It is June 1944. You are the dorsal turret gunner on a Lancaster bomber carrying out a night-time raid against the rail yard in Cambrai, France. Your aircraft has just been raked by cannon fire from a German Ju88 night fighter that had closed in stealthily from 7 o’clock. Two of your Lanc’s engines are out, and flames fed by hydraulic fluid ruptures are engulfing the aft end of the fuselage. The commander gives the order to bail out¹, and you are ready to jump, but you see that the rear turret gunner is trapped in his position and unable to free himself because the hydraulics are gone and the door is jammed. You are all of 27 years of age. What do you do?
If you are Warrant Officer Andrew Mynarski, you suspend your own escape and make your way aft, beating back the flames in an attempt to free your crew mate, who is otherwise doomed to crash to earth inside the flaming wreck. As you work frantically with an axe to release your friend — ultimately to no avail — your own flight suit and parachute catch on fire. Seeing, finally, that it is hopeless, you salute your trapped comrade and jump.
How do we know that any of this happened? Because, astonishingly, the crewman trapped in the rear turret, one George Brophy, survived the eventual crash of the tail section — while Mynarski, the man who was himself in flames after trying to free him, did not. Mynarski, posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, died of his burns. Brophy made it home.
This astounding tale of heroism and loss is just one of the many harrowing stories of aerial combat operations to be found in Bomber Command: Airfields of Yorkshire, by Peter Jacobs. Airfields of Yorkshire begins with a tidy and informative overview of the RAF’s bombing campaign against Nazi Germany, covering the design and facilities of Bomber Command’s Yorkshire airfields, the command structure of the air groups, and the development of the tactics and technology that were required to hit the enemy at night. Subsequent chapters focus on the various specific airfields, detailing the individual missions that were flown, the aircraft that operated from these fields, their squadron orders of battle, and the contemporary dispositions of these historic locales. This rich volume, handsomely rounded out by a considerable gallery of unique photographs, immerses the reader in the life and ways of an RAF/RCAF bomber base during the Second World War.
Bomber Command’s war in the dark against Nazi Germany has long been the subject of bitter controversy. Could intensive, continual bombing of cities and industrial regions bring Germany to its knees by ruining its war production capacity and demoralizing its people, as Air Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris claimed? Some have argued that Harris’ strategy, though it undeniably punished Germany with the agony of constant aerial bombardment, ultimately failed to achieve its strategic war goal. Even if it had succeeded, would the cost have been justifiable? British night-time fire raids against German city centers killed civilians in the tens and hundreds of thousands — and, realistically, the raids could hardly have been expected to do much else, given the practical challenges of hitting specific buildings and facilities in the dark, though Bomber Command crews did try (with great loss of life to themselves). Exhibit One might be the firebombing of Hamburg in the summer of 1943, in which roughly 40,000 civilians were obliterated in the 800ºC firestorm caused by the RAF’s carpet-bombing of the city’s residential districts. The code name for the action, Operation Gomorrah, hardly attempted to disguise its intended outcome.²
Others have defended the RAF and Harris, making the double case, for one thing, that Germans had brought this destruction upon themselves by backing Hitler, and for another, that the raids had indeed helped win the terrible war. In his article for The Spectator, Robert Philpot ultimately renders this judgment about Hamburg:
It’s true that the bombing didn’t have the hoped-for impact on the city’s contribution to the Nazi war effort: much of its port and industrial areas were up and running again by the autumn. Nor did it, as Harris hoped, provoke the populace into a revolt that brought the war to an early conclusion. But however terrible Operation Gomorrah was, it did serve a purpose in the end. It changed the attitude of many Germans, who may hitherto have been unaffected by the war, discrediting a leadership which was unable to ‘protect’ the population. As tales of the bombing spread throughout Germany, it provoked something called the ‘November mood’ of growing antipathy to the regime.³
This controversy reminds us that the mere status of “victor” grants no automatic immunity from accusations of wrongdoing. But whatever our opinion today about the Allies’ bombing campaign against Germany in World War Two might be, Bomber Command: Airfields of Yorkshire reminds us, too, that the individual acts of determination, valor, and self-sacrifice shown by human beings who have been thrust into combat by the needs of their country can sometimes be admired apart from any judgment of the larger strategy in which they might be involved. In most cases it must be the strategic leaders that we blame or praise for that. Perhaps one day we will no longer put any individual in the position of having to face the warrior’s dilemma in the first place.
See https://schopenhauersworkshop.com/category/british/ for a selection of my related posts and photographs of RAF subjects in miniature.
¹ You bail the boat and bale the hay. In the expression “bail out,” meaning to abandon a position or situation, it is nonstandard in America to use “bale,” though that spelling is widely accepted in the UK. The metaphor in the US is to compare oneself when jumping out of a plane to a bucket of water being tossed out of a boat, though that is probably not the origin of the phrase. — Professor Paul Brians, Washington State University (https://brians.wsu.edu/2016/05/19/bail-bale/)
² For a perspective on the ethics of such raids, see this book review in The Spectator: “Hitler didn’t start indiscriminate bombings — Churchill did.” (2013)
³ Robert Philpot, “The carpet bombing of Hamburg killed 40,000 people. It also did good.” (2015)