This post deals with 20th Century history. For some, it will not even seem to be history.
Having had too little time in Britain, we drove south from Birmingham toward London on our next to last morning.
A low, broken overcast allowed patches of blue sky and sunlight to brighten up the morning which had started out dull, grey. A sense of motion to the right prompted me to look to the west, and I saw an aircraft; big, blocky and slow by today’s standard, moving past us, at about 1,000 feet above the ground. Four large engines and a twin tail gave a signature silhouette, and a thrill ran down my spine: an Avro Lancaster.
While these aircraft are not rare in museums, I have never seen one in flight.
There are two in the world, at this time, which are airworthy: Canada has one – the Mynarski Lanc; and Britain has one – with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
The appearance the World War 2 bomber held special significance for me. We were driving towards Brookwood Cemetery, where a large military section is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Two thousand, four hundred Canadian casualties from the Second World War lie in a carefully tended garden of stone. Among them is Annie’s father’s brother: William Gowans. Born in Scotland, he grew to adulthood on the western edge of the Canadian prairie, near Evarts, Alberta. In the darkness over France, two days after the D-Day landings at Normandy in 1944, he was killed. He was 19. Though the aircraft was damaged, Willie was the only casualty. The pilot was able to return to their base in Yorkshire, bringing his body back to England.
We intended to visit his grave again, having first come to Brookwood in September, 2005.
In an age where Western military forces parcel out casualties grudgingly, miserly, the scale of Total War is incomprehensible.
Stand quietly amid the rows of granite markers bearing a maple leaf or the RCAF crest, and you can almost hear the stories. At the base of the grave stones are phrases chosen by family members, which cast each loss in human terms. Reading a dozen of these epitaphs is an emotional experience. Reading two hundred is difficult. Read any more than that at one time, and numbness sets in to barricade the reader from the emotional charge. The youth of the men can be judged by the many notations of Mother and Mum.
THOUGH YOU LIE IN ENGLAND
SO FAR AWAY
YOUR MEMORY IS IN OUR HEARTS
THERE IS NO DEATH.
THE SUN GOES DOWN
UPON SOME OTHER SHORE
A PRECIOUS SON,
SO BRAVE AND TRUE.
PLEASE KEEP HIM SAFE
DEAR GOD, WITH YOU
DEARLY LOVED HUSBAND
FATHER OF MICHAEL
SON OF DOROTHY & TREVOR MACE.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF
WITH THE CHEERY SMILE
AND THE HEART OF GOLD. MUM
NOT JUST TODAY
BUT EVERY DAY
AT THE GOING DOWN OF THE SUN
AND IN THE MORNING
WE WILL REMEMBER YOU.
REST AT PEACE, DEAR SON.
IN LIFE WE LOVED YOU DEARLY
IN DEATH WE DO THE SAME
GONE FROM OUR HOME
BUT ALWAYS IN OUR HEARTS.
WITH A CHEERY SMILE
AND A WAVE OF THE HAND
INTO AN UNKNOWN LAND.
Off to one side, moving past the 1942 graves, which include some of the casualties of the ill-fated Dieppe Raid, one comes across the 1943 graves. Farther on, is the large section containing 1944 graves. Finding our way by memory, we came to the one we sought:
ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE
8TH JUNE 1944 AGE 19
And beneath the cross, signifying his religion as Christian:
THINK OF HIM
STILL AS THE SAME.
I SAY, HE IS NOT DEAD,
HE IS JUST AWAY.
Brookwood Cemetery is near a historic British military base, at Aldershot. Within hearing is the major target shooting facility at Bisley, where the world famous competitions are held. In the lowering skies, massed volleys of rifle fire – scores of rifles, each firing one shot on signal – crackled like manic firecrackers, giving atmosphere to the military grave markers. There may be peace at Brookwood, but there appears to be little quiet.
The war of Bomber Command, and the scale of loss is little known among the general public. What started out as a campaign to destroy military targets gradually, as the desperate struggle for victory carried on into years, became more savage and more ruthless. In 1942, two raids over Germany saw 1,000 bombers over a single city in one night. In 1943, Bomber Command tried (and succeeded) for the first time to set an entire city – Hamburg – on fire. By the autumn of 1944, Bomber Command was able to send 1,500 bombers over Germany in one night. In February, 1945, Bomber Command, along with American bomber forces, destroyed Dresden, creating a firestorm that was visible by air from over 500 miles/ 800 kilometers distance.
But there was a price: 55,000 aircrew were killed during the war in Bomber Command, including nearly 10,000 Canadians. Over 10,000 bomber aircraft were lost or crashed. During 1943 and 1944, out of every 100 bomber crews that finished training, only 25 finished their first tour of operations. Out of those 25 crews who finished one tour, only 2 would complete their second tour of operations. Out of every 100 Lancaster bombers built during the war, 75 were lost. This was a staggering rate of loss, and the main reason that it was carried on was that this campaign was seen as the only way to strike directly at the heartland of Germany.
For those on bombing operations, there was little time to worry about the steady, inevitable loss of crews to weather, accidents, night fighters and flak. Philip Gray, writing in the early 1990’s about his wartime operations on Bomber Command, described how crews coped after an operation where multiple crews were lost:
Grief was always a problem. By the time we had returned from one skirmish, the plans for the next were already coming in on the wires. Other crews would man the guns, and push the throttles forward but, as sure as the Lord made small potatoes, the battle would go on. So, too, would more crews get the chop, creating more anguish, more grief.
As one line of names after another had to be erased from our Flight Room blackboard, their owners hammered out of contention, we, the survivors, found ourselves overpowered by the pace of the distress. To cope with this relentless emotional strain, members of the crew were forced to create a ritual of their own. It had to be fast. It had to be effective. They had to be careful that the sheer weight of woe did not overwhelm.
To the casual observer, these grieving rites could have been seen as macabre and insensitive. Most people might take a lifetime to grieve the loss of, say, six to ten close friends. In this iffy pastime of spreading desolation over the German landscape, we could lose dozens of known faces in a single day, several of them being personal friends. How can normality cope with loss on this scale? There had to be cauterisation or it could have led to insanity. Unlike I Pagliacci, we couldn’t go about our business with tears in our eyes…
"Drinks all round, barman," ordered the WingCo. "I’ll sign the tab."
The night was young. We had a long way to go. Debriefing had come and gone. The trauma of the locker room had been brazened out. Shower, shave, shampoo – even dinner – had all passed in semi-silence.
Squadron Leader Bass set up the drinks again. Then Squadron Leader Jason, then Flight Lieutenant Hardy, then… and so it went on.
That specific evening, images of Flight Lieutenant Cameron and Flight Lieutenant Randell, and any or all of their bomber crews, may have flitted in and out of our thoughts but their names were never mentioned. By the time we walked through the Flight Room door tomorrow, any reference to their physical presence would have faded from the blackboard as though they had never been. In truth, their sacrifice would ride on down the highway of glory for all eternity.
The barman set up the drinks once more, this time for me. Earlier on in the evening several WAAF officers had been present in the bar as usual, but they knew exactly where this night was headed, and had melted away some time ago. This night’s operational Lancasters had long since flown off into the gloom. A crescendo of laughter and eerie merriment began to build up around the bar. Fairly soon now there would be no pain.
Someone, I think it was Wing Commander Giles, jumped onto one of the tables, threw off his jacket, and called for another drink. That drink and still other glasses appeared from the smoky shadows as if by magic.
"Off, off, off" someone shouted, and everyone seemed to take up the chant on cue. One by one the WingCo flung off his shoes, socks, trousers, shirt, singlet, until he stood there in nothing but his underpants. Drink in either hand, balancing precariously on the table top, the Squadron boss now had his hands outstretched, making zooming noises and diving motions with his arms. The racket was full pitch, and the flak started to fly around the room. Those of us spread here and there in different parts of the bar bunched newspaper pages into balls, set fire to them, and heaved them at the WingCo. He, in turn, tried to parry and avoid the missiles, still holding the drinks at arm’s length.
Someone got up on another table, then someone else. Soon we were all over the target again, planes rolling on through, flak flying in all directions, only this time there were no losers. No one got shot down. Even at this stage though, anesthetised by Gilby’s Gin and Johnny Walker, some sixth sense told us that we had to hurry.
Another operational flight was underway right now, our crews slicing through the flak, searchlights and nightfighters. Tomorrow there might be other names dropping off the blackboard, other faces to be exorcised, and the charade would start all over again. There was only one part of the story, the Killing Game if you prefer the other title, that was forever misting off into the land of "we’ll-talk-about-that-tomorrow". This was the question no one dared ask, even of himself. Next time, would we be tanking up yet again to forget someone else, or would all the someone elses be tanking up to forget me?
Judy Melville poked her head around the bar door earlier on in the piece, long before the WingCo had eased into his striptease act and the flak started to scythe about the room. The Intelligence Officer was obviously looking for someone specific. We both knew I still owed her the drink I had promised, but this would not have been a good time to honour the obligation. Other faces and other memories were haunting us.
- From: Ghosts of Targets Past: The Lives and Losses of a Lancaster Crew in 1944-45, by Philip Gray.
For your contemplation.