War makes monsters of us all and there were, no doubt, many instances where the Allies committed what would today be defined as war crimes. However, it seems to me that, given the horror that the Nazis perpetrated, we tend, in the West to overlook any evidence of our own terrible butchery.
Having just completed a reading of World War II by Martin Gilbert, a generally well written and factual account of the conflict, I have only managed to find one instance of allied action that could be counted as a war crime. Here is the very short passage in a very large book:
On the day of the Deptford rocket bomb, a British submarine, HMS Sturdy, on its way from Australia to Indonesian waters, stopped a Japanese cargo ship by surface shellfire. The Japanese crew having abandoned their ship, the only people left on board were fifty women and children, all of them Indonesians. In order to deny the Japanese any use of the ship’s cargo, the submarine commander ordered the ship to be sunk, despite a protest from the officer who had to lay the explosive charges. ‘Get on with it’, was the commander’s response. The cargo ship and its passengers were then blown up, together with the ship’s war supplies.
The Second World War – A Complete History, Martin Gilbert. p. 614
So a ship full of unarmed women and children were blown up. It is interesting to note how the author furnishes the commander with suitable justification for, what seems to be a heinous act. It was entirely okay for him to murder women and children because there were war supplies on the ship.
The date of this war crime, for war crime it surely appears, was November 25 1944.
There are few other examples in the book but given the size and scope of the war it seems unlikely that this is the only war crime on the allies side that went unpunished. In a fair and just world those who commit crimes would be prosecuted regardless on what side of the battle line there found themselves.
If the world was a just one then the author of this book might assign the same revulsion to this awful murder as he does, rightfully so, to the awful things that the Nazis did in the name of their Reich.
I think that these civilians were dismissed, by the commander and by the author, because they were Indonesian. I find it almost impossible to believe that had these civilians been upstanding members of the British Empire who understood the rules of cricket, had their tea at 4pm every day and had pale anglo-saxon skin that they would have suffered the same fate.
Maybe I am being terribly cynical though and I am unaware of many important facts concerning the fifth column nature of these Indonesian woman and children.
One day we will live in a world where we can acknowledge our own war crimes. That day does not seem to be today.
addendum: in my stupidity I overlooked the firebombing of Dresden, firebombing of Tokyo, the two nuclear bombs and any number of other “revenge” killings of German soldiers. However my aim with the small quote above was to highlight what seems like the slaughter of innocent women and children without the “luxury” of dropping bombs from a great height. The soldiers who committed this atrocity were actually on the boat laying the explosives. Whether they looked into the eyes of their victims or forced them, at gunpoint to stay on the boat, is not mentioned in the book.
Does anyone have any thoughts on this?
UPDATE: I found this link here – which says that apparently we won’t know for sure what happened until 2019 when the UK documents are unsealed. I can only assume that Mr. Gilbert had special access when he wrote his book.