17 September 2012

Lancaster PA474

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.


Moe The Cat said...

Richard, there are some very interesting YouTube (sorry!) clips of Lancaster crew radio chatter during actual WWII bombing runs here:


and here:


as well as modern footage of some Lancaster fly-bys (with bomb bay doors open!) here:


Richard Herley said...

Thanks for those links, Moe. Oddly enough this news broke today.

Glostermeteor said...

There is actually a second technically airworthy lancaster at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage centre, but they could never afford the £1Million required for a CAA license to actually fly it, so they just offer taxi rides to the public instead, pity....

alphasun said...

This triggered a few memories: Sitting in the common room one hot May evening with a colleague, when the engine noise came through the open windows. Somehow -- possibly from my London childhood, or because WWII fighter plane engines sound much beefier than the average light plane -- I guessed it was a Merlin instantly, and we jumped up to look out -- sure enough, there was a Spitfire, probably heading for an airshow.
My mother's stories of nursing --and dating-- aircrew, and of the blitz.
Meeting the father of a colleague, who had been a bomb-aimer, but had somehow ended up as an unarmed combat trainer in Italy, where he had trained some nuns to defend themselves. One of my teachers had been a commando combat trainer, and what struck me about the bomb-aimer was the relish with which he explained how one could kill someone with a newspaper.

alphasun said...

I forgot to mention my friend's father,a rear gunner. He described how on training in Northern Ireland, as they flew back to base after practice he would let off a few bursts in the direction of fishing boats.
He became an expert reproduction cabinet maker.