Regular readers of this blog will have picked up that I’m in the middle of writing a novel (you can find some posts about it in the May and August archives). A feature it shares with my last one, Revolution Day, is that although the main narrative is set in the present, the memories of one of the key characters, stretching back decades, play an important role in the story. In this case (unlike Revolution Day), the memories concerned are rooted in historical events, even though the character’s personal experiences are fictional. This has the happy consequence that it requires a bit of historical research, something I had very much enjoyed doing for my first novel, Zeus of Ithome.
The period in question, in this case, was the Second World War. My character, Herbert, was a tail gunner in Bomber Command, and subsequently a prisoner of war. He is initially unwilling to talk about his experiences with his daughter Claire (the novel’s first person narrator), but as he loses his more recent memories through dementia, he begins to live through those events as if they were happening in the present.
This was a subject I fancied I already knew quite a lot about. As a young boy, encouraged by my father (who had done his national service in the RAF) I developed an anorak-y fascination with the war and its aeroplanes, filling our house with plastic models of them. At one point I could tell you the speed and armament of any WWII plane you cared to mention. However, revisiting the subject after many years opened my eyes to some harsh truths that had not been apparent to my ten year-old self.
Herbert serves his time first in Short Stirlings and then in the Avro Lancaster, one of the most iconic British planes of the war along with the Spitfire and the Mosquito. The Lancaster was favoured by Bomber Command chief Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris for one main reason – it could carry a heavier bomb load than any of its rivals. That suited Harris’s strategy of area bombing German cities, which was questionable both morally and arguably in terms of its military efficacy. Postwar scholarship has suggested that the much smaller and faster Mosquito, with its precision bombing capability and ability to evade fighters, could have been a much better means of targeting the Nazi war effort, more cheaply and no doubt with less cost in human life on both sides, but Harris’s obsession with tonnage of bombs meant that the Lancaster bore the brunt of the campaign.
Some of this I already knew, but one thing I had not realised before was quite what a death trap the Lancaster was for its own crews. No less than 58% of the Lancasters built in 1941-45 were lost in combat, the highest loss rate of any RAF aircraft. Moreover, the Lancaster was a particularly difficult plane to bail out of – only 15% of Lancaster aircrew survived, compared to 25% in the RAF’s other ‘heavies’; the Stirling and Handley Page Halifax. Statistically, the odds were that someone flying on Lancasters would not survive a standard 25 mission ‘tour’. In Bomber Command overall, during the war, 44% of all aircrew were killed. Harris was known in the RAF as ‘Butch’ or ‘Butcher’, not for his targeting of German civilians, but for his apparent lack of concern for the lives of his own aircrew.
The Lancaster’s Nemesis, the Messerschmitt ME 110 night fighter.
Of over 3,000 Lancasters shot down, some fell to ‘flak’ – ground-based anti-aircraft, many to night fighters such as the Messerschmitt 110 and Junkers 88. As a child I was impressed by the Lancaster’s three turrets bristling with machine guns, but these were small weapons of limited range and hitting power. In practice, only the rear turret, with its four guns, was of much defensive value. Leading bomber commanders such as Leonard Cheshire sometimes obtained better results by removing the others for the sake of a little extra speed. Aircrew memoirs make clear that even the rear turret gunner was more valuable as the plane’s lookout, alerting the pilot who would then take evasive action, than for his slim chance of shooting a fighter down. When the Germans introduced upward-firing Schräge Musik cannons, allowing them to attach from below, even the rear gunner had little chance of spotting the fighter before his plane was in flames.
Does the Lancaster deserve its iconic status, then? Well, undoubtedly it was a capable plane in many ways and it dropped an awful lot of bombs – over 600,000 tons, more than any other bomber in the European theatre. As for what effect those bombs had on the outcome of the war, the jury is out. They did undoubtedly destroy many thousands of buildings and kill many thousands of people, mostly civilians – not really something to be proud of. To me, with hindsight, the Lancaster now seems like a blunt instrument, a brutal weapon born from the desire to exact revenge upon Nazi Germany, and wielded with scant regard for the lives of those who delivered or received its cargo. But perhaps it does, in a way, deserve its place alongside the Spitfire and Hurricane in the Battle of Britain Memorial flight, if only to make sure we remember the thousands of young men who lost their lives in it.
My main sources for this piece were: Robert Forczyk Bf110 vs Lancaster 1942-45, Oxford: Osprey Publishing 2013; R.C. Rivaz DFC Tail Gunner, Stroud: Sutton Publishing 1998; and various Wikipedia articles.