Regular followers of this blog will have read that throughout September and October 1943 the Group were becoming increasingly involved in combat situations that brought them both victories and losses. At the moment I am presenting the reports for each mission, but this has given me pause for thought about the picture it presents about what exactly the Group was doing.
I do not, for instance, include transcripts of combat reports filed after action. These are readily available from numerous sources, but it is purely from a practical perspective in the time I have available that I do not include them. This does mean that the general reader could take away from this blog a rather clean and sterile version of the air war. Here is a quote from an October 1943 combat report to underline the point:
I pulled out to the right side as I went by and saw a number 4 painted on the side. The pilot seemed to be forward in the cockpit and I expect he must have been dead. I was disappointed the plane did not blow up completely for it certainly did take lots of hits.
Clearly, the pilots of the 353rd were involved in a vicious war in which they and their opponents risked their lives on a daily basis. Fighter pilots were glamorous and exciting, but there was also an unpleasant side to what they had to do. They were trained to kill and destroy targets in the air and on the ground without a second thought.
At one level you can, of course, take the view that the job was entirely necessary to eradicate the aggressive Nazi regime that had brought untold calamity into the world. Aggression was necessary to fight aggression and it is unsurprising that we see such reports coming from the Group. Equally though, when I write that an Me109 or Fw190 is destroyed I am really saying that there is a high chance that the pilot has been killed in an unpleasant fashion. At the individual level the war was full of moral ambiguities and we cannot know whether the enemy pilot was a committed Nazi or just a young man who felt he was defending his homeland. A philosopher would, no doubt, expand on this debate, but the most I am prepared to say is that it was another human life tragically lost in a terrible war.
My approach to this subject hopefully recognises and underlines the historical significance of the events, but I want to make it clear that it is not my intention to glorify war or avoid its realities. The fact that I talk of aces, victories and scores is a function of the material I am dealing with and does not mean that I underestimate the gravity of what went on. Over the years I have known many members of the Group as friends and, whilst they fondly remembered their association, I do not think I ever met a pilot who wanted to repeat the events I discuss…