Less than two weeks before the Victory in Europe Day on Friday, May 8 I met with a 91 year old former Lancaster bomber airman. He had been based at Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire and did bombing run after run toward the end of hostilities. The commemoration is significant because the war is still in living memory. When I mentioned that the old planes from the war will be flying over London it brought tears to his eyes. The memories, the fears and the bravery of those that were lost came flooding back. I held his hand as he told me, with hardly any breath in his voice, that he was the only survivor of those he knew.
This moving encounter later brought to mind Len Deighton’s novel about the valour of British aircrews flying mission during the war – simply called Bomber. The narrative takes the reader on a journey with the aircrew as they experience the sounds, vibrations and buffeting of the Lancaster in midair as they flew over Nazi Germany at night. It is their reliance on each other, the comradeship that helped them through what what a frighteningly nervy time.
Some weeks previous I also met another RAF wartime survivor. He was an engineer who worked on radar near Bournemouth and he wanted me to know how young everyone was – the fresh faced boffins were down from university – and they experimented with tracking devices and “mirrors”. They had no real idea whether it would work, but Churchill came to visit to give his support and encouragement. The radar proved vital in helping our bombers know where the German fighters were and enabled the major air campaigns to go forward with what was really a shield of protection.
I wrote this because I find these encounters with elderly survivors of the war grounds in me a sense who and what we are as a people. We remember what happened and give thanks. You can also read Deighton’s tribute to these ordinary heroes.