Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Fear. Reflected..




As I become more and more engrossed in researching the 153 Squadron posts covering Dads last few months of WWII  I come upon the stark reality of  loss of life. I'm trying to understand how these men managed to come to terms with the fear that must have been part and parcel of daily life then. To be honest, living as I do in an age where danger isn't part of my existence, I've been struggling to understand how anyone could cope with having to face prolonged fear, and I mean fear, not the anxiety that's the closest I can find to relate to it from my place down the years, cloaked in modern comforts and affectations, protected by nurture, education and lack of experience.

I'll never forget the first time I walked right up to the end of a Lancaster, past the twin dorsal fins and with Dads rear gun turret coming properly into view. I remember that frisson of boyish excitement, the pull of an adults curiosity and a very acute personal sense of sadness and regret that I was doing this without him beside me to ask the questions that would obviously come up. The ground crew - now I know to call them 'erks' - working on 'Just Jane' at East Kirkby Air Museum had waved me over the barriers on request that quiet afternoon and had simply returned to their work, leaving me to it with a plea to 'scarper sharpish' if anyone else came in as they weren't strictly supposed to let the public get so close. "It's the only way to see the tail gunners position though so come on in." Just a middle aged man with a camera and a story of a relative who flew in these planes long ago.


'Just Jane' East Kirby's iconic Lancaster.

For them, just another day. For me something quite different.



I approached the Lancaster from the front. I knew what one looked like, its iconic image had been welded into my little-boy-long-ago fantasies of 'playing war' from a hundred half remembered films and books. {Though I didn't know then my Dad had been part of the story.} The reality of getting close to one was different. Clearly from an older age, it reared up, enormous, solidly propped on its front wheels, wings stretched wide across my view, holding out four huge engines, three propeller blades like swords 'en-garde' to protect each one. Above me, the perspex panel of the bomb-aimers position stared back blank and dispassionate, inviting neither respect or approbation, a mute witness to sights untold. Higher still the two guns of the front turret pointed gently upwards and beyond, the bubble of the pilots canopy sat high off the ground. The gaping belly of the aircraft was shown to me with the same message a scorpion gives when it lifts its tail overhead. 'Stay away. I mean business.' Today though, with its bomb bay open and a trolley of tools underneath, any threat was moot and faded, gone to the vets. I passed slowly, curiously, under the wing and down the flank, sentimentally running two fingers down its skin, noticing the flush rivets holding the dark metal together, on below the turret of the mid upper gunner poking up above me and past the stark metal ladder and the dark opening that let crewmen enter their frightening world. I noticed for the first time the reality that while Dad would have turned left, climbing over the internal spar of the tail to reach his place, the others would all have turned right.

My walk to, and then along the side of this plane had turned it from icon to reality. I could feel the strength and undeniable presence of its bulk, could smell the tyres and the oil from the engines. Rubber, heat and old smoke. It gleamed pristine in a way that something 70 years old shouldn't do. It said, "I am still here. I am still ready."  Every angle and plane gleamed, light reflected and shadow highlighted detail not normally seen; door handle; engine port access points; suspension struts; hydraulic pipes; exhausts long coloured with an engines heat. I stopped and looked back along the side and up over the starboard wing and saw its shape created to catch the lift, minimise the drag, to carry the weight of a full bomb load, the cowling over an engine hunched still with power yearning to be released. An old athlete still on the blocks.



I came around the dorsal fin and there was the pod holding the rear gun, the perspex bubble where my father would have sat. No wonder they called it "tail end Charlie". He must have felt like he was sitting in a glass bubble outside at 20,000ft. The thought made my blood run cold, a feeling which remained as I got closer and saw the reality of that tiny space filled with the mechanism to control the two guns that gaped evil mouths at head height. I noticed strangely, although the rest of the aircraft had mainly been above me, fate had delivered the point I wanted to see most at practically waist level. The turret sat overhanging the rear wheel and I could see now some of the things Dad had told me about before he died; the steel doors which closed him off from the rest of the crew and behind which he had to hang up his parachute due to lack of space, the perspex panel in front of him which he had removed to improve vision even though it nearly froze him to death, the chutes which funnelled the used cartridges out of the aircraft.He'd spoken about the lack of space for his legs with all the hydraulics for the guns and turret and the tiny seat he would sit on for eight to ten long hours sometimes. How difficult would it have been to get out of there quickly had the need arose, stiffened by hour after hour of relentless, bitter cold of high altitude in the unheated turret?



I turned my back to the plane and stood close in beside the turret trying to replicate his position and I began to feel his fear of flying low level over land or sea, skipping waves, treetops and telegraph poles at 200mph, seeing danger only when it had passed, aware of how much might still be ahead, how speed would be frighteningly exaggerated close to ground or water. I could feel his isolation and understand how wonderful it must have been to be high above the ground, above the clouds and feeling like it was just you all alone in perfect solitude. How sometimes he felt closer to God. How, with up to 1000 planes close by in the dark, he feared being hit by other aircraft. How his stomach lurched when they hit the slipstream of another plane or the Lanc leaped upwards when the bombs  released. I thought how literal was the 'blind' panic of being coned in searchlights and I saw that while the rest of the crew looked forward he looked only back. How he was the last one home. I began to understand where he could look for danger and why he feared what was happening behind those doors where he couldn't turn to see or what lurked beneath his feet on dark nights. I wondered how he must have felt knowing that when a fighter attack came it would almost certainly come from behind. I wondered if he knew as I now did that the casualty rates for tail gunners was almost 70%.  70%?  My stomach knotted melodramatically. How could any human being cope with that level of stress?  That was when I began to think about how much they all had to be fearful of, how long a flight could be and how those men could sustain control not just across one mission but repeated over days and weeks and months of terrible experience.

There were many strains on them, many ways for fear to manifest itself or to have to be coped with beyond the actual mission itself; the fear of repeated selection for missions, of long hours between finding yourself listed on battle orders for the day, mission briefings and take off, anxious waits for clearance to go - sometimes crewed up sitting on taxy ways waiting ages for a green light to show from the caravan at the end of the runway, wishing it was over - and the more insidious fears; fear of being seen to be afraid, having to bottle it up to crew, family and loved ones to protect them, fear of men who showed signs of breaking or broke under the strain to be classed as LMF [lacking moral fibre] - mercifully few under the circumstances. What had it felt like seeing losses of men and machine posted, seeing belongings cleared and beds lying empty, in new faces arriving.

Numbers seemed to be important markers - getting past the psychological 5th mission to become an experienced crew seemed inordinately important and the insidious perception of higher risk of disaster when nearing the end of a tour of 30 ops as the law of averages swung against survival. A few good experiences could reduce tension by inspiring confidence while just as conversely a run of narrow escapes could practically debilitate or give someone 'operational twitch'. To cling to an irrational belief that it 'wouldn't be you', but some unknown other crew who's 'number was up' was what kept men going. Language hid the reality of an arbitrary death. "Going for a burton", "bought it", "had it" and "getting" - or "gone for the chop" are familiar phrases to me from a Dad who habitually used language learnt in those days but applied it in much different situations in later life.



Some turned to religion, some turned away. Many turned to alcohol and boisterous games or childish pranks when drunk to deaden the senses, and to some extent a great deal of leeway was given to the men in recognition of the high levels of strain. Many turned to human comforts and the release that casual sex would bring. Some turned to superstition with carrying of emblems or tokens, or in actions and routines that had to be religiously carried out. Many touched the aircraft - some peed on the back wheel before leaving - or repeated movements, phrases or prayers; quietly took bags in which to privately collect their vomit. Some wrote songs and poetry, told jokes or smoked desperately, talked about anything other than what was uppermost in their minds, looking ahead only to the successful conclusion of another 'do'; avoiding any long term planning and trying to put thoughts of others out of mind for the time being to be able to deal with the reality of the coming nights work. I felt the bond between the crew that had been described to me. How shared experience and the need to survive depended on each other and allowed - needed even - confinement of closest emotional contact within the 7 crew members and exclusion of others, especially those at risk of contaminating you with LMF. I began then to understand the lack of compassion that could be shown to those poor wretches who simply ran out of courage.

This is in direct contrast to our culture today where we want to get everything out in the open as a means of understanding. A culture where you never have to cope on your own. The culture of the victim where responsibility is shared as a means to help minimise or deny involvement and especially to avoid culpability. It was very different where the reality of war and societies acknowledgement of it, was so close and so much more personal than now. Their previous generation had gone through WWI and reminders of that sat in family photographs of those lost or damaged 'doing their duty' - not something that would have been considered unusual then like it is today. There was an infinitely greater expectation for people to do their duty than now, where we question everything and everything is held up for critical and inconclusive review.



I find it hard to reconcile the father I knew with the youth who looks back at me from the few wartime photos I have, even though some confirmation came from Dad himself. I can't see the quiet, gentle, peaceful man that was my father, but what he experienced can't be denied. It was a different world. Perhaps that's what made him who he was, but perhaps even more there is mileage in the sentiment of  a small embroidered plaque in Scampton Church where services were held.

Dated 1945 it says simply:

Through these portals go the bravest of men: Always frightened but never afraid.

see you later.

Listening to:

7 comments:

Elizabeth Rhiannon said...

Al, it doesn't happen very often but I'm speechless. That was a wonderful and wonderfully written post. I don't know why you don't write a book! Well, I don't know if you have or haven't or considered it all, so I shouldn't assume...but I think you should :)
On war; it's amazing what the human body and mind can withstand...some more than others. This was very touching to me as my nephew will be deployed to Afghanistan in April and it weighs heavy on all our minds, although we don't make it known. We just support him and his brave decision and willingness to kick ass for his country (now I'm getting all teary-eyed in my American way, darn it! ;). So, thank you for the great, well-written post...and the plane is beautiful, too! Stay well...

Alistair said...

Hullo ER,

Erm, jings.... thanks very much.

I read this post over after posting and thought I was getting a bit melodramatic, maybe as its getting near the anniversary of Dads death.

I try not to prepare what I'm going to blog about, other than the calebndar lead stuff about the squadron as I do want to keep to timescales as much as I can, and just try to get out whats in the brain cell, and what I'm feeling, at the time.

I'm glad you liked it.
And thanks for the kind words......

and I'm not a writer!

kind regards....Al.

Scottish Nature Boy said...

Al - what a beautifully written, moving compassionate post. As a boy, I was a bit obsessed with the Lancaster (James May's recent broadcast where he talked about his childhood fascination with making Lego Lancasters? Been there, built that). But at that age, inthe late 60's and early 70's, it was a romantic notion derived from comics and The Dambusters, etc. Consideration of the sheer discomfort, horror and the unbelieveably high risk that was involved in those missions doesn't really occur to you at that age. But you can well understand the appearance of euphemisms for the danger and "buying it". Thanks for a great article, SNB

Anonymous said...

Alistair
That was by far & away your most incredible post so far, not melodramatic in the least, just very, very moving and so touching, and as the others say, wonderfully written and full of compassion.
This was different class.
You simply made it amazingly REAL ...
Walking round that 'plane and seeing with your Dad's inside knowledge must have taken great strength of character by you and I know you'll have shed a few tears too .,., my blood also ran cold and I too shed a tear just reading the detail of what these men had to do, and did, and how they coped. I don't know if there was, but there certainly should have been a medal awarded for OMF ( outstanding moral fibre )
Phew ,, oh boy ,, the bravest indeed ,, thankfully we'll never know this kind of fear, nor if we would have had this kind of courage ?
Keep doing what you do Alistair ,, you ARE a writer ! Scudder

coastkid said...

like others i too think a book on the squadrons history would be a great read with your writing alistair...great reading...thanks

Scottish Nature Boy said...

Al - I posted a link to this article on my Facebook site and one of my friends, a wise and scholarly woman said: "Everyone is a writer - some a better than others, and he is brilliant. It would make a marvellous book". So there you are...

Alistair said...

Hullo All,

Listen, thank you all so much for the comments on this post, which have been both surprising and very moving for me as its getting to be a more intense journey the further I go - although it's also very enjoyable.

I am finding my feet with the content and becoming a bit better organised with the detail I think, but to get comments like these on a post which comes from translating personal experience from the East Kirkby visit and conversations with Dad is very moving and encouraging. Genuinely, thanks for your support.

I have a post coming to do with finding my voice for the blog hopefully shortly. I need to get clear of the weekend first.

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