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Bigger than football

Remembrance Day
by Hardy on 11/11/2004

Today is Remembrance Day. In an article written for the Scarborough programme Hardy looks at the forgotten heroes of Bomber Command.

Remembrance Day

Today is Remembrance Day, the 11th of November, which commemorates the end of the First World War, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month 1918. At this time it is worth taking some time out to consider one of the forgotten groups of heroes of WWII, the men of RAF’s Bomber Command.

Whatever you may feel about the rights and wrongs of the tactics adopted by Bomber Command in area bombing German cities by night, the men that flew in the aircraft 60 odd years ago were heroes by any standard that the word can be judged. They were ordinary men, your parents and grandparents, uncles and great uncles. They came from all walks of life including footballers like Sir Alf Ramsey, who was an Air Gunner.

All aircrew were volunteers and knew full well when they signed up that the odds were that a good proportion did not survive. Accepted figures now are that 55% were killed, while something only just over a quarter survived a tour of 30 operations without being killed, severely injured, captured or shot down. In all Bomber Command lost 55,000 men during WWII.

I have become fascinated by the stories of then men that flew in the bombers through the dark cold nights to take the fight to Germany when Britain had no other method of striking back, and who paved the way for the invasion and eventual victory by destroying the infrastructure and railways of France and Germany. This is because my own Father (right) was among them, a Bomb Aimer in a Lancaster in 1944.

Jack's story

My dad, Jack, signed up for the RAF on his 18th Birthday in 1941 and spent the best part of three years training, including a failed attempt to become a pilot, before he became part of a Lancaster crew (left) commanded by Australian Flying Officer William Young and was posted to 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron based at Dunholme Lodge, near Lincoln, on the 24th March 1944.

The crew’s first mission was to Nuremberg on the night of the 30th March. The mission saw the worst single raid losses for Bomber Command in WWII, 97 aircraft shot down out of 795 sent, a loss rate of 11.9%. 82 planes were shot down before they reached the target, which was barely damaged due to thick cloud cover which limited the bombers accuracy. It was a real baptism of fire.

Over the following three months the crew took part in twenty more raids on various targets in France and Germany in the run up to invasion and afterwards against the V1, Doodlebug menace.

Three times the aircraft was damaged in raids by flak, and once it landed with an engine on fire. Each time they were asked though the men went through their superstitious routines, wearing a lucky shirt, or putting boots on in a certain order and climbing into their aircraft to face possible violent death in the dark skies. In between missions there was something of an “eat, drink and be merry” attitude, with outrageous pranks and drunkenness a part of normal life. They all knew that the final part of that quote was very true, for tomorrow they may well die.

Shot down

On the night of the 4th of July 1944 the crew was part of a force of 246 aircraft sent to bomb the V1 storage site in caves at St Leu d’Esserant, just north of Paris. Shortly after bombing the site FO Young’s aircraft was shot down by a ME110 night fighter over Beauvais and crashed, just two men getting out of the aircraft before it went down, one of which was my Father. Six men died in the crash and are buried in a single grave in the Marissel French National Cemetery in Beauvais (right).

He found his way to the French Resistance and lived for two months with the Pelletier family, posing as their slightly simple cousin Jacques as he had no French. The Resistance were actively supporting the Allies as they broke out of the landing areas in Normandy by sabotaging the German’s efforts at every opportunity. The whole Pelletier family was involved, their 15 year old daughter Marie would run messages on her pushbike across country. All the time they knew capture meant almost certain death. Allo, Allo it wasn’t!

My father was smuggled back to the Allies on September 1st 1944 and returned home shortly afterwards. After a period of leave he was posted to train the next group of Bomb Aimers for Bomber Command and would no doubt have been posted back to active duty had the war in Europe not ended in May 1945.

Jack very rarely talked about what went on in 1944 but since he has died I have found a lot of information researching the history of his crew and his time in the RAF. I have put together a website which details my father’s RAF career which can be found here if you are interested in knowing more about Jack and his crew.

Denial

Very few people realise that the next lines in Winston Churchill’s speech where he praised “The Few” of Fighter Command at the end of the Battle of Britain were about taking the fight to the enemy by means of the men and aircraft of Bomber Command. Despite this, and the tremendous sacrifices made, the men of Bomber Command were quietly forgotten after the war.

Controversial raids like the firestorms in Cologne and Hamburg and the destruction of Dresden meant that there was a whiff of embarrassment about the way they had done what they had been asked to do by their commanders. This included Winston Churchill, who had insisted on the bombing of Dresden to support the Russian advance and after the war wanted to distance himself from the decision. Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris was the only field commander at his level in WWII not made a Lord after the war, and was the last to have a statue raised to him, in 1992. The men of Bomber Command did not get an official campaign medal despite their sacrifices and Bomber Harris’ request for one.

THE ROYAL BRITISH LEGIONSo when today or next Sunday, the words “We will remember them,” are spoken, spare a thought for the forgotten heroes of Bomber Command. 

And buy a poppy!


 

 

 

 

DiggerDagger.com is an independent website and the views expressed are not necessarily those of Dagenham & Redbridge Football Club