It is the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe day. In Britain things are a little less frenetic than they have been for other recent anniversaries such as the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the 100th anniversary of the declaration of World War 1 – in part because of the General Election.
It is a time to reflect.
Sadly for many, the participation of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Avro Lancaster in any commemorations has been stymied by a fire in Number 4 engine. Fortunately, although airborne, it was able to get home to Coningsby where the flames were put out and the long, arduous task of assessing and repairing the damage can begin.
Here at the S&G, these major anniversaries are often a reminder of the men who flew out in bombers. In the early part of the war, losses were borderline outrageous as crews flew in outdated or outclassed machinery such as the Fairey Battle, Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley and Handley Page Hampden.
Even by January 1943, when the mighty Lancaster and Mosquito handed huge advances to their crews, tour lengths were in the main set still at 200 hours and the chance of completing one tour was 16% in the heavy bomber Squadrons, 18% for medium bomber Squadrons, and 13% for twin-engine intruder and bomber reconnaissance Squadrons.
Those sort of odds hardly bear thinking about – and in many cases they were significantly worse. Flying a Bristol Blenheim in 1940-41 was undoubtedly the job with the worst prospects of all. Often being deployed on anti-shipping duties over the Atlantic and Mediterranean, they would fly at mast height over the open sea, leap-frog the target through a blizzard of anti-aircraft fire and simply hope for the best.
With no margin for error, battle damage inevitably meant crashing. If in rare cases the crash itself was survivable, the odds of rescue were slender to say the least.
The war diary of 107 Squadron based in Malta recalls that in the course of 18 days during October 1941 a total of 21 missions was flown. Total sorties numbered 88 with the loss of five aircraft, all on anti-shipping strikes (two lost by collision and the other three to enemy action),making the loss rate on these sorties one in seven.
One pilot of that time, Ron Gillman, wrote a very moving account of his Mediterranean tour in the book The Ship Hunters, in which he describes two months with 107 Squadron in Malta after which his battle-scarred aircraft was the last remaining of the entire squadron by the time he left the island.
With that in mind, therefore, here is a little film of the Blenheim with which to mark today’s anniversary.