Flying on Two Wings and a Prayer


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Book Reviewer
Wasn't sure whether to put this in here, the Book Club or the History & Militaria Forums, but I guess here is appropos. From today's Torygraph:

Flying on two wings and a prayer

Geoffrey King defied death on 50 missions over enemy territory – the story of his Lancaster bomber forms the centrepiece of a new book. He talks to Julian Flanagan about its unbeatable crew.

By Julian Flanagan
Published: 7:00AM BST 01 Jul 2010

Geoffrey King still seems a country boy, even at 88. His father handled farm horses, the family living in a thatched two-up, two-down, before moving to a village council house in Manuden, Essex. His accent is a rustic seesaw, he looks straight back with cornflower blue eyes, unflappable, and has a jocular calm about him. It helped him through 50 Lancaster bomber raids: the chances of surviving 30 were only 25 per cent. His memories illuminate Bomber Flight Berlin, Mike Rossiter's absorbing account of Bomber Command's war through King and his crewmates' eyes.

King turns off a country and western CD in the conservatory of his bungalow, and settles in an armchair. He volunteered for the RAF as a flight mechanic in April 1940, moved to aircrew in 1941, and was commissioned a pilot officer in January 1943. King was a bomb aimer. Early in 1943, he stood in a hanger, surrounded by aircrew forming themselves into Wellington bomber crews. King had already befriended ''Curly'' Davis, a navigator from Manchester. "All the racket was going on around us," says King. "This young Canadian came over and said, 'Well, you sons of bitches, you'll be flying with me'. And that's how we met our skipper." His name was George Laing.

Wireless operator Vince Day and rear-gunner ''Tommy'' Thomas joined days later. That summer they trained intensively on Lancasters for night bombing. Flight engineer ''Jock'' Burns and mid-gunner ''Flash'' Green completed the crew. "Curly was quiet, and a damn good navigator. George was as cool as a cucumber. Loved the ladies, he was a devil in that respect. Vince, this little cockney, he was full of life. Tommy was a typical Welshman but very quiet. Jock, quiet as a mouse, a real staid Scotsman. Our Australian, Flash, was quietest of all. They were all quiet, unless we were having a booze-up. But they were few and far between."

On September 23 at 57 Squadron, RAF East Kirkby, Lincolnshire, they collected their parachutes, sandwiches, flasks and chocolate, left their personal effects in wire lockers and boarded their Lancaster for their first mission: a 600-bomber raid on Mannheim.

What, I ask, was the balance between fear and excitement?

"I don't think there was any fear. You would never have done it in that state of mind. A bit of tension maybe during take-off because you've got a fair old bomb load. But I can't say any of our chaps showed distress. We just gelled."

As novices, they were in the fifth wave. "There was very little anti-aircraft fire and the whole thing appeared a piece of cake. I'm afraid that was a one-off." Raids on Hanover followed, then Bochum, Hagen, Munich. King lay in the Lancaster's perspex nose, behind his bomb sight. "When the cross coincides with the target indicator, you press the old bomb tit." From his position, "You could see it all, the exploding shells, you could smell the smoke, the fumes of shells bursting."

On November 11 came Berlin, and "A whole sky full of anti-aircraft fire. I thought 'How in hell's name are we going to get through this lot?' As we went into our first bombing run, on our starboard side were two aircraft burning from stem to stern."

Nine more Berlin raids followed. "On one we had just gone through the target when we heard this massive explosion. [A Lancaster blowing up.] We ended up just falling out of the sky", into the vacuum created by the explosion. "I ended up with my backside against the front turret."

Describing all this, King sits calmly, hands gently clasped.

Luftwaffe night fighters hunted planes outside the bomber stream. "You saw them attacking other aircraft. You just hoped and prayed they wouldn't attack you." Returning from Berlin on December 23, they lost two of their four engines. "George said did we want to bail out? I said, 'Let's go on'. I didn't fancy being a PoW and another thing: it is obvious some of our men were killed by Germans if they did bail out. And could you blame them, when you consider what we did their cities?"

Did he regret what the RAF were doing?

King pauses, says evenly: "Not really. You accepted it as a necessity at the time. We were doing what we had volunteered to do."

Has he regretted it since?

"The main thought I've had at times was the unfortunate thing of killing women and children. The destruction was so wholesale."

How did the crew survive that war?

"We never stayed on camp if we could get away. So many [on camp] used to get depressed or pissed. I think it was probably tension. But it never seemed to affect us." Vince kept them laughing, there was dancing at Boston's Glyder Drome, pubs, they kept busy, their confidence grew. "The whole thing revolved around the capability of the crew. And our attitude. You had faith and you had luck, 50:50."

Faith in each other?

"Yes, and in the fact somebody was up there keeping an eye on us. I was convinced. Although I was not that religious, I had that faith." For luck, King always wore the same belt. "Curly had a soft toy sitting on his nav table. George always thought he'd got a friend, who'd been shot down over the North Sea. He believed that chap was there, forewarning him of danger."

Bomber Command lost 711 aircraft between January and March, 1944. But the crew flew on – Leipzig, Frankfurt, Essen – some raids on consecutive nights. When their 30-mission tour ended on April 11, they immediately volunteered for another. "We wanted to get the second tour over with. You never knew who you were going to be crewed up with for the next tour. It was the most practical way of survival."

They joined 97 Squadron at Conningsby, pathfinders marking targets with flares. Tommy's night vision had gone. Dickie Polson, long cigarette holder clamped in mouth, a 108-mission veteran, replaced him.

After D-Day, they raided Caen, Chateau Rault, Culmont-Chalindrey. They returned from L'Isle-Adam pocked with 50 holes. Over Konigsberg, "the sky was as bright as day with searchlights", as they fought off two Focke-Wulfs, King firing the front turret machine guns for the first time. Finally, on September 19, 1944, their 20-mission tour ended. All that remained was boozy celebration with their ground crew in Boston, and a sad dispersal.

Geoffrey King, now a flight lieutenant with a DFC, returned to 57 Squadron as an instructor. There he met Mary. "She was in the WAAF. She was quite a gal." They married after six weeks, and had two daughters.

Was the end of the war a relief?

"Never really gave it a thought."

Was adapting to peace, in a farm management company, difficult?

"Not at all."

The crew kept in touch, with phone calls, visits, Christmas cards. Which was his best friend? "They were all our best friends. Oh yes, nothing in it."

'Bomber Flight Berlin' by Mike Rossiter (Bantam Press) is available from Telegraph Books for £14.99 plus £1.25 p&p. Call 08448711515 or visit

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