The Avro Lancaster

On 7 May 2021 I was watching the first episode of the 30th series of the BBC series Top Gear. The main feature was the three presenters discussing and driving their ‘dad’s cars’ – not the actual cars themselves, but the type of car that their dad drove when the presenters were kids. It was an enjoyable, but emotional journey watching it. It was emotional also for me as my dad was in hospital at the time. Later that day he passed away.

Even as I watched the Top Gear episode, I wondered whether I would feel the same sorts of connections and emotions that the presenters discussed if I ever drove a metallic light blue Citroen CX. Perhaps. But for me, my ‘dad car’ is not a car at all. It’s a plane. The Avro Lancaster or ‘Lanc’.

I will do another post about my dad in due course, this one is more about the plane and why it is special.

While my dad was born in 1922 and still a teenager when hostilities broke out, I was born in 1971 and so when I learnt about my dad having been involved in WWII, the war itself seemed like ancient history. But I listened with fascination as my dad recounted a variety of stories and, at some point, showed me his log book – which came out again in the early 80s when he took up flying again after retirement.

The cover of my dad’s flying log book

Although my dad had a variety of stories to tell and flew a range of aircraft, it was clearly the Lancaster that made the greatest impression and it was pictures of Lancasters that we had around the house – which were added to over the years – with also the addition of models, one of which I tried to make as you can see in the following picture.

Another picture summarizes some of the key information about the Lancaster – but you can also find more information on Wikipedia.

At one level my dad’s love of the Lancaster was surprising given that it was connected to what must have been one of the most traumatic experiences of his life and its consequences. On 30 March 1944, my dad was piloting a Lancaster on a raid on Nürnberg (Nuremburg). This was one of the worst nights in the history of the RAF with 96 planes lost and a further 10 damaged beyond repair (more information can be found on Wikipedia – but there is also a book, which I discuss below). My dad’s plane was one of those shot down, with him having to parachute out and then see the plane that had shot his plane circling around, not knowing whether it would shoot him as well or not. It didn’t, but after landing, dad became a POW and remained in a camp until May 1945 and was freed by the Russians.

The final entry for 1944 for the raid to Nürnberg with the haunting note, in someone else’s hand, of ‘Missing’

The German pilot who shot my dad’s plane down made contact in the early 1980s and even provided a painting he had done of what dad’s plane looked like after it had been shot and was on fire and what looks like to be a photograph of the event too.

As noted in one of the pictures above, the Lancaster is known to a whole generation of people thanks to its involvement in the ‘Dam buster’ raids, with the bouncing bombs, of ‘Operation Chastise‘. At some point I would have seen the movie, The Dam Busters (dir. Michael Anderson, 1955), and this further cemented the iconic image of the Lancaster in my mind.

Over the years I saw some Lancasters at museums with my dad. But the most magical experience of all came in 2000 when we were visiting my great aunt who lived near the end of the runway of RAF Coltishall. We had no idea that that same day there was an air display going on at the airfield. And even after some jets had gone by – their roaring engines making us jump as they went by only a few hundred feet above us and causing massive down-draughts to hit the tree by my great aunt’s house – there was nothing to prepare us for what we were about to see.

But, before we saw it, we heard it. The distinctive roar of the Merlin engines. The the iconic beauty of the Lancaster came into view. It seems odd at one level, as I have discussed in a post about the HMS Hood, to be speaking of beauty in relation to a war machine – but there is a beauty, albeit perhaps shaped by the stories and memories associated with them, with such machines.

In the end I think we saw about three fly-pasts by the Lanc – sometimes with its accompanying Hurricane and Spitfire – before an apparent minor engine fire forced it to land. I was glad that I had my camera with me that day – but it’s a shame it wasn’t one that could capture the high quality shots that modern digital cameras can manage. But still the photos help to convey the what the Lancaster was, and help me to remember an emotional few minutes and also my dad.

Returning to the ‘Dam Busters’ and WWII, as with Zulu (another film my dad introduced me to), I think there are times when it acceptable to make judgements about a movie and divorce it from historical accuracy. This is something that I have discussed elsewhere in my research – and there are others who have discussed it in relation to the movie The Dam Busters itself. However, while there are elements of The Dam Busters I enjoy, the movie is not without its issues. First, much of the war was not as exciting as movies make out – there was a lot of hanging around and boredom (and many were also not fighting for the great cause). In that respect the movie Lancaster Skies does a good job – but it falls down in many other areas (particularly when it comes to how close they had the planes flying at night). Despite all the stories my dad told me, he never let me get caught up in the glorification of WWII and particularly the UK’s role in it, which has, based on my experiences at school, led to an overly simplistic version of history being taught that not only glorifies Britain’s role in the war but particularly Churchill. My second issue with The Dam Busters, which ties into the previous point, is that the movie does nothing to point out the huge impact it had on the civilian population and that, as a consequence, the bombing of dams is now against the Geneva Convention.

One day I may try to put together a collection of some of my dad’s flying stories and experiences – but I will never be able to do it full justice. I asked him many times to write them down and pass them to me to edit as a book, but, again, he said that most of it would have been boring and not exciting stories. That is why I wanted such a book to be done – to counter-balance the typical narratives that do exist about that period. The centre piece of any collection of such stories should be those about the Lanc – though in reality, although it was his favourite plane to fly, he had less stories to tell about his time in that plane.

I know that my dad contributed to the book The Nuremberg Raid by Martin Middlebrook about the raid in which my dad’s plane was shot down.

I remember, as a child, seeing my dad’s name printed in the Acknowledgements (circled in the photo below) and feeling a sense of pride of seeing his name in print. Going through my dad’s things and old correspondence now, I can see that my dad exchanged a few letters with the author – who asked a series of questions and provided a questionnaire. I wonder if my dad’s answers still exist anywhere – because I would love to see them if they do.

Returning to how I began this post, although I will never be able to fly a plane myself, rather than driving a Citroen CX, I think if I wanted to have the Top Gear ‘dad car’ experience, then one day I would have to try to get a flight on one of the remaining Lancs before they become grounded forever.

I recently came across the documentary Night Bombers. It uses actual colour footage following a crew preparing and taking part in a raid on Berlin. Highly recommended viewing.

The Lancaster was a special plane and my father, one of its many pilots and crew, a special man.

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