17 September 2012
Yesterday afternoon I set out on my walk, and had just started across a maize field when a deep, old-fashioned thrum of engines made me look up and to the right. Quite low above the field-edge trees, a couple of hundred yards away, appeared a Lancaster bomber – the Lancaster bomber, the only one in this country that remains airworthy. My usual companion on these walks is a pair of pocket binoculars. Thus I was able to get a close view of the aircraft as it traversed from right to left.
By modern standards, it is small, even frail-looking for a bomber to be sent over enemy territory and shot at. The dorsal gun turret (recovered from Argentina: you can read about the restoration here) gleamed in the September sun, and seemed yet more frail and vulnerable. But even more dangerous was the turret for the tail-gunner, because he was exposed not only to machine-gun fire from following fighters, but directly to flak from below.
The attrition rate among bomber crews was horrific. These were young, healthy, intelligent men, and they died in their hundreds trying to defeat the Nazis. The void they left, the widows and spinsters, the absence of their energy and ingenuity, is part of the reason for Britain’s decline.
Back then, we were really something. The lines of the Lancaster itself reflect the genius of the British – I won’t say “the English”, although that is perhaps what I mean. It looks absolutely right. The photo doesn’t do it justice: you have to see it moving. The chief designer was Roy Chadwick, a prodigy whose talent was recognized early. The Lancaster embodies deadly seriousness, an assemblage of everything we could muster, but it is also the work of fair and reasonable men. These traits inform the design of most of the British combat aircraft of World War II, and it is instructive to compare them with their German, Japanese and American counterparts, all of which give subtle hints about the psyche of the nations that produced them.
PA474 is venerable, over sixty-seven years old. As I watched it pass, I felt a great sadness for our betrayal of the remarkable generation who lived through, and died in, that war.
Banking somewhat to the left and catching the sun on its wings, it disappeared behind a distant stand of trees. I continued trying to track it: sure enough, it emerged on the other side, and afforded me a few more seconds of magic before it was gone for good.