Bigger than football
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
today or next Sunday, the words “We will
remember them,” are spoken, spare a thought for the forgotten heroes of Bomber
And buy a poppy!