AROUND 11PM ON the 16th of December, I look up and listen. Most of the time it's very quiet and that's the way it sounded over RAF Bourn, a wasteland of mud and Nissen huts, as 21 Lancasters from 97 Squadron droned back towards England from a bombing run over Berlin. They would have left just before sunset on one of the most threatening bomb runs. It took a little under a half hour to get the squadron airborne, each Lancaster bomber needing a minute to goad its four Merlin engines up to full power before setting off down the bumpy runway. The airfield would sit under a silent shroud for seven hours, the smoke from each hut's coke fire hanging in the damp air.
Flying a Lancaster from Cambridgeshire to Berlin took around three hours. Almost all crew members were younger than I was when I graduated from the USAF Academy 33 years later. Crews could volunteer for the Pathfinders, quickly earn a higher rank but along with the insignia came the responsibility for a double tour of 45 operations, as opposed to 30 for the main bomber force.
It was just before midnight when V-Victor with Captain Owen at the controls arrived back over Bourn. Visibility was less than 300 yards--it took 1000 yards to stop a Lancaster. Fuel gauges were bobbling off zero. About V-Victor, no navaids worked.
Jennie Gray's Fire by Night includes a harrowing commentary from the pilot of V-Victor, Charles Owen. "Homed on to base on the SBA beam, breaking cloud at 250 feet to find fog, rain and visibility about 300 yards and deteriorating. Landed without permission in appalling conditions."
The story of the 97 Squadron always intrigued me. It's the reason I look up into the black sky many December evenings.
Jennie Gray -- Fire by Night ISBN 978-1904010371
Oliver Owen -- "My Father the Hero" in The Observer Magazine, 30 November 2008.