21 December 2016

Images of War: Veteran Lancs - Norman Franks

Adam Purcell is a young professional working in the Australian aviation industry and absolutely committed to recording the history of Bomber Command however he can. This fascination came from discovering, as a child, that his great uncle ‘Jack’ had been a Lancaster navigator with No. 467 Squadron. Adam’s research leads him far and wide as he pieces together the story of his uncle’s crew and this has grown to interviewing Bomber Command veterans on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre. Be sure to check out his blog Something Very Big. Few people live and breathe Bomber Command like Adam, hardly any his age, so he is the perfect guest reviewer for this title which, incidentally, would make a decent companion to Franks’ earlier studies in this area, Arms & Armour’s Claims to Fame – The Lancaster from 1994, and the 2015 revised edition of the same from Grub Street, Ton-Up Lancs.

The average Lancaster bomber, flying operations during the war, could expect to return from about twenty trips before crashing or being shot down. So it’s no surprise to learn that out of more than 7,000 examples of arguably Avro’s most famous aeroplane, just 35 are known to have flown on more than 100 raids. In Veteran Lancs, the prolific and widely respected Norman Franks shares the stories of all of those centenarian Lancasters, while also featuring a number of others that ‘almost’ made it to the ton.

The book, a mid-sized paperback of 166 pages, is packed full of facts and figures, and there’s no doubt Franks has done a lot of research. He follows the careers of some pilots, sometimes going beyond the time when they were flying the aircraft concerned, and even names members of groundstaff where they are known. Some of the featured aircraft – like R5868 ‘S-Sugar’ or EE139 ‘Phantom of the Ruhr’ – are quite famous, but most of them are far less well known. Therein lies both the strength and limitation of this book. Including the less-famous aircraft tells a part of the Bomber Command story that isn’t as widely known, and that can only be a good thing. It follows, however, that there is also less information available on some of them. What sources there are sometimes conflict about exactly how many operations some aircraft flew on, and there’s occasional uncertainty about which trip was the hundredth, a legacy of the variable quality of operational record keeping on wartime squadrons. Franks is mostly quite open about what he has and has not been able to definitively determine, but in some places he has fallen into the trap of supposing and assuming, where there perhaps wasn’t quite enough detail in the records. He uses vague sentences like “…no doubt because she was starting to become unreliable and a bit ‘dodgy’” or “after a bit of a refit”. It sometimes reads as filler.

Veteran Lancs feels a little repetitive, with each aircraft profile following much the same routine – this is always a difficulty with what is essentially a book of lists. Perhaps in an effort to break up the monotony, Franks has split his book into chronological chapters. There are large sections of text that each cover, say, half-a-dozen Lancs, and then several pages of photographs featuring each of those aircraft before the next chapter begins. This brings another slight annoyance: having conquered big slabs of unbroken text, by the time you reach the photos you’ve forgotten which aircraft belongs to which. It would have been less confusing, I think, if the photos had been spread out among the relevant sections of the text.

The book is billed as a “photographic record”, so it’s the images themselves that are perhaps of most interest. While Franks has included several well-known photos, he has also drawn extensively from a very large collection of images that have never before been published. The sheer variety is a strength of the book, and there are some outstanding photos among them. Most of the photos appear to come out of the author’s own collection, which he notes has been assembled over several decades, and the final section (a potted collection of nineteen ‘almost-centenarians’) is particularly interesting. In places the reproduction, which is just on the standard paper stock, is not of the most impressive quality, but bearing in mind the varying condition of original wartime prints, it may well be that this was as good as was possible.

Veteran Lancs, as a straight record of the 35 highest-scoring Lancasters, is a reasonable effort. It’s not a particularly exciting book to read, but it does illustrate the hitherto-untold stories of several very high-achieving bombers and their crews, and for that it deserves credit.

ISBN 978-1-47384-726-2

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