Tag Archives: Total War

Bombed Out Landscapes over Time

When the Germain army declared, in April of 1942, as accelerating violence of global war brought the arrival of the British bombing of German towns, the wartime Nazi government boasted that they would use native maps in the public domain to destroy valued buildings in England with impunity. In blood-curdling claims that prefigure the American threat to violate international law by targeting of historical sights in Iran, the Teutonic boast that ‘We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide” suggests the slippage between German superiority in objective tourist maps once tied to educational formation to the superiority of airstrikes from the German Luftwaffe’s arial blitzkrieg.

The claim was well-known, but seems to conceal the quite loaded historical sense of superiority of reducing England to a site of ruins, akin to the ruins that Germans once studied so eagerly of the Roman Empire and Greece, prizing as guides to a lost world whose material traces they hoped to detect, and detect as some sort of prefiguration of the imperial destiny that they claimed as their own during the Third Reich. It would be a rehearsal of sorts for the carpet bombing of the Siege of Stalingrad, the late August 1942 air raids that left Vasily Grossman without words to describe it–“Everything burned down. Hot walls of buildings, like the bodies of people who have died in the terrible heat and not yet cooled down . . . miraculously standing–amid thousands of vast stone buildings now burnt down or half destroyed” as being to his yes “like Pompeii, caught by destruction in the fullness of life“–in the notebook he kept on entering the city. And amidst the flames of burning houses, as the bombs are dropped on Stalingrad, “It was no longer a matter of individual explosions; all space was now filled by a single dense, protracted sound” of th howls of bombs, air cloudy with white dust and smoke, the characters of his novel search for images of Pompeii, wondering if any one will remember them, the thunder of explosions and crack of anti-aircraft guns marking time against the howl of a bomb that grew in volume, altering one’s sense of time as “howling seconds, each composed of hundreds of infitintely long or entirely distinct fractions of seconds,” erased desire, memories, or “anything except the echoes of this blind iron howl.”

Whether referencing the obliteration of space by the Baedecker guides was a conceit of historical migration of empires or conflated cartographical superiority of touristic guides with the precision of aerial bombardment suggests the crossing of categories of bombarding civilian populations. The bliteration of clearly demarcated lines haunted Stalingrad’s bombardment included modern incendiary bombs, for Grossman, as tens of thousands of which small canisters that could tumble out of in containers of thirty-six filled the air with a distinct screeching unlike the whistles of high explosives, a screeching that echoed the screeching of the V-2 bombs that Thomas Pynchon employed as the arresting auditory perception of the first sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow as “A screeching came across the sky”: the “new sound” that Grossman described in Stalingrad was unlike the whistle of hunters of high-explosive bombs, but “penetrated every living being [from the] hearts of those about to die [to the] hearts of those who survived–all hearts clenched in tight anguish,” so that “there was no one who did not hear it as they plunged into the city, rendering “building after building joined in a single blaze and whole burning streets fused into a single, living, moving wall . . . as if a new city of fire had appeared over Stalingrad,” introduced by the distinct sounds that follow the arrival of “planes coming from north, west, east and south [that] met over Stalingrad,” whose descent on the scientific “seemed to be the sky itself that was descending–sagging, as if under dark, heavy storm clouds, under the vast weight of metal and explosives.”

To register the new city rendered by daily destruction, lest the earlier city by lost, the London City Council undertook in a valiant act of cartographic preservation during the air attacks from September, 1940, just after the Germans had planned to invade Russia, to 1941, and amplified with the attacks of V-2 rockets by 1944, to ensure a level of destruction more sudden and more terrifying than the incendiary bombing of Stalingrad. The ways that the British Army mapped the destruction that V-2 rockets of terrifying precision were able to carve out of the city of London had been long lost, but the recovery of these map provides an eery echo of the historical models and precedents of civilian targeting of historical sites that haunts the contemporary world. For he scars of ethanol-fueled V-2 rockets that speedily struck wartime London seventy years ago are a good place as any to start to map the systematic bombing of civilian spaces.  As if mapping the liquid-fueled fantasies of destruction of Wernher von Braun, the V-1 and then, subsequently, V-2 bombs silently arrived to create a psychologically searing topography of death that transformed the city, immersing civilians to new topographies of fear.

The contemporary graphic tabulations of damages in recently published Bomb Damage Maps  orient one in chilling ways to the progress and degree of bombing wartime London in purples, violets, oranges, and light blue on London’s familiar plan.  The pastels are disarmingly tranquil if not placid in tenor, but seem to conceal within a Benjamin Moore-like in their variety, which seem to reveal a of destruction wonderfully measured concealment  resistance of a British culture of grim-faced exactitude to the horrific episode of wartime destruction, generations away from the bombardment of images of bombed out landscapes in Beirut, Syria, or so much of the Middle East and Libya today.  If these pencilled sketches seem oddly antiquated and removed, the poignant attempt to come to terms with the radically escalation of destruction in the  devastatingly regular tempo of accelerating bombardment that is known as the London Blitz–even if they cannot capture the panic, commotion, terrified screams or chaos, in the muted pastels in an aerial perspective that affirm the organic city that once existed in a still alive past.  

The images of community that they preserve in a time of the compacting of time and space stand in a bizarre psychological counterpoint to the terror of the Blitz, an attempt to maintain level-headedness perhaps in the methodical taking of stock of the sites that were apparently be turned into Baedekers of a future lost world. The bombs that clustered on London in the Blitz are not only preserved, but collated, in a stunning overpowering overlay that suggests a puncturing of space if not obliteration–in a collation of the sites of all German bombs dropped on London in the Blitz, September 1940-June 1941, courtesy “Bombsight“, embracing a massive repository of spatial information aggregating locations of all bombs dropped on the city.

The data is so overwhelming, of course, that the viewer is vertiginously unable to process the extent of detail it aggregates, in what might be better known as a Cartofail. The multiple maps that were made by the Bomb Damage Maps tend in the reverse: they preserve the underlying street network and sites of all buildings in the city, preserving a palimpsest that survives in the face of aerial bombardment that attempted to efface any sign of human habitation; the result is a valiant basis for the recreation of the future of London in a dark period, and a particularly healthy and plucky form of cartographic resistance, of sorts, running against the collapsing of time and space in a time of total war, by trying to retain and train attention on what exists in the city that can be preserved lest it be forgotten. In the face of total war, it is a resistance of exactitude.

The maps recall those colored glossy stars pasted, in the manner of pins, at the sites of explosions in London, which “cover the available spectrum” from silver to green, gold, red, blue, and  a surprising preponderance in certain areas of violets whose locations seem to coincide with bomb strikes, but are so  suspiciously marked with the names of women, the silver ones labelled “Darlene,” others Alice, Delores, Shirley, Sally, amidst  Carolines, Marias, Annes, Susans and Elizabeths.  The disjunction between names and places map the interior experience of Lt. Slothrop against the city that became a canvass of war, but the placid colorings of the map hues suggest a deeper disjunction between mapmaking and violence.

The maps capture an attempt to take measure of the scale of destruction, from black areas bombed out beyond repair to more lightly damaged areas in yellow, as if to process the unprecedented scale of disaster in the precision of the Ordnance Survey Maps. In ways that seemed to try to contain the violence of the bombs that killed over 9,000 by a coloring the sites that were hit by the daily assessment of bomb damages, Bomb Damage Charts drafted by the London City Council tried to process the daily destruction that took the toll of 9,000 in what Germans portrayed as revenge for allied bombers suggest an English tabulation of the ethanol-fueled violence, called as retribution for allied bombing of German cities, that revealed fingerprints of the fantasy of Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist who was driven by truly stratospheric aspirations to reach the moon.

waterloo-detail-bombs

And they reflect, as such an attempt to map the devastation Thomas Pynchon so famously began Gravity’s Rainbow by suggesting the sudden arrival of an ethanol-fueled V-2 rocket that struck the zero Greenwich meridian around 1967, by describing a volley of ballistic missiles whose targeted strikes and explosions brought to life something like a new world, and a terrible one that is punctuated in a senseless sequence of devastating strikes.  And as Pynchon famously used the Matthausen testimonies to describe the horrors of the bombs’ production during the war by the remain side, the bomb damage maps would have provided powerful means to elaborate the destruction of the city came to map the fictionalized if troubled ever-idiosyncratic psyche of Tyrone Slothrop.  The rooftop observations of the arrival of V-2’s that arrive, arching short of the land and arriving on London, tracked by a group of Yanks, stationed at the Allied Clearing House, Technical Unites, Northern Germany (ACHTUNG), a paper warren filled with black typewriters that pose as grave markers, removed from the war but close to its violence.

As much as orient one to the destruction of bricks and mortar buildings, they suggest a way to complete the terrifying topographies of the wartime city, as familiar cityscapes suddenly vanished, taking human lives in a chaos difficult to psychologically sustain.  If Stephen Spender described how in “destroyed German towns one often feels haunted by the ghost of a tremendous noise” as it “is impossible not to imagine the rocking explosions, the hammering of the sky upon the earth, which must have caused all this,‟ evoking the inability to grasp or orient oneself to the ineffability of the sensory barrage of modern destruction with particular eloquence.  Pynchon was particularly attentive to transpose the complicated topographies of what were otherwise blank space by recourse to the “old Baedecker trick” not limited to that genre of travel books alone, but pillaging from WPA guides and other maps, in ways that make it more than likely that something like the Bomb Damage Maps provided a similar basis to orient his readers to imagining the new topography of war in which his characters sought to navigate as best they could, and the tourist maps of post-war London which rendered the continued effects of bombed out areas light green offered an effective palimpsest as any to recover the  psychological trauma of the destruction of the psychic network of place and society–

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–itself a mirror image to the German Schadenskarten created to document the parallel six years of trauma inflicted on cities in the Nazi state.

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Schadenskarte des Angriffes am 27. November 1944

1280px-Luftbild_Freiburg_1944.jpgStadtarchiv Freiburg, destruction of Freiburg sometime after or during Summer of 1945

Although the scale of destruction was more targeted and more limited in scale, the hundred and ten hand-colored Bomb Damage maps applied a six color palette to the Ordnance Survey maps in order to register the impact of bombs on the city, ranging from yellow noting mild damage a dire black denoting “total destruction,” which, even if they cannot capture the scale of the 29,890 victims killed in the raids and 50,507 suffering serious injuries, although their over-generous 1:2,500 scale allows one quite effectively to explore parts of the city’s neighborhoods and read the present configuration of individual blocks against the damage of older bombs–whose scale is partly captured in surviving photographs of Debris Survey and Disposal Service crews who explored ruined houses and buildings in plaster-dusted uniforms in the hope of seeking survivors.  The images of police constables Arthur Cross and Fred Tibbs capture the broader effort of repair, reconstruction, and taking stock of a spate of local destruction as it occurred, and the need of the maps as a means to process the rapid arrival of rocket strikes in the not indiscriminate targeting commercial and residential London by unmanned rockets.

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Repair of evening coming of 1941 of Bank Underground Station

Assessing damage of Bank of England and Royal Exchange after London bombing raid of January 11, 1941, which created a crater of 1,800 sq feet–the largest in London

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Filed under London Blitz, military maps, Vietnam War, war crimes, World War II