of the collection of veteran testimony shapes the content.
So how do we get at the facts?
The waters are muddied yet further for historians when considering veteran testimony which may have been given many years – or even decades – after the event. Some veterans I interviewed had been telling their stories for decades; others had only felt able to begin to share their experiences in their twilight years.
How should we approach accounts shared sometimes 70-80 years after the events described? Great work has been done by academics on this thorny subject in recent years. I particularly want to mention Frances Houghton’s book, The Veteran’s Tale – British Military Memoirs of the Second World War, published in 2019. Research carried out by the team at University of Lincoln, in conjunction with the International Bomber Command Centre, also deserves mention. Dr Dan Ellin’s studies on Lack of Moral Fibre also deserve credit; James Greenhalgh’s recently published work develops these themes further and, among other issues, explores how the fear of the LMF label has continued to shape the testimony of Bomber Command veterans even after 2015.
Veteran accounts should never be accepted purely at face value, in terms of the factual information which they purport to convey, and yet the popular history books are filled with such accounts. They are however invaluable in providing illumination of the human response to particular events and situations. As far as ‘facts’ are concerned, mistakes as to dates, places, names, and the order of events are of course inevitable, with the passage of time, and are entirely to be expected.
But how do we deal with those accounts which are clearly a complete fabrication, and a deliberate attempt to deceive? Where, for example, Squadron records demonstrate quite clearly that a particular gentleman never served as aircrew with that Squadron, let alone flew on a particular raid?
I recently spent some considerable time going through the entire Operational Record Book for 10 Squadron Bomber Command, on behalf of a gentleman whose father had told him that he was a tail gunner in the Squadron. It was believed that he had taken part in numerous operations between 1944 and 1945.
There was no record of the gunner in question; service records later revealed that the man had still in fact been in training when the war ended and had not even arrived back in the UK until April 1945. The family were extremely upset with me and formed the view that the documentary evidence must be incorrect. These sorts of situations are sadly not uncommon, and even more tricky to deal with when the feted veteran is still with us. A very delicate path must be trod between dealing with family sensitivities and ensuring the factual veracity and integrity of veteran accounts, but it is a path which we must not fear to tread.
We must be ever mindful of the powerful influence of popular media (in particular film, radio, and television) to ‘implant images’ and to shape the manner and the language in which stories are retold. There is a famous example, from Browning’s work, of holocaust survivor testimony being altered or adapted to incorporate memories of events which could not have been witnessed by those particular individuals, after they had watched the film Schindler’s List. Oft-related stories, tropes and themes can become incorporated in testimony almost by a process of osmosis; one man’s memories merging with those of his former comrades until it becomes almost impossible to separate out who did what and where and when.
In his work on Holocaust testimony, Schwartzman observes that the use of testimony as oral history tends to focus on narrative convergence, seeking corroborative testimonies to provide reliable indicators of how events occurred; however, this naturally results in the development of a particular or ‘favoured’ narrative.
Browning asks, ‘How is a society’s identity and self-understanding both created by and reflected in the selection from and manipulation of survivor accounts to create society’s present ‘collective memory’ of the past?’ . This is a question which, I would argue, all historians across all disciplines should have at the forefront of their minds.
But who decides what forms part of the so-called collective memory, and therefore the ‘accepted narrative’? There cannot be a single ‘collective consciousness’ spanning time, geography and a panoply of societies, cultures, and languages – perhaps ‘accepted narrative’ is a more appropriate term. What counts as a ‘relevant’ memory?
And what of those veterans whose testimony does not fit into ‘accepted narratives’ and falls outside the bounds of their particular ‘vision of experience’ or ‘community memory’? How does this influence veterans, both in their decision to speak about their experiences at all, and in relation to the content of their testimony? What challenge does this present to the historian?
This concept of ‘accepted narrative’ can present an impediment to veterans to bear witness about any event or personal experience considered to be outside the range of ‘accepted Bomber Command experiences’ described in the thousands of existing personal accounts, diaries, and memoirs. Veterans may feel compelled either to keep silent about parts of their experiences, or even to manipulate or adapt their testimony so that it accords with pre-existing narratives.
Historians must be conscious of the influences upon the decision-making process of veterans as to what to disclose and what to withhold from their testimony; equally, they must be prepared to challenge traditional and accepted narratives. The pressures upon veterans to conform to some ‘typical Bomber crew identity’ could mean that some veteran’s experiences have been marginalised, forgotten or even deliberately ignored altogether.
Testimony as Catharsis and Performance
“What did you do in the war Grandad?” That’s a question which must have been asked countless time over the generations, sometimes eliciting a response, but sometimes not.
We must be ever mindful of the myriad reasons as to why some veterans choose to share their experiences, and others remain tight-lipped. My grandfather, an Eighth Army veteran who served as a Sapper in Tunisia and Italy, talked about the war all the time; my great uncle, who flew a full tour of operations with Bomber Command between 1943 and 1944 and was awarded the DFM, never mentioned it, not even to his comrades at the local RAFA club.
For many veterans, the sharing of their experiences is a cathartic process. Many of us will have had that one elderly relative who, like my Grandfather, used to talk about the war all the time – the old ‘Uncle Albert Syndrome’ , for those of you familiar with British sitcom Only Fools and Horses.
Have you ever paused to consider why that might be?
One gentleman who had served as a flight engineer on Halifaxes told me that it was only when he reached his early nineties that he actually felt able to talk about what had happened – once he began, he simply couldn’t stop. Like so many men of his generation, he had been made to feel ashamed of his service with Bomber Command in the years after the war, and for decades thereafter. Sharing his experiences helped him to process the things he had witnessed, and the things he had had to do. But what about those who are still unable or unwilling to speak about what they witnessed – are their experiences any less valid?
I have noted that some veterans are perfectly happy to reminisce about their crew mates, their lives on bomber bases, high jinks in the Mess and trips to the village pub; however, when asked about their memories of particular operations or incidents, they would clam up, unwilling or in many cases simply unable to discuss what had happened. Many decades later, it was simply still too traumatic for them to do so. One Bomber Command tail gunner I spent time with still couldn’t bear to open and read his logbook. He was 98.
And yet, with other former airmen, it is the very opposite. I am sure we have all come across veterans who, when asked to describe their experience of a particular operation or incident, deliver a well-polished, word-perfect, and clearly very well-rehearsed account, that trips off the tongue. The same account will, no doubt, have been given to enthusiastic and receptive family members, journalists, and historians on countless occasions over the decades. Tales become polished, honed, and in some cases, exaggerated over the years. That’s human nature, and something we all do, consciously or otherwise. Which tale doesn’t grow in the telling?
One wireless operator I interviewed at an aircrew reunion in 2017 even had a pre-prepared sheet setting out his experiences which was distributed to attendees. This account had been prepared by the gentleman’s son, which gave me pause to wonder how much influence the son had had upon the content, and whether words had been ‘put into his father’s mouth.’ When asked to provide an oral account of his experiences, our wireless operator’s tale barely deviated from the written ‘script,’ and yet appears to have been accepted entirely at face value.
After speaking to many veterans over the years, I was very conscious that for some at least, there was most definitely a performative element to the delivery of their testimony. But ultimately – does that really make any difference to its validity?
It is important for us as aviation historians to ensure that we apply the same critique, the same factual analysis, and the same challenge to all testimony, regardless of how it is presented and delivered.
Conclusions – navigating the ‘memory minefield’.
Christopher Browning warned that ‘the historian needs accuracy, not just sincerity.’
He argues that the historian must make critical judgements about the use of sources, depending upon the questions being asked and the varying capacity of the available sources (including eyewitnesses) to provide reliable information relevant to those questions.
I echo his view that veteran testimony should not be accorded such a privileged position that it is not subject to the same forensic analysis and evidential rules as other historical sources (another Holocaust historian Zoe Waxman calls this process the ‘sanctification of testimony’).
When analysing veteran testimony, the aviation (and indeed, any) historian must be prepared to adopt a bold and forensic approach. In the same way that a lawyer would examine witness statements and cross-examine the witness in the context of legal proceedings, the historian must probe and challenge, ask potentially difficult questions, and look beyond established, accepted narratives and the so-called ‘collective memory.’
Why is the veteran’s testimony framed in a particular way? For what purpose was it prepared, and upon whose instigation? In what social and political context and era was it given? What was the motivation? Why does it deal with some issues and not others? What factual information can be gleaned from the testimony? In what format has it been given – written or oral? Has it been prompted by questions? Who drafted those questions and why? What social or other pressures was the veteran subjected to when they gave their testimony? Does the veteran’s account seek to comply with accepted narratives, the shared ‘vision of experience’ or gender norms? To what extent has popular culture or other testimony influenced it? Perhaps the most important and complicated issue of all for the historian is to try to determine what information has been excluded from the testimony, and why.
Wherever possible, we must seek to corroborate the veteran’s story with reference to original and contemporaneous source material, in particular Squadron Operational Record Books and Squadron Diaries, Orders, Logbooks, Service Records, and other archival material. We must also recognise that documentary evidence is not infallible either. Those veteran accounts which cannot be corroborated in such a manner must be handled with extreme caution.
How we implement such an approach sensitively, and navigate the ‘memory minefield’ without causing offence to the memory of veterans or their families, is a matter for further debate; however, we must avoid the temptation to view veteran testimony as a ‘silver bullet,’ in the words of Browning. The impulse to grant veteran accounts a position of privilege and ‘sanctity,’ exempt from the same sort of critical analysis as other types of testimony or historical sources, and simply to accept them at face value, is to be avoided at all costs. We have so much to learn from the approaches used by historians in other disciplines.
We must be bold. We must not be afraid to challenge. Veteran testimony should never be viewed simply in black and white terms, and it should never be considered to be ‘the last word’.
With thanks to the RAF Museum, Hendon.
You can watch highlights from the conference presentations and debates here.
 Christopher R Browning, Collected Memories: Holocaust History and Postwar Testimony, (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press), 2003, p.39.
 Charlotte Delbo, None of Us Will Return, trans. John Gothens, (New York: Grove Press), 1968, p.1, cited in Zoë Vania Waxman, Writing the Holocaust Identity, Testimony, Representation (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2006, p.169.
 Waxman, Writing the Holocaust, p.169.
 Thomas Trezise, ‘Between History and Psychoanalysis: A Case Study in the Reception of Holocaust Survivor Testimony’, History and Memory, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring /Summer 2008, p. 13- 19.
 Jovan Byford, Remembering Jasenovac: Survivor Testimonies and the Cultural Dimension of Bearing Witness, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 28, Issue 1, Spring 2014, p. 62.
 Francis Houghton, The Veteran’s Tale – British Military Memoirs of the Second World War, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge), 2019
 Dan Ellin, ‘A Lack of Moral Fibre in Royal Air Force Bomber Command and Popular Culture’, British Journal for Military History, 6.3, 2020
 James Greenhalgh, ‘The long shadow of the air war: composure, memory and the renegotiation of self in the oral testimonies of Bomber Command Veterans since 2015’, Contemporary British History, 2021, pp.1-38.
 Browning, Collected Memories, p.81
 Roy Schwartzman, ‘Sutured Identities in Jewish Holocaust Survivor Testimonies,’ Journal of Social Issues, Vol.71, No.2, 2015, p.281.
 Browning, Collected Memories, p.38.
 Waxman, Writing the Holocaust, p. 6.
 Browning, Collected Memories, p.39.
 Browning, Collected Memories, p.43