The great thing about an online digital archive is how widely it can be shared. As long as you have an internet connection, you can access a digital repository from anywhere. Sometimes you have to get beyond a pay barrier, but that is often far cheaper than the journey to consult a unique paper collection in its real archival setting.
Sometimes there is no ‘paper collection’. That is the case with our IBCC Digital Archive, which launched at the Heritage Dot event in September. It consists of two kinds of material: interviews with eyewitnesses – we have collected over 1,100 of these – and memorabilia, such as letters, diaries, log books, photographs, medals, lucky charms and other pieces of wartime kit. Families have lent us these objects for digitisation and once we have done, they take the originals away again – these are often treasured possessions, past down the generations. To date, we have digitised over 1,000 collections of memorabilia.
The role of the Allies in the bombing campaigns of the Second World War remains a sensitive topic on both sides of the conflict. On the Axis side, out of the devastation of obliterated cities came waves of different and complex kinds of reaction: traumatic, stunned silence; anger; a sense of helpless victimhood; a sense of culpability. On the Allied side, the role of those who served in RAF Bomber Command (and to some extent the US Army Air Force and other Allied air forces) tended to be downplayed in the victory celebrations at the war’s end. Churchill’s moral ambiguity towards the bombing of non-combatants is well known; many in Britain had voiced the view that the Blitz was a form of ‘terrorism’ – but then the subsequent area bombing of European and Japanese cities was far more destructive of life and cultural heritage.
To complicate matters even further, the loss rate among Allied air crew serving in the bombing campaigns was extraordinarily high. One of the few ways of coping with the contradictions of bombing as a strategy was to focus on such heavy losses. This partly explains why the figure of 55,573 killed in RAF Bomber Command, out of the 125,000 volunteer aircrew, has acquired almost reverential status on the Allied side. (Depending on how one calculates, this figure is even higher; more about this further on.)
The IBCC project began its work in Lincoln some six years ago, as a partnership between the Lincolnshire Bomber Command Memorial Trust and the University of Lincoln. Some of the researchers on the University side had previously worked on projects involving difficult heritage. They brought to this one a strong sense that the stories of all those who had been caught up in the bombing war should be told. It was an inclusive approach, that we came to call our ‘orchestra of voices’, which would neither victimise nor lionise: what we wanted to convey was common humanity and shared suffering – of combatants and civilians, on both sides of the conflict, in Central and Western Europe. (Maybe in the future, if resources ever allow, we can include other regions where air power played a significant role in the conflict.)
We set about identifying material for the Digital Archive that would reflect this approach, and the way it has been collected has been inclusive, too: volunteers in several countries have been fundamental to what has been achieved so far. Our geopolitical location means that most material so far has come from those based in the UK, but we continue work with colleagues in Italy, Germany and other countries to collect stories and documents. Already one of the team has been involved in compiling an account of sources in the Digital Archive that help understand bombing experiences in the Friuli region of Italy. One striking collection from this area is the artwork of Angiolino Filiputti. Volunteers have sought out stories from many lesser-known areas of Europe; listen for example to the interview with Gavino Pala about his Sardinian experiences.
Another aspect of inclusivity is the telling of stories of the black ground crew and air crew who served in Bomber Command. We have been privileged to interview veterans and their families about the experiences of those willing to serve Britain in its hour of need. Even though there was no official discrimination in the RAF, they faced a lot of informal discrimination. It saddens their families that their roles have largely been forgotten: men like John Henry Smthye, Akin Shenbanjo, and Sir Roy Augier. Further research has revealed that although comparatively few black aircrew served in the Command, the numbers willing to volunteer were far higher: this surely requires a rethink about the way we perceive relations between Britain and its empire. Evidence suggests that the same may be true of black women volunteering to serve in the WAAF.
Although not part of the Archive itself, but a key part of the IBCC project more broadly, have been the thousands of hours of volunteer time devoted to establishing the number killed in action. The IBCC Losses Database has also taken an inclusive approach, incorporating in its numbers ground crew killed; those killed in accidents while on leave; those who were killed on aircraft that returned safely to base; the few civilians, such as journalists, who had flown on sorties – all categories that had not previously featured in the total, which now stands at 57,861.
Adopting an inclusive approach, then, has shaped the nature of the material we have aspired to collect, and has in turn helped us to ask new questions about those who were caught up in the bombing war. If anyone has any information of interest and is willing to share it, please contact the Digital Archive team: firstname.lastname@example.org.