This review was first printed in the Sunday Telegraph on 15 April 2007.
BOMBER BOYS: Fighting Back 1940-1945
By Patrick Bishop
Published by Harper Press April 2, 2007, £20
Review by James Holland
After the enormous success of Fighter Boys, his homage to the men of the Battle of Britain, a companion piece to the men of Bomber Command was an obvious follow-up, but one that was always going to be much harder to successfully pull off. As Bishop points out, the men of the Battle of Britain were The Few and the battle they fought was short; the men of Bomber Command were the many and their struggle went on and on. Spitfires were beautiful and fast, like a racing car; bombers were bulky and heavy, like a truck. The Battle of Britain will always be synonymous with a long English summer and pilots sitting in deck chairs waiting to take to the skies. â€˜In the letters and diaries of the Bomber Boys,’ Bishop points out, â€˜it seems to be always cold and dark, no matter what the season.’
Yet not only has Bishop given himself a sizeable subject matter that does not offer an obviously exciting narrative, it also focuses on an aspect of the Second World War that still, even to this day, sits uncomfortably with most people. The Fighter Boys were shooting down black leather jacketed German fighter pilots; the Bomber Boys were dropping bombs on centuries-old cities.
The fact that Bishop has produced one of the most profoundly moving books about the war to have emerged in recent memory, is testimony to his enormous skills not only as a writer, but as a man able to wholly understand his subject matter. Back in the Second World War, a new breed of war correspondents emerged – men like Ernie Pyle and Alan Moorehead, who were able to convey not only the sounds and smells and immediacy of battle, but more importantly empathised greatly with the ordinary men who were doing the fighting. It is this empathy that Bishop, also a war correspondent, brings so successfully to his writing.
And it is empathy born of deep respect. Night after night these men were forced to play Russian roulette as they sat in their cramped and freezing aircraft, risking death at any moment. Chances of successfully bailing out of a doomed bomber were less than one in four. Even if they made it to the ground, there was a high possibility of being lynched or shot. Being in Bomber Command was not the most dangerous wing of the RAF – torpedo bombers, with a 17.5% chance of surviving one tour took that honour – but the statistics are nonetheless astounding. Of the 125,000 men who passed through Bomber Command, about 55,000 were killed – a tenth of all British and Commonwealth war dead. Of course, most men had to believe that they would be spared, that death could not befall them, but the odds were stacked against survival, and witnessing the plane in front dissolve into a ball of fire and debris did little to ease the nerves. As Bishop says, â€˜The swing of the scythe was impressively arbitrary.’ One crew member might be hit and leak blood all over their Lancaster while the others were unscathed. A pilot might have an eye and nose shot away; in this case he flew on, valiantly trying to fly the plane and his crew back to safety.
Back at base, those who failed to return were quickly wiped from the slate. Every man kept his wash bag in a satchel on a peg above his bed so that in case he died, all evidence of his existence could quickly be removed and the next man moved in. â€˜The spirit of death was everywhere,’ says Bishop. â€˜The crews accorded it an awed, mediaeval respect.’
Rather than methodically tell the story of the bomber campaign in strict chronological order, Bishop very sensibly opts for a looser approach. The birth of the campaign, the development of aircraft, bomber tactics, and the move towards â€˜area bombing’ are all given plenty of space, but in between are chapters dealing with specific themes. There is a typical day in the life of a bomber crew, full of tension, drama, excitement and the terror of taking part in the raid. There is section on life at the base. Bad food, miserable conditions and few creature comforts were typical features of the airman’s lot. Romance is also touchingly dealt with. Nor does he shirk from telling the story from the point of view of the civilians crouching underneath one of Bomber Command’s raids. Indeed, the description of the destruction of Cologne is one of the most affecting passages in the book.
Of course, no book about Bomber Command can ignore the thorny question of its legacy. However, while Bishop avoids openly lauding the merits of mass-destruction, he does clearly believe that the extraordinary bravery and resilience of the otherwise ordinary men who carried out this campaign deserve our lasting recognition and respect. Redressing this â€˜wrong’ is a mission statement declared at the outset. The men of Bomber Command were never properly thanked for their significant part in the Allied victory – not by Churchill in his victory address, not with a specific campaign medal. Nor is there a national memorial. He hopes that Bomber Boys will mark the first step in changing rectifying this. If this fine book is half as successful as it deserves to be, his mission will undoubtedly be successful.