Rusty Waughman is 99 now, one of the very few Lancaster bomber pilots still alive and able to tell their wartime tales not so much of derring do, but of survival against sometimes overwhelming odds.
‘Surviving was 99 per cent luck,’ he tells me. ‘We had bits shot off us and holes knocked into us.
‘We had a mid-air collision over Belgium, and had just left the target on another op over France when another aircraft blew up underneath us and blew us upside down, so I had to gently roll us all the way around.
‘We lost about 10,000ft and our wireless operator, little Taffy, ended up with the contents of the pee can tipped all over him. He wasn’t exactly flavour of the month, I can tell you.’
One of the few remaining Avro Lancasters in flight. Rusty Waughman, 99, is one the last Lancaster bomber pilots still alive. He tells his wartime tales for a new documentary
Rusty’s extraordinary stories, and those of other nonagenarians who in their teens and 20s crewed the mighty warplane, provide the core of a hugely moving, utterly compelling feature-length documentary, simply entitled Lancaster.
In it, the old men also reflect on how, once the Second World War was won, their key contribution to victory was effectively airbrushed from history. Not until 2012 was an RAF Bomber Command memorial unveiled, in London’s Green Park.
The documentary – which contains amazing aerial footage of one of the two Lancasters still airworthy – was conceived by David Fairhead and Anthony Palmer, whose similarly excellent 2018 film Spitfire celebrated the war’s most iconic aircraft and the brave men who flew it.
The Lancaster crews were no less courageous, but because of the devastation their bombing missions inflicted on Nazi Germany, theirs is a much more complex story.
Pictured: John Bell, 99, recalls how Lancaster crews were formed rather like football teams in the school playground
From his home in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, Rusty tells me of his own moral discomfort. ‘In 1948 and 1949, having bombed the city five times during the war, I flew on the Berlin airlift,’ he recalls of the mission to carry supplies to the people of West Berlin, blockaded by the Soviet Union in one of the first major crises of the Cold War.
‘Later we were taken round Berlin and shown the sights, and all the reconstruction, but I remember seeing a wrecked church and asking the guide why it wasn’t being rebuilt. She said, “Oh, that’s staying as it is, as a memorial to the 360 children who were killed while sheltering there.”’
There’s a short but eloquent silence. ‘Well, you know,’ he adds, ‘I realised straight away that I could have done that.’
Yet all those who served Bomber Command were well aware that the four-engine Avro Lancaster was devised as a direct response to the Luftwaffe’s horrifying campaign against British cities – the Blitz – during which bombs rained down every single night for eight months. It was soon recognised that the Lancaster’s predecessor, the twin-engine Manchester, was not up to the job of taking the war back to Germany.
I knew it wouldn’t take more than a single piece of shrapnel to bring us down, so you just got on with it – Bomb-Aimer John Bell
So the aircraft’s designer, Roy Chadwick, suggested swapping the Manchester’s two Rolls-Royce Vulture engines for four Rolls Royce Merlins, the same engine that powered the Spitfire.
The formidable Lancaster flew its first mission in early 1942 just as Bomber Command got a new chief, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, who ordered a change of tactics to what was to be called ‘area bombing’. The targets would no longer be individual factories, but entire cities such as Cologne, subject of the first ‘thousand bomber raid’, and Dresden, which was all but flattened.
It was a desperately perilous business for everyone involved. By the end of the war, Bomber Command had lost 55,573 aircrew, while more than 600,000 German civilians had been killed.
‘But in making this film we realised that it was not a campaign of aggression,’ says co-director Anthony Palmer. ‘It was a campaign against tyranny, and the Lancaster was at the heart of it.’
The young men operating those Lancasters were, in many cases, little more than boys. Rusty was only 18 when he got his pilot’s wings and just 20 when in November 1943 he flew his first operation.
His destination that night was the one crews feared most because it was the furthest away and the most fiercely defended – Berlin.
A WWII pilot astride a bomb, in front of a Lancaster. The formidable Lancaster flew its first mission in early 1942 just as Bomber Command got a new chief, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, who ordered a change of tactics to what was to be called ‘area bombing’
‘But we’d only just got over Europe when we had five fighter attacks, one after another,’ he recalls. ‘Our rear gunner Harry Nunn, who was Canadian, basically kept us alive.’
Lancasters usually had a crew of seven, though Rusty flew with 101 Squadron, a ‘special-duty’ outfit which carried an eighth man, a German speaker, whose job was to pick up the radio frequency used by German night-fighter controllers and blast engine noise over it so they couldn’t communicate.
But that sent out electronic emissions the enemy could pick up, putting 101 Squadron at greater risk than any other. ‘Our casualty rate was the highest, about 40 per cent,’ says Rusty.
While Fighter Command comprised mainly public-school types, Bomber Command was a melting pot of class and ethnicity. County Durham-born Rusty still speaks with a gentle Tyneside accent, and another veteran interviewed in the film, Neil Flanigan, remembers leaving his native Jamaica behind to serve the RAF, wondering whether he would ever see it again.
Lancaster crews were formed rather like football teams in the school playground. John Bell, who’s also 99 and lives near Worthing, recalls how, once the men were all assembled, they were ordered to sort themselves into groups of seven.
‘It was just a matter of luck,’ he says. ‘You had no idea what the other chaps were like.
‘I remember standing there with a Canadian navigator, probably looking a bit lost, both of us thinking, “How do we find a good pilot?” Then a rear gunner came up and said to us, “I’ve got a pilot, come with me.”’
John was a bomb-aimer, an unambiguous job description for the man who lay in the nose of the Lancaster releasing the bombs over their targets. Not all Lancaster crews coped easily with the mortal terrors of those nightly missions.
Occasionally, young men had to be physically pushed into the huge aircraft, and some were charged with ‘lack of moral fibre’, which even had its own abbreviation: LMF.
But John, who joined the famous Dambusters squadron, 617, was able to stay philosophical about the dangers. ‘I had the best view, if you can call it that.
‘I could see everything that was happening around us, and I knew that it wouldn’t take more than a single piece of shrapnel to bring us down.
That’s why there was no point dwelling on it. You just ignored it and got on with the job.’
Like many of the veterans, John felt let down by Winston Churchill, who had endorsed Harris’s ruthless tactics at the time but later distanced himself from them.
‘He spent more time thinking about what we’d done to the Germans than how we’d helped to win the war. That attitude went on for years, really, until the memorial finally went up.
Churchill’s failure to acknowledge Bomber Command on VE Day left Rusty bitterly disappointed too.
‘Rotten devil, I thought. But you know, later I realised that it must have been hard for him to condemn the Germans for bombing us when we’d done the same to them.’
Rusty and John are among 38 veterans featured in the documentary. They were interviewed just before the pandemic and many have subsequently died.
Finding and talking to such old men was a challenge, but Anthony thinks their great age yielded a more powerful film.
‘There were Bomber Command documentaries made 40 or 50 years ago, when there were many more of them around, but the guys interviewed then were quite pugnacious about what they did.
‘Men in their 50s give very different interviews to men in their 90s. Now, in their final years, they’re much more reflective. It makes it extremely emotional.’
- Lancaster is released on 27 May