LAN­CASTER HE­ROES

Gulf War RAF vet­eran on Bomber Com­mand val­our

History of War - - FRONT PAGE - WORDS TOM GAR­NER

The Avro Lan­caster was one of the most fa­mous air­craft of WWII. A heavy bomber with a crew of seven, the Lan­caster was ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing 33,000 lbs (15,000 kilo­grams) of ex­plo­sives. A main­stay of RAF Bomber Com­mand, it was the most suc­cess­ful bomber of the con­flict. Sir Arthur Har­ris, com­man­der-in-chief of Bomber Com­mand, re­ferred to the Lan­caster as his “shin­ing sword” and also the “great­est sin­gle fac­tor in win­ning the war”. Nev­er­the­less, this ac­co­lade came at a heavy price.

Of the 7,377 Lan­cast­ers that were built, more than half were lost to en­emy or train­ing ac­ci­dents. More trag­i­cally, of the 125,000 men who served in Bomber Com­mand, over 55,000 were killed, 8,400 were wounded and 10,000 be­came pris­on­ers of war in raids over Europe. These hor­ren­dous fig­ures were also marred by crit­i­cisms, both then and now, of the mass bomb­ing strat­egy that Bomber Com­mand com­mit­ted against Nazi Ger­many to de­stroy its fight­ing ca­pa­bil­ity.

Nev­er­the­less, the en­durance and hero­ism of the men and women of Bomber Com­mand is the sub­ject of John Nichol’s new book

Lan­caster: The Forg­ing Of A Very Bri­tish

Leg­end. The Sun­day Times best­selling au­thor of Spit­fire, Nichol is not just an writer but also an RAF vet­eran who served for 15 years. While on ac­tive duty as a nav­i­ga­tor dur­ing the Gulf War in 1991, his Tor­nado bomber was shot down dur­ing a mis­sion over Iraq. Along with the Tor­nado’s pi­lot, John Peters, Nichol was cap­tured and tor­tured as a pris­oner of war. Dur­ing his cap­tiv­ity, he was pa­raded on tele­vi­sion by his Iraqi cap­tors, which drew world­wide con­dem­na­tion and be­came one of the en­dur­ing images of the con­flict.

Fol­low­ing Peters’ and his re­lease at the end of the Gulf War, Nichol has be­come a writer with many of his books be­ing his­to­ries of WWII.

Lan­caster is his 16th book and is a trib­ute to the heroic crews and sup­port teams who kept the fa­mous air­craft fly­ing.

A sym­bol of courage

WHAT WAS THE IN­SPI­RA­TION BE­HIND WRIT­ING Lan­caster?

I have been in­volved with Bomber Com­mand veter­ans for many years. When I was in the

RAF in the 1980s-90s there many of those veter­ans around and their story wasn’t that big a deal, cu­ri­ous though that it is to say. How­ever, I got to know them more af­ter my ex­pe­ri­ences in the Gulf War. Be­cause I was shot down, my­self and the other half-dozen RAF POWS be­came part of the RAF Ex-pris­on­ers of War As­so­ci­a­tion. All the mem­bers, apart from us from the Gulf War, were WWII POWS. Some had been on the Great Es­cape and on the death marches at the end of the war. It was a great hon­our to be part of their group.

I’ve con­se­quently known these peo­ple for years but over time their num­bers have di­min­ished and there are now very few alive. Af­ter the suc­cess of my Spit­fire book, I was look­ing for an­other idea to record the mem­o­ries of that spe­cific group of peo­ple. Lan­caster al­lowed me to tell their sto­ries and write some­thing to com­mem­o­rate them.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE LAN­CASTER THAT MAKES IT SO RES­O­NANT IN THE BRI­TISH NA­TIONAL PSY­CHE?

It was an in­cred­i­ble part of the war ef­fort. Other air­craft like the Han­d­ley Page Hal­i­fax are cited but they never en­joyed the same sta­tus as the Lan­caster. Dur­ing the war, peo­ple didn’t re­ally con­cen­trate on the air­craft – it was in the post-war pe­riod when they looked at what it had done. Of course, there were fa­mous films like

The Dam Busters and peo­ple con­cen­trated on spe­cific things that they could hold on to. The Lan­caster has be­come a sym­bol of Bri­tain’s war, sur­vival and the courage of the men and women in Bomber Com­mand.

DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVOURITE FACTS ABOUT THE LAN­CASTER FROM THE BOOK?

I don’t write tech­ni­cal books per se. My joy comes from the hu­man sto­ries that are linked to the ma­chine. Over 7,000 Lan­cast­ers were

“THE LAN­CASTER HAS BE­COME A SYM­BOL OF BRI­TAIN’S WAR, SUR­VIVAL AND THE COURAGE OF THE MEN AND WOMEN IN BOMBER COM­MAND”

“IF THE REAR GUN­NER WAS AT 20,000 FEET HE WAS FLY­ING EX­POSED IN THE FREEZ­ING COLD THAT COULD BE -30 OR -40 DE­GREES”

built and over half were lost dur­ing the war and out of the 125,000 men of Bomber Com­mand, just over 55,000 died. That’s an as­ton­ish­ing fig­ure be­cause it meant that al­most half of Bomber Com­mand died. Can you imag­ine any gov­ern­ment dur­ing more re­cent con­flicts say­ing, “We lost half of our force”? It would bring a gov­ern­ment down to­day but that was just in Bomber Com­mand dur­ing WWII, never mind the army or navy.

HOW DAN­GER­OUS WAS IT TO FLY IN LAN­CAST­ERS?

If you served in Bomber Com­mand you had a 40 per­cent chance of sur­viv­ing the war un­scathed. If you also con­sider the con­sid­er­able men­tal toll, that’s an in­cred­i­ble fig­ure. I can’t think of any other mil­i­tary unit dur­ing the war that lost half of its force. On a hu­man level it was an ab­so­lute tragedy but it was what was re­quired to fight the war.

Peo­ple have for­got­ten the re­al­ity of what that meant be­cause Bomber Com­mand sent peo­ple out on a nightly ba­sis. The army and navy did not con­duct a ma­jor en­gage­ment for every day of the war but Bomber Com­mand em­barked on a mass bat­tle that re­quired constant fight­ing.

The other fig­ure that comes to mind is that peo­ple rightly talk about the brav­ery and losses of Fighter Com­mand be­cause it’s one of those things that sticks in peo­ples’ minds. How­ever, Bomber Com­mand lost more men in one night over Nurem­berg in March 1944 than Fighter Com­mand lost dur­ing the whole of the Bat­tle of Bri­tain.

WHAT WAS THE WORST ROLE IN THE AIR­CRAFT?

The rear gun­ner was iso­lated and al­most stick­ing out in the open in his Per­spex bub­ble. He was only con­nected by the in­ter­com and was re­ally ex­posed whereas the other crew mem­bers at least had a lit­tle bit of hu­man con­tact. Even if you were the nav­i­ga­tor be­hind a cur­tain in dim light with the flak go­ing off, you could still put your head around the cur­tain and smile at some­body.

The Lan­caster was not like the pres­surised air­craft you go on hol­i­day in to­day. If the rear gun­ner was at 20,000 feet he was fly­ing ex­posed in the freez­ing cold that could be -30 or -40 de­grees while hang­ing off the end of the air­craft. It was a lonely place to be.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO IN­TER­VIEW VETER­ANS FOR THE BOOK?

It can be quite tricky. Many shrug and say,

“We just got on with it”. You first have to gain their trust and re­spect. In some ways, I’m in a unique po­si­tion in that when I in­ter­view a WWII vet­eran they also want to know about my ex­pe­ri­ences. With­out try­ing to blow my own trum­pet, they know they’re talk­ing to some­body who kind of un­der­stands.

For me, it is about get­ting them to open up be­cause it’s not true that they sim­ply ‘got on with it’. Some were hardy folk and didn’t give death and fear a huge amount of thought but when you got to know most of them, they started to talk. They talked about fear, loss and es­pe­cially the im­agery such as when empty beds would be cleared of pos­ses­sions af­ter air­crew were killed.

That is the im­agery of death. The veter­ans would never say some­thing like,

“So and so bought it and wasn’t com­ing home”.

Tak­ing some­one’s pos­ses­sions away is a re­ally po­tent im­age of sac­ri­fice.

For me, that’s the key – get­ting them to talk about what it was like. There are many sto­ries in the book of fear and ter­ror but there are also sto­ries of fun, laugh­ter and love.

HOW MUCH HAVE WOMEN’S CON­TRI­BU­TION TO THE LAN­CASTER STORY BEEN NE­GLECTED?

None of the women’s roles dur­ing WWII have been par­tic­u­larly well recog­nised such as the Air Trans­port Aux­il­iary women who de­liv­ered the air­craft. They wouldn’t just de­liver sin­gle-en­gine fight­ers like the Spit­fire but also gi­ant bombers. They would fly them around the coun­try with lit­tle train­ing on in­stru­ments or emer­gency pro­ce­dures. When a gi­ant bomber like a Wellington, Hal­i­fax or Lan­caster landed and a woman got out, it was un­be­liev­able. The peo­ple on the ground would ask, “Where are the rest of the crew?” The woman would re­ply, “There are none”.

There were also all the women who worked on the ground from the driv­ers, in­tel­li­gence and those who did the de­brief­ing. It would come down to sim­ple things like the women who served food but they were right at the heart of Bomber Com­mand too. They watched their friends and col­leagues dis­ap­pear overnight. The women’s role was in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant and it’s kind of been for­got­ten.

Com­par­ing notes

AS A FEL­LOW AIR­MAN, DID YOU FEEL A CON­NEC­TION WITH THE VETER­ANS?

I don’t think I could ever com­pare my ex­pe­ri­ences with theirs in that their war went on for so long. Those re­lent­less years of con­flict were tough. If you were in the RAF you would fly over Europe be­fore you came home and went to the pub or vis­ited fam­ily. That was a men­tally tough way to fight a war, par­tic­u­larly in its rest­less na­ture.

My own war was in­tense, di­rect and over in a mat­ter of weeks. For them, it went on for a huge por­tion of their young lives. While I would never com­pare my ex­pe­ri­ences to theirs,

I do un­der­stand what it is like to put your life on the line and see friends die. That does give you a bit of an in­sight into their lives.

Be­low: Pi­lot Of­fi­cer A. S. Jess, a Cana­dian wire­less op­er­a­tor, car­ries two pi­geon boxes. Hom­ing pi­geons served as a means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the event of a crash, ditch­ing or ra­dio fail­ure

TO WHAT EX­TENT DID THE HIS­TORY OF WWII IN­FLU­ENCE YOUR DE­CI­SION TO JOIN THE RAF?

WWII wasn’t an in­ter­est and I didn’t even do a His­tory O-level at school. I had no his­tor­i­cal con­text for join­ing the mil­i­tary at all. How­ever, Lan­caster is my 16th book so how things have changed! When I joined the RAF in 1981 peo­ple didn’t speak about war

per se. At that time, you joined the mil­i­tary for a ca­reer or way of life.

When I joined the ranks as a tech­ni­cian I never had any thoughts of war at all. It was dif­fer­ent for the men of WWII. They joined at a time of war and knew what they were get­ting into al­though they of­ten didn’t know the harsh re­al­i­ties. I def­i­nitely didn’t think that and just joined for a trade but things clearly turned out dif­fer­ently!

HOW DID THE ROLE OF A NAV­I­GA­TOR IN A LAN­CASTER COM­PARE TO NAV­I­GAT­ING A TOR­NADO?

I was a tech­ni­cian from 1981-86 and then started my nav­i­ga­tor train­ing. In­ter­est­ingly, the train­ing was re­ally old-fash­ioned back in the 1980s. You still plot­ted on a desk and there was no GPS. You would plot tracks us­ing time, dis­tance and wind on a map. The train­ing was prob­a­bly very sim­i­lar to the way Lan­caster nav­i­ga­tors did it.

Clearly, when you flew in a Tor­nado it was very dif­fer­ent. When I got onto it in 1988 it was a mod­ern, tac­ti­cal nu­clear bomber and had in­er­tial nav­i­ga­tion. It could tell you where you were most of the time and there was radar. In the Tor­nado, the pi­lot and nav­i­ga­tor did all of the com­bined jobs that a seven-man Lan­caster would have done.

The way that a Tor­nado worked couldn’t com­pare to a

Lan­caster in those terms but the train­ing was still cer­tainly very old-fash­ioned. Of course, the Tor­na­dos that were re­tired in 2019 were also a com­pletely dif­fer­ent beast to the one I flew. For want of a bet­ter ex­pres­sion, the way an air­craft works marches on with time.

DO YOU THINK YOU COULD HAVE NAV­I­GATED IN A LAN­CASTER?

I couldn’t do it now but I reckon that when I was do­ing my ba­sic train­ing I could have had a bash at it. I’m not sure I would have been par­tic­u­larly good with the flak over Ber­lin or Mu­nich to be hon­est. How­ever, I could have pos­si­bly got away with it on a train­ing sor­tie in the UK.

MANY LAN­CASTER AIR­MEN WERE SHOT DOWN AND CAP­TURED. WITH YOUR OWN STORY, HOW MUCH COULD YOU RE­LATE TO THEIR EX­PE­RI­ENCES?

I think that the ex­pe­ri­ences of cap­tiv­ity were dif­fer­ent in that John Peters and I were cap­tured by a bru­tal regime that knew no bounds and could do any­thing to us for their own means. That was not the same for the vast ma­jor­ity of cap­tured Bomber Com­mand veter­ans. Some did have hor­rific ex­pe­ri­ences such as a vet­eran in the book whose friends were mur­dered by Ger­man civil­ians and there are a num­ber of sim­i­lar ac­counts. The Great Es­cape is one of a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent in­stances where that didn’t hap­pen but their POW ex­pe­ri­ences were very dif­fer­ent to my own. For in­stance, some lived in cap­tiv­ity for four or five years. How­ever, for the most part POWS were rea­son­ably well treated as best as they could be in the cir­cum­stances.

TO WHAT EX­TENT DO YOU THINK THE CAR­PET BOMB­ING THAT THE LAN­CASTER REP­RE­SENTED WOULD BE AP­PLI­CA­BLE IN MOD­ERN WAR­FARE?

It wouldn’t be be­cause by to­day’s stan­dards that kind of war­fare is un­ac­cept­able and a war crime. When we went to war against Iraq to lib­er­ate Kuwait, the Al­lies did not sim­ply bomb huge swathes of Iraqi ter­ri­tory be­cause it would have been wrong. Dur­ing WWII, it was the only way of wag­ing war. If you were go­ing to at­tack the in­dus­trial cen­tre of Ham­burg there was no means of drop­ping one heavy bomb on a par­tic­u­lar tar­get. The only way was to at­tack huge swathes of the area around where you try­ing to de­stroy. It would be com­pletely un­ac­cept­able now but it was the only way of wag­ing war in the 1940s.

WOULD YOU HAVE FELT A SIM­I­LAR SENSE OF PRES­SURE BE­FORE MIS­SIONS IN THE GULF WAR THAT LAN­CASTER CREWS WOULD HAVE FELT?

The guys in WWII were con­stantly con­duct­ing mis­sions whereas we weren’t. But, in gen­eral terms, their fear was not get­ting the job done. They didn’t want to let their crew­mates down and that was ac­tu­ally a very sim­i­lar feel­ing to what ev­ery­body would de­scribe dur­ing the Gulf War. You didn’t want to let any­body down in your squadron. I imag­ine those feel­ings were cer­tainly sim­i­lar and of course on our first few nights we were ven­tur­ing into the un­known. When we were in the Tor­nado, no­body in the RAF had been into bat­tle in that way in mod­ern times, which was a lowlevel at­tack over a heav­ily de­fended air­field. I sus­pect that sense of go­ing into the un­known was prob­a­bly sim­i­lar too.

Con­tro­ver­sies and com­mem­o­ra­tion

TO WHAT EX­TENT DO YOU THINK THE LAN­CASTER’S REP­U­TA­TION IS COM­PRO­MISED BY THE STRAT­EGY OF BOMBER COM­MAND?

It de­pends what your views are. There are many myths and in­ac­cu­ra­cies that have built up around Bomber Com­mand’s strat­egy. Fig­ures are in­flated and peo­ple’s rea­son­ing can be fac­tu­ally in­cor­rect or made with hind­sight. Dres­den is pos­si­bly a good ex­am­ple be­cause peo­ple ar­gue that the war was nearly over [when the raid oc­curred]. How­ever, in Fe­bru­ary 1945 peo­ple did not think that. The Bat­tle of the Bulge had only just fin­ished, V2 rock­ets were killing thou­sands and Ger­man jet fight­ers were ap­pear­ing. There were many signs that the war was not over. In the mil­i­tary, you don’t stop fight­ing be­cause a war might be over soon and Ger­many had not sur­ren­dered.

Dres­den was part of that think­ing be­cause it was a strong­hold, a trans­port hub and pro­duc­ing ar­ma­ments. Peo­ple ar­gu­ing about Bomber Com­mand’s strat­egy ar­gue with a weapon that was un­avail­able in the 1940s – hind­sight. No­body had hind­sight then be­cause they were fight­ing for their very sur­vival. There were things that went wrong and were ter­ri­ble.

Every death was hor­rific and the de­scrip­tions of what hap­pened at Dres­den are al­most too dif­fi­cult to come to terms with. How­ever, Bri­tain was fight­ing an ex­is­ten­tial threat and when that hap­pens you fight a war un­til the en­emy ca­pit­u­lates.

WHAT IS YOUR OPIN­ION OF SIR ARTHUR ‘BOMBER’ HAR­RIS?

He was con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure even then, but not to his men, which is quite in­ter­est­ing. Most would say that they ad­mired him. When you press them on that, what they mean is they came to know and ad­mire him af­ter the war. Dur­ing the war, if you were at an air sta­tion on an op­er­a­tions tour you didn’t re­ally know about him and the lead­er­ship. You just got on with your job and when you fin­ished the tour you did some­thing else.

Har­ris was con­tro­ver­sial but he was still fight­ing the war in the best way that he thought at the time. Could you crit­i­cise some of his de­ci­sions in the af­ter­math? Of course you can, but crit­i­cism can al­ways be found in what some­one does af­ter­wards. Har­ris was in a re­ally dif­fi­cult po­si­tion of in­cred­i­ble re­spon­si­bil­ity and lead­er­ship. His cam­paign to de­stroy the Ger­mans’ abil­ity to wage war was cer­tainly one of the fac­tors of win­ning the war, there’s no doubt about that. Could it have been done dif­fer­ently? Some­body would have to show how it could have been done be­cause the Bri­tish did not have pre­ci­sion weapons then. Har­ris was fight­ing a war with the tools and be­liefs that were avail­able to him at the time. In the end, no mat­ter the ar­gu­ment, the war was won.

Some did crit­i­cise at the time, and Win­ston Churchill some­what aban­doned Bomber Com­mand be­cause the con­tro­versy was there. But, in gen­eral terms, when you are fight­ing a to­tal war it’s al­ways go­ing to be ugly.

WHY IS IT IM­POR­TANT THAT SHOULD WE COM­MEM­O­RATE THE SAC­RI­FICES OF ‘THE MANY’ OF BOMBER COM­MAND AS WELL AS ‘THE FEW’?

I think we should com­mem­o­rate both and

I don’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween their ef­forts, courage and skill. The sim­ple fact is that Bomber Com­mand has not had the same recog­ni­tion al­though I think that is chang­ing now. If it is im­por­tant to recog­nise the ac­tions of ‘the Few’ in Fighter Com­mand it is equally im­por­tant to do the same for those tens of thou­sands of men who fought in Bomber Com­mand.

An RAF night bomb­ing photo over Ger­many with Lan­cast­ers pic­tured far be­low Fly­ing Of­fi­cer J. B. Burn­side, a flight en­gi­neer in 619 Squadron, checks set­tings on the con­trol panel from his cock­pit seat at RAF Con­ingsby in Lin­colnshire, c.1943 RAF ground crew re­turn a V-sign to a neigh­bour­ing search­light crew among the sil­hou­ette of a parked Lan­caster, May 1945

Avro Lan­caster PA474 is es­corted by a Hawker Hur­ri­cane as part of the RAF Bat­tle of Bri­tain Me­mo­rial Flight. PA474’S colours are des­ig­nated to 460 Squadron, Royal Aus­tralian Air Force

Right: A Lan­caster is pho­tographed dur­ing the chaos of a raid over Ham­burg at night Elsie Yates works on the nose of a Lan­caster, 16 April 1943

Tor­nado Down

USAF air­craft fly over re­treat­ing Iraqi forces and burn­ing oil fields in Kuwait dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Desert Storm Inset (above) Nichol flew as a nav­i­ga­tor with pi­lot John Peters (fore­ground) when they were shot down and cap­tured dur­ing the Gulf War. They later co-wrote about their ex­pe­ri­ences in the book

Lan­caster: The Forg­ing Of A Very Bri­tish Leg­end is pub­lished by Si­mon & Schus­ter. To pur­chase a copy visit: www.si­mo­nand­schus­ter.co.uk

Air Chief Mar­shal Sir Arthur Har­ris was Air Of­fi­cer Com­mand­ing-inchief of RAF Bomber Com­mand dur­ing 1942-45

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