ONLY BIRDS AND FOOLS

YOU DON'T SEE too many wartime biographies written by Flight Engineers, so this book gives a different slant on life in a Lancaster Squadron between 1942 and the war's end.

YOU DON'T SEE too many wartime biographies written by Flight Engineers, so this book gives a different slant on life in a Lancaster Squadron between 1942 and the war's end. The manuscript was written in 1945, to preserve the author's memories of a seminal time in his life, and it has only now been brought to a greater audience by his son after Norman Ashton's death.

The first two thirds of the book paint a good picture of what life was like for the men who flew in bombers, knowing that each take off might not lead, in due course, to a safe landing. It is written in a style very much of its era, one that might not appeal to everyone, as it comes across rather like the old wartime propaganda books with jolly good RAF types doing their darndest to see off the filthy Hun, and many quotes from Shakespeare's Henry V.

Indeed, Norman Ashton glosses over the realities of life and death at the time and his viewpoint remains optimistic throughout. Maybe this is because he managed to get through 54 missions without a scratch, something of a rarity at a time when bomber crews measured their lives in days rather than weeks. He did lose some close friends along the way, although even then he remained hopeful that they might be prisoners despite seeing Lancasters blown up before his eyes on each raid.

His first tour, as a Sergeant Flight Engineer (the back up pilot in a Lanc), was with 103 Squadron, bombing the Ruhr valley and Berlin during 1943. Following a period as an instructor, during which he obtained a commission, he flew his final tour with 156 Pathfinder Squadron. This was a very different job, with all crew members being expected to fill in for each other in the event of injury. The important thing was for the Pathfinder to do its job and do it well, without which the main bomber force could not bomb accurately.

The final third of the book deals mainly with a trip to Brazil with Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris during the summer of 1945. Whilst interesting in some ways, particularly the contrast in lifestyles between Britain and the Americas at the end of the war, this seems a bit like looking at someone’s holiday pictures.

My only real gripe is that I felt the book needed a glossary. Norman Ashton presumably expected people at the time to understand the RAF jargon, although even he admits it was like a foreign language. Despite having read many books on this subject there are some terms here which had me diving into my reference books, and I can imagine some people would find it incomprehensible. Ernie Hoblyn.

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