Wednesday 16 September 2015

My disappointment at the Ewan McGregor documentary "Bomber Boys"

Last night I watched a documentary called "Bomber Boys" featuring Ewan McGregor and his ex RAF pilot brother Colin. The documentary had two strands, the first the story of Colin learning to fly a Lancaster and the second, was a potted history of Bomber command. The first strand, the story of Colin, who flew Tornado jets for the RAF, getting to grips with a vintage four engine bomber was fascinating. The second strand, the potted history of the bomber campaign was a complete travesty. Anyone watching the film would think that the Lancaster was the only bomber that mattered and that its pilots and crews were the only ones who made a difference. This is complete baloney and shows the complete lack of research that the program makers had undertaken.

My father was a member of bomber command. He flew twin engine Wellingtons for 40 squadron. Whilst there were 7,000 odd Lancasters produced, the Wellington was far and away the most numerous bomber with over 11,000 produced. It was used in operational missions during every year of the war. The first bombing raid of the war on 18th December 1939 was flown by Wellingtons and the last operational bombing raid of the war by Wellingtons was flown by 40 squadron in 1945. Of all the operations undertaken by Bomber command to disrupt the German war industry effort, the one deemed most successful was the mining of the Danube, which was undertaken by Wellingtons based in Italy. This reduced the flow of freight on the river, the main artery for central european freight to a trickle, restricting supplies of oil etc to the Reich. In some ways, perhaps the most important campaign of all for bomber command was to destroy the flotilla of barges that Hitler was assembling in 1940 to launch operation Sealion, the planned invasion of Great Britain. The total success of this campaign was one of the main reasons Hitler decided that a quick campaign against mainland Britain was not practical. I have never understood why no one ever mentions either of these efforts, which were highly successful. It should also be noted that Wellingtons were in production for the duration of the war. Despite being withdrawn from UK based bombing missions against Germany, they were used across the campaign, in Costal Command, Italy, Africa, India and the Far East. In many ways the operational history was far more intersting than the Heavies, which dominated the European campaign.

 Whilst it was clear that the heavies such as the Lancasters and the other (also rather oddly ignored) Stirlings and Halifaxes made a massive contribution, I find the airbrushing of the contribution of everything apart from the Lancasters to be verging on offensive to crews of other types of aircraft. In many ways, the efforts of the crews flying obsolete aircraft, night after night was truly staggering. To have their contribution ignored is scandalous. I have an old box of pictures from my fathers collection, including pictures of his bombing of Spetzia harbour. You can see the bombs landing on Axis warships in the harbour and bullets being fired up at him. My father flew 40 operational missions from the UK, North Africa and Italy in 1943 and 1944, before being shot down. As he passed away in 1987, he never saw the RAF memorial and never received a campaign medal. As I watched the documentary, I wondered how he would have felt about the efforts of him and his crew being airbrushed out of the history of Bomber command. One of the things which most irked my father was that whenever he told anyone he flew bombers, the first question was always "Lancasters?". He said he felt great sympathy for Hurricane fighter pilots, who similarly lived in the shadow of Spitfire pilots.

I once asked my father whether he'd have liked to have flown in a Lancaster squadron. He said that his squadron were happy to be given the missions they were allocated to. His squadron flew in support of Montgomeries campaign in North Africa, bombed military installations in Italy and oil fields in Romania. He said that when he scored a direct hit on an Oil processing plant in Romania with a 4,000 bomb, he felt he'd made a massive contribution to the war effort, with the flames being visible for over 100 miles. Although his squadron did bomb Cologne, he said he didn't like the concept of bombing civilian centres, that were the mainstay of the Uk based campaign. He did however have huge respect for Athur Harris, who he said was a brilliant leader. His view of the area bombing was that the UK was involved in a fight to the death with the Nazi's and as such, the UK had to use every means possible to defeat the Hitler. He said that the campaign undertaken by Harris was the only one which could materially affect Germany at the time. It tied up a huge part of the German war machine, that would otherwise have been deployed in the front line. If all of the 1 million people involved in air defence and the 88mm Anti Aircraft guns had been deployed against the Russians or the Western Allies, the war may well have gone on for another year.

It is truly scandalous that, as McGregor stated, Churchill never thanked bomber command or awarded the crews a campaign medal. It is sad that a long documentary, that was in many ways an excellent program, chose to neglect a mention for the majority of bomber command crews, who flew aircraft other than Lancasters. It spoiled what would otherwise have been an excellent program. I just hope that one day we get a program which does justice to Bomber command and the whole campaign.

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