The Crew is an accessible popular history, this is the story of Jim Coman’s crew and in particular of bomb aimer, Ken Cook (who, as last survivor, Price interviewed personally). Price’s account of the war as experienced by a Lancaster crew from 97 Squadron brings their experience to life. However, this read has real heft. The story of Coman’s crew is prefaced by a potted history of the RAF and, indeed, aviation generally and it sits nicely within the context of the war and Bomber Command. While greatly admiring the personal stories, the sacrifice and courage of the men, Price also tackles the morality and tactical wisdom of the air war.
On a visit to Brooklands Museum in Surrey, 2012, I met a guide showing visitors around a Wellington bomber, a dapper gent in a blazer and beret, with a briefcase under his arm. We chatted, he talked about the plane, a while later I was having a tea in the cafe when he came over, asked if I had a few minutes, I did. He unzipped the briefcase, first thing out was a photograph, a young man in RAF uniform. He was the dapper gent’s brother, he was twenty-two, a flight engineer on a Lancaster, he flew missions over Germany, he was shot down and killed in a raid in 1943. That’s a story that will stay with me, I’ve always wanted to know more and that’s partly why this book piqued my interest.
The crews of Bomber Command were drawn from all over commonwealth. Price describes them as: ‘ordinary men who did extraordinary things.’ Everyone of a certain age has an image of the Dam Busters in their head – a remarkable example of ingenuity, bravery and audacious, but this book makes it clear that doesn’t reflect the reality of life on a bomber crew. Targets were unsophisticated, missions mundane in their detail. The average experience was one of boredom (cold, cramped, monotonous) and terror (being shot at whilst inside a flying box with little chance of escape). It was claustrophobic and uncomfortable. The Elsan toilet was a metal barrel with clips, which, in theory, held the lid down. Ken cooks remembers:
“There was a time when I needed to use the Elsan and found that I had become frozen to the seat.”
Flying several hours to drop a pay load and return home, if lucky. The Lancaster crews never saw Germany, or even Germans up close, that must have been dislocating and difficult to deal with.
These days we are much more aware of the concerns about the morality of the allied bombing campaign and doubts over it’s effectiveness. Price believes that Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris underestimated the German resilience and spirit in the face of the bombing campaign. The accuracy of the bombing missions and the terrifying cost in crew losses are also controversial matters, this isn’t a polemic but these matters are raised in the book. Price is at pains to separate the experience of the men from the strategic command of the war.
“Bomber Command were prepared to countenance 5 per cent losses per raid….not just sacrificing the lives of its highly trained crews, it was exposing those who survived to psychological damage that would last for decades later.”
Flying bombers was a dangerous occupation, 55,573 RAF airmen were killed during the war, a 44.4% casualty rate. Way higher than any ground battle or other services role, including the operatives of the SOE in occupied territory. How did the men deal with this? Some were fatalists, others thought themselves invincible, but the majority, Ken Cook among them, measured success by getting home after a raid.
Ken Cook flew in an Avro Lancaster with six other airmen, the pilot Jim Coman, an Australian whom he described as a; ‘bluff, a straight-talking disciplinarian.’ From Autumn 1943 to early summer 1944 Cook and the crew flew forty-five missions; Berlin, Karlsruhe, Essen, Nuremberg among them. Their last on the 15th June was to Châtellerault, near Poitiers in western France to bomb a railway line to prevent fuel supplies reaching panzer divisions in Normandy.
Ken Cook was born in April 1923, by his early teens the optimism of the twenties had given way to the pessimism of the 30s and the belief that war was coming. Dan Bowes navigator was also born in 1923, Roy Woollford, radio operator, in 1922. The crew changed during Ken’s time in the air, not everyone joined at the same time as Ken (George Waddis, Jock Bolland, Ken Randle).
In 1940, Ken Cook signed up at the RAF aircrew reception centre at Lords. Under the Arnold Scheme he was one of 7785 British pilots trained by the US Air Force (a fascinating story in the book). Like 3391 others, Ken failed pilot school. Returning via Ontario to become a bomb aimer. In June 1943 he took his first flight in a Wellington trainer, joining 97 squadron and an active crew in September, early bombing raids included Munich and Kassel.
The Crew is timely, and this history is now a matter of record rather than memory for the most part. I tend to agree with Price, there are many questions about the morality of the bombing campaign and it’s efficacy but these men demonstrated extraordinary courage that deserves to be remembered.
David Price’s fascination with aviation is a life long obsession, his expertise has seen him write for many newspapers and magazines. If this book grabs you to may also like A Bomber Crew Mystery: The Forgotten Heroes of 388th Bombardment Group (2016).
Paul Burke 4/4
The Crew by David Price
Apollo 9781789542707 hbk Jan 2020