Canada’s role in World War II was relived last year on Canadian national television via a mini-series entitled The Valour and the Horror. The second part of the series, Death by Moonlight: Bomber Command, was met by protests so widespread as to cause the whole series to be placed on the agenda of the Canadian Senate’s Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs. The senate hearings, at which historians and other witnesses testified to the film’s inaccuracies and distortions, coincided with the CBC (which broadcast the series) asking its ombudsman, William Morgan, to prepare a report.
Morgan’s report, which was cut from its initial 60 pages to 13 before being released to the public, found that the series is “flawed as it stands and fails to measure up to GBC’s demanding policies and standards.” The senate subcommittee found that “the National Film Board, based on a brief statement of the concept, handed over $729,000 to the filmmakers and gave them the right of final cut. They made little or no attempt to check the accuracy of the filmmakers’ research.”
The film soon became a media issue: Bomber Command veterans vs. electronic and print media that closed ranks behind the producers, Brian and Terence McKenna, and charged the veterans with censorship and libel. At first, the GBC’s chairman undertook to correct the many errors on air, but this was not done. The National Film Board’s president then refused to reply to veterans’ protests, and it was not until January 1993, when the government of Ontario proclaimed the Class Proceedings Act, that the issue could be moved from a largely hostile media to the courts.
The Bomber Harris Trust was formed to represent the 25,000 Canadian survivors of Bomber Command Aircrew and, with the invaluable and voluntary help of counsel (too young for the war but a gentleman and a patriot), produced a 221-page statement of claim in a class-action suit against the CBC, NFB, et al, filed in Ontario Court last July.
The claim lists 41 statements, dramatizations, inferences, innuendos, depictions, and distortions that “are not true.” For example, the film asserts that Air Marshal Harris refused to redirect his attacks to pre-inasion targets in support of Overlord and that “in the end, Harris got his way. His campaign to destroy German cities would continue, with a devastating cost to his own aircrews.” But the facts are that Harris gave his full support to Overlord. From March to June, 1944, 83 percent of the command’s effort was in direct support of the invasion. Aircrew loss rates declined from 2.6 percent in 1943 to 1.9 percent in 1944 and 0.9 percent in 1945. The film features the “firestorm” of the July 27/28, 1943, attack on Hamburg and has the actor playing Harris say, “In spite of all that happened at Hamburg, bombing proved a relatively humane method. There is no proof that most casualties were women and children.” This is followed by a picture of dead bodies, and the narrator says, “In fact there is proof. The Germans kept very careful records. For every 100 men killed in Hamburg, 160 women died. Of the 42,000 killed in Hamburg, 8,400 were children. Most were crushed, asphyxiated or roasted alive.” But Harris’s two sentences are lifted from the beginning and end of a 228-word paragraph in his autobiography that is not about Hamburg; it is about bombing compared to, one, “the flower of the youth of this country and our allies being mown down by the military in the field, as it was in Flanders in the war of 1914-1918″; and, two, the estimated 800,000 deaths in Germany caused by that war’s blockade—”naturally these were mainly of women and children and old people because at all cost the enemy had to keep fighting men adequately fed.” The words that actually precede the second, altered, sentence are: “It is not easy to estimate what in effect were the casualties caused by Allied bombings in Germany. German records were incomplete and often unreliable, but the Americans put the number of deaths at 305,000. There is no estimate of how many of these were women and children. On the contrary, the Germans carried out large schemes of evacuation, especially children, from the main industrial cities.”
Damages are claimed to amount to $500 million. However, should the court rule that every showing of the film be preceded by a disclaimer (statements untrue, dramatizations fictional, not the official view of the Canadian government), plaintiffs will cap the claim at $25 milHon compensatory damages to the class and $25 million punitive damages to the plaintiffs as individuals and as a class.
The Trust proposes that each member of the class receive a nominal one dollar and that to serve future generations of Canadians the remainder be divided between the Canadian Red Cross that did so much to keep our POWs alive, the Air Cadet League of Canada, aviation-linked institutions such as the RCAF Memorial Museum and Canadian Warplanes Heritage, and the founding at a Canadian university of a chair to study and promote the highest standards of ethics in print and electronic journalism.
After the claim was filed, and announced in a Canada-wide news release, and after details of the statement began to seep into editorial offices, media attitudes changed. References to censorship and libel gave way to a recognition that veterans who had fought, and whose many friends and contemporaries had given their lives, to preserve individual freedom against the arbitrary power of the state that the Nazi enemy personified, were fighting again to preserve the truth of what they did.
Defenders of the film reject criticism on the grounds that military history is open to differing interpretations. But the veterans plead that the filmmakers “set about to effect a revision of history so as to conform the facts thereof to their political, or pacifist, or antimilitary opinions. In particular, the plaintiffs say that the defendants intended their ‘commercial’ version to be distributed to educational institutions and primary and secondary school educators to be used as teaching aids for successive generations of Canadian children.”
This has been the veterans’ chief concern, and it was gratifying to reap the first fruits of their efforts last September, when the East York Board of Education banned The Valour and the Horror from use in most classrooms. “Only students in the final year of high school will be allowed to watch the series, and when it is viewed it will be accompanied by material that ‘refutes and rebuts’ the film’s claims,” said Evelyn Wilson, superintendent of programs at the board. Students will be asked to analyze the bias and perspective of the documentary, reported the Toronto Star on September 11, 1993. East York is the first of Metro Toronto’s seven school boards to take a public stand on the film’s suitability for classroom use. Other school boards are now reviewing it.
Meanwhile the Bomber Harris Trust has published its first newsletter—Flarepath—to spread the word among the thousands of donors from all walks of life who have sent money toward the cost of the suit. The statement of claim, which dissects the film’s false statements line by line and sets out the true facts, is being prepared by the trustees for publication and sale in paperback as A Battle for Truth.
Veterans are confident of victory in the suit, but whatever the judicial outcome, two things are certain: the story will be standard fare in journalism schools for years to come, and Canada’s veterans will have had their say against this attempt, by Canada’s cultural agencies, to defame them.