The Crew: The Story of a Lancaster Bomber Crew

David Price

Head of Zeus, £25

OF the many contentious issues remaining from the Second World War the seemingly indiscriminate area bombing of Nazi Germany is still an unresolved riddle.

Was it carried out to deliver a knock-out blow to a despicable regime, as its supporters argue, or a vindictive policy which failed to discriminate between the guilty government and innocent civilians? Amidst the arguments one fact cannot be gainsaid: RAF Bomber Command lost 55,573 aircrew, offering a 44.4 per cent chance of being killed compared to 14.2 per cent for the men on the ground.

To put a human face on this, aviation historian David Price has produced a fascinating and fast-paced account of the exploits of an Avro Lancaster bomber crew from 97 Squadron RAF that survived the war having served the standard 45 operational sorties over enemy territory. Like many of their fellow airmen the seven-man crew was made up of ordinary men who were called upon to do extraordinary things in the service of their country. Like them, too, their backgrounds reflected the physical make-up of Bomber Command – one Australian, one Canadian, one Scot and four Englishmen.

They were led by their pilot, Flying Officer Jim Comans, a hard-bitten 31-year-old “veteran” from New South Wales who “didn’t suffer fools gladly”. But the bulk of the evidence comes from Gloucestershire-born bomb aimer Ken Cook, the crew’s sole survivor.

What shines through is the sense that all were civilians in uniform who had been called on to fight a modern mechanised war and had to learn as they went along.

It proved to be a sharp curve especially after they retrained as elite Pathfinders. The Lancaster was a modern four-engine heavy bomber which proved to be a responsive and stable bombing platform, but it was hopelessly under-armed and vulnerable from below, a fact exploited by German night fighter pilots who approached unseen under the bomber stream before firing their upward-facing “Schraege Musik” cannons with deadly effect. Other dangers included ground fire and physical and mental exhaustion with a round trip to a distant target such as Munich lasting 10 hours. There was also the ever-present risk of being hit by bombs dropped from aircraft flying above.

So, how did the crew deal with the gut-wrenching terror of flying mission after mission and seeing for themselves what happened when their comrades were blown out of the sky? Sound training, much of it in the clear skies of Canada, played a significant role, and they all felt confidence in their pilot’s abilities. Age was also a factor. As Ken Cook admitted, youthful bravado meant believing they would live for ever.

Being part of a band of brothers was only part of the story, however. The Comans crew bonded as a team, but getting too close could be dangerous due to the perilous nature of their jobs and constant fear of sudden death.

After a raid it was bad enough seeing neighbouring beds being remade and lockers emptied, even worse if the previous occupants had been close friends. As Price notes wryly: “There were no expressions of grief or gestures of remembrance in the huts. The new men would arrive as quickly as fresh sheets appeared on their beds.”

And on some operations things did go badly wrong. A raid on Nuremberg in March 1944 cost 106 aircraft and the lives of 543 aircrew, largely due to a clear moonlit night and determined German defence. Cook remembers a Lancaster exploding beside his aircraft “but there was nothing we could do, we just had to keep flying.”

In a poignant epilogue to this never less than riveting book, Price addresses the central issue of the worth of saturation bombing. He comes reluctantly to the conclusion that, at the time, it was regarded as a necessary evil, and must be set against the grim overall Second World War death toll of 85 million. That’s three per cent of the world’s population.