Thursday, 10 November 2011

Bomber Command

From 1939 until the success of D-Day on June the 6th 1944 the only real tactic the British had to hand that could hurt the German enemy in Europe was Bomber Command.  Early results showed that the safest and most effective tactic for the RAF was to fly at night, aircraft well spaced out, and bomb the targets. For the majority of raids this was to be the procedure followed. When the Americans joined in during 1942 they decided to fly in tight group formations and flew during the day.  Both suffered heavy losses. RAF aircrews endured a tour of 30 operations, only one in six expected to survive their first tour! Some flew huge numbers of sorties, Guy Gibson VC the leader of the 'Dambusters Raid,' flew with several types of aircraft and managed at least 175 sorties. Even so the RAF bomber crews had a life expectancy worse than that of junior officers during the first world war.  By wars end these crews had served in every theatre of war and suffered 55,573 crewmen killed, 8,403 wounded and 9,838 becoming prisoners of war. This out of a total crew number of 125,000!  Most of these airmen were aged between 19 - 25, Guy Gibson was a mere 26 when he died, probably from 'friendly fire.'  RAF crews also contained many from Australia, Canada and New Zealand and the West Indies who shared the suffering of the British crews. Bombing caused major casualties on the ground and many today wish to see Bomber Command as a war crime!  It is fair to say that the majority of those who say this never actually lived under the threat of German bombing themselves, maybe if they did they may feel differently.  It has also to be said many who endured the Luftwaffe hated the effect of bombing on those on the ground in Germany also.  However if you 'sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.' Remember those young men who courageously flew off into the freezing dark night, in danger from enemy fighters, effective anti aircraft fire and the knowledge that if they did manage to return for breakfast some at least would not.  Each night RAF airfields heard the roar of Rolls Royce engines as aircraft of many types took to the skies as the nation slept, safe in their beds, more or less.  

Lie in the Dark and Listen


Noel Coward

Lie in the dark and listen, 
It's clear tonight so they're flying high 
Hundreds of them, thousands perhaps, 
Riding the icy, moonlight sky. 
Men, materials, bombs and maps 
Altimeters and guns and charts 
Coffee, sandwiches, fleece-lined boots 
Bones and muscles and minds and hearts 
English saplings with English roots
Deep in the earth they've left below 
Lie in the dark and let them go 
Lie in the dark and listen.
Lie in the dark and listen

They're going over in waves and waves
High above villages, hills and streams
Country churches and little graves
And little citizen's worried dreams.
Very soon they'll have reached the sea
And far below them will lie the bays
And coves and sands where they used to be
Taken for summer holidays.
Lie in the dark and let them go
Lie in the dark and listen.

Lie in the dark and listen 
City magnates and steel contractors, 
Factory workers and politicians 
Soft hysterical little actors Ballet dancers,
'reserved' musicians, 
Safe in your warm civilian beds 
Count your profits and count your sheep
Life is flying above your heads 
Just turn over and try to sleep. 
Lie in the dark and let them go 
Theirs is a world you'll never know 
Lie in the dark and listen.



Anonymous said...

When those that were able, parachuted from my uncle's plane, they were rounded up after landing by the locals, lined up, spit on and assaulted then turned over to the Germans who deliverd them to a stalag.

Adullamite said...

Leaz, That happened to quite a few. They were lucky, some were not handed over.

soubriquet said...

That's amazing! I never saw
this poem before, never thought of Noel Coward as a war-poet.
Yet in this he touches on the truth, reminding the civilans that the noise in the night isn't engines, isn't bombers, but a cargo of young men, of beating hearts, afraid, going into the darkness nevertheless.

And those lines, reminding his own people, the actors, the loveys of theatre-land, who no doubt were often critical of young men in uniform, drunk and out on the town. Young men who knew, young men who would be soon flying into the dark again, young men who might never ever again get a chance to carouse arond the town.

Noel Coward. What a surprise.

I have a new respect for him.

And the picture. A Lancaster bomber. Ugly yet beautiful. There's the front end of a fuselage, in the Imperial War Museum in London.
Unlike what you'd imagine from the external pictures, cramped, tight, young men shoe-horned into a freezing, noisy metal box. I'm sure the job of a tail or upper gunner was the loneliest place in the world.
My school had a roll of honour citation for an 'Old Boy', not so old, just 21, "Arthur Louis Aaron, a bomber pilot who took off from Bone in North Africa, He was 21 years old, and an acting flight sergeant in No. 218 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, flying Short Stirling heavy bomber serial number EF452, when the following deed took place for which he was awarded the VC.

On 12 August 1943 during a raid on Turin, Italy, Flight Sergeant Aaron's bomber was hit by gunfire. The Stirling was very badly damaged; Three engines were hit, the windscreen shattered, the front and rear turrets put out of action and the elevator control damaged, causing the aircraft to become unstable and difficult to control. The navigator, Canadian Cornelius A. Brennan was killed, other members of the crew were wounded, and Flight Sergeant Aaron's jaw was broken and part of his face was torn away. He had also been hit in the lung and his right arm was useless. Despite his terrible injuries he managed to level the aircraft out at 3,000 ft. Unable to speak, Flight Sergeant Aaron urged the bomb aimer with gestures to take over the controls. The crippled bomber made for the nearest Allied bases in North Africa.

Aaron was then assisted to the rear of the aircraft and given morphia. After resting he insisted on returning to the cockpit where he was lifted back into his seat where he made a determined effort to take control and fly the aircraft although his weakness was evident and he was eventually persuaded to desist. In great pain and suffering from exhaustion he continued to help by writing directions with his left hand.

Five hours after leaving the target fuel was now low, but Bone airfield was sighted. Flight Sergeant Aaron summoned his failing strength to successfully direct the bomb-aimer in belly-landing the damaged aircraft in the darkness.

He died nine hours after the aircraft touched down.

Every morning, at assembly, I saw his face on that framed citation, and wondered if I'd ever be as brave as he was. Just an ordinary local boy. Not an officer, a Flight sergeant.... yet he gave up his last reserves to ensure that his crew would land safely.

Anonymous said...

I recall the tailgunner relaying the story to me. He nor the other three had any malice toward their civilian captors. They understood why they were hated and yes they were fortunate.

Adullamite said...

Soub, Coward also made the film, 'In which we serve,' about a ships captain and the sinking. He was also in trouble for the song, 'Don't let's be beastly to the Germans,' as people did not grasp the satire!

Leaz, Glad the tailgunner survived.