Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Lancaster The forging of a very British legend
John Nichol Simon & Schuster May 28, 2020
Books around a single (iconic) aircraft type have become rather popular of late. Witness Spitfire by Jonathan Glancey, and a similarly titled volume from John Nichol. Here he shifts to the best product that Bomber Command used in WW2. The book is less about the Lancaster itself, and more about the human interest stories of the aircrew that flew it. We do not, for example, learn about its handling foibles, or what was least reliable about it, but we do learn plenty about the emotions (almost always trepidation, usually fear, and almost always pride) of the brave men who crewed it. The book is clearly aimed at the general market – that it zoomed (to use the verb du jour) straight into the hardback non-fiction top 10 in the week of release, shows this was a wise move!
Nichols points out in the foreword that more than half the 7,377 aircraft made were lost – either on operations or in training accidents (an easily overlooked cause of a material part of Bomber Command’s horrific casualty rate).
Whilst there are stories about the aircraft that are left untold, Nichols deserves a huge slap on the back for meeting so many WW2 veterans and recording their stories whilst there was still time. Many of these veterans had chosen not to unburden much their stories to their families, but Nichols’ sympathetic ear (and shared experiences of combat and POWship) in many cases does the trick. And emotions run high, not the least with Ron Needle in the foreword: contemplating his life’s end “Ron stares into the distance, pain etched on his face. ‘I’m tired of being on my own and I’m looking forward to seeing my mates again.’”.
In the early chapters there is a swerve or two into the history of aviation, and later the story of the early years of WW2, that might seem superfluous to anybody who has read anything about this subject. The centre of the book contains a section of colour photos, mostly delightful ones of veterans with a twinkle in their eye! Interspersed in the text are small black and white photos . The author gives a useful introduction to the Lancaster’s design genesis, and then its early production. It is a slight shame there is no photo of the enormous Avro plant at Chadderton (outside Manchester), which was the main factory producing Lancs. (I am sure BAe Heritage would have been delighted to supply one). Nichols goes on to describe the shadow factory at Yeadon in Yorkshire (adjacent to what is now Leeds & Bradford airport). As an eight year-old I used to cycle up there to watch aircraft all day long, and the scale of the Avro plant made me awestruck. Later in the book he relates interesting co-manufacturing arrangements with the Ford Motor Company.
Nichols describes the type’s operational debut – the Augsburg raid – truly a baptism of fire. Where he has access to family archives, there can be a tendency to quote at too much length from letters. This touches on being mawkish and intrusive.
But at other times, when Nichols allows a veteran to talk of his escape from a burning Lanc when he knows several of his colleagues are incarcerated, or already immolated, the prose brings the rest of the 21st century world into perspective. Current RAF aircrew will find much to enjoy in the book, and those based at Waddington will realise the spirits that live on.
Perhaps the most famous operation of the type’s career was Chastise, the Dams raid. Like Max Hastings in his book, Nichols takes care to set out the impact of the raid from the Germans’ viewpoint. Though it rather looks like Hastings’ book came out too late to be used as a reference by Nichols.
As if their job was not sufficiently dangerous, from Spring 1944 Bomber Command crews suffered from a change in attitude by Hitler and Goebbels: henceforth they were to be treated as terrorists after capture. There is a harrowing tale of one such victim of this policy.
A constant thread through most accounts is the affection which aircrew felt, not only for their sweethearts, but for their mount. The Lancaster was appreciated by her crews as the best tool with which to go to war. Later in the book there is a slight over-emphasis on the lives of rear gunners – possibly because Nichols already had many accounts from his previous work, Tail-End Charlies!
In the final chapters, the author raises the emotional temperature again when he mentions the harrowing tale of many PoWs (on a forced march Westwards) being killed by RAF Typhoons. The finals days of the war, and Operation Manna and so on, are dealt with deftly. But the book closes where it began, with Ron Needle; this time his reunion with those in the French village of Meligny who aided him after escaping his burning craft 45 years earlier. Very moving.
A small niggle with Nichol: he mentioned that each Lanc’s pair of homing pigeons “could fly over 800 miles at 80 mph…”. That struck me as rather special - a quick online search indicates the normal cruise speed for a pigeon is 50-60 mph – perhaps the Lancs crews’ pigeons had afterburners!
In conclusion, John Nichols has created a well-written platform for Lancaster veterans to relate their experiences. Thank goodness he has done so.