20 July 2021

Luck and a Lancaster - Harry Yates DFC

Well, I'm still struggling to find the time to get reviews written, despite the increasing stack of finished books accumulating on one end of the desk. I am planning a return to 'Monday review writing' but that assumes I can continue to manage the manuscript edit deadlines. It is good to be busy! Anyway, I've pulled a guest reviewer out of my quiver and he's pointed himself at a very worthwhile target. Robert Brokenmouth, intrepid local music scene reporter, auction house denizen, and raconteur, has appeared on ABR before as a reviewer but, more importantly, as the editor of new, annotated editions of the Australian bomber aircrew classics 'They Hosed Them Out' and '101 Nights'. His work on these titles produced two of the greatest additions to wartime aircrew literature of the 21st century. Therefore, it is a pleasure to publish his review of a title from the end of last century, from the end of a decade that was arguably the high watermark in terms of wartime memoirs seeing the light of day. Andy Wright.

Originally published in 1999 by Airlife (and then Wrens Park and Crowood Park), Luck and a Lancaster tells the oft-repeated tale of a young man who wanted to fly and ended up in Bomber Command ... but the writing, the vivid nature of the author’s recall, and his overall story, commands attention.

Yates takes us through his initial training in 1940, through his eighteen-month unwanted stint as a flying instructor, and then op by op to the end of his tour with No. 75 Squadron on 30 December 1944. It is ironic in so many ways that Yates, with his heart set on Beaufighters or Mosquitos, insisted on getting himself transferred to ops and ended up on Lancs in Bomber Command. Luck?

Running through it all is his reflection on luck, as if it is some sort of tangible imp peering down at us and occasionally cackling. Chance plays a huge part in warfare; most soldiers take part in only a few battles in their career; but almost any bombing operation was effectively a battle in itself. As aviation buffs know, a tour of operations was ... thirty battles. 

If you survived.

Yates has a story to tell and he gets on with it, occasionally contrasting related events with observations of history which are well known today, but were unknown to the airmen at the time. His easy to digest style means you power through the book, occasionally pausing to gasp in disbelief or horror (Yates’s crew had an eventful tour, to say the least). Despite the passage of the years, we are gripped by a matter-of-fact narrative of a crew in the midst of powerful events and a determination for Yates and his men to survive.

One thing which strikes me on this reading (my fourth or fifth) is the large number of people we should know more about, but simply don’t. They either haven’t written a book or haven’t left sufficient detail of themselves to survive into the digital age. Squadron Leader Jack Leslie is a perfect example.

Luck and a Lancaster does not have the bitterness of Gibson, the naivete of Cheshire, or the reflectiveness of Charlwood, but its measured, tense pace, and contrast between the young man who the old man remembers, means this book belongs on your shelf. 

Nutshell? Forgotten classic.