WE SHOULD BE grateful for the open and honest style of history that is producing books such as Reap the Whirlwind (McClelland & Stewart, 437 pages, $29.95 cloth), Spencer Dunmore and William Carter's stunning story of 6 Group, Canada's bomber force in the Second World War. It is a relief as well as a revelation not to have to read another romanticized "Boy's Own" version of the war.
The book derives its title from British Air Marshall "Bomber" Harris's phrase, "They sowed the wind and now they are going to reap the whirlwind," which, in turn, comes from Hosea 8:7 Harris's passion, which led him to order the bombing of civilian targets in Germany, also earned him the nickname "Butcher."
In Reap the Whirlwind we are given a glimpse of just how terrifying it was to fly thousands of pounds of bombs and fuel over hundreds of miles through enemy flak and fighters. The crews' fear was obviously justified when we consider that of the 5,700 Canadians on the bombers, almost 75 per cent of them died.
But the stories of bravery and survival are mystifying and miraculous. A frequent refrain in Reap the Whirlwind is "he was the only member of his crew to survive" when a bomber was shot down. Often, those who did survive aren't certain how they managed it -the last thing they remember was losing consciousness inside the crashing aircraft.
The seat-of the-pants aeronautical genius required of the crews when their planes were coming apart in the air from overuse, bad conditions, or enemy attack was incredible. Keeping a crippled bomber aloft was often the reason medals were awarded -and deserved. Dunmore and Carter describe these experiences in detail, and with sympathy and compassion.
The last section of the book describes 6 Group's 1990 reunion in England, attended by men who had become pharmacists, salesmen, or postmen, by men who had had whole lives to be ordinary after such extraordinary exploits. Many still dream of flying, but also recall the terror of being blown out of the sky. And many recognize their responsibility in killing civilians, but justify their actions in terms that those of us who have lived only in peacetime can only try to understand.