About time…Interview with an Air Gunner…
It’s noisy. It’s cold. It’s pitched black. Outside the clouds whoosh past. Occasionally the moon and the stars shine through the higher cloud. You are flying in a Lancaster, heading for Germany. And at least you have a view, albeit an uncomfortable one. You are stuck in your gun turret. Scanning the sky.
Total concentration. For four and a half hours. Then manic activity. Frantic. Praying for the words you are desperate to hear from the Bomb Aimer – ‘Bombs Away’. Then the aircraft dives back into the cloud. Homeward bound. But still unable to relax. Another four and a half hours until you see the runway lights of home.
If you are lucky, then the most you will have had thrown against you was some ineffective anti-aircraft fire – flak. If unluckier then maybe a searchlight will have scanned over you. If really unlucky then two or more lights from the ground will have found you and the pilot will have had to have corkscrewed the massive aircraft down and round.
Worse would be three or more lights on you…difficult to shake…even worse the flak stopping and the streaking flashes of light of the tracer rounds from a German night-fighter swooping in at you. As gunner, the aircraft pilot will be looking to you to guide him. ‘Skipper, Mid-Upper. Bandit 10 o’clock. 500 yards.’ The pilot will take evasive action as you engage the enemy. The Lanc will climb or dive and turn to try and shake the enemy as you fire your .303 machine guns. Your tracer rounds (1 in every 5 of the 10,000 rounds or so you have) slashing through the night sky towards the JU-88, aiming off and in front of the enemy flier, like a giant version of clay-pigeon shooting, but one where BOTH of you are moving…
Maybe though the German will have been clever. Maybe he’ll wait. Maybe he’ll just shadow you home. Wait just off your tail. You knowing someone or something is out there, but unable to identify it or shoot at it. Waiting – waiting for you to be at your most vulnerable – as you descend to land. Your pilot concentrating on the approach and the fog-bound runway suddenly lit by the FIDO lights. You still scanning the sky, starting to relax, and then the pounce. The German strafing across the top of you…you shouting the bandits position and intention again, you returning fire…Praying all the while that between yourself and the other gunner in the tail you fend him off so the pilot can climb again and head for the safety of cloud.
But hopefully, you’ll have had a quiet easy run. Landing just after midnight so you don’t have to fly again tomorrow night. Looking forward to a quick de-briefing and then off to bed – you and the other Non-commissioned in one direction, the officers in another. Maybe to get to go for a beer.
Time to relax. Time to write up your log book. Time to sleep. Time to think about how you were lucky and didn’t go down in flames. How you didn’t have to jump into the darkness. How you didn’t get blinded, shot or injured by the flak or the night fighters.
Before it all starts again.
We’ll thankfully never experience this for real and reading things like this are just the memories of someone else. Vivid, sharp. Like the faces of the six other members of your crew – your band of brothers – people who will become closer than your brothers. But still memories. Shared by chatting in the beer garden of a pub in the Surrey countryside, enjoying a nice lunch and a couple of beers. Answering the odd and daft questions posed by the modern generation.
And I was the lucky lad asking the questions. And Mr Ron Thorpe, a remarkably sprightly man in his very late 80’s, and former Lancaster Air Gunner, was the man answering them. To meet him, one of ‘The Many’ according to RAF history and called ‘Bomber Boys’ at the time…it’s almost impossible to say how much of an honour it is to be there. How lucky I am to be able to asking him the questions. Just to be in his company. I am slightly in awe of him. At 18 I was sitting in a classroom dreaming of the day I might be a Radar Technician…at 18 he was in the turret of a Lancaster. All volunteers. Every one of them volunteered to be in the air, often chosing to go up there because it would bring them into the fight sooner. The choice was often wait for your call up, or else volunteer for the fight in the air now.
And the three or so hours we had for a chat that lunchtime went by so fast. One moment we were ordering a plate of scampi, the next the pub was closing and we were forced to leave. On here, writing here I can’t do it justice.
I was told so much. Unlike popular media portrayals of flying on a bomber mission the crew didn’t chat, or have time to tell a joke or to read poetry…they were on constant watch. Total concentration for 10 and a half hours at the worst. Jammed into an aircraft that would conspire at one moment to be their saviour – power, manoeuvrability and ability to take a lot of damage – and one moment to be their end – cramped, cold, difficult to move about in. They would be totally focussed on the job they had to do. Thinking about the task in hand was all they had time to think about. Flying to the target, working out their position, watching for the enemy, this is what they spent their time whilst airborne doing.
They even had little time to think about the target. The idea was to concentrate on the factory, the train yards. Not the people. Maybe one of the reasons that it has taken so long for the Bomber Boys to be properly honoured by a monument and memorial is due to the nature of their task. Bombing the enemy. Taking the war to the German heartland. And in an age of area bombing and all that ‘area’ means that is difficult ground. Nowadays we discuss collateral damage and we try to minimise the chance of injuring ‘innocent’ civilians. But back then in the mid 1940’s..in an age of ‘Total War’ it could be argued that everything is part of the war-effort. And in an age when your own cities and town had been levelled by bombing trying to weaken the will to fight the urge for revenge must have been incredible. After all it was an age of ‘sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind’. Time, sensibilities, dogmas were all different. It’s difficult to criticise what young men did then with the morals of today.
Somethings, of course are hard to justify. The bombing of Dresden is hard to countenance. And this itself had an effect not only on the civilians on the ground but also those involved in the event from the air. To find out what you have done can be difficult for someone to come to terms with…and to see the effects of the whole thing; everything that you and your peers are involved in; to face those dangers time and time and time again, that must be almost unimaginable to face. And for those who couldn’t take it any longer, who just couldn’t handle it all, and to go mad as a result and then be tarred with the brush of having a ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’…cruel. The whole thing is cruel.
But war is cruel. Evil things are done in war. They always have been. They always will be. That is the whole point of war, to destroy and kill. And the people who are involved in fighting wars have to be a special kind of people. No matter what stigma they were given, not one of them; not one man who had to fly in those aircraft and face those dangers and fight and fight and fight have a lack of anything.
They are all heroes to me. They are all greats. If they won a gallantry medal, or if they just did their job mission after mission after mission. They did what they had to do, and they all, particularly the 55,573 who died doing it, deserve to be honoured by a memorial. They deserve to be remembered and we deserve to hear their stories. We MUST hear their stories before they are all lost to time.
Even if that monument is overdue…a permanent memorial to the 55,573 who died has finally been built and it’ll be unveiled next week.
It’s about time.
You can hear a snatch of audio from my chat with Ron by clicking on this link…You can stream the audio or you can download it and listen again and again. It’s worth the download.