This year I have been volunteering with the International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC). This charity, based in Lincoln UK, was “created to provide a world-class facility to serve as a point for recognition, remembrance and reconciliation for Bomber Command” and officially opened in 2018 as part of the RAF centenary celebrations. My role involves carrying out audio interviews with World War II veterans who now live in the Auckland region of New Zealand.
(photo courtesy of IBCC)
My interest in military aviation stems from having edited Geoffrey Guy’s War, my late uncle’s memoir about his experience as a photographic reconnaissance pilot in World War II (see here for a detailed summary and review). That led me to read some of the many other books about the conflict, and go to a local airport to take a trial training flight; one of the peak experiences of my life.
By a combination of skill, hardiness, and good luck my IBCC interviewees had not only survived the war, but lived to an advanced age; they were at least in their mid-90s and the oldest was 100. Several had flown in Lancasters as pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator or gunner. As the photograph shows, these operations also involved a large number of ground staff. I have not interviewed any of these, but they played an essential role. Another man in my group was a pilot with the Pathfinder force, dropping flares to mark the targets for bombing. The only woman I saw had served in the WAAF, processing the photographs taken during the raids to show which targets had been hit. Many of the men continued in aviation work after the war, and one of them was chosen for the role of a pilot in The Dam Busters movie. They felt great pride in their service as evidenced by all the books, photos and memorabilia in their rooms. Even those whose memories were failing were immediately able to recall their service numbers.
Personal anecdotes were many and varied: Being shot down in a bombing raid over Germany, and spending the rest of the war in a POW camp after a failed attempt to escape through a tunnel. Parachuting into occupied France, and managing to cross over the mountains into Spain, disguised with the help of local people. Performing a slow roll in the Gypsy Moth used for training, in deliberate defiance of the order “No aerobatics”, and getting himself and the aircraft smothered in hot oil. Managing to fly home safely after the navigator of his two-seater Mosquito lost consciousness.
They described some gruelling events with calm detachment, often with humour, and obviously had no doubt that their service had been worthwhile. Patriotism, camaraderie and the love of flying must have sustained them through the years of extreme hardship, challenge and loss. Bomber Command has been criticised because its operations caused the deaths of German civilians, and a few interviewees expressed regrets about this, but regarded it as unavoidable: “It was them or us”.
As a former psychiatrist I am interested in the mental and physical disorders that can affect military personnel. I touched on this topic in an earlier blog post and in my short novel Blue Moon for Bombers. Even a couple of my IBCC interviewees, a highly resilient group who did not develop any major problems, spontaneously mentioned symptoms such as nightmares persisting for some years after the war ended.
It is a pity that this work could not have been carried out before now. The quality of some recordings is compromised by the frailty of the aged participants. Other veterans who might have been included are too unwell to take part or have already died. But better late than never, and when they have been uploaded to its website, these veterans’ interviews will contribute towards the IBCC’s aim of “ensuring that generations to come can learn of [Bomber Command’s] vital role in protecting the freedom we enjoy today”.