In his later years, my Dad, Fred, always used to say that training to fly in bombers was infinitely more perilous than flying on combat missions. He did his training with 20 OTU at Lossiemouth in north east Scotland. And certainly, casualty rates on the training airbases in Scotland were always extremely high.
No matter where their OTU was, though, everyone soon became well aware just how dangerous their young lives were. The apparently modern aircraft, pictures of which would previously have filled publications for young boys such as “The Wonder Book of the RAF”, were in reality often second rate, or extremely dated, and were certainly not good enough to be front line combat aircraft. The mechanics too, being often extremely inexperienced, were frequently incapable of servicing the aircraft properly. The book looks exciting though:
The aircraft types used included the Handley Page Hampden, which had a variety of nicknames including the Flying Suitcase, the Flying Panhandle and the Flying Tadpole. Nobody liked it very much then!
The very best of all the training bombers was the Vickers Wellington.
Overall, though, the problem was that crews were by definition inexperienced, and unlikely to be able to respond to any given emergency either sufficiently quickly or in the appropriate manner. They were more liable to make mistakes, and then to compound those initial errors by making even more mistakes. Indeed, statistically, it remains a fact that around 15% of Bomber Command’s fatalities during the Second World War occurred through crashes and accidents in training situations. In some O.T.U.s. casualty rates reached 25%. The situation was perhaps best summed up by the airman who said that the problem was “dodgy crews in dodgy aircraft.”
Here’s an example. It’s taken from the research I am currently doing about the Old Nottinghamians, Old Boys of the High School, who perished in the Second World War.
“…Jack was called to join 81 OTU and was listed to train as a bomber pilot. 81 OTU was formed in July 1942 and they were based at RAF Ashbourne training aircrews for night bombing using the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley:
This aircraft was obsolete by the time the war broke out. It had a small bomb load, it would not fly on just one engine and when it did fly, it had a most peculiar nose down attitude. This was caused by the angle of the wings which was very high to ensure a good performance when taking off or landing. But when cruising, there was an enormous amount of drag, restricting the aircraft’s fuel economy and forcing many pilots and their crews to ditch in the North Sea when they could not get all the way back to their airfield. The crews who did survive joked that the Whitley was “slow as a funeral” and called it the “Flying Wardrobe”, or, on a bad day, the “Flying Coffin”.
We’ll see why in more detail next time.