In the cold light of day war is about statistics. Lose a smaller percentage of your force than your opponent over a period of time and odds are you’ll emerge victorious. It’s a numbers game. Strongest, fastest, heaviest … deadliest. Deadliest. That’s what it really comes down to. The best machine is nothing without the people who operate it. It is the people who make the sacrifice. It is the people who make the stories and the history. It is the people who make the numbers.
The percentages of Bomber Command are well known yet they will never lose their impact. Generally, of 125,000 aircrew, 46 percent were killed and 14 percent survived being shot down. Sixty percent, therefore, did not return home as they left (a clumsy way of putting it considering those wounded but you know what I mean). These are figures we expect to see in relation to the trenches of WW1.
Many of the sons of those who served in the trenches would spend their wartime career flying over the same hallowed ground in machines that could hardly have been dreamt of 25 years earlier. This ‘new’ form of warfare, though, exacted the same terrible toll. Like those in the trenches, the men of Bomber Command came from almost every corner of the world. When the war ended, the survivors – such as they were as not one remained unaffected – returned home to countries trying to rebuild and a public that, largely, would never understand the job they had to do and the camaraderie, the brotherhood, the family, that was a bomber crew.
The stories of these crews are seemingly endless, happily (after all there’s at least 120,000-plus out there!), and the market is certainly well-populated (again, happily) with books by or about the men of Bomber Command. The ‘anthology approach’ is certainly not rare in this world and the very nature, and number, of bomber crews lends itself to this style of story-telling. However, given the ‘melting pot’ that was the bomber crew, telling the story of an Australian often involves also telling the story of a Canadian, a couple of Poms and a Kiwi or two among others! So, Peter Rees, author of the new book Lancaster Men, certainly had his work cut out to maintain his focus. It is no surprise he has as, over the past decade, this experienced author has turned his attention to groups of Australian servicemen and women who, at times, appear to slip from the collective psyche.
It is hard to imagine more than 10,000 men being ‘forgotten’ especially when they lost roughly 35 percent of their number, but, with the abandonment of the Command as a whole by politicians distancing themselves from previously ‘sanctioned’ raids like Dresden and a return home that was greeted with monikers like ‘Jap dodgers’, it is understandable. Many would have wanted to have been forgotten given this disregard for their achievements. A little more than 25 years later, Australian Vietnam veterans received similar treatment and one can’t help but think what pain must have been dredged up in the old bomber men.
Lancaster Men is nothing out of the ordinary. It tells good stories of fine men and, as expected from this author, it does it well. It is, however, a very important work. Produced as a large, well-illustrated 448-page paperback by a publisher with an enviable reputation and an established market, LM is very accessible. It is written for the ‘everyman’ not the hard-core specialist aviation enthusiast. This is a book that deserves to be widely read and, dare I say it, part of the curriculum of many schools. The numbers mean a lot but only if they are remembered for what they really are - people, not statistics. Lancaster Men does that and will find a wide audience of appreciative and respectful readers.