Whether you Win or Lose, Bombing Civilians is Complicated: Strategies of Explanation in the Canadian and German Documentaries ‘Death by Moonlight’ (1992) and ‘Feuersturm’ (2003)


The depiction of the Second World War in historical documentaries tends to be relatively uncomplicated. For many, this is the only uncomplicated war. Taking American history as an illustrative example: the Revolutionary War was full of traitors and local populations who had to make deeply complicated decisions about whom they would support and when; ask any young man named Jefferson Davis today whether or not the American Civil War has a complicated place in American history; in the First World War, Americans attempted to trade with the Germans right up to their late decision to fight them; Korea was a stalemate, and Vietnam, two Iraqs and Afghanistan, have left few with the impression of a straightforward victory. The Second World War, by contrast, actually gave us good versus evil, with cartoonish villains.[1] The Allies were the good guys, the Axis were the bad guys. Documentaries about the Second World War usually get to bypass the handwringing one finds in films about other modern conflicts. But what happens when a World War Two documentary calls out the good guys and focuses on something no one is comfortable with, namely, Allied Bomber Command’s deliberate targeting of German civilians? For several years during the Second World War, combatants (Allied bomber crews) specifically targeted non-combatants (German civilians) and killed hundreds of thousands of them. That the unassailable heroes did something wrong makes for a complicated historical story, and therefore a difficult documentary. This paper sets up and analyzes an extreme comparison, exploring how two documentaries, from national perspectives on each side, tell this story: on the one hand we have the nation that perceives itself as one of the Whitest Hats of all time, Canada, depicting its bombing of civilians in the Second World War, and on the other hand we have the nation that self-identifies as the Blackest Hat of all time, Germany, dealing with the fact that its civilians were the victims of a war crime. After first laying out ‘what happened’ with regard to bombing in the Second World War, I will describe the Canadian attempt to depict the bombing in a 1992 documentary, and then a German documentary of 2003 which attempts the same. I will end by comparing and contrasting the two, and tease out what these documentaries might tell us about unmentionable history on film.

War Crime?               

Now that this term has been invoked, I will deal with what happened and why it was a war crime. On 1 September 1939, it was well established in Customary International Law that the deliberate targeting of civilians by aerial bombardment was illegal.[2] Over the course of the latter half of the nineteenth century, the categories of combatant and non-combatant were continually elaborated upon and distinguished in the law of warfare. That civilians would die in any conflict was always accepted, but the specific targeting of non-combatants was outlawed. Food was not to be blockaded from civilian populations,[3] cruise ships were not to be torpedoed, civilians in occupied cities were not to be executed en masse. Massive food blockades, submarine attacks on civilian shipping, and the first aerial bombardment of cities, all of which occurred in the First World War, led to the further hardening of these laws in the interwar period. In fact, by the outset of conflict in September 1939, the British Prime Minister and Hitler had both claimed that it was illegal to target civilians from the air, while the American President had said it was at least wrong to do so.[4] Nonetheless, the Germans committed this war crime on the opening day of their assault on Poland, by bombing Warsaw.

In 1940, the Germans continued to commit what they had themselves deemed a war crime, with the aerial bombardment of Britain. By the time the Blitz petered out in 1941, close to 40 000 civilians had died, some 125 000 were injured, and more than a million homes had been destroyed. Small British reprisals against German cities began in 1940, but soon enough these attacks became truly massive, with the first ‘thousand bomber raid’ over Cologne in May 1942. This was followed by Operation Gomorrah, the firebombing of Hamburg, two months later, which in one week killed more German civilians than all British civilian deaths due to bombing for the entire war. The head of British Bomber Command, which contained the entire Canadian bomber fleet, was Arthur Harris. ‘Bomber’ Harris believed that the war would be won only through breaking the will of the German people by directly targeting the civilians living in German cities. Once the Americans joined the war against Germany, they initially disagreed with this approach, believing (correctly) that targeting German fuel supplies and transportation networks would be far more effective. But by late 1944, the US Air Force had joined in targeting civilians as well, in Berlin and most famously, in Dresden.[5] In the wake of Dresden, Churchill had his first misgivings, and once the war was over, the story of Bomber Command became a bit of an embarrassment. In the end, 600 000 German civilians were killed by aerial bombardment, five million were rendered homeless, and Bomber Harris had been exactly wrong: bombing did not break the will of the German nation, and targeting civilians (instead of fuel, transportation, etc.) did not noticeably speed up the end of the war. Where was such an ugly chapter to fit into the overarching narrative of good guys versus bad guys? For the first fifty years after the war the answer was, almost nowhere.

Breaking the Silence: Death by Moonlight

For most of the Cold War, this episode was simply not mentioned. In the 1960s, the British official history of Bomber Command made it clear that the bombing had been a mistake.[6] But in Canada, such an argument was a very difficult sell. Fully 50 000 of the 125 000 members of British Bomber Command had been Canadian. 10 000 of Canada’s 45 000 dead had died in Bomber Command. The largest Allied Air Training facility was in Canada. In other words, bombing Germany was arguably Canada’s biggest contribution to the largest conflagration in history. Yet, no official history of the bombing campaign was released until 1994.[7] The Cold War had passed, replete with heroic stories of Canadians fighting from Normandy to Germany, sans stories of Bomber Command. This all changed rather dramatically one day in 1992, when the national broadcaster aired the documentary ‘Death by Moonlight’.

Star documentary makers (and brothers), Terence and Brian McKenna, had received the green light from the National Film Board and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to make three documentaries in a series to be called The Valour and the Horror. Each of the three episodes was to examine a way in which, during the war, Canadian soldiers had been let down, manipulated or duped, by their superiors. Those superiors, in two of the three episodes, were represented as the old condescending parents of Canada, the British. The second episode was entitled ‘Death by Moonlight’ and would be the focus of the vast majority of the resulting controversy. In the episode, German civilians were depicted as the innocent victims of Canadian bombs, a thesis that was guaranteed to be highly controversial, and a shock to a Canadian audience that saw World War Two in an uncomplicated way. It appears the McKennas thought they might get away with this though through a fascinating sleight of hand: the documentary would depict Canadian bomber crews as dupable, innocent ‘boys’ forced by the utterly evil Bomber Harris to rain incendiaries on the poor German people. In other words, as opposed to saying Canadians were perpetrating war criminals, these young men were ‘forced’ to do it. This was, at the very least, a naïve move on the part of the McKenna brothers. After all, this was the post-Nuremberg world in which ‘regular’ young German soldiers ‘doing what they were told’ were to be considered war criminals. And indeed, this was how many members of the TV audience read the documentary: the McKenna brothers were tarnishing the memory of Canadian veterans by depicting them as war criminals.

The one hour and forty-five minute documentary[8] features Terence McKenna speaking as the ‘voice of god’ narrator, and includes historical footage, interviews with eyewitnesses and reenactments. The spine of the narrative is provided by two important witnesses, Canadian veterans who were Bomber Command crew members. These charismatic and sympathetic characters take us on a journey, from the English bases where they had partied before and after missions, to a Rhine Cruise full of veteran German fighter pilots, including an ace who shot down many planes full of their friends, and with whom the Canadians toast their beers. Lastly, the men travel to Hamburg, where they meet two women who were teens on the ground during Operation Gomorrah. The documentary puts these two stoic, elderly men through a series of emotions as they meet these Germans. One of the two Canadian veterans openly questions the legitimacy of having dropped bombs on civilians. He speaks honestly, of the well-known ‘distancing effect’ of not actually seeing the humans one is killing, and how this must have framed his mindset as he dropped bombs into the glowing nighttime fire he saw thousands of feet below.[9] But he does admit that he knew who was in and near that fire. Yet, the number of World War Two Bomber Command veterans who have expressed any regret or remorse for what they did is vanishingly small. Now, of course, this veteran was expressing the academic and legal community consensus[10] that what he did was wrong, but still, the documentarians were being rather disingenuous in failing to provide a veteran voice representing the vast majority, men who tend towards something along the lines of: war is hell, the Germans started it, and deserved what they got.[11]

There are no historians, no academic ‘experts,’ in the Canadian documentary. Instead there is a wealth of reenactments. The main, and most entertaining historical re-creation revolves around life on the English base. Several young Canadian actors were employed to depict these men as plucky, idealistic, attractive and innocent pawns. They were juxtaposed against an over-the-top, brooding depiction of a satanic Bomber Harris. As one of the actors, Nick Shields, told me,[12] the major purpose of reenactments is to infuse a historical documentary with emotion, the very thing film can do that a history book cannot.

The McKennas used emotional manipulation to maximum effect, driving home the Manichean view that innocents were led to the slaughter by their evil British commander. What is so striking about this good versus evil rendering of history, is that although it takes place in the context of perhaps the greatest good versus evil war of all time, Hitler and the Nazis are barely mentioned. Bomber Harris is the Hitler of this documentary, and there appears to only be room for one monster. That the jolly German ace on the sunny Rhine Cruise was ‘an enemy’ is clear, though he is allowed to imply that, as opposed to being a Nazi, he was simply a German heroically shooting down the very men trying to kill German women and children. The two female survivors of Hamburg make no mention of the nearby Neuengamme concentration camp their parents surely whispered about. Of course, legally speaking, it simply does not matter that the citizens of Hamburg were (potentially supportive) members of a criminal regime. Deliberately targeting non-combatants is illegal and morally wrong. But in a historical documentary, context is nevertheless critical, and to not remind the audience that part of the reason that these cocksure young Canadians believed what they were doing was right, is a great disservice. That this documentary could leave the audience believing Bomber Harris was worse than any Nazi is of course highly problematic.

What followed after the airing of ‘Death by Moonlight’ was a political and historical hurricane. Canadian veterans’ groups virulently assailed the CBC for airing such an unpatriotic and libelous documentary. An official inquiry was conducted by the Canadian Senate, and a vicious war of words between historians was unleashed.[13] This latter battle was fascinating. While many historians found several elements of the documentary to be heavy-handed and problematic, very few historians attacked the claim that it was, in fact, wrong to have bombed civilians. (As mentioned above, this reflects the academic consensus, as well as the findings in the Official History that appeared shortly thereafter, in 1994). All of this controversy managed to put Canada’s role in Bomber Command back into guarded hibernation, only to rear its ugly head once again when the new Canadian Military Museum opened in 2005 with a panel suggesting the bombing was ‘an enduring controversy.’[14]  Further elements of the actual documentary will be discussed below for the manner in which they compare to the German documentary Feuersturm.

Germans can be victims: Firestorm

Whereas Canadians saw themselves as the whitest of White Hats, and therefore had problems depicting ‘questionable’ actions in World War Two, the Germans knew they had worn the skull and crossbones,[15] and thus had serious problems playing the victim card. As awareness of the Holocaust grew from the 1960s, it became quite difficult at the national level for Germany to make the case that its civilians had been victims of war crimes. Thus any serious discussion of strategic bombing was highly problematic, despite the visible scars in every German city.[16] The discursive space to claim victimhood did however begin to open in the mid-1990s, for a different but ultimately related reason. As the crime of mass rape entered the headlines, due to its widespread practice in the wars of Yugoslav secession, for the first time, German women began to come forward with their stories of victimhood at the hands of the advancing Soviet Army in early 1945.[17] It was now inescapable: German civilians had been the victims of targeted mass rape, a war crime. Once these stories were told, it was but a short step to affirm that the children and elderly parents of these women had also been the targets of another massive war crime: years of unrelenting aerial bombardment. But this time, the perpetrators were the Western Allies, and not the more easily ‘othered’, ‘barbarous’ Slavs.

With the publication of Der Brand, later translated as The Fire, in 2002, Jörg Friedrich described the fire bombings of German civilians in extreme detail. It was indeed too far for some, especially when his narrative used the trope of ‘crematoria’ to describe children burning to death while trapped in cellars. Friedrich was making a rhetorical move to claim that non-combatants who are specifically targeted for death are all equally victims, be they German children in Hamburg cellars or Jewish children in the gas chambers of Treblinka. Historically, and therefore contextually, there are all kinds of crucial differences, most notably the very motivating factor of eliminationist genocide and Germans as aggressors on both counts. Strictly legally speaking however, as noted above, they are similar in one crucial way: both sets of non-combatants are the victims of war crimes. In 2003, Germany’s Spiegel-TV produced a two part documentary on the bombing, Feuersturm. Der Bombenkrieg gegen Nazi-Deutschland, which would later air on the state television station ZDF.[18]

Feuersturm aired as two 42-44 minute episodes. The German documentary has many of the elements of the Canadian: there is historical footage, often with the sound of crackling fire added, interviews with witnesses from the ground, as well as with Allied and German pilots. But unlike the Canadian documentary, there are no reenactments, and instead we have two experts, Jörg Friedrich, and the British historian Richard Overy. The use of Overy is very clever for he is likely the only prestigious ‘Allied’ historian they could find to push back on Friedrich. Friedrich, and the documentary, make the argument that is in fact the academic consensus among the former western Allies that British Bomber Command’s attempt to ‘de-house’ German civilians was straightforwardly a case of combatants targeting non-combatants and therefore wrong, although the documentary stops short of openly calling this a ‘war crime’. Bombing towns of no military significance, in the last months of the war, when there was virtually no Luftwaffe left to oppose the bombers, and no non-destroyed large cities of any import, is framed as ‘revenge bombing’. The documentary points out, and most historians agree, that the targeting of civilian populations instead of transport and fuel was not strategically valuable. Because Overy is the only major historian who pushes back on these suppositions,[19] the documentary uses him in order to strike a balance.  Yet, perversely, by putting forward the non-German perspective through Overy, the German producers are manipulating the audience into believing that there is an academic consensus outside Germany that is in favour of the bombing campaign. Just as the Canadian documentary does not feature a typical unapologetic veteran, the German documentary fails to give voice to a typical ‘Allied’ academic who would condemn the bombing.

Echoes of Friedrich’s rhetorical flourishes from his book are present in the documentary in at least two ways: descriptions by the eyewitnesses of people burning in the Hamburg cellars or melting into asphalt are followed by photos of bodies piled up. The viewer cannot help but compare this to famous images of Holocaust victims at Auschwitz. Fascinatingly, the German documentary spends a lot more time pointing out that the parents and grandparents of the viewers, i.e., the German people, to a great degree participated in a criminal regime. This is all the more shocking when compared to the total lack of context in the documentary produced by the ‘good guys’. In fact, in what is perhaps the most powerful moment in either documentary, in Feuersturm we discover that one of the eyewitnesses interviewed had been a young Jewish boy in Berlin. The now famous actor, Michael Degen, describes the double threat of the Gestapo and the bombs, but jars the viewer when he recalls his mother calling out to the bombers in the sky: ‘even more!’ The viewer is left in the wildly incongruous position of quite suddenly wanting the Allied bombers to punish the complicit German civilians. What was to be the mournful depiction of the leveled city of Berlin is morphed into a story of justice. This moment in fact comes closest to telling a historical ‘truth’ about the Allied bombing of German civilians: There simply is no easy answer, no simple ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. The legal argument I began with is simpler than a moral one, and interestingly neither documentary deals with the law. Bombing is instead set up as a moral question, and the muddiness of such an endeavor is only honestly confronted in the German documentary. The Canadian documentary never gets anywhere near such a confrontation with such complexity.           

Feuersturm exemplifies how documentaries should deal with ultimately unanswerable questions. Was it wrong for Allied bomber crews to deliberately target German civilians? Legally, definitely. Morally, probably.[20] Historically, in the context of a war where a powerful consensus tends to actually see ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, it is especially difficult to judge, such as when in some cases the killing of German civilians might have prevented the German murder of Jewish civilians.[21] Most Germans have a highly complicated relationship with their Nazi past, and thankfully, in the rare instances when they have represented themselves as victims in World War Two, they continue to work through the highly complicated nature of that victimhood. Most Canadians, however, cling to a simplistic understanding of their nation’s role in the Second World War. Such a straightforward framing of good and evil appears wholly unable to deal with the complexity of the bombing of civilians.


[1] One of the more famous skits on this theme is Mitchell and Webb’s ‘Are we the Baddies?’, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn1VxaMEjRU

[2] Robert L. Nelson and Christopher Waters. ‘The Allied Bombing of German Cities during the Second World War from a Canadian Perspective.’ Journal of the History of International Law 14 (2012): 87-122.

[3] Robert L. Nelson and Christopher Waters, ‘Slow or Spectacular Death: Reconsidering the Legal History of Blockade and Submarines in WWI”, University of Toronto Law Review, forthcoming.

[4] Nelson/Waters, ‘Allied Bombing,’ pp. 97, 100.

[5] Of course, this is in tandem with the American decision to begin targeting Japanese civilians.

[6] Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, 3 volumes (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Service, 1961), and Noble Frankland, The Bombing Offensive Against Germany: Outlines and Perspectives (London: Faber and Faber, 1965).

[7] Brereton Greenhous, Stephen J. Harris, William C. Johnston and William G.P. Rowling, The Crucible of War, 1939-1945. The Official History of The Royal Canadian Air Force, Volume 3 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994)

[8] The entire documentary can be found at the National Film Board of Canada website, here: https://www.nfb.ca/film/death_by_moonlight_bomber_command/

[9] He in fact says this directly to the female survivors in Hamburg.

[10] While the Senate subcommittee managed to find four historians that, to a certain degree, split, they did this in order to seek two opinions. If one reviews the Canadian, American, and British academic literature on Bomber Command, as a whole, one finds a consensus that bombing cities was a bad idea. Indeed, as will be referenced below, Richard Overy stands as a lonely voice defending Bomber Command, and he knows it.

[11] Though it is perhaps fair to say that many of this majority may well have changed their minds had they taken this journey with the documentary crew.

[12] See my interview of Nick Shields here, and especially note his nuanced discussion of reenactment in documentary, from minute 24 to 30. LINK. Other fascinating points Shields makes include: that the eye witnesses were open to discussing their bombing of civilians, but claimed they never swore, beginning at 7:10, and that as opposed to worrying about the larger implications of what a historical documentary is arguing, an actor’s job is to show up, nail the lines, and attempt to get the uniforms right and hold the guns correctly, beginning at 10:00.

[13] The best account of the affair is Graham Carr, “Rules of Engagement: Public History and the Drama of Legitimation,” Canadian Historical Review 86 (2005): 317-54.

[14] Dean, David, ‘Museums as Conflict Zones: The Canadian War Museum and Bomber Command’ Museum and Society 7 (2009): 1-15.

[15] Quite literally, on SS uniforms.

[16] Fascinatingly, at the local level, where rubble and bodies existed, there was always an open discussion in German society that this had been a horrific and unacceptable crime. See David S. Crew, Bodies and Ruins: Imagining the Bombing of Germany, 1945 to the Present. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017. In 1985 the German broadcaster ARD aired a five part documentary series, Krieg der Bomber. Although the series hinted that bombing in 1945 was motivated by revenge, and stated that Dresden was a ‘massacre’, this was not at all the engagement with the theme of Germans as victims that was to come with the documentary discussed in this paper. This 1985 moment was but a murmur in the silence around German victimhood. See Crew, p. 170.

[17] Again, ‘come forward’ in a national, public way. These crimes had always been known at the familial and municipal level. See Elizabeth Heineman, ‘The Hour of the Woman: Memories of Germany’s “Crisis Years” and West German National Identity,’ American Historical Review 101 (1996): 354-95.

[18] The two part documentary can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqvWY-xhg8o and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UCFhcauNv0

[19] Richard Overy first wrote about the bombing of Germany in The Air War, 1939-1945 (London, 1980), then later Bomber Command, 1939-1945 (London, 1997) and finally most recently he published The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (London, 2013). Fascinatingly, in the documentary it is Overy who comes closest to admitting the bombing was against international law.

[20] The most famous work on the moral implications of the bombing is Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York, 1977).

[21] In a 2006 ZDF documentary, ‘Der Feuersturm’, exactly such a story is told, when the bombing of Dresden prevents a next day deportation of Jews. It must be said, however, such was not the intention of bombing, beyond a general belief that the quicker the end of the war, the quicker the end of the genocide.

Author bio

Robert L. Nelson is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Windsor, Canada. Originally from Vancouver, he received his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2003. He is the current Head of History at the University of Windsor.

In 2009, his edited collection Germans, Poland and Colonial Expansion to the East: 1850 Through the Present (Palgrave), appeared, and in 2011, his book German Soldier Newspapers of the First World War was published with Cambridge University Press. His work has appeared in many academic journals and collections, and he has presented his work throughout North America and Europe, delivering keynotes in New Zealand and Qatar.

For the academic year 2012-13, Nelson was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Free University of Berlin, and in 2015-16 he was a Fulbright Scholar at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the current Head of History at the University of Windsor. Nelson was an associate producer at the fifth estate (CBC), and his writing on food appeared in Saveur magazine.