Thursday, 25 August 2011

Courage beyond fear.

Hullo ma wee blog,

Sometimes things come unbidden to mind. Sometimes you've no idea what triggers memories and sometimes you know absolutely what the trigger is and yet it's not something you have any control over. For instance, I've written a lot about my Dad in the course of this blog, but even then you of course have hardly scratched the surface, because life's like that; it's complicated. I've written extensively about his time in the RAF during the Second World War where he served as tail gunner in Lancaster bombers. He was merely a tiny part of something enormous and yet it's interesting to realise that there are things out there, often much bigger things that somehow make you remember tiny details.

 Research for the 153 Squadron postings piqued my interest in the Second World War in general and RAF bomber command in particular. Nowadays, I watch a number of programs relating to World War II in the air. Some of them are good, some not so good, but often, details of remembrance come back to me. I watched a documentary about bomber command the other day and the programme contained interviews with surviving aircrew who flew in bombers, particularly Lancasters. Naturally, I found some of what was being said quite moving. Some of it triggered memories of conversations with my Dad. Tiny details and some significant things came back to me as I watched and listened to what these men were saying. Here are a couple of examples from the programme that particularly resonated.

Background/crew bale out/ tail gun position.

This section brought back a memory where Dad told me about the rear gun turret, how he'd had the Perspex panel in front of him removed to improve vision as when it was in place it was prone to icing up, reducing critical visibility. He also reminisced about donning the flying gear – rear gunners, due to the exposure to the cold, wore much more protective clothing than other aircrew. Dad remembered that he had been trained to put on this equipment slowly so he did not sweat. At 20,000 feet the temperature could plummet to minus 40 degrees C in the gun turret and this would cause residual sweat to freeze on the skin despite the layers of clothing protecting him.

area bombing/Cologne/aircrew/fears

The following section reminded me of when Dad spoke about training flights; evasive action was a key requirement for any operational crew and the ability to switch into evasive action smoothly and swiftly was an essential, potentially life-saving necessity. The corkscrew manoeuvre was practised again and again, often causing aircrew to be violently sick. It was this memory that Dad revealed when he explained what happened to him the very first time he had experienced ‘the corkscrew’. He described the terror of plunging downwards in a near vertical backwards position, how he had screamed until he ran out of breath only to vomit when the aircraft turned vertically upwards. This manoeuvre disorientated him for a few seconds until, having recovering his equilibrium, the aircraft was again pitched into a vertical dive and he vomited again. He remembered the disgusted ground crew back at base handing him a can of paraffin with which to clean up the resultant mess, which he did with a churning stomach. The manoeuvre, and the result, was practised over and over again. It was something Dad hated with a passion, particularly during night training flights when the disorientation was multiplied by the darkness.  Eventually he overcame the sickness but always feared the potential need to perform a maneuver like this in a congested night-time sky filled with other bombers
He also described training in low-level high-speed flying in similarly horrified terms, once with a pilot who was afterwards removed from duties due to being assessed as unbalanced and unsuitable for flying duties! (Dad recalled flying over water at such low levels that he screamed into his intercom that "if you go any f****** lower I’ll have my F*******  feet in the f****** water!")

The bomb run/flak/enemy fighters/corkscrewing/window

Needless to say, these things made me quite teary eyed, but I have to admit, they made me smile too. The overwhelming thought though was how on earth any of them managed to cope under these circumstances with what they were facing. Despite this, it's only a small part of the man I knew.

High density defenses/type of flak/Dresden

God – I miss the old bugger!

To read the full story of 153 Sqdn and their 1945 campaign diary in date order start here and follow through the dates by clicking 'newer posts'.

See you later.

Listening to;


Rebecca S. said... stomach was churning just reading this! I always enjoy how passionately you write about your father. I'm sure you were a rewarding son to have, Al.

coastkid said...

Good post Al,
i watch a lot of WW2 stuff and read books (as you know) and i am awe struck at what these young men- boys really did up in the air, the fear i dont think anyone can imagine today, i have a massive respect for all on both sides...
another thing i think about is how the tail gunner faced backwards so did not see what was approching, that must have been a strange feeling,

Alistair said...

Rebecca - I think mostly I was a brat!!

Cheers both.

dbs said...

Visuals are so integral to stimulating our background knowledge.
I miss my Dad too.

diamond dave said...

Corkscrew manuever? That sounds like something more suited for a Spitfire or Hurricane fighter than a four-engine heavy bomber like a Lancaster. Surprised the wings stayed on.

And I too miss my Dad. No wartime stories, just the comforting smell of his cigar lazily smoking.

Alistair said...

Yes it does sound bizarre for a lanc doesn't it. One of the guys in the documentary triggered off the memory by calmly describing the maneuver, saying '....straight down about 350 or 400 miles an hour. Of course the wings were supposed to come off at 300 but they never did!'

This post was sentimental and indulgent - guess I've been thinking about him a lot this week for some reason. {And there was more to him than just war stories. First and foremost he was a Dad and the bulk of my memories are about that like yours}

Anonymous said...

You know how I feel about your dad. One in a million and a great story teller. Like father like son!

Alistair said...

I know sweetheart. I know......

{and blush}

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