12 March 1946: Debate on the RAF, Part II

Part II of the 12 March 1946 debate, which began with PART I.

Here, Wing Commander Millington gives an impassioned and moving description of the wartime experience of aircrew in Bomber Command, including himself, and their feelings of insult that their Commander-in-Chief, Arthur Harris, had not been honoured in the same way as his counterparts in the Army and Navy. He concludes with a vision of the RAF as a force for international law and peace.

The full debate can be read on the excellent HANSARD website.

Wing Commander Millington (Chelmsford)

On 1st May, 1945, I first took my seat in the House of Commons after winning a by-election. The “Daily Telegraph” newspaper said that my entering the House of Commons was astounding. The” thing that astonished me was that I was alive to come into the House, because I had just completed a tour of operations with Bomber Command.

I remember well, that when I first joined my squadron, the night before I received my posting, the station to which I was posted lost 12 aircraft out of the 28 that had flown that night. The Under-Secretary of State, in his introductory speech, referred, I thought, a little casually and in passing to the fact that 50,000 men lost their lives in Bomber Command during the war. He forgot to mention 15,000 others who suffered serious casualties, including being taken prisoner of war, and the overriding fact that this enormous number of casualties, 65,000 in all, was out of a sum total of 110,000 trained.

The fact that when I first reported to a squadron 12 out of 28 crews had ”gone for a Burton”, as we used to say, and the fact that when I first reported for operational duty, the average expectation of life for 9 new crews out of 10, in the group to which I was posted, was less than 6 months, have a significance in the whole of my outlook in the political world in which I live, and also upon the attitude I have towards the Royal Air Force and towards this particular Debate.

We want — that is, the people who served in Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force and their next-of-kin — a categorical assurance that the work we did was militarily and strategically justified.

I am sorry I should go back to this old question. There have been words of high praise spoken in this Debate and written in the Press, words of congratulation, but there has also been an undercurrent of thought that the strategic work of Bomber Command was wasteful of our manpower and over-destructive in its effect upon the enemy.

I feel I am justified on behalf of 50,000 widows and bereaved mothers in asking the Under-Secretary of State to make much more clear than he did in his speech—upon which I join in congratulating him—that the work that was done by Bomber Command was completely justified from the military point of view and, particularly, from the strategic point of view.

If it was not completely justified, then some investigation must be held into the position of those people who were responsible for the direction of Bomber Command, particularly from the years 1943 to 1945, which resulted in such a great waste of manpower.

This matter is precipitated in my mind by the signal fact that, in the terminal honours, at the end of last year, in the New Year’s Honours List, the name of the chief architect of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, was a conspicuous absentee. 1 know it will be argued that in the Honours List six months previously the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command received the Order of the G.C.B. But he retired from the Royal Air Force without any public expression of gratitude for the work, not that he had done, but which his Command had done under him. He left the country in a bowler hat for America, without having been included in the terminal Honours List.

There is a feeling amongst the men who have served in Bomber Command that what appears to be an affront to the Commander-in-Chief of that Command is, in fact, an affront to the people who served in that Command and, of course, to those who suffered casualties. We feel that if our organisation did a good job of work in all respects, as we believe it did, the least that should be done is that an honour should be conferred on its head, comparable to the honours paid to commanding officers of similar units, particularly in the other Services. […]

I cannot possibly convey to this Committee, or indeed to my personal friends, what it means to people with my experience during the war to see their friends killed on operations night after night. It is not the immediate menace to one’s self which is so destructive to one’s morale, because I have not yet met an airman who thought that it could possibly happen to him, even when the losses were 50, 60 and 70 per cent. It is this business of having to go up 3 or 4 nights a week, losing 1 or 3 from a squadron, or 30 from a group in one operation, which makes the airmen, of all people, conscious of the fact that there is no profit for anyone in war for nationalistic purposes.

I submit that the future recruitment of the Air Force is entirely bound up with the foreign policy of the British Government. If it is made clear that the Air Force will be used as an instrument for international law and peace, then the men will come in voluntarily to assist in the building up of that international Force. It is my most terrifying nightmare that ever again the Royal Air Force should be used as an instrument of nationalistic war.