The Lancaster bomber




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.



The Second World War by Anthony Beevor

This weighty tome was one of my recent holiday reads in France. Not the usual airport trash that I would typically consume whilst lying around drinking rose in the sunshine admittedly, but a book of such scale, intellect and ambition that I could have only tackled it on holiday with time on my hands.

I’ve read a couple of Beevor‘s books before on D-Day and Stalingrad and knew what to expect – the grand sweep of war told with masterful poise with the human tragedy of conflict seeping through at every twist and turn.

Growing up in the seventies, the second world war was never that far away from my consciousness and war films, models and a father obsessed by all things military certainly made an indelible impression on me. as such, I find myself more than a little bit interested in all things WWII.

In the past I’ve been interested in different elements of the second world war conflict from D-Day to the Holocaust and Pearl Harbour to Hiroshima, but to be honest never seen the entire picture which this book certainly sets that out.

From the build up to war in Europe, to its devastating aftermath in Nagasaki, the story is told in unflinching detail and Beevor is the kind of historian who brings his facts alive with real stories, anecdotes with relevance to the modern reader.

The recent trend for ultra realism in cinematic representations of conflict aside, the second world war for me has always been about tales of derring do and I guess the ability to show the real face of war was simply unavailable to film-makers in the fourties, fifties and sixties. I suspect there was even a lack of appetite for this type of representation. With notable exceptions like the landmark seventies documentary The World at War, it’s very rare that the story is told in its entirety.

This book does not shy away from describing the most brutal conflict the world has ever seen in graphic detail and it’s in these descriptions that Beevor really does hit hard, depicting a world almost indescribably violent that to modern readers it almost beggars belief. On top of that, it covers the major events and themes of the second world war, how they influenced each other and in turn, how the conflict grew into a war with the largest loss of life ever seen on the planet.

Beevor effortlessly moves from the political to the personal, telling the everyday stories alongside the strategic decisions. His narrative is lucid and engaging particularly with less well-known stories like the rape of Nanking with honesty and sympathy.

Reading this book in Northern France on holiday was an experience in itself, particularly as the book moves inexorably towards D-Day and the defeat of the Axis Powers. The French countryside we drove through providing plenty of evidence of the conflict after seventy years with memorials and military graveyards.

This was a monster-sized book that really did require will power to get through but Beevor was up to the task of keeping the reader enthralled in the unfolding tragedy and global drama of the second world war. He transformed his meticulous research into a series of dynamic narratives and gripping real-life stories.

Highly recommended.