My Dad was a rear-gunner in world war two. He flew mostly in Liberators (during the war) and Lancasters (immediately after), but according to his log book he also went up in nine other types.
I’ve been reading about a recent excavation project on Salisbury Plain, when soldiers and archaeologists examined a Battle of Britain Spitfire crash site (the pilot had safely bailed out). It reminded me of one of the first British Archaeology’s I edited, back in 2004.
It featured enthusiasts digging up plane crash-sites (not something that impressed me very much at the time). Simon Esterson and I chose an old Spitfire photo for the cover, which he made into a really great design. To show how long ago it was in publishing terms, we had to scan a print provided by the Imperial War Museum, and the Royal Mail train carrying the package got stuck in snow between Swindon and London, causing a minor panic.
It turned out my Dad wasn’t very impressed with the digging either. I got a letter from him addressed to The Editor, which I put into the next edition of British Archaeology:
“The wording on the cover of your March issue ‘They died for us, Now we dig them up’, as well as much of the writing upon ‘Who owns our dead’, has disturbed me.
“I was an airgunner during the 2nd World War. If I had been buried beneath the waves, or buried beneath the sod, I would have wanted my body to have rested in peace, my soul having flown.
“I see no good reason for disturbing the serenity and calm of those buried, say, during the last 100 years, when records and communications can tell us all we need to know.
“Roger Pitts, Chichester”
Roger died late last year, aged 90. He didn’t talk much about the war, in common with many of his contemporaries. But now I have a small tin with a selection of prints and papers, and his log book.
He summarised his flying across the pages above; he was in No 40 Squadron RAF, based in Egypt. The chart includes his training as a rear-gunner, bombing missions over Italy and ferrying work in the months after war ended, while he waited to return home to the farm in Sussex he’d left in 1942. He’d been 18 or 19 then, and was expected to grow food and not enlist – farming was a “reserved occupation”. However, a close friend was killed flying a Spitfire, and a cousin was a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III having been shot down piloting a Lancaster. He felt unable to stay put. He volunteered, and the Air Force eagerly took him on.
At the back of the log is a list of the planes he went up in, in flying order. It’s an extraordinary catalogue of experiences, of a time when aircraft were not hotels with changing scenery, but engineered frames that defied gravity with every rivet and curved metal plate – so long, my Dad warned me before my first flying lessons, as the pilot kept up the air speed, held the plane at the right angle and the engines at the right throttle, pumping and hammering from nose to tail through every component and passenger. It is an insight into what has come to feel almost commonplace, an air war that for most of us today is yet beyond imagination. I made Airfix models of a Wellington and a Lancaster when I was a kid, and I remember a friend making a Flying Fortress. I had no idea that my Dad had flown in the real things.
Avro Anson, used to train pilots for flying multi-engined bombers, and to train the other members of a bomber’s aircrew – navigators, wireless operators, bomb aimers and air gunners. It was the RAF’s first monoplane with a retractable undercarriage.
Vickers Wellington, a long range medium bomber built with a geodesic construction method devised by Barnes Wallis: as a result, wrote Roger, “very safe… she would not break up easily on crashing and would float for hours if brought down on water, unlike the Liberators [in which he flew operations across the Mediterranean] which would break up and sink within seconds.”
Consolidated B-24 Liberator, an American heavy bomber – a more advanced version of the better known Flying Fortress, but said to be harder to fly. Roger used to say that he saw more fatalities during take-offs and landings with inexperienced pilots than on active service. One of the craft in his log is noted a week before his flight as having “Bounced on landing, stalled and spun into ground, Foggia Main”. After his first operational flight from Foggia (a bombing raid over Italy), Roger noted that the squadron’s only loss “was a poor landing by one Liberator which broke away the rear gunner’s turret with the gunner inside”.
Dakota, military version of the DC-3 airliner, used to carry troops and freight, for air-dropping supplies and paratroops, for towing gliders and for casualty evacuation.
Avro Lancaster, the RAF’s main heavy bomber, designed by Roy Chadwick and powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlins.
Boulton Paul Defiant, an interceptor aircraft with a rear-facing gun turret set behind the pilot, found to be most effective at night when it was less vulnerable to fighter attack. It was also used in gunnery training, towing targets and air-sea rescue.
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, heavy bomber flown mostly by the USAAF, but with an undistinguished service in the RAF early in the war.
Fairchild Argus (a British version of the US Model 24), flown mostly with the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying aircrew. The photo at Gaza shows Roger Pitts on the right in characteristic wartime pose. One of his major responsibilities in Egypt was as Welfare Officer for his squadron, which included listening to the men’s worries and running all the sports activities. (He later labelled this photo a Lysander, a similar plane but with a three-bladed propeller; the Lysander is not in his logbook.)
Percival Proctor, a wireless-operator trainer and communications aircraft.
Martin Baltimore, a light attack bomber also used for reconnaissance, originally built in the US but made for the RAF in Britain.