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Book Review – Luck of a Lancaster

By Gordon Thorburn; Pen & Sword Books; 205 pages

The title of this immensely readable book accurately and quite starkly describes the contents but hardly does justice to the story told between the covers. Author Gordon Thorburn’s earlier book Bombers First and Last detailed the World War II operations of RAF Bomber Command’s 9 Squadron. In his new book Luck of a Lancaster, Thorburn’s subject again is 9 Squadron, but this time he concentrates on two subjects – Avro Lancaster Mark I W4964 – call letters WS-J – and the men of the squadron who flew in it against the Axis in World War II.

 “Whatever you were flying, in the front line, heavy-bomber squadrons in 1943 and 1944, the odds against doing a full first tour of thirty trips were much worse than even money – more like three to four to one against,” Thorburn writes. “Out of every five pilots, five flight engineers, five navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators, mid-upper gunners and tail gunners who crewed an RAF heavy bomber, the maths said one would live through it and four would die or, perhaps, become POWs.”

The Avro Lancaster is one of the legends of World War II. Able to carry a massive bomb load (14,000 pounds, up to 22,000 pounds when modified) at ranges up to 2,530 miles, it flew more missions with a lower loss rate than any of the other British “heavies” – the Short Stirling, Handley Page Halifax, Avro Manchester, and Vickers Wellington – while flying as many operations, as Thorburn points out, as all of the others put together.

Luck of a Lancaster

Luck of a Lancaster, by Gordon Thorburn; Pen & Sword Books; 205 pages

Through crew logs, interviews, and in-depth research of public records, Thorburn brings to life many of the 244 crewmembers who flew aboard “J-Johnny,” and drives home to the reader the true human cost of the terrible losses suffered by Bomber Command during the war. The book is well illustrated throughout with more than 100 black and white photographs, reproductions of logbook pages, sketches, and even contemporary advertisements.

While the book is not a history of Bomber Command or its air war over Germany, Thorburn vividly describes what it was like for crews to fly the extremely hazardous night bombing missions in which Bomber Command specialized. Even in 1,000 bomber raids, each bomber flew essentially alone through the freezing sky and darkness, tracked by radar, shot at by the greatest concentrations of flak guns the world would ever see, hunted by increasingly sophisticated German night fighters, and at the mercy of the often atrocious weather as well as the inherent dangers of flying itself. Of the 5,850 Lancasters delivered to RAF Bomber Command, 3,380 were lost to all causes. J-Johnny flew 107 operations, most at night over the German heartland, a few over France and Italy, and even one against the German battleship Tirpitz (where its bomb was the only one to score a direct hit on the ship), and against all odds, survived the war. But 103 of the men who flew aboard W4964 did not.

W4964 Luck of a Lancaster

In one of many photos within Luck of a Lancaster, Flying Officer A. E. Manning and his crew gather by  W4964 ‘WS-J’ shortly after their return to Bardney, Lincolnshire, in the early hours of Jan. 6, 1944, after raiding Stettin, Germany. From left: Navigator, Flying Officer James Hearn, Manning, tail gunner Flight Sgt. “Pinky” Hawler, mid-upper gunner Sgt. John Zammit, flight engineer Sgt. Bill Burkitt, radio operator Flight Lt. A.G. Newbound. Just visible over Manning’s right shoulder is bomb aimer Flight Sgt. Peter Warywoda. Burkitt, Hearn, Warywoda and Zammit would perish along with Manning in Lancaster LM430 WS-B, during a raid on Frankfurt a little over two months later. Imperial War Museum photo

“Whatever you were flying, in the front line, heavy-bomber squadrons in 1943 and 1944, the odds against doing a full first tour of thirty trips were much worse than even money – more like three to four to one against,” Thorburn writes. “Out of every five pilots, five flight engineers, five navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators, mid-upper gunners and tail gunners who crewed an RAF heavy bomber, the maths said one would live through it and four would die or, perhaps, become POWs.”

While Thorburn reports on each of the missions flown by W4964 in Luck of a Lancaster, he also includes the experiences and fate of all those who had crewed J-Johnny and gone on to other aircraft in the squadron, including the adventures in occupied Europe of those lucky enough to escape a burning aircraft.

In a few cases those stories are told by the men who experienced them and lived to tell the tale. In many more instances, sadly, Thorburn has had to piece events together from logbooks and surviving witnesses to tell the very human stories of the flesh and blood men who flew aboard one lucky Lancaster, a unique assemblage of aluminum and steel and thousands of moving parts, that somehow survived the war when so many of them did not. In doing so, Thorburn has created a tribute to RAF Bomber Command, the Lancaster, and most importantly to the men who flew and fought and died more than seven decades ago.