The IBCC narrative voice (II): what’s in a quote?

Maintaining the clarity of our distinctive IBCC narrative voice has not been without its challenges within the partnership tasked with delivering the entire, ambitious project. Tensions in perspective have mostly been turned to highly creative use. Every now and then, however, challenges have been thrown up that have threatened to disrupt a singular voice.

For example, our external partner decided to name the visitor centre the Chadwick Centre, after the designer of the Lancaster bomber. This seemed from our perspective in the partnership to be rather too ‘top down’, to focus too heavily on hardware not people, and to be too Lincolnshire-specific. (There are faultlines in the Bomber Command memorialisation community, split along bomber Groups and aircraft flown.) Out of respect we worked with it. We had interviewed Roy Chadwick’s daughter for the archive and she is included in the exhibition, speaking of her father. We included stories and images of crews who flew a variety of aircraft, and made efforts at wide geographical coverage. We were also mindful that all Bomber Command aircraft meant only one thing to those on the ground in occupied Europe: death and destruction.[1]

And now, on the eve of opening, the tone of our narrative voice has been altered by additions to the entrance area of the Chadwick Centre, without involving the exhibition/archive team. It is important to this explanation to note that the only area of the site that is behind a paywall is the exhibition itself. All other areas can be freely accessed. One anticipates that many more visitors will move through the ‘free’ than the ‘paid’ spaces.

As one walks into the Chadwick Centre, one is greeted by a large quote on the wall by Arthur Harris, not only chief of Bomber Command but even today considered one of the most controversial figures in the Allied military command structure. Even (or especially) veterans and their families remain divided over his role and legacy, as testified in many of the interviews we have collected. Here, immediately, is a provocation, a call to an official victor narrative. The quote is about Roy Chadwick, a bust of whom (donated by his family) is positioned below it.

6 The bust of Roy Chadwick and the quote by Harris

The bust of Roy Chadwick and the quote by Harris.

In another area of the entrance – harder to see until one is leaving – is the fifth verse of Laurence Binyon’s poem, For the Fallen.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; They sit no more at familiar tables of home; They have no lot in our labour of the day-time; They sleep beyond England’s foam

It was written in 1914, a few weeks into the First World War. The fourth verse, beginning ‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old’, is now commonly associated with British remembrance and the poppy.[2] In the verse quoted, it is of interest that Binyon refers to ‘England’, not even Britain, nor its allies, so a contested issue within the victor narrative is introduced, compounding the implications for our wider interpretive scheme.

The overall impression now created in the entrance area is that the IBCC has not moved beyond a rather outworn, binary us/them perspective on the bombing war. (The decorative scheme in the café does nothing to disrupt such an impression, but that may be extending our argument too far.)

Another potential challenge is the ‘Knight of the Skies’. In October 2017, this sculpture was donated to the IBCC by a family with close connections to Bomber Command and who have lent significant support to the IBCC. The knight was one of 36 sponsored sculptures in Lincoln city centre’s Knights’ Trail over the previous summer.[3] Each sculpture was distinctively themed and painted by a different artist. The ‘Knight of the Skies’ wears flying gear and holds the IBCC spire as a sword above Lincoln cathedral and fields of poppies. On its side, a Lancaster and its crew stand beneath a shield bearing the Bomber Command motto, ‘STRIKE HARD STRIKE SURE’.  The last British survivor of the Dams Raids, Johnny Johnson, has autographed the knight. It represents a heroic view of those who flew in RAF Bomber Command.

5 Knight of the skies

The Knight of the Skies

The knight has been displayed in the Remembering Bomber Command gallery, which is entirely appropriate. This is, after all, one local form of remembering that contains multiple personal stories, not only connected to the war but to the IBCC.

At issue for the interpretation is its current location, presiding over the entrance area as visitors approach from the carpark. If one does not intend viewing the exhibition, it is the only bit of the exhibition one gets for free.

What we have for the opening of this prestigious new development in Lincoln, then, is not one but two voices that sit awkwardly side by side, a reminder of the heritage dissonance that has long been identified as one of the dangers of mobilising an unruly past for contemporary purposes, such as commemoration and place-making.[4] We wish it were not so and that the quotes at least could be replaced. We have concerns about how the Centre may be portrayed online and how that may shape the decision to visit (or not) among those who are not our natural/predicted audience – although we want them to be impressed, too.

This reflection sums up our views as we let go of our interpretive work at the Centre and give over to visitors to interact with the interpretation, create their own experiences and take away their own memories.

Dan Ellin, Heather Hughes and Alessandro Pesaro


[1] In recent years there have been a number of landmark studies on this theme, offering very different perspectives to those produced in the Cold War context. See for example Richard Overy, The Bombing War, Europe 1939-1945. Allen Lane, London, 2013; Dietmar Süss, Death From the Skies: How the British and Germans Survived Bombing in World War II, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014; Jörg Friedrich, The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945. Columbia University Press, New York, 2006.

[2] For the issues associated with poppy remembrance, see Maggie Andrews, ‘Poppies, Tommies and remembrance: commemoration is always contested’. In Soundings, Vol. 58, 2014, pp 98-109.

[3]  accessed 31.12.2017.

[4] See J. E. Tunbridge and G. J. Ashworth, Dissonant Heritage: The Management of the Past as a Resource in Conflict. John Wiley, Chichester, 1996.

The IBCC narrative voice (I): what is reconciliation?

In September 2017, Dan Ellin posted an account of the provenance and progress of the IBCC exhibition. In the light of the exhibition now being completed, we reflect further in a two-part post on our approach to interpretation, particularly the difficulties in dealing with difficult heritage.

Remembering the bombing war still generates strong and conflicting opinions and getting the tone right for exhibitions about Bomber Command is notoriously hard. Even trying to explain why this is the case tends to generate more heat than light.

When the University of Lincoln became involved in the memorial to RAF Bomber Command in 2013, we believed that a capacious and sensitive handling would go a long way towards promoting an innovative and inclusive approach to this contested issue. Three things should be noted here. Firstly, by this stage, many museums and heritage attractions dealing in war had come round to the view that their holdings represented ‘difficult heritage’ and were actively trying to engage discussion as to how to deal with this; perhaps the National Army Museum in London was the leading example in the UK.[1]

1 IBCC entrance at night

The International Bomber Command Centre

Secondly, we were aware of two Canadian controversies regarding the bombing war. In the early 1990s, a three-part TV documentary, The Valour and the Horror, was aired; the second part, ‘Death by Moonlight’ dealt with the bombing of Germany.  This unleashed vigorous, not to say vitriolic, public debate, leading to Senate hearings.[2]  Then in 2006, the Canadian War Museum was engulfed in controversy over the wording of a small amount of exhibition text on the bombing war. Veterans’ groups demanded it be rewritten. Once again this reached the Canadian parliament. The CWM were forced to do so, even though a panel set up to adjudicate the matter found the original wording to be historically accurate.[3]

Thirdly, we felt that there was an opportunity in Lincolnshire to rise above regional commemoration and to embrace a truly international perspective in our approach to the memory of Bomber Command. This meant not only acknowledging the remarkable internationalism of those who served in the RAF and were posted to the Command, but also the very far-reaching consequences of bombing both friend and foe in mainland Europe, and the many complexities that the bombing war continues to reveal. In this sense, we felt that the University was playing the sort of role that such an institution ought to play: opening up debate, leveraging resources, connecting to contemporary trends.

A further factor came into play that fitted well into our attempts to be inclusive. The land on which the IBCC has been built belongs to an Oxford college, whose head required, in return for a long-term lease, that we gave due consideration to the German perspective of the bombing war.

Taking all such factors into account, and following the advice to us by one of the leading museum directors in the UK to ‘have a brave story and stick to it’, we devised an interpretation plan. This plan, and the exhibition to which it has given rise, were discussed from inception to the final sign-off of content with all the people who were a part of this project – and many others besides.

The plan committed to a narrative voice that focused on the people’s bombing war (oral testimony and personal memorabilia are the basis of the archive on which the exhibition is based); presented an ‘orchestra of voices’ to include those caught up in the bombing war in the air, on the ground and on both sides of the conflict, as well as those affected by the legacy of the actions of Bomber Command; acknowledged that pain and suffering were shared; and raised questions about the complexity of the bombing war, rather than delivering judgement.[4]

4 Home Fronts

Telephone handsets are one way the orchestra of voices is delivered. (IBCC)

The IBCC embraces three values that also underpin that interpretation plan: recognition, remembrance and reconciliation ( The first two values are not so difficult to define. Recognition relates to veterans, whose role has been downplayed because of ongoing discomfort in our society about the morality of bombing. Remembrance includes the hundreds of thousands who were killed, on both sides of the war. Reconciliation has always been the most challenging. It requires an acknowledgment that the suffering endured through a brutal conflict was shared and thus constitutes a basis for mutual understanding and empathy. It is also about acknowledging that not everything done by the winners of the war was just or right. Reconciliation is not about triumphalism, heroism and victimhood; it is about our common humanity. This in turn enables the possibility an open and frank dialogue about the bombing war, which remains a difficult and painful subject, capable of arousing strong emotion on all sides.

Dan Ellin, Heather Hughes and Alessandro Pesaro


[1] accessed 15.01.2018.

[2] See Erwin Warkentin, ‘Death by Moonlight: a Canadian debate over guilt, grief and remembering the Hamburg raids’. In Wilfried Wilms and William Rasch (eds) Bombs Away! Representing the Air War over Europe and Japan. Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2006, pp. 249-264. Bercuson, D. J. and Wise, S. F. (eds.) The Valour and the Horror Revisited, McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal, 1994.

[3] There are several accounts of this incident; see for example David Dean, ‘Museums as conflict zones: the Canadian War Museum and Bomber Command’. Museum and Society Vol. 7, No. 1, 2009, pp.1-15.

Bercuson, D. “The Canadian War Museum and Bomber Command My Perspective” Canadian Military History, Vol. 20, No. 3, 2011, pp.55-62. Bothwell, R. Hansen, R. and Macmillan, M. ‘Controversy, commemoration, and capitulation: the Canadian War Museum and Bomber Command’ Queen’s Quarterly, Vol. 115, No. 3, 2008, pp.367-387.

[4] There were other factors to consider, as well, besides the content, including appropriate means of delivery. For a discussion of the issues, see for example Mad Djaugbjerg, ‘Paying with fire: struggling with ‘experience’ and ‘play’ in war tourism’, Museum and Society Vol. 9, No. 1, 2011, pp. 17-33.

Bombing war in literature: Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table

Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table is a collection of autobiographical short stories, each one structured around an element from the periodic table, hence the title. Published in 1975, the book tells the life story of a young Jew who grows up in fascist Italy, struggling to circumvent racial laws, studies chemistry at the University of Turin, graduates, joins the resistance, survives the Holocaust, and finally pursues a successful career in the decades following the end of the conflict.

The book defies labelling. The most recognisable theme is the author’s passion for scientific knowledge and discovery, with essays ranging from purely imaginative tales to sapid recollections based on his professional life: stories include medallions dedicated to his friends, as well as political or philosophical metaphors.

Cover of the first edition (Milan, Einaudi, 1975) Source:

Cover of the first edition (Milan, Einaudi, 1975)

Others chapters have a more direct connection to Levi’s dramatic life. This is especially true for Cerium, which is based on his time in Auschwitz when he toiled in a chemical lab at the Buna Werke industrial complex. Levi quickly understands that small cylinders of Iron-Cerium alloy can be stolen, then painstakingly turned into lighter flints, and eventually bartered for extra food rations. Cerium contains an eye-witness testimony of aerial bombing in which Primo Levi chooses not to describe the whole bombing sequence, but isolates the air-raid siren which becomes a powerful symbol of horror. The passage should be read in context: a grey, desolate wasteland with imposing industrial plants as backdrop, populated by prisoners who endure shocking hardships and brutal discipline. For vigour, intensity and imaginative language this is probably one of the most potent literary descriptions of aerial warfare, as seen from the perspective of someone who was at the receiving end of it.

Verso le dieci di mattina proruppero le sirene del Fliegeralarm, dell’allarme aereo. Non era una novità, oramai, ma ogni volta che questo avveniva ci sentivamo, noi e tutti, percossi di angoscia fino in fondo alle midolla. Non sembrava un suono terreno, non era una sirena come quelle delle fabbriche, era un suono di enorme volume che, simultaneamente in tutta la zona e ritmicamente, saliva fino ad un acuto spasmodico e ridiscendeva ad un brontolio di tuono. Non doveva essere stato un ritrovato casuale, perché nulla in Germania era casuale, e del resto era troppo conforme allo scopo ed allo sfondo: ho spesso pensato che fosse stato elaborato da un musico malefico, che vi aveva racchiuso furore e pianto, l’urlo del lupo alla luna e il respiro del tifone: così doveva suonare il corno di Astolfo. Provocava il panico, non solo perché preannunciava le bombe, ma anche per il suo intrinseco orrore, quasi il lamento di una bestia ferita grande fino all’orizzonte.
I tedeschi avevano più paura di noi davanti agli attacchi aerei: noi, irrazionalmente, non li temevamo, perché li sapevamo diretti non contro noi, ma contro i nostri nemici. Nel giro di secondi mi trovai solo nel laboratorio, intascai tutto il cerio ed uscii all’aperto per ricongiungermi col mio Kommando: il cielo era già pieno del ronzio dei bombardieri, e ne scendevano, ondeggiando mollemente, volantini gialli che recavano atroci parole di irrisione:

Im Bauch kein Fett,
Acht Uhr ins Bett;
Der Arsch kaum warm,

A noi non era consentito l’accesso ai rifugi antiaerei: ci raccoglievamo nelle vaste aree non ancora fabbricate, nei dintorni del cantiere. Mentre le bombe cominciavano a cadere, sdraiato sul fango congelato e sull’erba grama tastavo i cilindretti nella tasca, e meditavo sulla stranezza del mio destino, dei nostri destini di foglie sul ramo, e dei destini umani in generale.

The air-raid sirens erupted around 10 o’clock in the morning. It was nothing new at that juncture, but we and the others were stricken by a bone-deep anguish every time. It didn’t sound like a noise from this world; it wasn’t like a factory siren. It was rather a sound of immense loudness which rhythmically rose to a spasmodically shrill tone all across the locality, and then fell down to a thunderous rumble. It wasn’t so by chance, as nothing in Germany happened by chance. After all, it was perfectly fit for purpose and in line with the circumstances. I often thought it was devised by a malevolent musician, who managed to pack into it fury and bereavement, the wolf howling at the moon and the breath of a typhoon. So should have sounded Astolfo’s horn. It induced panic, not only because it was the harbinger of bombs, but also for its intrinsic horror. It was almost the lament of a wounded beast, a beast so big to reach the horizon. Germans feared air raids more than we did: we, irrationally, didn’t. We were aware that they were not aimed at us, but at our enemies.
In a couple of seconds I was alone in the lab. I grabbed all the Cerium and went out with my Kommando, the sky already resounding with the droning sound of bombers. Yellow leaflets were falling down, swinging indolently. They bore horrible, scornful words:

Im Bauch kein Fett
Acht Uhr ins Bett
Der Arsch kaum warm

No lard in the belly
At eight o’clock in bed
As soon as the butt is warm
Air-raid alarm!

We were not allowed to enter the shelters. We gathered instead in the vast brownfields around the construction yard. When bombs started to drop, I was lying on grass and frozen mud, touching the small cylinders in my pockets. I was meditating on the oddity of my own destiny, on the fact that we were like leaves on a branch, as well as on the destiny of all humans [translation mine].

The passage contains two literary allusions. The horn is a reference to Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, an Italian epic poem appeared in 1516: Astolfo’s horn induces panic and horror.

The words “leaves on a branch” allude at Soldati, a First World War poem written by Giuseppe Ungaretti.

Si sta come
sugli alberi
le foglie

It’s like being
in the autumn
on the trees
the leaves

Autumnal trees are here a symbol of fragility of human live in wartime.

Primo Levi eventually survived the Holocaust and managed to go back home in Turin following a long, circuitous route. In 1987 he fell into the stairwell of his home – the demise was ruled a suicide.

Alessandro Pesaro, Digital Archive Developer

Bomber Command nose art

One of the archive team has recently finished building a 1/32 scale model Lancaster. A short time ago, we had to choose which aircraft it was to represent. Without giving it much thought we asked on social media for suggestions, made a short list and posted an opinion poll. With almost 50 percent of the votes, ‘Fair Fighters Revenge’ was chosen for the model.[1]

1 The IBCC model Lancaster

Some aircraft were known only by their squadron codes and individual letter, others were given their own character and painted with ‘nose art.’ The number of operations each aircraft completed was often recorded by painting a small bomb underneath the cockpit. Operations to Italy were sometimes symbolised by the depiction of an ice-cream cone. Some aircraft were also decorated with nose art; they were given a name or a mascot. As a form of folk art’, some aircraft were painted with comical cartoons, risqué pin ups or quotes.[2] The Canadian War Museum displays a collection of nose art from Halifax aircraft,[3] and there are several books on the topic.[4] The Lancaster S-Sugar, currently at Hendon is decorated with a quote from Herman Goering “No enemy plane will fly over the Reich Territory.” The RAF has regularly chosen cartoons to be painted on the nose of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster. The BBMF Lancaster has previously been ‘The Phantom of the Ruhr’, ‘Johnny Walker’ and Mickey the Moocher.’ In 2014 it was painted as ‘Thumper’ and in 2017 became ‘Leader.’

‘Thumper', the Avro Lancaster Mk III undergoing maintenance in the BBMF hangar at RAF Coningsby.

Thumper at the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. (SAC Megan Woodhouse)

The aircraft our poll chose, Lancaster ME812, ‘Fair Fighter’s Revenge’, completed over 100 operations with 166 and 153 squadrons. Its nose art shows a red-haired woman in a short red dress flexing a sword. At a recent meeting some of the team were uncomfortable with the choice, one mentioned the figure on the nose art looked like ‘Miss Whiplash’. During the war, ‘pin ups’ by artists such as Alberto Vargas, George Petty and David Wright influenced the artwork on many bomber aircraft. Based on Norman Pett’s risqué character ‘Jane’ from the Daily Mirror, the Lancaster at the Lincolnshire Heritage Aviation Centre at East Kirkby has been ‘Just Jane’ since the 1990s. She is depicted wearing swimwear and sitting on a rather phallic looking bomb.

3 Just Jane

Just Jane (Alan Wilson)

Such nose art can only properly be understood and explained in the context of the largely masculine environment of a 1940s wartime bomber station. Today, such objectification of women and the use of offensive national stereotypes are problematic and may cause offense, but so can almost every other aspect of the history of Bomber Command. Its history is difficult heritage, and remembering the bombing war continues to expose a barrage of conflicting opinions, positions and agendas. For some people, Lancaster bombers commemorate the aircrew killed flying in Bomber Command, but for many others in Germany, Italy and France they represent death and destruction, whatever is painted on them.



[1] You can follow the build at:

[2] Lane, J. ‘Nose Art’ Art Then and Now (2006) accessed 08.11.2017

[3] The Collection of Original Halifax Nose Art Currently on Display at the Canadian War Museum accessed 08.11.2017

[4] See for example: Wood, J, Aircraft Nose Art, (Salamander, 1997). Simonsen, C. RAF and RCAF Nose Art in World War II (Hikoki, 2000). Valant, G. Vintage Aircraft Nose Art, (Motorbooks, 2001).



An addition to Bomber Command cinematography: Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no Ugoku Shiro) is a 2004 Japanese animated film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The plot is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Welsh author Diana Wynne Jones, originally published in 1986 by Greenwillow Books of New York. The movie is set in an alternative universe in which steam-based technology coexists with sorcery: wizards enjoy a socially recognised status and magic is used for dealing with issues ranging from delicate state matters to everyday problems. Neither time nor space are revealed but many elements seem compatible to early 2Oth century central or northern Europe.

Heavy steam haulage, parasols, petticoats, and half-timbered buildings define the fictional universe in which the movie is set. Only aircraft seems to be incongruous.

Heavy steam haulage, parasols, petticoats, and half-timbered buildings define the fictional universe in which the movie is set. Only aircraft seems to be incongruous.

The heroine, Sophie, is a young unprepossessing hatter who is already resigned to a humdrum, uneventful existence. Her life changes abruptly when she meets the young and charming wizard Howl. The evil Witch of the Waste takes issues with their attachment and casts a spell on Sophie, who ages prematurely. The plot revolves around her attempts to lift the spell, defeat the jealous witch, and disentangle a second curse linking Howl, his castle and the fire spirit Calcifer who keeps the edifice moving. In the end, both spells are lifted: Sophie regains her real age, she and Howl can fulfill their love, and the castle is transformed into a flying machine carrying away the new couple. It is essentially a story of redemption through love and compassion combined with a strong critique of modernity, with an emphasis on responsible use of technology as well as a transparent anti-war message. A subplot follows the all-out war between two neighbouring kingdoms. Belligerents’ claims are unclear but fierce battles are fought on land, at sea and in the air. Civilian life is initially unaffected until war escalates and it is no longer confined to the battlefields – enemy aircraft start to attack cities. The air-raid siren is heard for the first time by nervous characters while evacuation of civilians commences.

The conflict escalates and evacuation of civilians takes place.

The conflict escalates and evacuation of civilians takes place.

An avowed pacifist, Miyazaki did not conceal his condemnation of the US-led War on Terror in the post-9/11 political context, especially regarding the second Gulf war (2003). The movie was a deliberate attempt to show his contempt for the intrinsic folly of war and his deprecation of the United States’ pugnacious policy. He openly stated that “the film was profoundly affected by the war in Iraq” (Gordon, 2005, p. 62) at a time in which there was a widespread fear that Japan could be dragged into an oversea war as an ally of the United States. His position is echoed by producer Toshio Suzuki “When we were making it, there was the Iraq War […] From young to old, people were not very happy” (Cavallaro, 2006, p. 170).
Not surprisingly, Howl’s Moving Castle has mainly been interpreted as a condemnation of war per se, without references to actual conflicts. Combat scenes are usually described as symbols, visual metaphors of violence rather than precise allusions to historical facts the viewer is supposed to decode correctly. At least one film critic mentioned the references to bombing warfare in the Second World War (Smith 2011), but this has been mainly overlooked in favour of a more symbolic interpretation, an example of the latter being (Arnaldi 2017). Not surprisingly, Howl’s Moving Castle doesn’t figure in the canon of works inspired by or at least influenced by Bomber Command.
It can be argued that Howl’s Moving Castle contains not only allusions to the bombing war waged by Allied air forces in Europe during the Second World War, but also surprisingly precise references to actual Bomber Command practices. The reason this point has been largely overlooked is unclear but has probably something to do with the preponderance of supernatural and symbolic elements in the movie.
This situation is best exemplified by the way aircraft are depicted. For a start, heavy bombers are shown as powerful flying machines with a toy-like appearance. Propulsion and aerodynamics seem at best implausible. Aircraft have all the hallmarks of nuts-and-bolt engineering, and nonetheless show hatches which dilate and contract as orifices, in a disturbingly organic fashion. They carry conventional bombs as well as supernatural beings controlled by magic arts.

One of the bombers featured in the movie. A human-built mechanism with obvious animal features, it looks menacing while at the same time suggesting a kind of childish amusement. Note the contrast between its threatening grey mass and the delicate treatment of the flowers below.

One of the bombers featured in the movie. A human-built mechanism with obvious animal features, it looks menacing while at the same time suggesting a kind of childish amusement. Note the contrast between its threatening grey mass and the delicate treatment of the flowers below.

Nonetheless, the moral condemnation is explicit and both sides are presented as part of an absurd tapestry of violence. This following dialogue is illuminating (emphasis mine):

Sophie: A battleship!
Howl: Still looking for more cities to burn.
S: Is it the enemy’s or one of ours?
H: What difference does it make? Those stupid murderers! We can’t just let them fly off with all those bombs.

Once the tone is set, the movie rapidly shifts towards a cruder, more realistic approach. In a dramatic sequence the camera pans over a crowded town at dusk. Industrial buildings, chimneys belching out black smoke, and some barges on the river suggest a thriving manufacturing centre. The scene is dark and sinister with a sense of palpable anticipation.

The town where Sophie lives. Darkness is complete and not a single light is visible, a situation which points plausibly to a wartime black out. The place, although unnamed, has a strong Central European flavour.

The town where Sophie lives. Darkness is complete and not a single light is visible, a situation which points plausibly to a wartime black out. The place, although unnamed, has a strong Central European flavour.


Bombs are released from an aircraft flying above. Aircrew are not shown, reinforcing the idea of a brutal, impersonal force.

Sophie dashes outside. Almost everything has a specific connotation: bollards, cobble pavements, half-timbered buildings with oriel windows evoke irresistibly the Altstadt of any German or Austrian town. The most striking detail is the slow descent of bright yellowish orbs against the night sky. It brings immediately to mind the ominous sight of a Tannenbaum or Christmas tree, flares dropped during the initial stages of a night bombing to help mark the aiming point. A fire in a nearby building seems to be out of control while bright flames are going up in the night. The allusion to incendiaries seems compelling, a conclusion backed up by Howl’s explicit reference to “cities to burn”.


Though the movie is set in a fictional universe, the slow descent of target indicators is a precise reference to actual Bomber Command practices.

Wizards are summoned to help the war effort. Howl uses his magic powers to become a bird-like creature tasked to repel waves of enemy bombers while at the same time protecting his beloved Sophie. Night after night, it takes him more and more effort to revert to human form and his feral nature become increasingly intrusive as the battle rages. He’s finally shown as a hideous monster almost no longer human, attacking furiously an enemy bomber.


An allegory of a night fighter pilot being de-humanised by war?

Although imaginary elements are largely prevalent,scenes showing the destructive effects of aerial bombing are strikingly realistic and match countless accounts of bombing survivors.


Multiple fires have spread out of control and the urban landscape is now an inferno, a not-so-veiled allusion to the firestorms of Dresden and Hamburg. The turbulence and the optical disturbance caused by an ascending column of overheated air have been skilfully reproduced.


Bombs blow up in a straight path, as would have happened when dropped from an aircraft in flight; some architectural features such as chimneys, gables and high-pitched roofs point unmistakeably to continental Europe.

Bombs blow up in a straight path, as would have happened when dropped from an aircraft in flight; some architectural features such as chimneys, gables and high-pitched roofs point unmistakably to continental Europe.


A bomber about to crash is shown with surprising realism


Windows explode in a flurry of flying debris; rubble is everywhere.

Bombing operations are eventually called off following the resolution of the main plot. In the last scene, the flying castle is seen high in the sky carrying Sophie and Howl to a long-awaited happiness, an explicit praise of simple family life and mutual love. Meanwhile, military aircraft are fleetingly shown returning to their bases.


The now flying castle carries Sophie and Howl to a long-awaited happiness …


… while military aircraft are fleetingly shown returning to their bases.

The closing scenes contrast the new life awaiting the lovers with the absurdity of the conflict. Despite the most traditional they-lived-happily-ever-after finale, Howl’s Moving Castle has a distinct bitter taste which resonates with the many controversies surrounding the bombing war. For a start, war folly is neither recognised nor fully understood until the last sequences. Secondly, the whole destructive power of aerial warfare has been unleashed in vain because the conflict did not result in an indisputable victory – hostilities simply stopped. In both real life and fictional universes, bombing war remains a controversial issue.

Alessandro Pesaro, Digital Archive Developer



Arnaldi, V. (2017). Il Castello errante di Howl. Magia, mistero e bellezza nel film cult di Hayao Miyazaki. Roma, Ultra Shibuya, 2017.

Cavallaro, D. (2006). The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki. Jefferson, McFarland & Company, 2006.

Gordon, D. (2005). A ‘Positive Pessimist:’ An Interview with Hayao Miyzaki. Newsweek, 20 June, p. 67.

Smith, L. (2013). War, Wizards, and Words: Transformative Adaptation and Transformed Meanings in Howl’s Moving Castle. Available at: [Accessed 21 November 2017].