They Shall Grow Not Old…

Very recently (just a few weeks ago) I was invited to become involved with the restoration of “Just Jane” the privately owned Lancaster Bomber that is part way through a 10 year project to achieve airworthiness. My Grandfather was an Armourer/Engineer on the very first Lancaster to land at East Kirkby, so to work on the same aircraft that my Grandfather worked on, on the same airfield, is very emotional…

Just before lockdown I was handed the key to the Lanc’ for the afternoon as I spent 3 hours on board, spending time cleaning, researching and photographing (not an opportunity one gets very often!)

So, for Remembrance this year, I thought I would share some of the photos inside the aircraft as I reflect upon the bravery of the young men who flew these on bombing missions. The average age of Bomber Command Crews was just 23…

The loneliest crew member was the rear gunner. On entering the aircraft he would turn left, climb onto the tail spar, crawl along (on his back) and then wedge himself into his turret (seen below). He would then remain there for the duration of the flight, only leaving if he had to bail out or when they were lucky enough to get home in one piece. In many cases the other crew members had to lift him out as he would be frozen in position, with temperatures in the region of minus 40 degrees! As you can see in the photo below, visibility was not good, so many gunners removed the Perspex directly in front of them, to allow for a better chance of spotting the fighters. The space was so tight, he had to leave his parachute stowed behind him (on the left in the photo below) and hope he could reach it if he needed to bail out! Not easy in a spiralling dive, in the dark and probably on fire…

The other six members of the crew would turn right, possibly crack their heads on the gyro compass guard, and make their way to their stations. It’s a bit like the journey through the Looking Glass – the further forward you go, the smaller it gets! Climb over the radar, step up onto the top of the bomb bay (where the small windows are) and (if it were there) then crawl under the mid upper turret  – this Lanc doesn’t have one fitted at the moment, so no photo of the cramped conditions he would have been in. 

Our Lanc was put into service by the French Navy after the war, for maritime reconnaissance, so the next station was for the eighth crew member, the radar operator in this case (below).  However, 101 Squadron, based in Ludford Magna, Lincolnshire, did carry an eighth crew member – a German speaker – who would listen in to German Fighter Command and often speak to them, hoping to send them off course. Often German Jews, they were incredibly brave, as (if caught) they were not given any rights under the Geneva Convention… He would have sat in this position. The hand sanitiser (top left below) is a more modern addition of course – a sign of the challenges we are facing this year…

In front of him, the Wireless Operator (W/OP – image below) – the busiest man on the crew believe it or not. To get to his position, crew members had to climb over the infamous main spar. The gap you see in the photo above is about 2.5 feet high and 3 feet wide at best. Many shins and heads have been cracked on that (mine included!) When in the aircraft, I try to imagine what it must have been like to try to climb over that spar in flight, in the dark, let alone when under fire and trying to escape a burning aircraft!

Many people thought the W/OP had little to do on a mission – how wrong. His role took the longest to train as he had to be able to navigate, be a gunner, be a bomb aimer and, potentially, be able to fly the aircraft in an emergency. He was also the crew first aider and would have to assist the gunners if they had any difficulties with equipment in flight. Oh, and he had to learn Morse Code…

The tiny passage to the right of the W/OP position is the Navigator’s compartment. He sat in front of the Wireless Operator and behind the pilot, his compartment completely blacked out so no light from his desk lamp escaped and alerted the enemy.

At last, the cockpit where you can actually stand up! It is not generous with space though – each aircraft had a single Pilot, who was assisted by the Flight Engineer. At times it would take all the pilot’s strength to fly the aircraft, so the Flight Engineer would not only monitor the engines and fuel, but also take control of the throttles when required. He would also be prepared to pull the pilot out of his seat if he was injured, and take over. Despite having a small fold out seat, most Flight Engineers either stood or knelt beside the pilot for the duration of a mission.

On the right, the view up from the Navigator’s position. The large yellow “dot” is painted on the only piece of armour in the whole aircraft – this would fold up to protect the pilot. To this day I am baffled by this as he had no other protection at all, and bullets/flak would come from all directions! Quite why it has a yellow dot is open to interpretation! Some papers say that this denoted a heavy object (the plate is about half inch steel) – others suggest it would turn a different colour if subjected to nerve gas. I’ve had veteran pilots say it was simply a target to assist the German fighter!

In front and below the pilot is the final crew position – the Bomb Aimer. Accessed through a small passage below the red fire extinguisher buttons in the photo above.

With potentially the best view of the lot, the Bomb Aimer would lie down throughout the mission (unless he needed to enter the turret above him, which he rarely did) and would be the eyes of the Navigator when travelling to and from the target, whilst concentrating hard on aiming when over the target area. This is a fairly cramped space, but reasonably comfortable if you don’t mind lying prone for 8 – 10 hours at a time! I have spoken with Bomb Aimers who described being in this position as “looking into the gates of hell” as the targets below burned.

So, there was a very brief internal tour of a Lancaster Bomber. What the pictures cannot truly achieve is capture just how cramped it is, or the smells, the noises, the fear of what it was like and the overwhelming sense of awe I have for the men who flew these aircraft in battle. 

There were 125000 Bomber Command Aircrew in WW2 – of every 100, 55 were killed or died as a result of their injuries, three would be injured, 12 would be taken prisoner of war and two would be shot down and evade capture. Of every 100 only 27 would survive a tour of operations (generally 30 missions). And they were all volunteers…  In total, just short of 58000 people died in Bomber Command in WW2 (that is others in addition to aircrew).

For far too long there has been no recognition of all who lost their lives in Bomber Command. As well as now being involved with bringing this amazing aircraft back to the skies, I am also proud and humbled to be Chaplain to the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln (image below). We have those 58000 names now part of a memorial to the service, and it is truly humbling to meet families from all over the world who travel there to see their relatives names. 

This year we were unable to hold a Remembrance Service – but we recorded one specifically for school children, and 1000 logged in to watch and join us! That is amazing… One eight year old said to me “I don’t understand the number [the 58000] but I know why the names are here – so that we don’t allow this to happen again”. that says it all…

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

Published in Member Blogs

  1. Excellent blog Charles, this need to be in the public domain to show some our current population what these men endured to give them the freedoms they have today.

  2. I enjoyed that Charles, you cannot imagine what it must have been like sent out on a mission. The only thing that may have been in the favour would have been their flexibility at that young age. Makes you proud to be British

  3. Fascinating, Charles. I’ve never really thought about what it must have been like inside those planes and just how difficult they were to operate.

  4. Great blog Charles. I have hazy memories of a Biggin Hill airshow back in the 60’s and crawling through a Lanc and yes got the bumps and bruises. Think I was about 12 or 13 at the time.

    • Thank you Grahame – that Lanc would have been the one in my photos as it arrived at Biggin from Australia.

  5. An excellent read Charles, really gets over the ‘feel’ of operating in one of those planes, god knows what it must have been like with flak exploding all around!

  6. What an excellent blog, Charles. Thank you for sharing. What those young men endured is just humbling.

  7. I hope this little story coming up will be of interest as it is very relevant to your blog. My wife’s (Amanda) Grandfather was a young navigator in Blenheims (I think) during the war, flying out of Norfolk. He was shot down over Holland and was the only survivor after parachuting down. He was hidden briefly by the locals in the village where he landed but the Germans found him and he spent the rest of the war in a PoW camp. He survived, came home to Norfolk and lived to a ripe old age. In his older years he returned to the spot where he landed and there was some kind of ceremony carried out by the Dutch for him. At the end of the ceremony a woman came out from the small crowd that had gathered and handed him something. It turned out to be his flying helmet, slightly burnt, that she had picked up as a child and the family had kept ever since. She wanted it to be returned to the rightful owner! Amanda’s parents still have it, of course. Another bizarre twist to this story though I don’t know the details, was that again years after the war, he was contacted out of the blue (by letter I assume) by a German asking for a reference. The German in question was the man who had actually shot him down. I don’t know what kind of reference he was after or what that outcome was but it is an extraordinary turn of events. Anyway, hope that was interesting.

    • AJ – Fantastic! Another great account I shall add to my library – one of the wonderful things about working at the Memorial is the stories like your Grandfather In Law’s. Always incredibly moving…

      • His name was Andrew Stevenson but everyone knew him as Steve Stevenson. Sadly I never met him.

    • Really interesting AJ. It’s lovely to have these little family history snapshots

  8. Really interesting blog Charles. How extraordinary for you to work on the same aircraft as your grandfather – a truly special experience. You have given us an excellent insight into the ghastly conditions those young men flew in. I am shocked that there was no memorial for those who lost their lives with Bomber Command but am delighted to hear of your progress with this – congratulations.

    • Thank you Mary. Sadly, Bomber Command was the only armed force that did not receive any recognition from the government for it’s service in WW2. That’s politicians for you!

      • I saw a documentary on this once and bomber Harris. Lots of political decisions at force!

        • Hmmm. Poor Bomber Harris got the brunt of ill feeling about some bombing raids at the end of the war – the reality is that he refused the order for them, but Churchill overruled unfortunately. Harris took that to his grave out of loyalty, but papers released from the MOD show that he was unfairly treated.
          That said, we didn’t live then and it is hard to judge various decisions given the fact that war had been raging for a few years etc…

  9. A great blog Charles. I know that space was tight on a Lanc, but not that tight. AJ, thanks for the story of Amanda’s Grandfather – it augments Charles’s blog beautifully.

  10. Charles, thank you vey much for your very interesting blog; your images are excellent, and the narrative from yourself and from those in response are evocative. I do not believe that anybody who was not actually there is able to any meaningful degree to compute what exactly these many young men – in the call of duty and readily accepted – had to go through. The horrors of war are well documented, and the reasons for the responses made understood, if regrettable. But as a species we still seem to be all too ‘human’ for our own good. There really does exist an abyss between ‘human’ and ‘humane’.

  11. AJ, There are many examples of pilots from both sides becoming good friends after the war. The bombing of Dresden (as horrific as it was) was direct retaliation for Coventry. It was Hitler’s decision to move away from attacking RAF Stations and start targeting civilian targets in a hope that moral would plunge and we would sue for peace.

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