When I arrange to meet a Bomber Command veteran I typically try to find out beforehand some basic details of his service, to put the visit in some sort of context. It was no different when I recently met a former bomb aimer who had served on an Australian squadron in the closing months of the war.
The veteran – who I’ll call ‘Bill’ – flew his first operation on 13 February, 1945.
In hindsight, I probably should have realised the significance of that date much earlier than I did.
Even though in recent years there has been a re-assessment of the causes and consequences of the firestorm (most notably in Frederick Taylor’s excellent 2004 book Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945), the name of the city still induces a sharp, involuntary intake of breath. It would come to haunt Bill for the next seven decades.
On 9 February 1995, The Age newspaper published two articles marking the 50th anniversary of the raid. “Dresden put to fire and the sword”, said the headline on one of them, an article by Simon Jenkins. “The war was almost over and military installations round Dresden were not attacked,” Jenkins wrote. “Harris used incendiaries on Dresden to create a firestorm where in other cities he used high explosive.” And in dealing with the reaction after the raid, he wrote, even the Americans “distanced themselves from avowedly “terrorist” air attacks, after their own planes had gunned down people fleeing the burning city the morning after the British raid.”
The second article, titled “Unease lingers 50 years after a city’s ruin” by John Lahey, quotes a 463 Squadron navigator, Brian Luscombe. “Mr Luscombe says he become uneasy about 20 years after the war ‘when people would ask where you had been and what you had done. It was only then we realised the enormity of it. It was a holocaust.’” Bill underlined that paragraph in red ink. As the bomb aimer, he had been the man on board his Lancaster who pressed the button to send his munitions into the maelstrom below. Ashamed at the personal responsibility he felt for what happened to Dresden, he threw away his service medals and declared himself a pacifist.
But the irony is the two articles which apparently affected him so much demonstrate a view of the Dresden raid which is now well out of date. As 227 Squadron rear gunner Dennis Over – who also flew to Dresden – suggested to me a few years ago, how did anybody at the time know that the war was almost over? Squadron Operational Record Books confirm that bomb loads used at Dresden were no different to other raids on urban targets around the same time. And Frederick Taylor, in an appendix to his book, effectively blows the theory of post-raid strafing of civilians out of the water (see p.440 for a summary and explanation). The theory was raised in David Irving’s now-discredited 1963 book The Destruction of Dresden, but there is precisely no reliable documentary evidence that anything of the sort actually happened.
This is not the first time that I’ve met a veteran of Dresden. Indeed, given that it happened at the end of the war, I’d say most veterans still alive today would have been operating at the time. But Bill is one of the first I have met who has been affected by it this much. It wasn’t the only part of his wartime service which appears to have scarred him however.
Bill is well over 90 now and quite frail, and was sitting in an armchair reading a newspaper when his wife showed me in. She introduced us and his first comment was that “it was a very very very long time ago and my memory isn’t very good anymore.” Nevertheless we were able to have a conversation, however rambling and confused it might have been.
Prompted by a photo of his crew sitting on the engine of a Lancaster, Bill shared with me one of the more shocking events of his operational career. Just a couple of weeks from the end of the war in Europe, his crew was on the final leg to a target in Germany when they were attacked by an unidentified aircraft, badly damaging their Lancaster. As was standard practice, once the immediate emergency was over the pilot checked on the intercom to make sure everyone was ok. He managed to raise everyone but ‘Jock’, the flight engineer. He asked Bill to check on him.
Bill was within arm’s reach of his comrade. He reached across and placed a hand on his wrist and felt – nothing.
I don’t think Jock’s with us anymore.
Jock was dead. The crew later got permission to fly to Scotland for the funeral – but after that life (and the war) went on. They got a replacement flight engineer and continued flying on operations.
Having experiences like this can badly affect people, especially young people. Bill was not quite 24 when this happened. Five or so years ago he became ill. His memory began to fail him and consequently when I visited the story was difficult for him to find in his mind. As he finished his story I began to feel like maybe he had shared enough, that the memories, as difficult as they were physically to find, were now beginning to get too much. He suddenly realised the time. “Oh, the football will be on,” he said, and shuffled out with his walking frame to watch it on a television out the back.
His wife came back in around that point, and over a cup of tea I found out a little more about him. “He was very difficult to live with,” she told me. It got to the point where their daughter would refuse to be in the house without her mother. It’s only been in recent years – since Bill became ill and, ironically, since his memory began to fail – that he began opening up just a little bit about his experiences. To try and better understand the sorts of things he would have gone through, she has begun to seek out more about his story. There’s an impressive collection of Bomber Command books on her shelf and, though Bill himself is now unable to travel she regularly attends Squadron reunions and Bomber Command events. Their daughter went to the UK for the opening of the Bomber Command memorial in 2012 (with replacement medals arranged through the Australian Department of Defence and her local Member of Parliament). His wife even went to the UK as well a few years ago to visit some of the sites associated with Bill’s service, including what’s left of the airfield his unit flew from. One day she had lunch at the Petwood Hotel in Woodhall Spa, most famous as being the one-time 617 Squadron Officers’ Mess. Hanging on a wall in the Squadron Bar inside the hotel, she found a framed print showing a Lancaster flying low over a Dutch windmill. It’s a painting called ‘And They Called It Manna’, done in 1989 by an artist called Howard Bourne, and try as she might, she has been unable to find a copy of it.
For Bill also took part in some of the food drops carried out by Bomber Command to starving Dutch civilians in the very final days of the war in Europe. They counted as full operations and were flown fully crewed and armed because no-one could be certain that the Germans, who still occupied western parts of the Netherlands, would not fire on the aircraft. And then there were two flights for Operation Exodus, the repatriation of Allied prisoners of war, following the German surrender. On one of these, one of the 24 or so passengers who had been picked up in Antwerp became so emotional when he sighted the White Cliffs of Dover that he gave Bill a German SS dagger he had souvenired. Bill still has it. It’s an evil-looking weapon, with a swastika in a red and white diamond-shaped enamel badge set in the hilt, and will soon find a home in an appropriate museum.
The football match had developed into a very one-sided contest but despite that Bill had regained his spark by the time I went into the back room to say goodbye. I left in a very thoughtful mood. For many in Bomber Command, the food drops and prisoner repatriations were some of the most satisfying trips they took part in, giving them the chance to be part of something constructive rather than destructive. Perhaps the joy at having survived the war (though an offensive against Japan still looked possible) had something to do with it.
But it is clear that for some, even seven decades on there are still some demons hanging around. It was not Manna or Exodus which Bill remembered. It was instead one particularly infamous raid on which he took part which would come to define his wartime service and, subsequently, his life. It’s a desperately sad story and very much one of the forgotten but longest-lasting effects of the war.