Your guide to the Lancaster bomber

John Nichol talks to Rob Attar about his new book, which tells the story of the Lancaster bomber, and the men who flew, fought and died in it during the Second World War

John Nichol is a historian, author and RAF veteran who was captured and paraded on Iraqi television during the Gulf War, before returning to active service. He has since written several works of military history as well as a number of novels, and is a regular commentator on military affairs

Rob Attar: What were the origins of the Lancaster Bomber? Why was it needed?

John Nichol: At the start of the Second World War, the Royal Air Force’s offensive capability was quite limited. It soon became clear that the RAF needed bigger, better and more powerful bombers that could carry much greater loads. Now, what we’re really talking about are weapons to kill people and destroy things. And the early bombers weren’t doing that enough. They weren’t achieving what the politicians and military leaders wanted, which was to take the war to the heart of Germany. With the Lancaster bomber that’s what they were able to do, thanks to its range and its massive weapons load.

Advertisement

How much of a challenge was it to build Lancasters in the quantities required?

A huge challenge. Just look at a modern car production line with all of its automation, computer technology and mass production facilities. Then imagine trying to do all of that by hand, rivet by rivet. The men and women who built 7,377 Lancasters in massive production facilities were undertaking a mammoth task.

Why did the Lancaster become the pre-eminent British bomber?

Numbers. It went into service with so many squadrons. It’s talked about in the same breath as the Spitfire, and in many ways, we talk about it so much because we know so much about it. Many Bomber Command veterans who flew the Halifax, for instance, will tell you that their contribution was as important, but the simple fact is that the Lancaster was produced in huge numbers and was involved in some of the most important and notorious raids.

What were the most significant raids the Lancaster took part in?

People always ask that question but I don’t think that you can answer it. Take the Dambusters, which is probably the raid that the most people will have heard of. Was it one of the key raids of the war? In terms of what it achieved, certainly not. In terms of showing what Britain could do, possibly. In terms of the way that the heroism of the crews was idolised, yes it was important. But you can’t look at any one operation, or aspect of the war, in isolation.

Sir Arthur Harris, the chief of Bomber Command, called the Lancaster his shining sword and a key weapon in winning the Second World War. But could you say the Lancaster was more important than the Arctic convoys or the troops that stormed the beaches on D-Day? I don’t think you can. So while I couldn’t pick out one operation, taking the war to the heart of Germany – which is what Bomber Command did from the first day of the war to the last – was the crucial thing.

What kind of men flew in the Lancasters?

You can’t sum them up because they were everything from factory workers to public schoolboys. You had draftsmen, cooks and bottle washers. And the delight for me of reading their accounts is how they all came together, in a totally arbitrary way, when they crewed up. They chose, by the cut of their jib, by the look of the other chaps, who they were going to live with, fight with and possibly die with. And there was no rhyme or reason about who was going to live or die during the war. Death didn’t care if you were a butcher’s boy or a public schoolboy.

And not all of the crews were from Britain, were they?

They came from all over the empire, and across the world. Many hailed from New Zealand, Australia and Canada. People of colour who came from the Caribbean made an incredible contribution. One of these guys, Cy Grant, was shot down and became a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III, the home of the Great Escape. He was one of the first black prisoners of war and the Germans could barely believe it. He ended up on the front page of one of their newspapers, which called him an airman “of indeterminate race”. They didn’t know what to make of him.

What kind of relationships were forged by Lancaster crews?

The personal relationships that bonded crews together were astonishing. They trained together, lived together, fought together and, in some cases, died together. Obviously, the only people that you can interview are those who survived, and all of those I spoke to over the years talked about their love for their crew, how they worked together as a team. And I think that almost certainly had something to do with their survival. You have to have total trust in all of your friends around you if you’re going to make it.

What view did the people you spoke to have of the Lancaster as an aircraft?

Pilots loved it as a flying machine; they talked about the way it flew like a fighter. They loved the way it handled. It was a hardy aircraft, which could take severe punishment. And in a number of cases people said that, if it wasn’t for the Lancaster, they wouldn’t be alive today.

But it did have downsides. You might think of this giant aircraft with a wingspan of 102 feet, but inside it’s like being in an aluminium tube, full of racks of equipment. You hit your shoulders on the equipment stations and knock your head on all the stuff that’s hanging down. If you’ve ever been caving and tried to get through a letterbox in a cave, it’s like that.

Now can you imagine doing that in the middle of flak, when the aircraft is in a spin or in flames? If you’re in a Lancaster in a flat spin, you could be under 6, 7, 8 or even 9 G-Force. And you could be stuck on the roof or on the floor or against the bulkhead. Can you imagine trying to get out of a Lancaster under 7 or 8G when it’s on fire, or when there are holes in it? When your mates are dead at the other end of the aircraft? Going to war in a Lancaster was an astonishing experience, there’s no doubt.

Bomber Command was one of the most perilous places to be in the war. Could you give us a sense of what the dangers were?

Of the 7,377 Lancasters built, over half were lost in bombing ops or training accidents. And of the 125,000 people who served in Bomber Command as a whole, just over 55,000 were killed. Another 10,000 were shot down and became prisoners of war, and 8,500 were injured. So that meant that if you served in Bomber Command, you had about a 40 per cent chance of getting through the war unscathed. Can you imagine that now? Just think of the prime minister in the heart of the Falklands War or Iraq or Afghanistan saying that we had lost 60 per cent of our fighting force.


Listen on the podcast: Victoria Panton Bacon shares moving first-hand testimonies from veterans of the 1939–45 conflict


Then look at some of the raids Bomber Command undertook. Rightly, we remember the heroism of the Battle of Britain, where 544 men from Fighter Command were killed over a four-month period. But on one night in Bomber Command, on a raid to Nuremberg in March 1944, more men died than in the whole of the Battle of Britain. That tells you something about the dangers involved.

There’s one story in the book that really hooks onto this. A crew is attacking Berlin in 1943 as part of the Pathfinder Force. They’ve got green flares that they’re going to drop to mark the targets. And the pilot is describing how he is in on the bomb run and the flak’s coming up around them. Suddenly there’s a massive explosion and everything in the aircraft stops working. He loses all intercom, all contact with his crew. And the pilot describes how the aircraft turns green. What’s happened is some flak has hit the bomb bay and the green marker flares have exploded.

The next thing he knows, the aircraft is gone. He’s in a sitting position over Berlin falling down towards the flak and the flames. His aircraft has simply exploded

He knows that the aircraft is finished. All he can do is keep control of the aircraft in the hope his crew can bail out. And he says to himself: “We’ve practised this on the ground. They can all bail out in 30 to 40 seconds and so I have to count to 30 seconds. I know I’m going to die. I have to sacrifice my life so that my crew can get out.” And he starts to count. One, two. The green flames are coming towards him through the back of the aircraft. Five, Six. The flames are licking up between his control column and his instrument panel.

He gets to 17, 18, and the next thing he knows, the aircraft is gone. He is sitting above Berlin with his hands forward – there’s no control column there anymore. There’s no aircraft there anymore. There’s no seat. He’s in a sitting position over Berlin, falling down towards the flak and the flames. His aircraft has simply exploded. All of his crew are immediately killed by the blast. He’s been thrown out of the aircraft, and luckily, he’s got his parachute on. And he manages to pull his parachute and – because he’s at 20,000 feet – he’s got seven or eight minutes to float down into the heart of Berlin.

This pilot sadly died last year, but I spoke to him about his experiences, and he said: “On the way down, all I could think about was my crew. I still think about them every night and what I could have done better. Could I have saved their lives?” Of course he couldn’t. But that bond between the crew was there all the time.

What kind of reception would this pilot have received in Germany? How were prisoners from bombing raids treated?

They had a rough time, but on most occasions they were looked after. They were handed up through the system and ended up in prisoner of war camps. There were also occasions where crews were simply murdered, strung up from lampposts, hanged in barns, or shot by enraged German civilians. But bearing in mind how many were shot down, those numbers are probably relatively small.

And we shouldn’t forget that it also happened here. There are contemporary accounts of German aircrew being shot down and lynched in Britain, again in small numbers. But you can imagine that if you’ve seen your home blasted apart, your children die amid rubble, then you’re going to be enraged. And sometimes in war, when that happens, horrific things occur.

How did their work affect bomber crews’ lives at home?

For the most part they tried to get on with their lives. There’s a story in the book where a crew are heading over their target and another Lancaster drops its bombs, which go through one of the wings of their aircraft and the rear turret. Their rear gunner is killed outright. So they come back and have to report all of this and then go back home to their wives and girlfriends for dinner. That was tough for them, but they were a hardy lot. As many of them said: “What else could we do?”

Now, there were some who did say: “We can’t go on.” Some men had mental or physical breakdowns and the air force at the time was not good at coping with this. They used the term ‘lack of moral fibre’, which basically meant cowardice. If you had a breakdown because of the dangers you’d faced and the things you’d seen, you weren’t helped much. There are a couple of accounts where the whole of a station was called out to witness a poor RAF officer or sergeant having his badges of rank and medals torn off him to set an example. It was a terrible thing to do. But that’s the way the military coped then.

The bombing raids caused devastation across Germany. How aware were the crews of what was happening on the ground, and how did it affect them?

It depended on who you spoke to, at what point of the war and what they had experienced themselves. There are a number of stories of crews looking down on a burning Cologne, Dresden or Hamburg in horror and thinking: “What is going on down there? What are those poor people going through?” I’ve also got accounts in the book describing what it was like on the ground, and it’s heartrending to hear people talking about bodies melting, the road melting in front of them and watching the skin fall off their hands.

Some of the men said that it was simply what had to be done, that’s the way the war was fought then. Using the weapon of hindsight, which wasn’t available at the time, you can argue about whether some of this was right or wrong. But back then it was the only means of taking the war to the heart of Germany.

After the war, how did those who’d flown Lancasters adjust to life back in civilian society?

They had little choice but to adjust, because the war was over. That sounds a bit bland, but everybody had been to war and so people weren’t interested in what you had done. Some of the men who returned to their day jobs were literally told: “We don’t want to hear your war stories. We’re not interested in that. We simply need to get back to normality.”

This was also not a generation that spoke openly about their feelings. Many suffered what we would now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder, but that wasn’t recognised then and they simply had to get on with their lives. At the back of their minds, many didn’t understand why they had feelings of anger or sorrow, or on certain days they would feel emotional.

There is a wonderful story in the book from Ron Needle, a rear gunner, about his search for resolution. Needle lost five of his friends in a Lancaster crash. He suddenly realised that he needed to find out what happened to his men, and his journey of redemption is heart-warming and heartbreaking.

Both during the war and afterwards, a lot of criticism has been levelled at Bomber Command. How do veterans feel about that?

Almost to a man, they feel desperately hurt. They feel very let down that somebody would still say, 75 years on, that what they did was wrong.

There have been a number of myths that have grown up, and I think Dresden is one of the greatest of those. Dresden was horrific and you don’t need to exaggerate what happened there to know that. But people say Dresden shouldn’t have been attacked because the war was nearly over. Well, in February 1945, people did not know that the war was nearly over. We know it now, but they didn’t know it then! The Germans were still launching V-2 rockets, killing thousands. A few months earlier, the battle of the Bulge had seen terrible defeats and setbacks. The Germans were still putting up huge resistance in various parts of Europe. When you’re fighting a total war, you fight until the enemy surrenders.

These men lost friends, colleagues. And then, in the aftermath of the war, they were more or less abandoned by Churchill and other senior figures because of the destruction that had been wrought – destruction wrought under Churchill’s direction, we should remember. Bomber Command didn’t get a memorial until 2012, and a year ago that was splashed with paint. So the men feel hurt to know that people still question what they did.

John Nichol is the author of Lancaster: The Forging of a Very British Legend 

Advertisement

This article was first published in the July 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine