Bomber Boys - The Men who Took the War to Hitler

 The men who flew with Bomber Command were viewed by contemporaries as an elite force.  Throughout the war, they were appreciated and admired -- particularly by the opposite sex. They enjoyed status and privileges envied by their non-flying comrades. Although a remarkably diverse group, they nevertheless shared many characteristics and their image was unique and distinct from that of the "Fighter Boys."

Because of the prevailing doctrine that "the bomber would always get through" and the associated conviction that a war would be won by the side that bombed the best and the heaviest, the RAF (like the Luftwaffe) emphasized bombers and bomber training throughout the interwar years. Although this doctrine nearly cost Britain the war (through neglect of the Fighter Arm until it was almost too late), it re-asserted itself almost the moment the Battle of Britain was over. 

In order to hit back at Hitler, distract attention from the Eastern Front (i.e. to provide a "Second Front") and soften up the German defenses in preparation for an invasion of the Continent, the Western Allies had to conduct strategic bombing against Germany and German occupied territory. This compelling strategic requirement meant that more men were needed to fly bombers than any other kind of military aircraft. Add to that the fact that each bomber required a crew of at least two (for the light Mosquitos) and more commonly seven (for the four-engine heavy bombers such as the Lancaster), and the result was that the number of men who served in Bomber Command exceeded the numbers in the all the other Commands.

These men were drawn, literally, from the four corners of the earth. In addition to the home-grown British, there were volunteers from all the nations Hitler had subjugated -- e.g. France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway and Belgium. There were also volunteers from what had been the British Empire -- Australia, New Zealand and Canada, of course, but also from India, Rhodesia, South Africa and the West Indies. There were even volunteers from the United States. Wherever they hailed from, they came together first for training and later to form crews and to live, fight, play and die together in a Command that welcomed, absorbed and almost celebrated its diversity.  Despite some squadrons bearing designations as "Canadian" or "Rhodesian" or whatever, not even these squadrons were  homogeneous. All RAF squadrons during the war were in fact a mixture of nationalities -- as were many individual crews. 

The men who flew with Bomber Command were diverse in other ways as well. They included a small number of pre-war professionals, but most were wartime volunteers. They came from every strata of society, from peers of the realm (literally) to the sons of coal miners. The ranks included poets and novelists just as much as they included engineers, mechanics, clerks, salesmen and seamen.

Yet for all their diversity, they shared several key characteristics. For a start, they were all very young. Young men could volunteer for the RAF at seventeen-and-a-half -- before they could vote or legally drive. There are many recorded incidents of young men lying about their age to get in when even younger. As a result, even after years of training to get into a bomber, these men were often still in their teens and even the odd "old man" of twenty-four or twenty-five serving with Bomber Command could not bring the average age above twenty-one.

In addition, all aircrew had to be more than nominally literate and numerate to overcome the necessary entrance hurdles. Initially the RAF demanded a school-leaving certificate of aircrew candidates, but later dropped this demand, while retaining comparatively high standards. In short, without lowering the intellectual skills required, it opened the door to self-taught young men or those who had learned "on the job" somewhere other than in school. This change of policy made sense in a society where four out of five boys left school at fourteen without a school-leaving certificate, but it also represented a significant concession to merit over privilege.

The RAF required recruits -- all recruits -- to pass entrance exams and interviews that rapidly sorted out the dim-witted. Throughout the war, the number of volunteers was so high that the RAF could afford to be picky and routinely rejected about 20% of the volunteers as unsuitable. It washed out fully 50% of the conscripts who, rather than volunteering, had waited to be called up and then affected a preference for the RAF. 

Aircrew, however, represented the elite in the RAF and pilots the creme-de-la-creme. Not only were the requirements for aircrew higher than for the rest of RAF personnel, but volunteers for aircrew shared a marked adventurousness that set them apart from their fellows. They demonstrated a willingness to take extra risks and learn new skills. After all, until decades after the war, the vast majority of the population had never been in an aeroplane, not even as a passenger. Furthermore, by 1942 at the latest, there was no doubt in the public mind about the cost of the air war. Official loss statistics might not have been publicized, but they couldn't be kept secret either; there were too many people in Britain who had sons or daughters either in the RAF/WAAF or in contact with them. Furthermore, youth in Britain had grown up with Dawn Patrol, a movie that centered on the appalling losses of pilots in WWI. 

Far from seeking to avoid risks and casualties, the evidence strongly suggests that most aircrew were determined -- indeed keen -- to fight the enemy. Almost all had seen the impact of the Blitz. Many had had a personal encounter with it -- a home or relative lost, a workplace destroyed, a beloved local shop or pub leveled. Many men went into Bomber Command with the declared intention of "getting even." Few ever expressed remorse for the damage they did to Germany -- until, sometimes, after the fact.

Aircrew were also notoriously "bolshie." That is, they were more likely to vote Labour and favoured societal change.  Even if they didn't start out that way, the very process of being thrown together with youths from diverse backgrounds, living in very close proximity and fighting side-by-side, tended to break-down class barriers and prejudices. Few men could witness the courage, skill and dedication of comrades from humble backgrounds and retain an unshaken faith in the right of a narrow segment of society to perpetual privilege. 

These attitudes were both fostered and reinforced by a culture of advancement by merit that predominated in the RAF.  That doesn't mean there weren't biases, particularly in favour of pilots over other kinds of aircrew, but in a society where the right accent and school tie were still considered a ticket to the top, the RAF -- despite its shortfalls -- seemed like a remarkably egalitarian place. 

The RAF was also notoriously short on "bumph" (also known as bullshit) or excessive drill, spit and polish. Squadrons prided themselves on not taking King's Regulations too seriously and not going in for a lot of "senseless" formalities. To the shock and horror of officers from the more senior services, RAF sergeant aircrew often called their commissioned crew mates by their first names. Furthermore, in the RAF sergeants could command bombers in which other aircrew held higher ranks or commissions.

While the RAF overall had a glamorous image even before the Battle of Britain -- and that Battle cast a golden glow on the RAF for the rest of the war-- aircrew had a particularly glamorous image as "flyboys" and "brycreem" boys. That is, as long haired youth above the petty regimentation of soldiers and sailors. Anecdotes from the war years underline the fact that an aircrew brevet won favour with the opposite sex at least as well, if not better, than a U.S. uniform.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that RAF aircrew had a reputation for womanizing, hard-drinking and a "devil-may-care" attitude. They were seen (or believed) to live for the moment. The phrase "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die" seemed to have been coined for them. The anomaly that aircrew could face mortal combat within hours of a binge in the local pubs and dance halls intensified both the consciousness of their danger and their apparent indifference to it. 

All the above characteristics were, of course, shared with the Fighter Boys. Yet it was widely recognized that "Bomber Boys" were different. Good fighter pilots could be high strung and flamboyant, not so the bomber boys. They needed patience and endurance and nerves of steel, instead. Bomber boys also tended to be more stoical, if only because some aspects of bomber operations were boring. Hours and hours were spent flying in the dark without sighting other aircraft friendly or hostile. Bomber crews also had to fly straight and level into the flak and the enemy fighters during the bomb run; abandoning all pretense of controlling their chances of survival. On the other hand, fighter pilots were completely alone when things went wrong, whereas bomber crews had each other. That meant there might be someone there to pull you out of a fire, to bandage you up and give you morphine, or to drag your unconscious body away from a crash. It also meant you might have to watch a friend burn or bleed to death before your eyes.

As a rule, Bomber Boys were thought to be a bit more serious than their fighter colleagues. A journalist writing during the war after a visit to 214 (Hastings) squadron wrote:

"...the men who fly night bombers are quieter and more serious than fighter pilots. Their responsibility is heavier; the technological knowledge required of them more complicated and the physical strain more prolonged." [Quoted in Patrick Bishop. Air Force Blue: The RAF in World War Two. William Collins; 2017. 182]

Based on memoirs, diaries and letters analyzed since the end of the war, Bomber Boys were also a bit more interested in fighting rather than flying. Anyone with a grudge against the Germans or who wanted to contribute to ending the war sooner rather than later, opted for bombers. Bomber Boys even had a tendency toward idealism, a vague and inchoate belief that they were fighting not so much for British victory as to make the world a better place in the long run.

Yet these characteristics were mixed with a absolute taboo against sentimentality and taking oneself too seriously. Bomber boys were far more likely to admit to being terrified (there was no shame in this at all) than to admit to being patriotic. 

Last but not least, hard as it is for modern readers to believe, Bomber Boys did not get excited and start shouting and swearing when under pressure. Restraint and understatement even in the face of immanent death remained their code and ethos. While it is impossible to know what transpired in every bomber on every sortie of the hundreds of thousands flown, first hand accounts overwhelmingly  suggest that discipline and an almost chilling calm was the norm. 

One rear gunner, for example, noted that the locals who knew him and his crew as "happy clowns without a care in the world" would "not have recognized us if they could have seen us at work. We regarded ourselves and each other as experts, each in his own field...The fooling stopped when we donned our flying kit." 

Recordings and transcripts would seem to confirm this statement. They are filled with laconic reports of "flak closing in" or "we'll have to fly into that ack-ack" or "someone's off track and being coned by searchlights" -- to which the pilot replies, "keep your eyes off the searchlights, you'll ruin your night vision."  A navigator remembered in his memoirs a Master Bomber with a voice "exactly the same as it had been before, cool and unhurried, without a trace of panic" radioing the message: "King Cole to Deputy. I'm on fire, and going down. Take over. I repeat. Take over." Yet for all that, at least one crew had the habit of singing on  the last leg of their return flight.

My novels about the RAF in WWII are intended as tributes to the men in the air and on the ground that made a victory in Europe against fascism possible. 

Riding the icy, moonlit sky, 

they took the war to Hitler. 

Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent. 

Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one bomber pilot, his crew and the woman he loved. 

It is intended as a tribute to them all.  

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