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A profound respect for the RAF aircrews of the Second World War led aviation historian Pat Cunningham DFM to record the experiences of ten men who volunteered to risk their lives on air operations, for some time Britain’s only effective method of striking back. These young men came from disparate backgrounds but, having qualified in their specialist categories, were skilfully merged as interdependent crew members.
A staggering 8,305 of the 55,573 men killed in RAF Bomber Command alone died in accidents, showing that enemy action was only one of the hazards aircrews faced. Others included technical malfunctions, notwithstanding that each had implicit faith in their supporting ground personnel. The constant pressure to get aircrews operational saw many completing the required thirty bombing sorties with less than 500 hours’ experience. Even so they were required to navigate over hostile, blacked-out terrain, in
uncertain weather, and with few radio aids, in machines packed with highly volatile substances. Hardly surprising then that fear was a concomitant of the job. ‘I was scared throughout every single operation,’ says one, ‘and if any operational aircrew member says different I’d say they were either liars, or that age has mellowed their memories.’
Bomber Command experiences over Central Europe, feature largely, but also included are maritime operations, to furnish the all important meteorological reports; two-crew airborne-interception-radar sorties; virtual suicide attacks by outmoded torpedo bombers against enemy capital ships; operations in support of the Chindits’ Long Range Penetration Force in Burma and German-POW incarceration that culminated with a three month death march ahead of the advancing Soviets.
The crew is the essential element throughout, yet as the narratives show, not all gelled seamlessly. Surprisingly however, individual traits actually strengthened the bond and gave every aircrew its special quality.
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