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.