top of page

Flights of Fancy and Reflection

Maybe you forgot cake and candles for the big birthday this October: the 80th anniversary of the Lancaster bomber. Its maiden test flight was 9th January 1941 and the first production aircraft took off on 31st October the same year. This was a remarkable achievement which almost didn’t happen, but it was an essential component in defeating the Nazi war machine. We had the remarkable Spitfires and Hurricanes for defence but no equally competent bombers for attack. The Lancaster emerged, phoenix-like from the inadequate Manchester (nicknamed the “flying coffin” by many pilots). Much of the Lancaster was based on the Manchester; in fact 70% of parts and components were identical. The wingspan was lengthened and instead of the Manchester’s deficient twin engines it was fitted with four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. With these and other modifications the Lancaster emerged as a phenomenal aircraft, superb to fly, with a huge carrying capacity. It was easily the finest bomber of the war and the ingenuity of its design remains a symbol of ultimate victory from the ashes of failure.

It was also the aircraft that killed the most people, by some estimates over 600,000; most of them civilians.

Ahhh . . . pause for thought.

Spitfire, Lancaster, Hurricane

We think of Spitfire pilots as knights of the air, outnumbered, in desperate single combat through the blue skies of the Battle of Britain, defending our freedom and homeland from invasion. The Lancasters on the other hand dropped thousands of tons of high explosives destroying entire cities like Dresden, Cologne and Hamburg, creating huge firestorms that annihilated tens of thousands of people in a single night.

An aircraft is an inanimate object, so of course the Lancaster didn’t kill anyone. It was a weapon used by human beings to kill other human beings, just like Captain Moroni’s sword or Ammon’s sling. However the policy, personality and strategies of Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of Bomber Command, are controversial. The Lancaster was used for precision bombing of industrial sites (remember the famous “Dambusters”). As the war progressed though, Harris increasingly favoured area bombing of cities, to demoralise the civilian population and shorten the war through pressure on Germany’s leaders. Unfortunately his enemy was a fanatical madman who cared little for the plight of his people (rather like many Lamanite kings in the Book of Mormon). Some historians believe that towards the end

Lancaster aircrew of seven

Harris was motivated more by revenge on Germany for their atrocities than targets of military value. Attacking well-defended capital cities in central Germany resulted in appalling losses. Missions over Berlin had a fifty-fifty chance of survival for dubious tactical gains, equivalent to “going over the top” in the First World War. I’m reminded of the Nephites, who were commanded by the Lord to defend themselves, but never to seek revenge. Every time they did, major losses resulted. Still, wartime decisions are hard to evaluate. Expert analysts are divided over whether his strategy was right or wrong, and I’m not qualified to judge, but sadly the problematic leadership of Bomber Harris has somewhat tainted one of the most magnificent aircraft of World War 2.

During the summer Barbara and I had a short holiday, staying with our daughter Amy and her family. We enjoyed day trips visiting two remarkable places near their home: Bletchley Park and the Imperial War Museum Duxford.

Lancaster at Duxford War Museum

Duxford is a famous World War 2 airfield where some of the earliest Spitfire squadrons were based. In fact, we saw the famous Spitfire, a two-seater version of which was doing a brisk trade  (at a price!) flying visitors on short trips in the area. The sound of the renowned Merlin engine as the plane swept over the field was as powerful and distinctive as historical comments describe. We also saw the iconic Lancaster bomber (though not flying: only four flying Lancasters exist worldwide). For me, it had lost nothing of its menacing beauty. But it is 80 years old. Time and technology have moved on and the Lancaster is dwarfed by some of its successors. Mankind has created much bigger, more powerful killing machines and in the nuclear age we can destroy far more than a single city in one raid.

Typical office at Bletchley Park

Bletchley is the famous World War 2 intelligence centre, where teams of brilliant men and women broke the “unbreakable” German Enigma code. Alan Turing is probably the most famous and his work laid a foundation for modern computer science. Back then, before computers existed, a colossal mental effort, efficient teamwork and a complex organisation of around 2,000 men and 8,000 women was required. Their work shortened the war by several years and saved countless lives.

It also provided targets for the Lancasters.

So where does all this lead us? What should we celebrate, if anything at all, on the 31st October? Well, at the very least we might remember the brave men who crewed those remarkable flying machines. World War Two Bomber Command had a total of 125,000 aircrew of which 57,205 were killed (46 percent), a further 8,403 wounded in action and 9,838 became prisoners of war. Some regarded a posting to a bomber squadron as a death sentence. How hard must it be to climb into an aircraft day after day, knowing that your chance of dying in a few hours was around fifty-fifty? Just doing their duty of course, as the veteran survivors have modestly said, but heroes, every one. So, when we blow out the candles, what should we wish for? Maybe we can remember the words of Jesus: “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) and pray we might have the same resolve and be just as brave when we are called to serve.


bottom of page