Book Review: Lancaster Men: The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Command, by Peter Rees

Published in April this year, Lancaster Men: The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Command is a new book by Australian journalist and author Peter Rees. It’s one of many books by Australian authors to be published on the subject over the last few years, and I think it’s one of the better ones.

Inspired by the stories told to him by Kathie Pickerd, daughter of Ted, a 463 Squadron navigator and later one of Australia’s highest-ranking Air Force officers, Rees began interviewing a large number of Bomber Command veterans and came to realise, he says, “that history had treated them harshly. It was time for their stories to be told in their own words.” The book, then, does not claim to be a definitive account of Australia’s role in Bomber Command – the Official Histories take care of that. Instead, it’s based on personal accounts taken from interviews, transcripts and memoirs, both published and unpublished. The result is a more or less chronological account of the experiences of Australians in Bomber Command, from enlistment to operations and from the earliest bombing raids to Dresden and beyond, as seen by those who were there. Given the vast spread of the campaign, over time, over different units and over a large geographical area, this is an appropriate way to look at things, though the concentration on Australians sometimes omits the airmen of other nationalities who flew in the same crews.

Rees’ journalistic talent is evident in his vivid descriptions and the book is well-written in an engaging style. The focus on the personal shows in the way that he tends to use first names for the main ‘storytellers’ throughout his book, and in some of the stories of off-duty life in wartime England, which arguably were as much a part of the experience of Australians in Bomber Command as the operational trips themselves. He also covers some interesting ground looking at life under the bombs – notably the effects of the 22 November 1943 raid to Berlin, which caused a tiger to escape from the zoo. The beast “made its way to the Café Josty, gobbled up a pastry and promptly [fell] down dead. […] Although nearly all the major hotels had been wrecked, the premier hotel of the Third Reich, the Adlon, survived relatively intact, but it had no heating and could muster up only cold cuts and potato salad.” (p.138) Stories like these add life to the history and are an important reminder that there were indeed people in those cities too.

There is a good section putting D-Day in the context of the war in general, and Bomber Command’s operations in the context of that (Chapter 26 and on and particularly p.242-243), and a very interesting discussion of the politics between Australia and Britain when dealing with Australian bomber crews, as evidenced by a ‘manpower fiddle’ that left 463 and 467 Squadrons short of aircrew in April 1944, when the British wanted to avoid disadvantaging RAF squadrons after the Australians demanded tour-expired airmen be sent home to fly against the Japanese (p.181 and on).

And then we get to Dresden, for which Rees says the reputation of the airmen has been unfairly tarnished. He is at great pains to note that it was not Arthur Harris who chose Dresden as a target (despite his copping much of the blame in the aftermath of the war), but Churchill (p.342). Rees’ sympathies clearly lie with the airmen but he gives, in my view, a reasonably balanced examination of the politics of the raid, explaining the origins of the inflated casualty figures and looking at the Dresden Stadt Museum to see current German views on the issue. The airmen who took part, he argues, “have had to wear the blame for the destruction wrought on the city for far too long due to their political leaders distancing themselves from responsibility.” (p. 356)

The only problem with Lancaster Men is that Rees is a journalist, not necessarily a historian. As a result historical rigour is not necessarily always present and he tends to take quotes directly from secondary sources without checking the original documents for accuracy. For example, he quotes the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book but cites another book (Dan Conway’s The Trenches in the Sky) as its source. He also takes figures for aircraft losses on the 10 May 1944 Lille raid directly from Rollo Kingsford-Smith’s memoirs without cross-checking with the ORBs… and so perpetuates the error that seven aircraft were lost on that trip from 463 and 467 Squadrons (it was only six – the mistake probably has its genesis in Nobby Blundell’s Squadron histories). He gets the figure right on a later page but the contradiction hasn’t raised any flags in the editing phase. Errors like these are an occupational hazard when dealing with personal accounts of history, particularly when those accounts were created upwards of seventy years after the events described, so it would have been nice to see a little more cross-referencing occurring.

But otherwise Peter Rees has painted a vivid picture of life as an Australian in Bomber Command. Lancaster Men is well-written, engaging, shocking, exciting, funny and sad, and well worth a read.

Lancaster Men (ISBN 9781741752076) is published by Allen & Unwin, and retails for AU$32.99.

An interview with Peter Rees, as broadcast on Radio National on ANZAC Day 2013, is available for download here.

(c) 2013 Adam Purcell

It’s all a bit much, really.

Anyone interested in Bomber Command is probably aware that last night marked the seventieth anniversary of what, in popular culture, is probably the most famous air raid of all time. The ‘Dambusters’ raid of 16/17 May 1943 – more properly known as Operation Chastise – was the daring, novel, unique, dangerous, costly and mostly effective operation by the RAF’s 617 Squadron that used the so-called ‘bouncing bombs’ to destroy two of Germany’s great dams and severely damage a third. The morale boost to Britain, in the middle of 1943 during a dark patch in the war, was arguably greater than the material effect on Germany, but the raid entered the popular consciousness and made the leader of 617 Squadron, Guy Gibson, into one of, if not the, most famous airman in Bomber Command.

So naturally there have been many activities and events to commemorate exactly seven decades since this auspicious event. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster has made a fly-over of the Derwent Dam in Derbyshire, England, where the squadron practiced before the raid. There’s been black and white footage of bouncing bombs on the television news in Australia (though Sky News showed the later ‘Highball’ devices which were never used operationally and were more or less spherical in shape, rather than ‘Upkeep’s cylindrical bomb, and dropped by Mosquitos rather than Lancasters, but I’ll let that slide for the moment). There have been commemorative services at Woodhall Spa (the later home of 617 Squadron), Lincoln Cathedral, RAF Scampton and in Germany. The Royal Air Force has even been live-tweeting wireless messages and key events from the raid, seventy years to the minute since they occurred.

It’s all a bit much really.

It’s an awful lot of fuss over just one operation, just one night of a very very long war. Taking absolutely nothing away from the 53 aircrew who were killed on the raid – out of 133 men, all of whom were already highly experienced – but there has indisputably been a very strong focus on this raid in the years since, perhaps at the expense of the rest of Bomber Command. So much so, in fact, that in much the same way as ‘Battle of Britain’ means ‘Spitfire’ to the average Englishman or Australian, to the detriment of the Hurricane and all the other parts of Britain’s defensive effort that summer of 1940, ‘Lancaster’ has come to mean ‘Dambuster’. And don’t worry about all the rest of Bomber Command, thanks very much.

Much of this is probably due to the Dambusters film of 1955, based on Paul Brickhill’s 1951 book. So much so, in fact, that one newspaper in the UK chose to mark the 70th anniversary with a collection of photographs… from behind the scenes in the making of the movie. Which, all rather interesting, but really??? It’s a sign that the anniversary has become all about the legend, and much less about the blokes who did the job that night – and indeed, the blokes who did the job every night.I mean no slur on 617 Squadron, either to the original members or anyone else involved with it. I mean no slur against Barnes Wallis, the engineer who came up with the concept. I mean no slur against the makers or the actors in the movie (which is probably still one of the greatest war movies ever made). But it would be really nice to see some of the interest, scholarship and mythology associated with the Dambusters carry over into the rest of Bomber Command.

I’ll close with a quote on the Professional Pilot Rumour Network forum by a member calling himself ‘Chugalug2,’ who in this case says it far more eloquently than I can:

The pride that the Royal Air Force has rightly expressed since WW2 over the subject exploits of this thread was not similarly expressed over those of Main Force, when almost every night was one of Maximum Effort.

The Dambusters played an incredible part in the Second World War bomber offensive. But there were many others, just like them, who played an equally important role and who have not been nearly so recognised. Think about them on May 16 each year, too.

(c) 2013 Adam Purcell


I did my first research project about my great uncle Jack at the age of about 12. It was for an entry in a national history competition and my project was to write a series of letters as if Jack had been writing home from the war. This work led directly to our discovering that Phil Smith, who had been Jack’s pilot, was still alive and was living in Sydney. We first met Phil and his wife Mollie in early 1997.

There then came a break of a few years. We stayed in contact with Phil and Mollie and occasionally travelled to Sydney to visit them and while I was aware of ‘Uncle Jack’ the bug had not yet bitten in earnest to find out more about him myself. In 2003 I took a year off between school and university, and that’s when I had some time to once again delve into the subject. Sadly the catalyst for this work was news of Phil’s death in March of that year. The starting point this time was all the original documents that we had about Jack, which I scanned and wrote explanatory notes about to put on a CD-ROM and share around my family. Then university and moving out of home got in the way and it was some years before I felt the urge again and started the work that has evolved into SomethingVeryBig.

The slightly frustrating thing is that I never had the opportunity to speak to Phil in detail about his experiences. I was quite young when I first started researching the story of B for Baker. This phase of work was what led us to him in the first place – and the second phase started after he passed away. I remember one discussion, over the lunch table at Phil and Mollie’s home in Sydney, when my father was asked to read out Phil’s wartime letter about the time his troop ship hit an iceberg in mid-Atlantic (a story in itself) while Phil added comments here and there, but that’s the only occasion that I can recall where we spoke directly about his experiences. I’m lucky that since his death I’ve had access to the superb archive of letters and photos and other documents that his father carefully collated while Phil was in the Air Force, but there’s nothing like actually talking to the people who were there for a ‘feel’ of what it was like.

Which is why I’m slowly collecting veterans, so to speak – contacting as many as I can, writing letters (yes, real letters, with stamps and envelopes and everything), phoning up and generally picking their brains. Each has a story to tell and each little insight adds to what I understand of what it was like to fly for Bomber Command. I can’t ask my great uncle or any members of his crew what their war was like – but I can still talk to other veterans. While it’s not quite the same story, they would have shared many similar experiences with each other so I reckon it’s enough to build a picture of the ‘feel’ of the times they lived in and the tasks they carried out.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Sixty Nine Years

a05-019-001-med copy

10th May, 1944.

Lest we forget.

This post was published at 21.57 on 10 May 2013. At the same time on the same day in 1944, the crew of B for Baker took off from Waddington, bound for Lille in northern France.

They did not come back.