Tag Archives: Bomber Command

Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (7)

Last time, we were looking at some poems from the book “These – Our Children”, by Anthony Richardson, published in 1943. I’d like to continue with that process.

The poem “Three went singing” is quite reminiscent of a previous poem called “There was an air gunner”:

In this poem, the three men, presumably fliers, are singing on their way back home down a country lane. Perhaps because they have been together in the pub, they are singing “Danny Boy” and other favourites.

“Dumpsy”, incidentally is a noun used in south west England to refer to twilight, and for Somerset folk it refers to “the quality of the light at dusk”. Sooo…. “the twilight is dusky”.

Other singers are better in various ways but slowly the three walk on and their voices grow first faint and then fainter still. The dusk grows dark and then darker until it swallows them up:

Clearly an almost mystical parallel with the fate of men lost on RAF operations. They are happy together as they laugh and joke, waiting to get into the aircraft and take off:

But then, Night claims them for her own and the men, whether three of them or seven, disappear and are lost for ever. Not even the tiniest stone retains an echo of their song . Night, aka Death, has them all in its grasp.

My last Richardson poem is called “To any Mother” and is simple to understand, even though it is “Poetry” and therefore may be perceived by many people as being way too difficult for them to enjoy. and indeed, nothing for them to be bothered with.

Here’s the beginning:

Then the poet asks if the mother taught her son what the parsons say, namely that it is just as easy for the spirit, the mind, to understand life at twenty as it is at eighty three:

So, it was not a dead end when he met “His Friend”, namely Death, because he also met his  comrades, his brothers from the crew, because they too, are now, all of them, dead.

And that discovery is no reason for misery.

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Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (6)

Last time, we were looking at Anthony Richardson’s best book of World War Two RAF, Bomber Command, poetry:

The next poem is “Spring 1942” and it is dedicated “To Vera : who always understood”. Richardson talks in the first two verses of how nature changes things when Spring arrives. “Pellucid” means “translucently clear, (of music or other sound) clear and pure in tone”. This is a daffodil, a word which is actually Latin and comes from “asphodilus”.

The natural world is teeming with babies for every creature. He calls their children “reincarnation of themselves”. So many animals and birds are out and about that even the owl, who normally sleeps during the day, has stopped his dreaming.

So too has Man changed his dreams and gone back to all the vile things that he was doing before the winter. These ideas are expressed by choice of words, all negative “pillage”, “death”, “fear” and “rotten”.

The last verse tells how we are now spending all our time doing nothing but killing, until the “tainted chalice” that is our lives is completely full of “…that red wine which only comes from killing”:

The last poem in this book is called “The Toast” and I am going to present just a few lines from it, with a little bit of explanation.

The first section of the poem for the most part talks of the Englishman’s heritage as a warrior. Much of it, I struggle to understand fully. But by the end, the poet invites his audience to raise their glasses in traditional fashion:

Then comes a reference to Lord Nelson’s famous signal before the Battle of Trafalgar:

“England expects that every man will do his duty”

Interestingly that famous sentence was not Nelson’s own original thought. The story is told by Lieutenant John Pasco, his signal officer:

“His Lordship came to me on the poop, and after ordering certain signals to be made, about a quarter to noon, he said, “Mr. Pasco, I wish to say to the fleet, ENGLAND CONFIDES THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY“ and he added “’You must be quick, for I have one more to make. “ I replied, “If your Lordship will permit me to substitute the “confides” for “expects” the signal will soon be completed, because the word “expects” is in the vocabulary, and “confides” must be spelt, “His Lordship replied, in haste, and with seeming satisfaction, “That will do, Pasco, make it directly.”

“Confides”, incidentally, means  “is confident that”.

Thus, at around 11:45 a.m. on October 21st 1805, the famous signal was sent.

Richardson wrote in his poem, 137 years later:

England this Day expects . . .

Let the World crumble, if one of us forgets !

Gentlemen !

A toast ! Upraise each hand !

England, that shall be ours, this English land !

England whose seas we held, whose shores we manned !

Skies of England ! Cliff and fell and coast!

Youth of England, Gentlemen, your Toast !

Gentlemen, upon your feet !

The time is meet

For England !

 

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Bomber Harris, not a happy man (2)

The inaccuracy of Bomber Command’s raids during the first two or three years of the conflict is one of the main areas examined by author, Roy Irons, in his book, “The Relentless Offensive: War and Bomber Command”.

Reading about the navigational failures of the early war years, it does not come as much of a surprise to the modern reader when Irons reveals that:

“in the first 21 years of the RAF (1918-1939) very little emphasis was put on accurate navigation or bombing accuracy….. In January 1933, of 1,346 junior officers in the RAF, only 38 had taken and passed the ordinary specialist course in navigation”.

He continues: “In 1934, the officer in charge of the Air Defence of Great Britain admitted that:

“the ability of the RAF to fly at night and in all weathers compared unfavourably with Lufthansa who operated a service between Cologne and Croydon”.

Here is Lufthansa’s four engined, streamlined monoplane airliner, the Junkers G38:

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And here is the RAF’s Handley Page Heyford, which looks, quite simply, bizarre. Mr Handley Page will have a prominent place in Roy Irons’ book later on:

In January 1937, a paper was written by a Group Captain Maclean. It was called “The Problem of Bombing at High Speeds” and he concluded that:

“even under conditions of maximum visibility on the clearest days, bombing anything but an area target would be an impossibility, while in conditions of poor visibility and at night, this problem becomes completely impossible.”

The problem was that Bomber Command “needed to see the ground” all the way to the target. If the bombers were going to bomb Dortmund successfully, they needed to watch the countryside unfolding beneath them all the way there if they were to find the city, and that even in daytime.

In 1939, Sir Henry Tizard, the chairman of the Aeronautical Research Committee, recommended the use of a sextant to all Bomber Command aircraft within 10-15 miles of the target, rather like Captain Hornblower against the French. This is not Captain Hornblower, by the way. No, this is Captain Ahab, who always preferred longer skirts as he had a false leg:

Sir Henry Tizard also felt that “nobody could guarantee accurate bombing unless they could see the ground”. Indeed, the results of Bomber Command’s bombing in the war’s early years were horrendous.  Slowly but surely, though, it came to be thought that trying to destroy specific targets was a complete waste of time, and highly trained lives. Accuracy was supposed to be “within 300 yards” of that specific target but a more accurate figure would have been a thousand  yards…more than half a mile.

These Vickers Wellingtons were constructed to high standards, but dropping bombs accurately on the target was not their strong point:

Can any more go wrong ? Well, what do you think ? Part Three very soon.

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Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (5)

Last time, we were looking at some poems from the book “These – Our Children”, by Anthony Richardson, published in 1943:

“At a party” and “Grounded” are a pair of poems that go together.

In “At a party”, an heroic airman is in attendance, complete with his braid and his medal ribbon. But it was just fate, just luck, that saved his life. It was certainly not his own courage. Somehow Death fumbled and failed to pull him through the door.

The airman, though, does not have the appearance of anybody who has been so close to death that his past life has flashed past his eyes. But his companion knows nevertheless, that fear eats at his heart, that he has not yet managed to kill “those groping, grey cold thoughts” that would “paralyse his stubborn will” to do any more flying. Was she the only one to notice? Was she the only one to know that his cup was full, that he’d had enough, and that his lips were not laughing but anguished ?

“Grounded” is the poem where the airman, completely unable to carry on, has had to be taken off flying. Despite this, he does not have to stand aside. He has been forgiven by “these captains”, other heroes who understand that it is “no disgrace that boldly one confessed he was afraid!”

Members of Bomber Command, my own father included, were absolutely terrified of being thought a coward. This meant that they would have “LMF” stamped on their record. LMF stood for “Lack of Moral Fibre”, and it meant that you would be extracted from your airbase as quickly as was humanly possible, lest other pe0ple catch your infection. You might be sent to a psychiatric establishment, such as used to be at Rauceby Warren in Lincolnshire, for example. Nowadays, it’s a long abandoned building:

You might be posted to somewhere like the freezing cold rain- and sleet- lashed grey boring Outer Hebrides, Orkneys or Shetlands. Somewhere where you could be rained on, somewhere where you could experience cold, boredom and perpetual darkness:

In contrast, in the poem, “these captains”, are completely willing to have the frightened airman among their company because they know their own torments, and that “thus, but for God’s grace, goes any man?”

In actual fact, of the officers who survived the Bomber War, apparently 3% had been removed from flying because of LMF. That must have been quite a number of men. Being classified LMF signed a death warrant to any officers’ subsequent career in the RAF. And the RAF for their part took away the flying badge of any man with LMF “to prevent his getting a lucrative job as a pilot in civil life”.

“Black Marketeer” is self-evident. I know from my own father that the cowards who ran away from the war, and those who invented spurious health reasons not to be where the bullets were flying, were hated beyond belief by those who did their fighting for them. Even more hated were those who traded in forbidden goods such as whisky, cigarettes, petrol and so on. Most men in the RAF would not have hesitated in the slightest to have shot them, given half a chance. At the very least, they would have wanted their prison spell to have been twenty years in hell:

“Kites”, incidentally, is the RAF slang for aircraft, and “flak” is anti-aircraft fire, or, as the Germans so beautifully put it, “Flugzeugabwehrkanone”.

“Ground Crew” is another self-evident poem. The ground crew were the men who looked after the bombers and made sure that they would fly properly. Many of their duties are listed in the poem. In the second verse, the last two lines mean the occasions when the member of ground crew has to adjust the engines that make the aircraft fly:

Ground crew were normally called “erks” which was supposedly the Cockney shortened form of “aircraftman”. “Wings” are the badge of the pilot, and traditionally have a silver threepenny bit sewn behind them. A “gong” is a medal.

The member of ground crew, the “erk”, was the “ordinary man” whose contribution to the war was absolutely indispensable:

And finally, his hearing is so finely tuned that he can hear the first of the bombers to come back from the previous night’s raid:

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Bomber Harris, not a happy man (1)

I hope that I don’t produce book reviews too frequently, and I certainly always limit myself to books that I have read and that I know I have enjoyed. In such a category is the 288 page book, “The Relentless Offensive”, War and Bomber Command 1939-1945″. The book is priced at £21 for a new hardback but there are plenty of reduced price copies as low as £4 or £5 including delivery. Here’s the cover:

Amazon, the seller of the cheaper used examples, says that the book is ” a fresh analysis of Bomber Command, its tactics and technology.” This is correct but there is more to the book than that, with, for example, in-depth discussions of high-explosive bombs and explanations as to why apparently identical bombs differed so much in effectiveness. The defensive armament used by Bomber Command aircraft is examined and explanations offered to explain its ineffectiveness:

Perhaps most important of all, why was Bomber Command’s navigation so frequently so very, very poor? Failures in this area would eventually lead to the conclusions of the Butt Report, which stated on August 8th 1941, after two years of war,  that:

“only about one-third of aircraft claiming to reach their target actually reached it.”

Here is the Butt Report, looking a little dog-eared today :

Of that successful third who flew through the night, and reached the target, when it came to dropping bombs, ”only one in three of them got within five miles”. In other words, a mere one ninth, 11%, of the aircraft claiming to have flown over the target, did, in actual fact, get anywhere near to dropping their bombs accurately on said target. On occasion the wrong town or city was bombed. At least one Old Nottinghamian did this. They returned triumphantly from their raid only to find out that they had not bombed Genoa but a seaport some thirty five miles away called Savona. Sometimes, the German town received virtually no bombs at all and the inhabitants did not realise that they were the target of an RAF raid.

In similar fashion, the RAF appeared on occasion to be targeting what the Germans on the ground thought was a bizarre target, such as a cheese factory or an ice cream works. Still, at least the RAF did not bomb Switzerland quite as frequently as the Americans did (“Gee, the target was lit up like a Christmas tree”) or as the Germans bombed the Irish Republic (Dublin on several occasions. and also Blackrock Island off the coast of County Mayo, damaging the several lantern panes and the roof of the lighthouse.) Here’s the lighthouse, a difficult building to find and to identify, especially in broad daylight:

Clearly, the problems of reaching a target at night and bombing that target when you couldn’t necessarily see it, had not been solved during the first two years of the war:

To make things even worse, Butt did not include at any point in his examination “those aircraft that did not bomb because of equipment failure, enemy action, weather or which failed to find the target”.

When, in 2003, modern researcher Hank Nelson carried out Butt’s calculations, taking into account this final category of the aircraft who did not drop their bombs for a variety of reasons, he discovered that only about 5%, one twentieth, of RAF bombers setting out from their bases in England bombed within five miles of the target. Other modern research, presumably nowadays making some use of German sources, has since then revealed that “49% of Bomber Command bombs dropped between May 1940 and May 1941 fell in open country”.

The places being bombed heavily, therefore, must have included all of the countryside behind this strategically important railway viaduct:

Such inaccuracy is one of the main areas examined by Roy Irons in his marvellously interesting book. Some of the reasons that 95% of Bomber Command aircraft might as well have stayed safe at home we will look at next time.

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In the Steps of the Valiant (Volume One)

Three months or so have passed by since I first published “In the Footsteps of the Valiant”, which was the story of the lives and deaths of 23 of the 120 or so men who were educated at Nottingham High School and who subsequently sacrificed their lives for us all in the Second World War. Also included is one young man who was killed in the early 1950s in the RAF.

So far, I am afraid, sales have been really quite disappointing. I have no real idea why this should be the case. The book is of a length commensurate with the price. The number of words holds up well alongside, say, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, “The Two Towers”, “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Emma”.

The book is priced at £18 and is more or less entirely my original research. And what better things could you get for £18? Two cinema seats. A bottle of “Graham’s 10-Year-Old Tawny Port”. You could buy a Venus Fly Trap. Or a glasses case with your name on it. Or enough wildflower seeds to plant three square metres. You could buy some Miracle berry tablets. The tablets last for about an hour and alter your taste buds so that anything sour tastes sweet.

Perhaps the book is being perceived as being limited to only one town or city. I don’t know, but I had hoped that people would realise that Nottingham stands here for any British town of similar size.

What is much more important though, much more important than sales alone, is that my original research has now been completed and that we now have a much longer list of war casualties than was previously the case. In the immediate aftermath of the end of hostilities in 1945-1946, the High School thought that 82 of its former pupils had perished in the war. My researches have extended that number to 121 men whose lives and deaths have been investigated and will now never be forgotten. I have also found five deaths in the early 1950s. Once they have been unearthed and brought out into the light, they will never be lost again. And people will have a chance to read something about the lives of these brave men and to see what they did for us all.

In the First Volume, the men featured are Alfred Highfield Warren, Bruce Arthur Richardson, Sidney Moger Saxton, Edwin Thomas Banks, Francis Nairn Baird, Clifford Frank Shearn, John Edwin Armitage, Wilfrid Henry Vivian Richiardi, Ian Mactaggart MacKirdy, John Harold Gilbert Walker, Robert Renwick Jackson, Howard Rolleston Simmonds, Charles Davy Hudson, Alfred Tregear Chenhalls, Walter Raymond Julyan Hoyte, Paul Wilson Cherry, Warren Herbert Cheale, Philip Bonnington Smith, Anthony Bertram Lloyd, Philip Mackenzie Britton, Richard Christopher Sowerbutts, William Roy Llewellyn, Keith Henry Whitson and John Jeffrey Catlin.

Here are just a few of them. This is Tony Lloyd of the Parachute Regiment:

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This is Keith Whitson:

And  John Harold Gilbert Walker, Spitfire pilot:

And Alfred Chenhalls:

And Edwin Banks and his aircraft, a Gloster Gladiator:

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And Robert Renwick Jackson and his all-black Douglas Boston:

Their brave deaths spanned a whole world. Killed in a Dakota over the Bay of Biscay. Killed in a Bomber Command aircraft over Germany. Killed by the Blitz in Leicester. Killed in North Africa fighting on foot. Killed fighting to seize a bridge in Sicily. Killed fighting to seize a bridge too far in the Netherlands. Killed by exposure during the summer in an unenclosed RAF dinghy in the English Channel. Killed in the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Persia. Killed crashing a Gloster Gladiator in Greece. Lost for ever in the trackless snowy Canadian wastes. Killed crashing a Fleet Air Arm fighter into the warm waters off Trincomalee.

Here’s that link:

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The Nightingale and Bomber Command

This is a very famous recording of a nightingale singing its little heart out, only to be interrupted by the enormous noise of a large number of Bomber Command aircraft approaching and then flying over. Undaunted, the nightingale carries on with its beautiful song as the bombers leave and the roar of their engines gradually fades away. The recording lasts quite a long time but it is well worth listening to in its entirety, particularly if you have never heard it before. It comes from spud4x:

The recording was made from a garden in Surrey, England during the evening of May 19th 1942 as 197 aircraft flew over on their way to bomb Mannheim. There were 105 Wellingtons, 31 Stirlings, 29 Halifaxes, 15 Hampdens, 13 Lancasters and 4 Manchesters:

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47 men would be killed and 23 would finish up as prisoners of war. Eleven days later would come the first 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne. And in the woods of England, and indeed Germany, the war would count for very little. The bluebells would be lingering on and the nightingales would be starting to sing.

The nightingale has a very powerful, very famous, but not necessarily hyper distinctive song. On birdwatching trips, I have often seen people listen to a hidden blackcap or garden warbler and walk away happy that they have heard a nightingale. John Keats too, may have been misled. Some critics have mentioned that the bird’s behaviour as Keats describes it, is on occasion not dreadfully nightingaley. But the poetic thoughts are dreadfully, well, poetic:

“Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
         No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
         In ancient days by emperor and clown”
Perhaps John Clare, of whom I wrote long. long ago, had a better idea:
“See there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough,
Mute in her fears ; our presence doth retard
Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill.
Sing on, sweet bird! may no worse hap befall
Thy visions, than the fear that now deceives.”

Anyway, there’s only one nightingale and here it is…

And here’s another version of that BBC recording:

If you’re interested, this is also to be found on Youtube. It is a recording made of a Bomber Command crew on a bombing mission over Germany:

As a fully paid up very sad person, I have two CDs  of this type of thing, bought many years ago from Amazon and I have listened to them many times.

This is the first one and this is the second one. They are particularly good for driving through rush hour traffic on your way to work. Goggles optional.

 

 

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