Penned by former RAF Navigator and Gulf War veteran John Nichol, Lancaster is one of the most enthralling aviation history books I have read. But its succinct title does not do it justice. Its pages narrate not only the history of the legendary bomber but also of those who flew her.
Perhaps surprisingly for a book with ‘Lancaster’ as its title, there is not much technical detail here and only one picture of the aircraft’s interior (the cockpit of East Kirkby’s Just Jane). Yet there is interesting information given on GEE, Oboe, H2S, Monica, and the like, and the description of the differences between the Lancaster B Mark III Special – used for Operation Chastise and other 617 Squadron operations – and the standard Lancaster makes for interesting reading. So too does the description of the German night fighters’ Schräge Musik weaponry.
The book commences with a very emotive foreword based on the memories of a Lancaster rear-gunner. It then proceeds chronologically from the early days of the aircraft, including production and test flying, right up to the war’s end. Along the way, there is coverage of Operations Manna (the dropping of food to the starving masses in Holland) and Exodus (the recovery of prisoners-of-war back to Britain from PoW camps). Concluding chapters delve into the philosophy of Head of Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, and his notorious preference for area-bombing tactics; and of the fates of the men who served under him. Those who survived often struggled to find roles for themselves after the war.
Nichol is a skilful narrator, successfully managing to portray such scenes as the RAF bomber stations when crews met for briefings, made their way out to the waiting bomb-laden aircraft, and taxied out prior to take-off. By recounting these and other episodes, he vividly evokes both the horror and satisfaction of the crews’ allotted tasks. Occasionally, where appropriate, he manages to introduce some humour, such as when a navigator is thrown against his straps during violent manoeuvring, only to sit back down on his bag of tomatoes, with inevitable results.
The author has also compiled many photographs of his subjects: young men in their prime, devoted to a unifying cause.
‘The Lancaster was the thing which bound us together – she was the constant in our lives,’ said Flight Engineer Tom Watson. ‘She was always there, rain and shine, and every day we would climb aboard her and entrust our survival to her, to our own skill, and to a good deal of luck.’ His comments could have been echoed by most of the aviators Nichol interviewed. Sadly, most of them have now passed away.
Other issues, such as the controversial raids on Dresden, are dealt with fairly, with the views of those who took part in them being humbling to read.
After highlighting the Green Park Bomber Command Memorial and Sir Arthur Harris’ statue at St Clement Danes Church, the book concludes in similarly sad vein to the foreword, recording the death and funeral of Rear Gunner Sergeant Ron Needle – a thought-provoking end to an excellent read.
And I cannot finish without mentioning the two magnificent endpapers, ‘Two Lancasters over Lincoln’ and ‘Lancaster stream landing at dawn’, both fine additions to an outstanding book.
Review by Colin Pomeroy
This is an article from the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.