The second world war loomed large in our house growing up. Thinking about it, I was born just twenty years after the war finished and although my dad was too young to fight in it (he did national service in Libya) he was obsessed by all things military. In truth, I think most of the country was still a little bit obsessed by the war and its long shadows, still creating darkness twenty years on.
For me personally, this translated in to a deep fascination of the machinery of war. Writing that it does sound completely bonkers and obsessing over everything man created to help him kill his fellow-man does sound like the first stage of a seriously deranged personality. But we were all at it. Planes, tanks, ships, submarines, guns, uniforms—every aspect of the kit of war was minutely observed and collected. Scrapbooks, model kits, films, books, magazines. These days it would be bona fide OCD, but back then it was normal.
Every detail was scrutinised and oddly there were no residual difficulties collecting and studying our old enemies—in fact, the Germans and Japanese had more kudos, the passing years allowing more than a grudging respect for their superior kit and machinery. British gear was unglamorous and got the job done, reflecting our threadbare resources perhaps and of course American machinery was supremely glamorous and flashy.
But we did have our icons and one of those was the Avro Lancaster bomber. Immortalised by the famous Dambusters raid, the Lancaster caught our imagination. The film perpetuated the myth and the brave chaps dropping bouncing bombs, behind enemy lines, against the odds, all played to our fertile imaginations. Of course we loved the rakish Spitfire and its never say die Battle of Britain pilots, but there was something of the yeoman about the Lancaster. It was the heaviest bomber ever built and compared to its ugly predecessors it looked stylish and imposing.
Of course, we easily brushed under the carpet the true nature of the Lancaster: its ability to deliver the heaviest payload of bombs due to its long, unobstructed bomb bay, the 12,000 lb blockbuster bombs that could—and would—level entire neighbourhoods.
The perspective of time has left us with a peculiar relationship with the Lancaster bomber. It’s still a much-loved, iconic aeroplane that is closely associated with our pride in our air force and the part it played in shortening the second world war. But to modern tastes, Bomber Command‘s controversial tactics of targeting civilian targets makes us wring our hands and get all squeamish about what happened.
Standing underneath a real Lancaster bomber earlier this week at the RAF Museum was something I’ve never done in my life (a lifelong ambition) and, listening to the guided tour, the true nature of the machine became clear. A proud and noble construction, a design classic, boys own stuff, over 100 sorties each balancing life and death on a knife-edge, delivering death and destruction. It’s easy for me to marvel at the fabric of the plane itself—I know the parts intimately after building countless Airfix model kits, the fiddly gun turrets, the clear plastic canopies that if glue got on them would be milkily opaque and of no use to the gunners. It’s also easy to admire the bravery of the crew, who statistically were more likely to die than an infantryman in the trenches of World War 1.
It was with mixed feelings we left the cavernous bomber hall, housing the death delivering giants. All of them childhood heroes in a way; iconic shapes, familiar, glamorous. A realisation of the true nature of the beasts, but still the childhood adulation, this time tempered with respect and humility.