The groundsman nodded at the pilot and made a rotating motion with his right arm, gesturing at the inner of the two propellers on the right wing. Slowly it began to turn. Whop…. whop... whop… whirr…. and the blades were suddenly a blur. He moved closer to the roped-off crowd and gestured likewise at the outer propeller. The pilot acknowledged, touching his forehead, an informal salute. Whop… whop… whop… whirr…. On the other side, the inner propeller seemed a little more reluctant. Whop… whop… whop… whop… pause… whop… whop… whop… Like a car engine on a chill morning, it seemed to reluctant to kick in. I could sympathise. It was knife-edge bitter in the northerly wind, notwithstanding the May sunshine. I already had my hood up, anchoring my cap in place, and was regretting I hadn’t put thermal leggings on under my jeans. Eventually, the third engine caught, the propeller now a-whirr. The outer propeller caught quickly, as fast as its counterparts on the right wing. The noise was building up. Later, when the pilot briefly revved the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines to 2,000 rpm, two-thirds of their take-off speed, the sound became deafening.
Looking up at this beautiful machine, an
the Dakota with a pair of Mustangs
Avro Lancaster, the key weapon in the armoury of Britain’s Second World War Bomber Command, I struggled with a myriad of emotions. Not given to jingoism in any shape or form, I nevertheless felt an unusual upsurge of national pride: in the airmen who had so courageously manned these craft, through the unimaginable horrors of flak and aerial bombardment, night after night, and despite the overwhelming odds against their surviving each mission; in the groundsmen who had braved bitter temperatures out on the dispersals, maintaining and repairing the aircraft time after time; in the faceless and nameless scientists and engineers behind its development and construction; in the faceless and nameless support staff at the airbases, Land Girls in the fields, brains in the intelligence services… and so the list goes on.
The Second World War has been a curiously significant part of the last few months of my life. It all started, unexpectedly, with a Christmas present to friend of mine in 2008. Despite Helen’s initial misgivings that this gift from her husband might be some form of vacuum cleaner (such was suggested by its shape), a metal-detector emerged from the wrapping. Not an obvious choice of present, but
one for an inquiring mind, and one that this particular inquiring mind had been after for a while.
A few days’ later, she and her ex-RAF brother took it out onto the nearby fields. And almost immediately hit something. Something she dismissed almost immediately as an old Coke can. Something her brother pored over… before finally concluding quietly, slowly, that the Something was, albeit badly burnt, a piece of aircraft alloy. It wasn’t long before her Nottinghamshire village, Hoveringham, in the heart of England, gave up its secret. In amongst the chaos of the last months of the War, two Lancaster bombers had crashed close by during their final training flights, within less than three weeks of each other in January 1945, with the loss of all fourteen crew-members. Each crew should already have been in active service, but poor weather had delayed the completion of their training at nearby RAF Syerston. A combination of poor weather, poor visibility and lack of experience made that delay infinite.
Meticulously and surprisingly speedily, Helen tracked down the families of thirteen of the fourteen dead airmen (sadly, the fourteenth continued to elude her). With the goodwill and generosity that overflows in
looking up into the bomb aimer's capsule and the cockpit
people when they hear of such tragedy, she was soon provided with the wherewithal for a memorial to the men, a pair of vast stone monoliths on the banks of the River Trent within sight of where the two planes had gone down, although the actual locations are now at the bottom of a sailing lake. Later this month, the memorial will be officially unveiled. Weather permitting, the one Lancaster that is still flight-ready will make a triple fly-past in front of some of the surviving relations of those airmen, far-flung as they now are, coming from Canada, New Zealand and Australia for this final conclusion to the abruptly-ended lives of young men from another world.
Energised by the plethora of stories and experiences she was being told as she learnt more about the two crashes and what had happened in her wee part of the world during the War, Helen started writing… And this was where I came in, proofreading a near-final draft of what was to become a good-sized paperback. Now the book is published, beautifully bound with photographs and Helen’s own drawings (her “day job” is as an artist), the publishing itself another generous act -
this time by a former Mosquito pilot’s company - with all proceeds going to appropriate military charities.
Helen’s approach is simple, yet poignantly effective in its humanity. She begins by setting the scene: outlining events leading up to the outbreak of hostilities, describing life back home during the War, taking us through the major events as they affected England and her government’s conduct, and explaining the development of Bomber Command. Then she leads us by the hand to show us round RAF Syerston and the inside of a Lancaster, and describes the preparation for and conduct of a typical mission. Finally, she takes us through the awful events of 12 and 29 January 1945, and introduces us to each of the doomed airmen. More than anything, this is a personal story - or, rather, a panoply of personal stories, replete with anecdotes and experiences. War may be about big things - borders, principles, countries - but it is the likes of you and me, the “little people”, that really suffer.
I had never been particularly interested in “war stuff”, but I found myself intrigued by the personal stories that Helen had unearthed, the product of interviews and conversations
with more than sixty people within a half-hour’s drive of where she lives. Suddenly, I couldn’t get too much of the Second World War, devouring “The Dambusters”, “The Man Who Never Was”, “Agent Zigzag”, “Operation Mincemeat”, “Iron Coffins”, and several other books. I quizzed my mother’s generation about their experiences, their memories… of rationing, of being bombed in Belfast, of cycling at night with dimmed headlights, of watching German bombers fly up the Thames en route to drop their awful payload, of unexpected post-War uses for blackout material… What I did not know about the courage and heroism and imagination of these six years in my country’s history…
With a curious coincidence of timing, the UK’s Channel Four put on an extraordinary four-part series, “Blitz Street”, showing in incredibly emotional, as well as scientific, detail what it would have been like to have lived in one of England’s major cities during the Blitz. What a appalling damage even a “small” bomb, the SC50, could have done, let alone the monstrous “Hermann” or a “doodle-bug”, the V1. What chaos incendiaries caused. How the shock waves from a blast could kill, leaving the body totally unmarked, seemingly asleep. How a classroom
the rear gunner's capsule at the back of a Lancaster
of small boys answering the morning roll-call would deal with the occasional pause: “He’s dead, miss. His house was hit last night.” How those who lived through it, whether six or twenty-six at the time, still find the re-telling voice-stoppingly tearful. And, of course, this is only one side of the story…
When Helen suggested we visit East Kirkby airfield on the first Bank Holiday Monday in May, on the off-chance of seeing a Lancaster fly past, but in the certainty of seeing the resident Lancaster, “Just Jane”, at least taxi round the airfield, I leapt at the chance. Finally I would see, up close and personal, one of these amazing old workhorses that had seen such incredible service.
Walking through the gate to the airfield to join the thousand or more people already gathered, my breath caught in my throat. There, in front of me, smaller and neater than I’d expected, and immaculately well-kept, was the Lancaster, one of only three that is still operational under its own steam today. It’s an awkward, unlikely shape, its body a rounded oblong in profile, at quite a slant when it is parked tail-down on the runway. Only just before
take-off, does its body go horizontal, the tail coming up off the ground in the minute or two before the whole plane becomes airborne. In front of me was the claustrophobic capsule where the rear-gunner, desperately alone except for the intercom, would do whatever the circumstances of the mission might, with no notice and split-second timing, demand. Beyond that, the mid-gunner’s sitting-duck capsule, a bubble above the top line of the aircraft. From our grassy lunch-spot in front of the plane, Helen pointed out the forwards- and downwards- looking bubble in the nose. Here the bomb-aimer would lie, only getting up onto his knees in the unlikely event gun-action out front might be required. In the cockpit, the pilot would be on the left, the navigator on the right. Somewhere in the interstices of the beast, the wireless operator and flight engineer would lurk, a living nightmare for anyone of remotely claustrophobic persuasion.
“We should not see that which they have seen,” reads a caption to one photograph in the hangar’s exhibition of local squadrons’ Second World War experiences. The phrase echoed through my mind when I met Douglas Hudson, a 94-year-old former navigator. My father had trained as
rivet by rivet
part of the Lancaster's bodywork
a navigator, though, thankfully (not least, selfishly, for my own genesis) the War ended before he could see active service. Here in front of me was this amazing, living and breathing remnant of the conflict, chatting as he flirtatiously wrote “with love and best wishes” in my copy of his book. What had he seen, as he moved around the cramped confines of the Lancaster, checking the aircraft’s position and destination against charts and, through the astrodome, the stars? When he added his weight to the control column in a desperate attempt, with the pilot and flight engineer, to level their Lancaster out after its terrifying corkscrew through 10,000 feet to escape a German fighter? When his or another craft’s rear gunner “got it”?
Not far from here are some of the airfields where the famous 617 “Dambusters” Squadron was based and so it is not surprising that East Kirkby, as arguably the most important aviation heritage centre in the country, includes memorabilia and information on them. Here I found aerial “before” and “after” shots of the Möhne and Eder Dams; photographs of the entire squadron, Guy Gibson’s black Labrador, the un-PC-named Nigger, in pride of place in the
going for a spin
the Lancaster taxi-ing round the airfield
middle of the front row, and of the legendary Wing Commander himself, seemingly relaxed but ready for take-off at the side of his plane. Reading the book or watching the movie does not bring home the reality of these extraordinarily courageous young men. Reading their log-books, gazing at their photos, looking at the kind of kit they would have worn or had to hand: this all makes them just that little bit more human, just that little bit more real. To say I felt humbled would be trite and inadequate.
This is only a fleeting look at one very small part of one of many, many sides of one conflict within living memory. The rights and wrongs of what was done and why and when and to whom are not for me or this forum. I simply wanted to try and rationalise - or at least, describe - a little of the emotion I have been feeling recently on encountering people and their stories and one of the great machines from this increasingly remote moment in our past. My generation and the next are extraordinarily lucky; we should be reminded of that.
[If anyone is interested in a
coming back in
the Lancaster heads back to its parking lot
closer look at Helen’s book, "The Courage Of The Small Hours", please either let me know or contact her through her website, http://www.fergussonsportingart.co.uk/book.html (though this part of the site is still under construction at time of writing). Yes, this is a shameless plug, but I crave your indulgence in this respect because it is a delightful piece of local history and the TOTAL cost of the book (£9.99) goes to the two beneficiaries, the RAF Benevolent Fund (http://www.rafbf.org/) and the Bomber Command Memorial Fund (http://www.rafbombercommand.com/memorialfund/).]
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