‘Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.’
J.G. Magee’s celebrated poem of 1941 offers what could be taken as a somewhat over-romantic view of operational flying in the wartime RAF. From 1939 to 1945, of 125,000 men who volunteered for operations with Bomber Command, 55,573 were killed, the slaughter being at the almost unprecedented level of 41 per cent losses. The total British Empire and Commonwealth fatalities from 1939 to 1945 were 452,000. Thus, approximately 13 per cent of all British and Commonwealth deaths during the Second World War were among bomber crews.
These very ‘ordinary men’ were asked to take on an almost suicidal task, with slim chance of survival, and they generally volunteered for the job; a phenomenon that continued until the cessation of hostilities. After the fighting was over no campaign medal was ever struck for the air and ground crews of Bomber Command. Most had to content themselves with the Defense Medal for fighting a six-year offensive which was highly significant in the destruction of the Third Reich.
Air Marshal Arthur Harris, the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, never forgave the government for this. Such was his disgust at the lack of official recognition of the effort of his men, a task they ‘faced up to’ for all this period that, when he was awarded the CGB in 1946, it caused him great distress and embarrassment, and he refused to accept a peerage. Harris felt particularly strongly for his ground crews who had to work at all hours in often abominable conditions to keep his vitally needed aircraft flying.
Many books have been written about Bomber Command’s war, from the highest levels of command to the experiences of the lowest WAAF, but only a few have been able to reveal the human side of the bomber crews’ experience. Based upon many personal interviews, correspondence and archival sources, Andrew Simpson has compiled a compelling, informative and absorbing documentary record of what the men of Bomber Command went through – from initial training and crew formation, to descriptions of life on squadron and on their extremely dangerous and draining operations, to the numbing effect of morale breakdown. This intensely researched book, the result of years of work, contains many personal accounts from air crew – from those that survived and those that did not. Many heroic, tragic and often humorous incidents are described. The author also examines the technology of bombing and how this form of aerial warfare evolved in terms of aircraft design, navigation, bombing methods, tactics and gunnery as used in, and as deployed by, the Hampden, Whitley and Wellington medium bombers, and the Stirling, Halifax and Lancaster ‘heavies’ which equipped Bomber Command’s squadrons.
A view of, and from, the German side is also included, whilst a section of the book is devoted to recording dramatic personal accounts of being shot down. A further section records the sometimes harrowing experiences of evasion, both on land and by sea, and various accounts are given of the techniques practiced at the Luftwaffe Interrogation Center – the infamous Dulag Luft. Finally, the story of the prison camp experience is also recounted, examining in particular Stalag Luft III and the escapes that were made from it, including the notorious ‘Great Escape’ of March 1944.
Running like a thread through the work is the story of the author’s father, who served as a Lancaster pilot on an Australian bomber squadron during 1943 and 1944. His very personal account forms the backbone of this comprehensively researched and often very moving book.
For anyone with a desire to learn more about Britain’s aircrews at war or for those seeking to understand more about the operations of Bomber Command, this book offers a unique and extraordinary insight into a momentous period of history.
Andrew Simpson trained as an architect and has an Honors Degree in History. He served in the 4th (Volunteer) Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, in Liverpool in the late 1970s, while his great grandfather on his mother’s side was the oldest serving Royal Naval officer in World War One and was awarded the OBE for his services. A Friend of the Royal Air Forces Association, he has been interested in aviation and the Second World War since an early age. His fascination with T.E. Lawrence led to his first book, Another Life: Lawrence after Arabia (The History Press, 2008), a full length examination of Lawrence’s life after the First World War and his time in the RAF.