Gulf War RAF veteran on Bomber Command valour
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.
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
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