This blog contains material I wrote and posted on multiply.com between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).
Saturday, 24 November 2012
Bomber : Review
Literature & Fiction
“It was a bomber's sky: dry air, wind enough to clear the smoke, cloud broken enough to recognise a few stars.”
So begins a book that has been called (by Kingsley Amis, no less) one of the ten best books in the English language written in the 20th Century, and certainly one of the best I’ve read. Published way back in 1970, I suppose it may be out of print now. But if you get hold of a copy, I suggest you do not pass it by.
So what is it about? The subtitle says it all: “Events Relating to the Last Flight of an RAF Bomber Over Germany on the Night of June 31st, 1943.” I’d like to point out to anyone already reaching for their keyboards that the author says in the intro that “There never was a 31st day of June in 1943 or in any other year.” So there.
Anyone who knows anything of the events of the Second World War will know about the American and British bombing campaign against Germany and Japan: a campaign that used huge massed flights of heavy bombers to unload millions of tons of bombs over the centres of enemy cities in a campaign whose only purpose was to terrorise the population, break their will, and force them to surrender. That this was not going to be effective was well known to the British themselves, none better: their own civilians had not crumbled in the face of the German Blitz on British cities in 1940-41. But they still went ahead with it: ruinously expensive and enormously destructive raids on German cities (and from 1944 on Japanese cities as well) the only aim of which was to kill as many of the enemy’s civilian population as possible. And to further increase the damage, the bombers came in waves so timed that each wave arrived precisely when the fire brigades would be trying to extinguish the flames and the rescue teams would be trying to save the trapped and injured from bombs dropped by the earlier waves. The idea was to kill as many wardens, ambulance workers, and firefighters as possible. All of which leaves but one conclusion – the people directing these attacks, such as Air Chief Marshal “Bomber” Harris of the Royal Air Force, were psychopaths trying to kill as many enemy people as possible, even though those people were mostly old men, women and children (the military age men were all off to war, anyway).
Of course, those bombs did not fly themselves to their targets – this was the era before “smart bombs” and cruise missiles meant to do precisely the same thing. They had to be flown to their targets in huge slow fleets of huge slow bomber planes, and each of those huge slow fleets of bombers had to be crewed by teams of young men, most of whom did not enjoy risking their lives to bomb enemy cities and who had none of the bloodlust of the old men who sent them off to kill and to die (and die they did – in British Bomber Command alone, 56000 airmen died). The old men knew this. They knew that the young men would rather not go bomb German cities and therefore they expended a lot of effort in ensuring that they did.
One way was by the fear of disgrace. Any flyer who refused to do the job ordered was marked unfit for further flying duties due to ”lack of moral fibre,” stripped of his rank, and banished to the worst punishment duties for the duration of the war. Another was propaganda, or, to put it differently, lying. I’ll explain how by describing an incident from the book in a moment.
Meanwhile, across the English Channel, were the Germans: civilians living their lives, Jews cowering in fear of arrest, and the servicepeople: radar operators, night fighter pilots, even Indian prisoners of war who had gone over to the Germans and now manned searchlights. They were doing their best to save themselves from the bombing; and they had their own lies and propaganda, of a great and wise Führer and a Germany who was a victim, not an instigator, of the war. And of course, like the British before them and the Vietnamese, Iraqis and Afghans to come later, killing and bombing them did not break their morale; quite the contrary, it made them hate the killers and bombers even more.
Len Deighton is one of those rare authors who spend as much or more time actually researching a story as he does on writing it; he checks and cross-checks everything, and, unlike some authors (like Frederick Forsythe for example) he does not let his personal prejudices (but naturally he has prejudices, don’t we all?) colour what he writes. He himself estimates that he wrote half a million words in research notes alone while on this book…and it shows.
The Avro Lancaster bomber was the premium British night bomber of the Second World War; it’s been called the best of all the bombers of that war, and was undoubtedly superior to the far more famous American B 17 and 24. The average Lancaster carried a crew of seven: a pilot (who was also the aircraft’s commander), a flight engineer, a bomb aimer (cum front gunner), a radio operator, a navigator, a mid-upper gunner (who operated the dorsal turret) and a tail gunner. The craft was so cramped that except for the pilot the rest of the crew had to collect their parachutes from storage points and clip them on to their harnesses in case of emergency. Each bomber, at 1943 rates, cost £42,000 – another bit of research on the author’s part – and carried, painted on it, the number of missions it (the plane, not the crew) had carried out.
The Lancaster of the subtitle is nicknamed the Creaking Door – a battle-scarred veteran piloted by another veteran, Flight Sergeant Sam Lambert, who has his own share of problems. Battle-weary, with an alcoholic father who sponges off him, and a wife who is in the air force and posted on the same (fictional) airbase, Warley Fen, as he, he is thought of by his crew as infallible – they are convinced he will bring them back each time.
As the bomber crew tries to relax as guests in the home of one of their number, the officers of the Bomber Command decide to launch a raid on the German industrial town of Krefeld in the Ruhr. Among the planes they will send is the squadron based in Warley Fen – Lambert’s squadron. In minute detail, the operational planning and preparations are described, including the Spitfire pilot who goes to take meteorological photos over the target and gets back in time to allow the pilot a game of tennis before tea. There is the briefing where Lambert’s flight commander, one Flying Officer Sweet, tries to suck up to senior officers for advancement and where the crew are told they are going to bomb a poison gas factory. One of them, a German émigré on Lambert’s crew, points out that all they are doing is bombing city centres – and the centres of German cities never have industries, only old residential quarters. He is ignored.
Meanwhile, across the English Channel, in the (fictional) German town of Altgarten (“Old Garden”) west of Krefeld, Luftwaffe radar operator Oberleutnant August Bach takes leave of his son, Hansl, and his housekeeper/lover, Anna-Luisa. As he heads off to his radar station on the Dutch coast, this bird-loving former pilot and his friend and fellow officer note the preparations going on to meet the expected Allied raid – anti-aircraft guns on the move, and the like. They two men talk of love and relationships, but their minds are elsewhere; Bach’s torn between his radar station and his mistress, and the friend, as Bach discovers later, has been ordered to Russia. Left behind, Anna-Luisa, happy in her new-found love, dreams her dreams for the future in the midst of a war that so far has left this town so untouched that there are actually Jews living in it unmolested.
And meanwhile, in a German night-fighter base in Occupied Netherlands, Oberleutnant Viktor von Löwenherz (“Lionheart”) and his fellow Junkers 88 aircrew talk of medals and prepare for action, taking practice flights and calibrating their radars and guns. In the midst of this comes a German Intelligence man probing the theft of documents detailing the horrors of concentration camp experiments on inmates. One of von Löwenherz’ fellow pilots readily admits to the theft and dissemination of the documents, arguing that his conscience wouldn’t have let him rest otherwise. The entire episode is temporarily shelved in view of the impending Allied raid of the night, for which every pilot is required on duty.
There are the accidents on both sides: the ground duty crewman who is killed when a bomb he is loading on a Lancaster falls on him, the German night fighter destroyed by a bird hit, and so on; and the pettiness and small-time ambition of people on both sides, many of whom take a positive delight in causing problems for their subordinates. And there are the dedicated and sincere, none of which find much favour from the ‘powers that be.’
And so the day passes, in preparation and plans among the military, and in Altgarten the civilians plan for the Burgomeister’s (Mayor’s) birthday party that evening, and living their lives as best they can. As darkness falls, the Lancasters take off from Warley Fen and other bases, and fly over the Channel towards Occupied Europe. And German night fighters take off to intercept them.
What follows is a long drawn out description of the bombing raids of the night, seen basically from four main viewpoints – those of Sam Lambert, August Bach, Viktor von Löwenherz and Anna Luisa – and of several subsidiary viewpoints, both on the ground on both sides and in the air. Deighton goes into intricate detail on just how the air raid – planned so minutely – begins to unravel and go wrong from the outset.
You’ll remember that the story is set in the Second World War, at a time when there were no satellites and no global positioning system and so on. The huge streams of heavy bombers were guided to their targets by Mosquito light bombers which dropped red flares on those targets. Then came the Pathfinder squadrons who would drop specific coloured bombs to mark out the target area, followed by the main force which would do the actual bombing. But the Mosquito that was supposed to drop red marker flares over Krefeld is shot down by a German night fighter, and in a futile attempt to escape drops those flares on…you guessed it…Altgarten.
The rest of the story is rather easily told, with wave after wave of bombers dropping their loads of high explosive and incendiaries on the hapless little town, on top of people like the Burgomeister (who slowly disintegrates mentally even as he tries his best to co-ordinate firefighting and rescue operations), on Anna-Luisa and Hansl, on the others whom Deighton has described in detail enough so we care about them, such as the anti-Nazi young German who became a fireman because he wanted to do something for his country but did not want to bear arms for the Nazis (and fat lot the bombs cared about that, did they?); on the SS officer fresh from the Russian front, with a Ukrainian SS orderly and a love of loot. And it is the story of August Bach directing von Löwenherz and other pilots by radio and vectoring them onto the Lancasters. In quite gruesome but by no means unnecessary detail, Deighton describes precisely how the night fighters of the time stalked their prey and just what was liable to happen to a Lancaster if it was hit by a volley of shells from a Junkers 88, from the moment of first impact to the instant when the aircraft and its dying but still conscious and screaming pilot hit the ground.
I have no desire to include spoilers, so as far as describing the plot goes, I’ll stop here, and not dwell on the individual fates of the people I’ve mentioned, except to make this point: there are two main characters, one on each side: Sam Lambert and August Bach. Everyone else is related to one or the other: Lambert’s commanders, fellow flyers or wife; Bach’s mistress and fellow townspeople, and the night fighter pilots he directs by radar. The book has many voices, but the main voices, the German and the English, are the two protagonists – men not patriotic, unsure of themselves, deeply unhappy with the war, yet doing their duty as they see it, reluctantly and unhappily. And there are no victors and vanquished; by the end of the book, on both sides, there are only survivors.
One of the things that will strike anyone who reads this book is how extremely well-researched it is: it is what today might be called a docudrama, and compares well to one or two of Frederick Forsythe’s better books, but without Forsythe’s extreme and blinding anti-Soviet bias. Deighton even researched how the fire from burning gas lines of the time would appear, like a “thin flame as tall as a house”! I could only find one mistake: a German naval accountant, a paymaster who gets seasick if he has to board a motorboat, is described to be wearing a white cap. Only ship commandants in the German navy (Kriegsmarine) were allowed to wear white caps. Nitpicking? Perhaps. But when something is almost perfect, it’s the small imperfections that jar.
The strangest thing about this searing anti-war book is that it was never turned into a film. I know Hollywood would never touch it, since it has no American characters and no scope for rewriting history to glorify the American Empire. But surely the British film industry, at least in the seventies, was not quite as moribund as that?
A note to the reader: don’t touch this book if you have a short attention span. But if you did have a short attention span, you wouldn’t be reading this review, right? You probably wouldn’t even be a contact of mine at all!