Bomber Boys by Ewan and Colin Mcgregor on BBC1

I really enjoyed Bomber Boys, which was on BBC1 on Sunday Evening. The programme showed Ewen McGregor’s brother Colin – a former RAF pilot who flew with 617 Squadron – learning to fly the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight‘s Lancaster, the only flying Lanc in Britain and one of only two left flying in the world. First McGregor learnt to fly a C-47 Dakota, a classic aircraft that was perhaps as much of a war-winner as the Lancaster and the Spitfire, but has never quite attracted the same glamour. He then progressed to taking the controls of the Lancaster.

I especially enjoyed the insightful contributions of Bomber Command veterans. Of course, so few of those very young men actually survived the war. Bomber Command had the highest loss rate of any comparable command in the British armed forces during the second world war. I think that their views and remeniscences were very interesting, and it is increasingly important that their recollections of everyday life are remembered. It’s not just their memories of flying and fighting that are important, but also of drinking in pubs, life on airbases and chasing WAAFs, and things like that, that really matter. In that sense the McGregors looked at the social history aspect of Bomber Command more than any other programme I have seen. The McGregors also looked at other aspects of the campaign, such as the Germans raid on Coventry in 1940, the Butt report on bombing accuracy, and the raids on Hamburg and Dresden. They also looked at the bombing from the perspective of the German population.

My research into Portsmouth airmen shows just how history has slanted views. Hundreds of young men from Portsmouth were killed with Bomber Command. And they were young men, mostly in their early twenties and some in their late teens. Most of them have never even driven a car, but some found themselves piloting big, heavy Bombers on marathon missions over occupied Europe – often two or three times a week. It’s impossible to describe what a strain this must have placed on these young men – flying for up to ten hours at a time, facing imeasurable dangers of flak, night fighters and the threat of accidents. The rate of attrition in aircraft and crews was, in retrospect, terrifying.

Yet for some unknown reason, the Bomber Boys have never quite attracted the attention of Fighter Command. Compared to the hundreds of Portsmouth men who fought and died in the Bomber Offensive, only ONE was killed flying with Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. Puts things into perspective doesn’t it? I cannot help but think that this is down to two historical developments. Firstly, after the end of the war the strategic bombing of civilian targets became distinctly unfashionable. Even before the end of the war Churchill was distancing himself from the historical legacy of the bombers. Secondly, the RAF being the RAF, it has always done self-promotion very well. And since the Second World War, it has suited far more to play up the Battle of Britain rather than the Bombers Offensive. And thus when we think of the RAF, we think of the dashing young public schoolboy, pre-war regulars of Fighter Command, rather than the diverse, international and unsung men of Bomber Command.

This was a brilliant programme, very well thought out and blending history with remeniscence. I also found it very moving and inspiring, and made me think of such brave Portsmouth bomber men as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy, Flight Sergeant Francis Compton, and Flight Lieutenant’s Guy and Arthur Venables. Reading their operational records at the National Archives was a sobering reminder of just what an incredible ordeal they endured.

Bomber Boys is available to watch on BBC iplayer (UK only)



Filed under On TV, portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

9 responses to “Bomber Boys by Ewan and Colin Mcgregor on BBC1

  1. John Erickson

    It’s pretty much the same thing over here – the fighter pilots are all glamourous heroes, while the guys who flew the bombers get only a little press. And most of that is reserved for “The Mighty Eighth” or for the B-29s bombing Japan from the Marianas. Nobody would know about the B-25 Mitchell if it weren’t for the Doolittle raid, the B-26 Marauder is almost completely forgotten, and don’t even bother mentioning the A-20 Havoc, A-26 Invader, or especially the Bostons, Baltimores, and Marylands that did such yeoman service on your side of the pond.
    And I won’t even get started on the ignorance about the Aleutian campaign! 😉

  2. x

    I was expecting you to write something about Saul David’s “‘Bullets, Boots and Bandages: How to Really Win at War”

    • James Daly

      I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m gonna try and catch it on iplayer when I get a chance. Everything’s a bit busy at the moment with the book due out any day now.

  3. Edna Cahill

    Another forgotten group is the Fleet Air Arm, particularly those who were on the Russian Convoys; the pilots were stressed and the ‘ground crews’ even more so, because they had a 24 hour commitment to keeping the aircraft ready for action, and the pilots were on roll-over patrols for submarines and escaping battleships. Invisible? Only part of the Navy’s wider service?


    • x

      But is Bomber Command really forgotten? I note that Harris has a rather large statue while his RN WW2 peers only have busts in Trafalgar Square. We call whistle or hum the Dambusters’ March or 633 Squadron melody. Undeniably very, very brave men but that can be said of many different groups of men who took part in that war. Sadly I am one of those deluded souls who believes that the RAF PR machine is its most effective organisation.

      • James Daly

        I see what you mean – the RAF is very selective with its use of its history. I cannot help but feel though that the average, working class lad who became a Flight Sergeant Gunner and who did 20 odd raids, in an unglamorous squadron and wasn’t in the Dambusters, is probably forgotten. As with most things, we tend to remember the poster boy heroes, rather than the rank and file. Hopefully my recent work will go some small way to changing that perception of what constitutes a hero.

        It’s interesting that pre-WW2 the RAF ran strategic bombing up its flagpole as its raison-detre, and neglected fighters as a result. Then post WW2 Fighter Command and the Battle of Britain became the cause de celebre, and everything else aviation wise is neglected.

        • x

          RAF selective history? Yes all BoB pilots were officers, all grammar and public school chaps, there were no Flight Sergeant Pilots. Then we have the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster; isn’t this the sort of “bad history” we are warned against in our under graduate studies.

          As for the RAF’s raison-d’etre well post WW2 it could be argued that it still saw itself very much as a bomber force first despite WW2 showing that the best use for RAF resources was (still is) CAS (and the requisite fighter cover.) Sandy’s white paper gnawed at the idea of manned aircraft, Polaris removing the strategic role, and with BAOR being out numbered on the inner German yet the idea of the strike bomber persisted. Despite being a supposed MRCA Tornado really only excelled at bombing. And Jaguar did have CAS capability it was very much more of the same. We saw this all play out in GW1 where AAC could have done with a proper AH. Yet all the offensive air effort we could muster was for runway denial against a Third World enemy whose air force was already destroyed. The RAF suffered casualties for its trouble; remember it was a task the US didn’t want with good reason. One can only speculate what would have happened above Central Europe against the Soviets.

          Finally see we are still seeing it today with the Libyan Storm Shadow raids. If you discuss SS and TLAM on other boards light-blue bods will often say that both weapons have different target profiles; all though the both seem to simple me to involve introducing 500lb of HE onto a target. And they will always mention the value of pilots being able to be called off at the last minute. That argument doesn’t hold much water for me. SS is fired off at near maximum ranges. A submarine launching a TLAM from a similar distance would be well out to sea beyond the range of most navies to detect. The missiles can be diverted in mid air anyway. In these days of tight budgets it doesn’t add up. The cost of procuring several squadron of FJ, 900 SS, and tanker aircraft would be quite a few submarines and escorts. While the former are one trick ponies the latter has great utility and greater range and greater endurance. I am told by some not to read too much into the fact that the MoD chap responsible for deep strike wears light blue. Or that SS is cheap and the costs appear high because of development. And we can just buy TLAM just off the production line so don’t need many in reserve.

          Oh yes Libya. Who supplied CAS again? AAC flying off RN platform. Says a lot doesn’t it?

    • James Daly

      Indeed. One of the most impressive aviation efforts of WW2, for me, was the Fairey Swordfish torpedo attack on the Bismarck. Incredible stuff.

      • x

        Yes. And though we could easily blame the RAF’s neglect of the FAA for the reason why the Stringbag was still in service we mustn’t forget the influence of those disciples of St Barbara in their island fortress to the north of Pompey, 🙂

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