The Luckiest Man in the World (1)

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.






Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

27 responses to “The Luckiest Man in the World (1)

  1. My father-in-law was in the RAAF but wasn’t allowed to fly after crashing three aircraft on take off. He was very lucky to have had those three tries at it. So he was posted to New Guinea as Admin.

    • Yes, I think that three crashes was probably the time to take a hint! As far as I can see, two crashes was considered exceptional in the RAF and I think that you might then have been relegated to aircrew.

  2. Chris Waller

    The Wellington has always been one of my favourites. I recall seeing film of returning Wellingtons with strips of fabric flapping in the slipstream and daylight visible through holes in the fuselage but still they were flying!

    • Yes, I think that Wellingtons were the best of a poor lot. They were used extensively in training once the Lancaster came along. I rather think that their very resilient geodetic structure must have been difficult to manufacture because I cannot recall any subsequent aircraft using it.

  3. Thank you for helping to teach me more of the ETO of which, you are aware, my knowledge is lacking.!! I couldn’t learn from a better teacher, John. Between you with the RAF and Pierre Lagace’s RCAF – maybe I’ll get things down pat.

    • I’m sure you will. I have exactly the same problem with the Pacific War. I think part of it is a kind of language barrier. The names of those atolls that so many men died to capture don’t ring any bells in my mind, and I forget them too quickly. Japanese aircraft and ships are very similar. The Japanese words mean very little to me and I am a world champion at mixing up my Bettys with my Helens and my Sallys!

  4. Pierre Lagacé

    Reblogged this on RCAF 425 Les Alouettes II and commented:
    Les dangers qui guettaient les aviateurs même durant leur entraînement.

    The dangers that were always present when aviators were training.

    • Thanks a lot, Pierre. You are absolutely right and it is always so sad that many men never even got to see combat. I wrote down one of my Dad’s tales.. “Fred and his pals were flying a Vickers Wellington over the dark forbidding waters of the North Sea. As men in their early twenties, they felt completely fireproof. They were roaring enthusiastically at low level over the cold wave tops until the rear gunner brought them back to reality with a cry over the RT system of “Oi ! My arse is in the water ! ! ” They immediately zoomed back up into the sky, and continued their training at a much more reasonable altitude.”

  5. Pierre Lagacé

    First rate source John!

    • Yes. I found it a lot more difficult than I thought it would be when my Dad died. He was an inveterate story teller and so I spent months writing down everything I could remember about him. It was great therapy really and it means I can go back now, almost 15 years later, and he hasn’t really gone away. Well. not 100% anyway!

      • Pierre Lagacé

        A veteran told a similar story about a faulty bomber that had problems. He got blamed for the crash until the C.O. had the same problem with a similar aeroplane.

  6. Interesting history, John. My mother’s youngest sister, who lived with our family for many years, married an engineer in the RAF who was stationed in what was then British Guiana. She left us to live in England. Memories of her still linger.

    • People forget how much of the war, namely the U-boat war, was fought in the Caribbean. Venezuela was one of the world’s top oil producers then and U-boats would congregate in good numbers to attack the tankers and ships off Texas as well. I miss my brother who I don’t see nowadays. It’s always very poignant when somebody important in your life isn’t there any more.

  7. Is this due in part for a lack of preparedness for war in the early stages of WWII John? On the one hand, newer aircraft (Lancaster, Halifax, Stirling) were still being developed or on OCUs and on the other perhaps there was a tendency to ‘rush’ aircrews through their training, to give them the basics of flying and airmanship in order to get them into combat quickly. Both situations present a somewhat hazardous environment for those young crews. Great post again John. I know aircrews hated the Hampden, but I love it. There again, I was never required to fly it, which may well have swayed my opinion towards the former!

  8. There was virtually no preparedness for the war because the belief was strong that “the bomber will always get through” so the bombers they did have were completely unsuited for what they were expected to do, namely fly in formation in daylight and defend themselves without fighters. It was exactly the same for the Germans with the Heinkels and Dorniers in the Battle of Britain. I found these two sources about the Hampden in my researches, and I think you had a lucky escape!
    Wilfred John ‘Mike’ Lewis, a Hampden veteran, has written “Cramped, no heat, no facilities where you could relieve yourself. You got in there and you were stuck there. The aeroplane was like a fighter. It was only 3 feet wide on the outside of the fuselage and the pilot was a very busy person. There were 111 items for the pilot to take care of because on the original aircraft he had not only to find the instruments, the engine and all that, but also he had all the bomb switches to hold the bombs.”
    Wikipedia says “ The guns were thoroughly inadequate for defence. The fuselage was quite cramped, wide enough only for a person. The navigator sat behind the pilot and access in the cockpit required folding down the seats. Once in place, the crew had almost no room to move.”
    Apart from that, it was great!!

  9. I always think it so sad that crews were killed during training, it seems an even bigger waste than losing them in combat. Many as you point out, failed to survive training, ‘dodgy crews in dodgy aircraft’ is certainly true!

    • I think the fact is that the people training crews were often reckless in the tasks they asked them to do, which were frequently beyond their capabilities, particularly when there were issues over the weather.
      If I ever get through all of the 105 young men killed from the school where I used to teach, I fully intend to count just how many were killed by the enemy. I suspect it will not reach 50.

      • Certainly in the accounts I’ve read from the training crews, the job was tedious and many couldn’t wait to get back to the ‘proper’ action. When interest is low mistakes are made. Your figures may well therefore, be right.

  10. Those were some amazingly brave men! I hate to see the photos of the crashed planes. So many gave their lives, so young…

    • Yes, they were. We won both World Wars but the cost in lives was disastrous for the progress of Mankind. How many young geniuses must have died without achieving what they could have achieved. And how much misery there was for ordinary fathers, mothers, wives, brothers and sisters.

  11. The service with the highest number of casualties during the Second World War for Australia is the RAAF. That’s due to the number who served in Europe on bombing missions but no doubt training caused many deaths.

  12. If I had to be shot at I’d like to be standing on the ground with the possibility of being able to hide behind something. Sailors and airmen are much braver than I am.

  13. Most of the time I feel that everybody is braver than I am. My Dad always used to say that everybody in the RAF believed that it was the other people who would get shot down but never them.

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