This is my Dad, second from the right, in RAF cadet uniform. It’s 1943, and he’s in Canada, training for aircrew. He’s 20; he hasn’t met my Mum yet, and I’m a good few years in the future.
Like many boys at the start of the war, Dad wanted to be a Spitfire pilot, and joined the RAF as soon as he was old enough. But things had moved on by then, and the RAF wanted bomber crews rather than fighter pilots. Dad did learn to fly, but because he was good at maths (not an attribute he passed on to me) he was selected as a navigator. From the start of 1944 until the end of the war, he flew on operations in a Lancaster bomber, afterwards deployed to bring troops home, and to take part in the “Manna” raids, dropping food parcels for the starving population of the Netherlands.
More than 50,000 aircrew were killed during the Second World War. More than fifty thousand. The death rate was 44.4%. Of all the forces, only the submarine crews faced worse odds. On a disastrous raid to Nuremberg in March 1944, 96 aircraft were shot down, with a loss of 545 lives in a single night. Yet, in spite of the terrible odds they faced and the devastating losses they endured, the aircrew of Bomber Command were never given a campaign medal, because of post-war controversy surrounding the area bombing of cities. This was the favoured policy of Sir Arthur Harris, Chief of Staff of Bomber Command, encouraged by Winston Churchill, who swiftly distanced himself from the decision when things began to look different in peacetime. As Prime Minister, Churchill made no mention of Bomber Command in his victory speech.
The rights and wrongs of the situation are complex, but it is argued that the Bomber Command offensive kept the German air force occupied with defence rather than attack, and shortened the war. Whoever was to blame for the huge loss of civilian life in cities like Dresden and Hamburg, it wasn’t my Dad, or the other young men of Bomber Command, who were doing their best to serve their country and bring the war to an end, at enormous cost to themselves.
Can you imagine climbing into the cramped confines of a Lancaster bomber, several times each week, knowing how great the odds were that you wouldn’t come back, and aware of the range of horrible deaths that might await you? I have tried to. I have had the chance to board the Lancaster bomber of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight; to sit at the navigator’s desk and in the pilot’s seat, and to appreciate the difficulty of escaping through a narrow hatch, burdened with parachute pack and the bulky kit that was needed to survive the cold, if the aircraft caught fire or went into a spin. Whenever I’ve asked my Dad if he was afraid, he has swept the question aside, saying that it was his job, there was a war on, and that he was too busy with his charts and instruments and calculations to think of being frightened.
It took until this year for the aircrew of Bomber Command to be honoured with a memorial and sculpture, unveiled by the Queen in Green Park. Many of them aren’t around to see it. The bronze sculpture, by Philip Jackson, strikes almost exactly the right note. There is nothing triumphal or gladiatorial about it, showing a wearied group of aircrew, laden with kit, returning from an operation. One of them scans the sky for an aircraft that is yet to return. An inscription says that the memorial “also commemorates those of all nations who lost their lives in the bombing of 1939-1945″. I do wish Jackson hadn’t given the men such handsome, mature faces, though. Many of the aircrew were just boys, not even out of their teens.
I’ve used my Dad’s experiences in two of my books: The Shouting Wind, about an eighteen-year-old girl who becomes a radio/telephone operator in the WAAF, guiding the bombers back to safety; and At the Firefly Gate, a story set in the present which features a ghostly wartime navigator. Dad readily provided information for both, whether on RAF protocol or the price of a cup of tea and a doughnut in the NAAFI canteen. Like many people of his generation, he is forgetful now, but retains sharp memories of a time when life was more vivid, urgent and perilous than at any time since.
Linda Newbery has written over 25 books for children and young adults, including Set in Stone, which won the COSTA Children’s Book Prize and Lob – a beautiful story about journeys, garden magic and growing. You can read what Linda has to say about Lob on her author page and in the Guardian feature. Look around Linda’s website here.