“Scarecrow shells be buggered” The cultural memory of the Nuremberg raid 30/31 March 1944

As promised in my previous blog about Leipzig, here are some thoughts on the way the Nuremberg operation is remembered. Although not as well-known as the Dams raid or Dresden, the events on the last night of March 1944 have played a role in framing the way Bomber Command is remembered. On that one night, 95 aircraft were lost, and 545 airmen were killed. In this post I consider the Nuremberg raid in the historiography, through intertextual references, and in the IBCC Digital Archive’s oral histories.

H2S map of Nuremberg

It was argued during the planning stages, that the operation should have been scrubbed. There were conflicting weather predictions, the half-moon was up, and the route included a straight leg of 260 miles. On the night, Luftwaffe night fighters assembled at two beacons along the route. Spoof raids did not fool them and the combination of the moonlight above a cloud layer, the formation of contrails and the addition of fighter flares made Halifaxes and Lancasters easy to spot. Jeff Gray was a pilot with 61 Squadron; interviewed by David Kavanagh in 2015, he remembered:

“the weather forecast was completely the opposite… it was clear all the way except the target was cloudy and so I think the actual attack on the target was not very clever, but in a way it helped the end of an era. They switched us to the French targets.”[1]

Nuremberg was the last operation of what Arthur Harris called the Battle of Berlin. From April 1944, Bomber Command’s efforts were focussed on preparation for the D-Day offensive. Although it was not known at the time, Nuremberg was Bomber Command’s greatest loss of the war. The British press reported the numbers of missing aircraft but claimed that the RAF fought their way to the target and destroyed it.[2] However, the attack was scattered and less than 100 people were killed by the bombing.

Some of the historiography.

Go to texts about the disastrous Nuremberg operation include Martin Middlebrook’s The Nuremberg Raid (1973), Geoff Taylor’s The Nuremberg Massacre (1980) and John Nichol’s The Red Line (2014). Middlebrook, is pretty much the definitive history. Taylor was a pilot on 207 Squadron and was a POW at the time of the raid, and his book is probably at its best when he is discussing his own experiences. John Nichol admits that he tried to write a best seller based on oral history.[3] The operation was retold in the late 1970s; for children by Andrew Davies in Conrad’s War (1978) and by Peter Durrant’s BBC2 TV play The Brylcreem Boys (1979.) Both have been influential in the cultural memory of the raid, but every retelling of Nuremberg refers to Martin Middlebrook’s work. For example, Middlebrook tells the story of Tom Fogarty DFM, a pilot with 115 Squadron. His Lancaster Mk 2 was damaged and went into a shallow dive near Stuttgart. The crew decided to bale out but when the flight engineer could not find his parachute, Fogarty gave him his. The crew survived and were joined later by their pilot in captivity.

“At 500 feet he had put down full flap, switched on his landing lights, found a convenient field and set his Lancaster down on its belly. Fogarty… came to lying in the snow surrounded by farm workers.”[4]

In Conrad’s War, Conrad gives his parachute to Towser, his dog, and crash lands his Airfix model Lancaster in the snow.[5]

The cover of Conrad’s War by Andrew Davies

Andrew Davies included several Bomber Command tropes in Conrad’s experience of the Nuremberg operation. Suggesting a Lack of Moral Fibre, one airman drops his pipe which “shattered into little bits”. He exclaimed “I’m not going, I’m not going anymore, I can’t go, it’s not fair anyway, they know I’ve got asthma.”[6] Later, Conrad thinks of the Luftwaffe night fighters:

“Conrad suddenly recalled the shooting booth at the fair. A long row of battered metal ducks flew with the speed and panache of a snail’s funeral from left to right across a black background. You lined up your gun, and waited for one to cross your sights. There was plenty of time to squeeze the trigger slowly… That’s what they would look like to the Messerschmitts, Conrad thought. The ducks would clang over backwards and disappear from view. He didn’t want to clang over backwards and disappear from view.”[7]

Later, Conrad considers the consequences of what he had done by bombing Nuremberg; “had one of his bombs gone through someone’s gran’s roof?”[8]

Based on the relationship between himself and his son,[9] Davies considers the war from multiple perspectives; people from both sides, military and civilian, are involved in the story. Rather than heroically glorifying escape, personnel in Colditz are content to wait for the war to end, and the horrors of war are portrayed in a scene with an ambulance full “of wounded and dead people, men, women and children.”[10] In this way Conrad’s War gives a nod towards Len Deighton’s Bomber (1970) but in the briefing chapter, and by choosing Nuremberg as the target, it also conforms to the narrative of aircrew as victims.

Screen grab from The Brylcreem Boys.

Starring Timothy Spall and David Threlfall, the play was shown on BBC 2 in 1979 and repeated in 1981. Set in a ward in ‘Peacehaven hospital,’ six neuropsychiatric aircrew patients re-enact their last operation with the help of a frost-bitten Erk who takes on the role of their wireless operator. Once again, their target is Nuremberg. All are medical cases, but reviews and notes in the script incorrectly discuss the play in terms of LMF and PTSD.

The bombed are invisible throughout the play, and the Lancaster crew are portrayed as victims. Once in the ‘air’, just about everything that could go wrong does go wrong. They deal with fighters, flak, vapour trails, H2S on the blink, strong winds, crew members being wounded, and Scarecrows. When they reported seeing a four-engine bomber explode in mid-air aircrew were informed that they had actually seen a ‘Scarecrow’, a pyrotechnic designed to replicate a bomber exploding as a deterrent. The fictitious crew of S-Sugar argue whether the blinding flash they witnessed was a Scarecrow or not. Bruce, the flight engineer in The Brylcreem Boys exclaims, “Scarecrows be buggered. That was that Lanc exploding. He got a direct hit.”[11]  

A “Scarecrow” exploding, The Daily Express, 15 April 1944

In the late 1970s, Geoff Taylor and the veterans he contacted while researching The Nuremberg Massacre were all convinced by the Scarecrow myth.[12] However, over 40 years later, most veterans who mentioned Scarecrows in interviews recorded for the IBCC Digital Archive were aware that the Germans had no such weapon.

Rusty Waughman was a pilot on 101 Squadron. His squadron lost seven Lancasters on the Nuremberg operation. He remembered that “the Nuremberg raid left the biggest scar… mental scars w[ere] far, far greater than the physical scar and that really… sunk home when you realise what the attrition rate was.” However, he also added detail that must have originated from post war sources quoting “there were more aircrew killed on that one night than there was in the whole of… the Battle of Britain.”[13]

Like any other source, veteran interviews need to be used carefully. As Bomber Command navigator and historian, Noble Frankland pointed out, memory is unreliable.[14] In the same way that in Conrad’s War, Davies embellished on Middlebrook’s description of Fogarty’s crash landing, interviewees use external sources to inform their testimonies. John Nichol agrees that veterans add detail, context, and facts they have accumulated from books, TV and film to their narratives.[15] Aired in the days with only three TV channels and huge viewing figures, many veterans will have watched The Brylcreem Boys or read books that point out the Scarecrow myth. They were also influenced by the context at the time their memories were recorded. The history of Bomber Command is contested and is difficult heritage. It is sometimes reduced to the binary of the Dams or Dresden. The operation to attack the dams of the Ruhr is remembered as a heroic sacrifice, while the firestorm of Dresden in 1945 is used to highlight the controversies surrounding strategic bombing. When Nuremberg is remembered, aircrew suffering and loss is often used to highlight the futility of war and to counter accusations about Dresden. As part of these narratives, tales of LMF, Scarecrows and other details used in cultural retellings, like The Brylcreem Boys, are both effective and popular. Sadly, Martin Middlebrook died recently, but I’m convinced that all new interpretations and histories of the Nuremberg operation will continue to be influenced by his work.


Bowman, M (2016) Nuremberg: The Blackest Night in RAF History

Davies, A (1978) Conrad’s War

Deighton, L (1970) Bomber

Durrant. P (1979) The Brylcreem Boys

Frankland, N (1998) History at War

Iredale, W (2021) The Pathfinders

Isaacs, J The World at War (1973) Episode 12, “Whirlwind: Bombing Germany (September 1939 – April 1944)”

Middlebrook, M (1973) The Nuremberg Raid

Middlebrook, M and Everitt, C, (1985) The Bomber Command War Diaries

Nichol, J (2014) The Red Line

Taylor, G (1980) The Nuremberg Massacre

[1] David Kavanagh, “Interview with Jeff Gray,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 25, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/3411

[2] The Times, Saturday, Apr. 1, 1944, p. 5

[3] Conversation with John Nichol, 2023

[4] Middlebrook, M (1973) The Nuremberg Raid, p. 229

[5] Davies, A (1978) Conrad’s War, pp. 70-71. See also Nichol, J (2014) The Red Line

[6] Davies, A (1978) Conrad’s War, p. 49

[7] Davies, A (1978) Conrad’s War, pp. 60-61

[8] Davies, A (1978) Conrad’s War, p. 67

[9] Conversation with Andrew Davies, 2023

[10] Davies, A (1978) Conrad’s War, p. 126

[11] Durrant, P (1979) The Brylcreem Boys, p. 40

[12] Taylor, G (1980) The Nuremberg Massacre, p. 26. “Scarecrows were a product of the ingenious minds of the German psychological warfare specialists – they were flak shells which, on bursting simulated an exploding British bomber complete with blazing, dripping petroleum, flares and signal cartridges. The effect was enough to startle and dismay inexperienced crew.”

[13] Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Rusty Waughman. Two,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 25, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/3517

[14] Frankland, N (1998) History at War, p. 34

[15] Conversation with John Nichol, 2023

Remembering the Leipzig raid, 19/20 February 1944

This year sees the 80th anniversary of events that took place in 1944. We can expect the commemoration of events such as the Great Escape, D-Day and the first use of V-weapons. Some events of the strategic bombing campaign of 1944 will be remembered too. Bombers played an important part in the preparation for Overlord and the allied advance to liberate occupied Europe. Visiting the IBCC, you can discern the battle fronts advancing through France and Italy by watching the movement of the bombing line on the large animation of the bombing war in the exhibition space.

In public memory, the most commemorated (or contentious) bombing operations tend to be the ones that are perceived as the most daring, together with those with the highest death rates in the air or on the ground. Operation Chastise to breach the dams of the Ruhr, the 8th Air Force’s Schweinfurt mission, and the firestorms of Hamburg in 1943 or of Dresden in 1945 are frequently referred to. This year for RAF Bomber Command, we can expect the anniversaries of the sinking of the Tirpitz and the operation to Nuremberg to be highlighted in the press and on social media. More RAF airmen were killed on the operation to Nuremberg 30/31 March 1944 than during the four months of the Battle of Britain. On that one night, 95 aircraft were lost and 545 airmen were killed. You can read about it in several books including Martin Middlebrook’s Nuremberg Raid (1973) and John Nichol’s The Red Line (2014). I intend to blog about the way the memory of this operation has fed into the heritage and cultural memory of Bomber Command next month.

However, RAF Bomber Command lost 78 aircraft and 438 aircrew killed on their attack on Leipzig the month before, but because the aircrew losses were eclipsed by Nuremberg, I do not expect to read much about it elsewhere this year. Of course similar acts of bravery, sacrifice and shared suffering occurred during every bombing operation, in the air and on the ground, regardless of how well remembered it might be.

44 Squadron operation order for 19/20 February 1944.

On 19 February 1944, 823 aircraft took off from stations in England to bomb Leipzig. 44 Lancasters and 34 Halifaxes failed to return the following morning. Four aircraft were lost by collision and around 20 to anti-aircraft fire. The majority were shot down by Luftwaffe night fighters. The German fighter controllers sent only a few aircraft to the diversion minelaying at Kiel. Engaged by fighters as soon as they crossed the Dutch coast, the bomber stream was under attack all the way to the target.[1] Air gunner, Robert Creamer reported seeing three Lancasters shot down.[2]  

H2S map of Leipzig

Due to unexpected winds, some crews arrived before the Pathfinders and had to circle the target. Leipzig was obscured by cloud and the Pathfinders used sky marking. Over 80 USAAF aircraft were dispatched to bomb Leipzig the following day. It is impossible to differentiate between the damage caused by the British or American bombing in the subsequent reconnaissance photographs. However, for the people in snow-covered Leipzig, it didn’t really matter who dropped the bombs. Almost 1,000 people were killed on the ground.

The IBCC Digital Archive contains over 70 items about this operation. Whether in the air or on the ground, for families, it is the bombing operations their loved ones were involved in that are remembered.

The story of the crew of Lancaster LM382 deserves to be told. Pilot Officer James Catlin, and his crew, Sergeant Barry Wright, Pilot Officer F Sim (RCAF), Pilot Officer A Pragnell, Sergeant Thomas Hall, Sergeant T Powers, and Sergeant William Birch, took off at 23:40 with 21 other 166 Squadron aircraft from RAF Kirmington. After a couple of ‘uneventful’ hours in the air, they were attacked by two ME 110s over Stendal, Germany.

A page from Barry Wright’s log book. Leipzig was his 25th operation. Ten had been to Berlin.

“In the first attack the electrical system was fused and all lights in the aircraft came on. The mid-upper gunner was badly wounded and the rear turret damaged. Rear and mid-upper gunners both fired long bursts and the enemy aircraft was last seen going into a dive with smoke pouring from it… The other aircraft then came into the attack and closed to 40 yards range… Both gunners fired long bursts and hits on the enemy aircraft are claimed. The attack was then broken off.”[3]

James Catlin’s account contains more detail. After the first attack, “aileron control was lost and it was only possible to apply left rudder… the R/G [rear gunner] was heard to give a good commentary, but the pilot was unable to carry out the manoeuvres ordered.”[4] Catlin gave the order to prepare to bale out but cancelled it when it was discovered that the mid-upper gunner was unconscious and could not be removed from the turret. The bombs were jettisoned at 03:30. The wireless operator managed to put the lights out by removing the fuses and the navigator plotted a course for home. Although he was badly wounded and fainted several times from loss of blood, Barry Wright, the Flight Engineer, transferred fuel from damaged petrol tanks and kept the engines running.  They crash-landed at RAF Manston at 06:05.

Pilot, James Catlin later wrote to Wright’s mother, telling her “Now I want to be quite honest and frank when I tell you that we all owe our lives to Barry. Although wounded and on the point of collapse, he would not leave his post”. Wright spent time at RAF Hospital Halton before returning to flying in April 1944. He later received the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, Catlin was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and Sergeant William Birch the Distinguished Flying Medal.[5]

In 1944, Catlin and Wright’s experiences on the Leipzig operation was important news. It was used as morale boosting propaganda with headlines such as “CRIPPLED BOMBER, LIGHTS FULL ON, WON DOG-FIGHT.”[6] The war rhetoric carefully omitted the unsustainable 9.4% losses. However, eclipsed as it has been by the even greater RAF losses on the Nuremberg operation, unless this blog post is read, I doubt many people will think of the Leipzig operation this February.


Middlebrook, M and Everitt, C. (1985) Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference book 1939 – 1945, Viking.

The National Archives, 166 Squadron ORB Records of Events Feb 1944 AIR 27/1089/29

The National Archives, 166 Squadron ORB Summary of Events Feb 1944 AIR 27/1089/28

Wright, Barry Colin collection IBCC Digital Archive https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/show/1587

[1] Middlebrook, M and Everitt, C. (1990) Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference book 1939 – 1945, Penguin, p. 473.

[2] RA Creamer, “Robert Creamer’s Operations and Wartime Memories,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed February 6, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/26388.

[3] The National Archives, 166 Squadron ORB Summary of Events Feb 1944 AIR 27/1089/28

[4] J H Catlin, “Captain’s account of operation to Leipzig in February 1944,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed February 6, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/26765.

[5] “Extract from London Gazette 17 March 1944,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed February 6, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/26794.

[6] “Four newspaper cuttings,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed February 6, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/26768.

The bombing war in children’s literature: Gianni Rodari’s Il muratore della Valtellina

Gianni Rodari (1920 – 1980) was a notable Italian writer, famous for his prolific output in the field of children’s literature. Published in 1962, Favole al telefono (“Telephone Tales”) is a collection of fables based on an ingenious literary device. A travelling salesman phones home every day to tell a bedtime story to his daughter. Since trunk calls are expensive, all stories are concise and self-contained, with the plots based on modern everyday situations enhanced by fantasy, supernatural, or other highly imaginative elements.
Il muratore della Valtellina (the mason from Valtellina) is unusual for being one of the few examples of children literature dealing with the bombing war. This story is based on two aspects: that of the mason is entombed in concrete and becomes the sentient awareness of the building he was constructing; and the people who live in the same house who are killed when a bomb hits it.
Valtellina is a poor mountainous region in North-West Italy, from which young men have historically migrated to more developed places. In keeping with that, Mario goes to Germany to find work, but his hopes are shattered twice: initially when he died and subsequently when then building when he dies and when the building he helped constructing was destroyed. This parallelism adds poignancy to the plot.
The story is also notable for the light-hearted treatment of two horrific themes; a deadly work accident with a supernatural twist and the harsh reality of the bombing war. The disturbing contrast between the gruesome content and the dreamlike quality of Rodari’s writing makes the story the modern equivalent of some folkloric material, especially the German fables edited by the Grimm brothers which are notable for combining imaginative elements with a great deal of dark themes such as violence, viciousness, and killing. An unrecoverable corpse hidden inside a concrete pillar is also a recurring trope in organised crime fiction, which undoubtedly strikes a jarring note in children’s story.
Il muratore della Valtellina is set in Berlin and the fact that the victims are caught in their sleep implicitly suggest a RAF night-time operation. The end conveys an anti-war sentiment, although delivered from an unconventional angle. We become part of what we built or what we use: these things are not neutral but are imbued with our hopes and aspirations. Destroying them – admonishes Rodari – is destroying a part of ourselves.

The translation below has been prepared for this post

The mason from Valtellina
A young man from Valtellina, unable to find work at home, migrated to Germany and found employment as a mason in a construction site in Berlin. Mario – as he was known – was really happy: he worked hard, ate frugally, and saved what he could for marriage.
One day, while working on the foundations of a new building, a walkway collapsed. Mario fell into the concrete mould, died, and the body couldn’t be recovered. Mario indeed died, but he was unable feel pain. He was trapped inside one of pillars of the building under construction – it was a bit of a tight spot, but other than that he could think and hear as before.
Once he got used to his new state, he could even open his eyes and see the house that was growing around you. It was like he was supporting the weight of the new building, and consequently this offset the ensuing sadness of not being able to send news home, to his poor fiancée.
Hidden inside the wall, in the very heart of the structure, nobody could see him or even suspect that he was there, but Mario did not care. It rose until the roof was built, doors and windows fitted, the flats put on the market and sold, furnished, and eventually many families moved in. Mario got to know all of them, the young and the old alike.
When toddlers scuttled across the floor, practicing their walk, they tickled his hand. When young women were going out on the balconies or leaning out of the windows to see their boyfriends walking by, Mario could feel the gentle swish of their blonde hair against his cheek.
Mario listened to the families talking over their evening meals, them settling for the night and the baker rising before dawn is response to his alarm clock – the first to arise in the morning. Mario lived the highs and lows of the building making those moments his own.
One day war broke out. The whole city was bombed, and Mario felt the end was near. A bomb hit the house, which tumbled down. All that remained was a shapeless pile of debris, shattered furniture, and flattened chattel. Beneath were the families caught in their sleep. Only once both the building and the families who inhabited had died could Mario himself actually die for the house that was born out of his sacrifice died as well.

Source: Rodari, Gianni; Altan (1995): Favole al telefono. Torino: Einaudi ragazzi.
Translated by author; proofread by Claire Campbell.

Volunteering with the IBCC Digital Archive – Lynn Corrigan

Lynn Corrigan started volunteering with the IBCC in 2022. She has been involved in multiple roles, each time delivering consistently high-quality output. Lynn has kindly produced a blogpost reflecting on her experience, which we’re delighted to publish.

The IBCC Digital Archive team


Since retiring I was looking for something to do which was useful, fulfilling and which would get me out of the house. To this end I was encouraged by our son to look at volunteering with IBCC. I knew that a ‘people facing’ role, like the tour guides, was not for me but I liked the idea of learning more about the Digital Archive. After a zoom call with Dan I knew that archiving was the job for me.
My dad had served with Bomber Command and my first task was to archive his collection of photographs, followed by his log book and service records. The process began with the scanning of the front and reverse of each photograph and page. I found this a bit monotonous but luckily I had joined with another new volunteer, David, who shared this job with me. It was only later that I realised how important the scanning process is. With the scanning complete I moved on to the cropping and watermarking of the scanned images. Robin was very patient and would always leave his desk to help if I made a mistake or got in a muddle. He would check the work that I had done and would leave any amendments for me to do the following week – just like getting your homework marked but with less anxiety involved!
I was then passed on to Alex for metadata training and I soon knew that I would enjoy this role. It was interesting how my training progressed, building on what I had managed to remember from the previous week, with the help of copious notes. It has been great examining the enlarged scans of the original small black and white photographs, mainly taken in India, for the first time. Giving each image a title and then a more detailed description is a fairly disciplined task as you have to be objective and not make any assumptions. Alex has been patient and approachable and with his encouragement and gentle advice I hope to become a more useful member of the ‘metadata team’.
Having completed by dad’s collection (which is now live at  https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/admin/collections/show/2182 ) I have moved on to another one of the remaining collections. The standards we are using to archive the history of Bomber Command are really high and I do feel that I am part of a long term digital legacy. Having worked in tax, for more years that I care to remember, I am used to working to rules and set parameters which are necessary, especially when creating metadata to ensure that the material is searchable and discoverable.

Albert Frederick Nye standing by a Lancaster rear gunner’s position. Note his scarf.

Albert Frederick Nye’s scarf, which has been digitally preserved as well. Scarf and period photos point to each other, providing a richer experience.

My keyboard skills, although a bit rusty, help as do the great cakes and snacks provided by my fellow ‘Wednesday volunteers’.
I am really enjoying the tasks I have been given and think that I am making a useful contribution to the overall project and I would recommend others to join the archiving team. It has given me an opportunity to learn, use my brain in a useful way, improve my computer skills, meet new and interesting people whilst adding to a long term and worthwhile project.

Lynn Corrigan

Lancaster: Above and beyond (2022) Review

I watched this documentary film half expecting to see 100 minutes of Lancaster porn. However, to the disappointment of some viewers, this is not a film about the Lancaster. It is not even a documentary about Bomber Command – this is effectively a documentary about Bomber Command veterans and the public memory of the bombing war.

A group of aircrew and one ground crew member arranged at the rear starboard side of Lancaster PA964. Six are standing and three are sitting on the tail plane.

Fred Phillip’s crew and Lancaster https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/6707

The documentary is high quality and well-crafted; it is beautifully researched and makes good use of classic and archive films, still photographs, news report audio, voice over and veteran ‘talking heads’. The veterans’ individual stories glue the whole thing together and the quotes were skilfully used to tell the bigger story. The filming of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster is emotive and unusual in that several air-to-air shots were taken towards dusk. While the film does not directly address that the Lancaster was designed as a killing machine it does attempt to engage with the technical, military, strategic, moral and political complexities of the heritage of RAF Bomber Command and the roles the Lancaster, the veterans, and the Command played in the war.

It goes to some length to explain the context behind the aircraft’s design and use. It does a good job of describing crewing up and the different roles for each aircrew position, it discusses the changes of strategy around D-Day, considers the technical advances in radar and countermeasures and the difference between area and precision bombing. The film well describes the Hamburg, Peenemunde, Nuremberg operations, ‘Happy Valley’ and the ‘Battle of Berlin’. For many people, the cultural memory of Bomber Command is either the Dam Busters (Operation Chastise to breach the Ruhr dams) or Dresden. The film considers both.[1] In this documentary, the section on 617 Squadron’s attack on the Ruhr dams was slightly too long, even though this is the operation that underpins the Lancaster legend. However, probably because of their interviews with Johnny Johnson, the last remaining ‘Dam Buster’, it focussed on the usually under-told story of the Sorpe. In the section on Dresden, one veteran indicated that the Russians requested the attack as the city was a legitimate military target as a transport hub, but perhaps unhelpfully, the bombing was illustrated by animated archive film of Meissen porcelain figurines waltzing.

Four rows of personnel standing and sitting in front of a Lancaster. In the background, trees.

Squadron personnel in front of Lancaster https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/17107

If you are familiar with the history of the strategic bombing campaigns during the Second World War, the film ticks all the boxes you would expect, but it also repeats the tropes and clichés we’ve been hearing over the last decades. Fighter Command and the Spitfire ‘saved the country in its hour of need’, but the Lancaster was ‘the aircraft that would help Churchill win the war’. The film repeats Arthur Harris’s famous ‘they started it’ speech and highlights that 43,000 people were killed in the London Blitz.

With interviews with Neil Flanigan, a Jamaican ‘erk’, WAAF veterans, Elizabeth Mortimer-Cook, Betty Tring and Wendy Carter, and Ursula Dickinson, a German witness, the film is inclusive, however there was no mention of class difference within the RAF, and they could have done more to tell the story from both sides. For a documentary that relies so heavily on oral testimonies, it fails to address some of the issues about using these sources. The veteran testimonies are unquestioningly accepted, but as Bomber Command veteran and historian Noble Frankland admitted, eyewitnesses tend to be unreliable.[2] As in some of the IBCC Digital Archive’s interviews, the veterans retell well-rehearsed ‘crystallised narratives’ and frequently say with confidence things they could only have learned after the war.  In the film, Peter Kelsey, Ernie Holmes, and Bill Gould describe their disquiet with what they had been asked to do, but Johnny Johnson opens the film on the defensive with a comment about ‘retrospective historians’. Reinforcing the ‘powerful memory narrative of veterans as victims of neglect,’[3] almost all the veteran testimonies fit into a heroic victim framework. They discuss desperate corkscrew maneuvers away from night fighters, the ‘chop’ and ‘empty chairs at empty tables’. Although New Zealand veteran, Ron Mayhill said that the unveiling of the Bomber Command memorial in London in 2012 changed things, Jo Lancaster, John Bell, and Jack Watson talked about the lack of recognition for Bomber Command, and Rusty Waughman reiterates that Harris ‘carried the can’ for Churchill and politicians after Dresden.

Target indicators are descending from a cloudy sky; anti-aircraft fire on the left. The silhouettes of barbed wire and an utility pole are visible.

Target indicators over a POW camp https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/1905

Directorial choices including the use of pyrotechnics and the musical score subtly amplify these narratives and continue to reinforce the way Bomber Command has been remembered. Fireworks are used as a metaphor for Flak, but not for the falling target indicators from the perspective of those on the ground. The emotive air-to-air shots of the solitary Lancaster approaching the coast at dusk appears after comments ‘defences unbelievable’ and ‘suicide’. On its own and at low altitude, it appears vulnerable, and the documentary fails to convey the size and power of Bomber Command towards the end of the war when over 1000 aircraft could be operational every night.

Air-to-air photograph of ten Lancasters against backdrop of cloud and terrain, submitted with caption; “514 sqdn on way to Regensburg 20/4/45”

Ten Lancasters in Flight https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/28569

The Lancaster continues to be a symbol for Bomber Command and its veterans, and this documentary is very much a product of today. Like John Nichol’s recent book Lancaster: The forging of a very British Legend, the focus of this documentary is on the memories of the few remaining aircrew rather than the aircraft. It is a must watch for the new footage of the Lancaster in flight and for the clips of the veterans, but to be able to access the unedited interviews recorded for the film would be incredible.

Dan Ellin & Nigel Moore

[1] Ellin, D and Lawrence, C (2018) ‘After Them, The Flood: Remembering the Dam Busters and Bomber Command through Performance’. In: Staging Loss Performance as Commemoration. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 109-129.

[2] Frankland, N History at War: The campaigns of an historian, Giles de la Mare, London, 1998, p.34

[3] Hughes, H ‘Memorializing RAF Bomber Command in the United Kingdom’ Journal of War & Culture Studies 2021, p.10.

IBCC Digital Archive interviews with veterans included or credited in the film: 

Benny Goodman https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/show/514

Bill Gould https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/10832

Bob Leedham https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/11304

Cecil Chandler https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/10736

Charles Clark https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/show/229

Daphne Brownlie https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/8364

David Fraser https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/5527

Ernie Holmes  https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/11118

George Dunn https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/show/510

Gerry Norwood https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/11429

Hal Gardner https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/10823

Harry Hodgson https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/11113

Jack Watson https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/11760

Jan Black https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/show/333

Jo Lancaster https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/show/551

Johnny Johnson https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/show/252

Ken Johnson https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/show/546

Len Manning https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/3448

Ron Mayhill  https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/17900

Rusty Waughman https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/show/348

Tom Rogers https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/items/show/10331