Thursday, 9 February 2012

Meeting Jane.

The other night there was a documentary on TV about  RAF Bomber Command in WWII. A fellow blogger sent a text to say that it had made him think of my fathers story and that he'd tweeted some links to stuff here on the blog about it. Last night we watched it ourselves. Sympathetically presented by Ewan MacGregor and his brother Colin {Who had been a bomber pilot in the modern RAF} one of the most poignant parts for me was the initial reaction when Ewan climbed into the rear gunner position of a Lancaster in full WWII kit. He was clearly uncomfortable and stunned by the lack of movement available , the claustrophobia and the poor chance of getting out if in trouble.

 It made me think about when I met 'Just Jane' - a Lancaster - for the first time......

This was what I posted back in Feb 2010

As I become more and more engrossed in researching the 153 Squadron posts covering Dads squadrons 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 up close 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 shells 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 many 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. 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%?  Surely he couldn't have known that?  My stomach clenched 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 back then 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 stark reminders sat in family photographs of those lost or damaged 'doing their duty' - not something that would have been considered unusual then as 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 was prepared to do 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 dedicated to the Squadron. It's where services were held and where some of their lost boys are buried.

That day there was one final twist as I eventually moved away from the aircraft to some of the information boards about the men and the Squadrons they had served in. I wandered around looking here and there at fading photo's of young men locked in time, quietly engrossed in thoughts about who they were and what they'd experienced when I turned round one section and came face to face with a photograph containing my Dad from long ago.

After that I really had to go for a coffee and a sit down.

see you later.

Listening to:


Rebecca S. said...

Fantastic post, Al. Very poetic, actually. "An old athlete, still on the blocks". Powerful stuff. I imagine your dad is looking on, proud you are using your skills as a writer to make sense of his, and his mates' story. I can't imagine, however, how it must have felt to run those missions. It was indeed a different world, as you say. But they must have believed the fight was worth it.

I remember once flying from Alaska back to the Yukon in a gutted and repainted WWII bomber. It was so loud!

Twisted Scottish Bastard said...

Oh my goodness Alistair, I was wrung out emotionaly by the time I'd finished reading this post. Excellently done, but I needed a break for a cup of tea as you described the appalling casualty rate of the poor Tail End Charlies.


BTW That picture of the tail turret looks different from many others I've seen.
Only 2 guns?

Were these ones .50s instead of the usual 4 .303s?

coastkid said...

Lovely bit of writing there Al.
Said it before and will say it again you could write a book on the soty of those young boys experiances...

Reading your post really brings home the reality of what those who did such a dangerous duty had to deal with,

Thanks, Bruce

Alistair said...

Rebecca - Cheers, kindly said. There is something very poetic about getting so close to one of these aircraft I think. It is chillingly beautiful and that's what I tried to capture when i wrote this. It was a very emotional day too as it was quite shortly after Dad died that my brother and i decided to visit to find out some more about those days.

I understand they were extremely noisy things.....

TSB - Seeing the Lancaster - with all the personal associations - was very emotional that day {Shortly after dad had died} and I think iot comes across how it affected me, especially after turning a corner and seeing him in that photo too. I mean, who expects to see a photo of their father in a museum!

You're spot on - they are .50 brownings, a later addition to try and improve on the stopping power of the guns. I think both versions were in use by the end of the war.

CK - Cheers Bruce - I know you love the stuff about WWII.

p.s. saw a book called 'lost East Lothian' in Waterstons which I thought would be right up our streets too.......

Jane said...

Al, I came to this post with a smile on my lips and left it with a tear in my eye. You write so beautifully.
I imagined you had a story about a rendevous with me (the smile); little did I know you had a story about a rendevous with a much more special 'Jane'(the tear).
Really is a lovely piece of writing. Thanks for sharing such a special story.

Alistair said...

Jane - thanks so much. Everyone who has read this now or at the time have been so generous in their comments. It makes you feel great to have written something that gets over just how you feel about something and get great feedback.

Mike said...

Man, that's a pretty hardcore tale. I too can't comprehend the fear these guys and your Dad had to endure.

Thanks for sharing it with us, as always Eddie Vedder's compliments the story.


Alistair said...

Thanks mike. Seems like Eddie hits just about all spots for me right now. I'm finding it hard to move on from him - and Paul Mounsey - at the moment.

Antares Cryptos said...

Moving, without being sentimental.
Great piece of writing.

We've grown soft in comparison to what our elders and ancestors had to endure.

Nicky said...

Oh what a fabulous post, Alistair! I love military history, and just lose myself in museums etc where I can spend time surrounded by action like this. Great photos, thanks for sharing them. My granddad was a WWII veteran and I loved hearing his stories. They used to get more and more dramatic with every version he'd share! I remember as a kid feeling like he was solely responsible for taking on Hitler, hehe! Thanks for bringing back some fond memories.

Alistair said...

Thanks AC.

Ha - hullo again Nicky - welcome back to blogland. Thanks for the nice feedback. Happy to have triggered some fond memories too.

Cheers both.

Have a great weekend folks.

Morning's Minion said...

Reading this a second time through is still a few moments of sitting on the edge of the chair. You have imagined and conveyed the emotions of those men so well.

Alistair said...

MM Thanks - as always.... I know you always get it.

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