British Bomber Crews In Training

by an RAF Officer
This article was written by an RAF officer whose name must be withheld. It was flown across the North Atlantic by a British ferry ship. Drawings are by the distinguished artist A Leydenfrost.

The RAF puts its bomber crews through an exacting course of study where synchronized team work is developed.

At the beginning of the year the first few officers and airmen arrived at the new aerodrome to camp in huts islanded in a wintry sea of mud. The soil here is almost clay, lying thick and heavy in this flat space between limestone hills, a blanket which keeps down the lime and encourages bracken and pine trees, an alien growth in the Cotswolds.

Now, on a rainy day in summer, there are still sticky patches of uncovered earth, but lawns and flower beds are beginning to spread. In front of station headquarters there is a very tidy garden. "You should have seen those dahlias a week ago," the visitor is told — "all raised from seed, of course." There'll always be an England, even if most of it has to be cut up into aerodromes.

The dahlias are the most obvious sign of swift and efficient organization, and one about which it is permissible to boast — to flower so soon they must have been raised in heat. But everywhere else there has been as quick a growth.

In raw and unimpressive sheds there are all the extraordinary machines and devices which teach bomber crews to fly, to navigate, to shoot, and to bomb. Some of the machines are incomprehensible to anyone but an expert. Other devices have a simple and even innocent ingenuity which is almost as remarkable. On what appears to be a kitchen table, though tilted at an angle of 45 degrees, a warrant officer crouches. By his side is a board covered with switches. Behind him stands a sergeant who is allowed only a little wooden handle on his board. The first is the bomb-aimer, the second the pilot.

In dramatic accents the bomb-aimer announces: "We are crossing the English coast, and now is the time for the bombs to be fused." He presses a little switch by his side, but nothing really happens.

A few seconds later he continues, "We are nearing the target. We are going to drop the whole load in one stick. It's a big target, Krupp's works at Essen, so we put the bombs well apart, 70 yards between each. I arrange the selector switches on my Mickey Mouse." He arranges them, and then the drama heightens, as he tells the pilot how to approach Krupps.

"Bomb doors open!"

"Bomb doors open," the pilot answers.

"Right. Right. Left. Steady," and again the pilot repeats the words. Then down goes another switch.

"Bombs gone!" exclaim both bomb-aimer and pilot.

With a shocking thud, alarming after so much dramatic preparation, three rows of little wooden bombs, each bomb very carefully carpentered and painted to look like the real thing, flop down from a wooden framework to a green mattress three feet below. Even more disconcerting and wholly unexpected is the release of a sheaf of long wooden incendiaries from a metal box beside them. They fall with a crash to the hard floor at one's feet. It will take some time to pick up all the bombs and fit them on to their hooks, but by the time the apprentice bomb-aimer has repeated again and again the actions and words of the warrant officer he will know all his switches forwards and backwards.

But the bomb-aimer must do more than manage a keyboard of switches. He learns to aim his bombs in a building which looks as if it had strayed from Greenwich observatory — this school for bombers does not seem to have made up its mind whether it is a kindergarten with equipment for the Montessori method of teaching, or a laboratory for advanced research in physics. This building is called the AML (Air Ministry Laboratory) Teacher. It is a very tall room, pitch dark when the door is shut, with black walls and a white floor. Eight feet or so up one wall there is a balcony and many elaborate instruments; one of these, rather like an abacus, with strings and beads — the kindergarten again — projects outwards over the floor. Then a brilliant light goes on at the very top of the room and the concrete floor shines upwards, but now it is marked with an irregular pattern of grey smudges. The pattern begins to move and then reveals itself as a grey landscape, sliding away fast and very far below. The illusion is admirable; now it is the balcony which appears to be moving and to be, in fact, the cockpit of a bomber, racing through the air over a twilit landscape. The instructor chooses a target on the ground, with some dry military joke about Berchtesgarden or some other spot which everyone would like to bomb, and the pupil adjusts his bombsight with many swift calculations. When he has finished his computing and dropped his bombs, a cross of white light on the floor, cast from a spotlight in the balcony, shows him where his bombs would have fallen.

The Link Trainer, ingenious invention of an American, Mr Edwin Link, is, at a first glance, obviously a toy. An educational toy, perhaps, but the miniature aeroplane swaying very gently on a pedestal is painted so clean and brilliant a blue, with the rings of British aircraft patriotically bright, that it must be meant to catch the fancy of the pupil. And the object, the connection between this brightly painted model with death and destruction in Germany? At first, indeed, there seems to be no connection between the model and anything else at all. It does not seem to be connected with a small cupboard in one corner of the room, full of telephones and wires, from which an airman occasionally emerges, or with a table with a map on it and a complex machine, much like a mechanized planchette, poised on three wheels over the map. Nor does it seem to have any connection with the notice boards on the wall with scraps of paper pinned to them, each with a pattern accurately traced on it in red ink, a quatrefoil, the letter "H", or some other geometrical line — the young artist's first steps in drawing.

There is a subdued hum of hidden machinery and everyone in the room is busy and intent. It is a considerable surprise when the pupil himself makes his appearance, actually from inside the model aeroplane. A young Canadian with pilot's wings on his tunic lifts a black hood over the model and steps down from the pedestal, looking rather hot and tired and smoothing his ruffled hair. He has, in fact, done half an hour's very hard work, directing the course of the miniature aeroplane by instruments, with the black hood over his head. His course has been plotted by the p1anchette — it is called "the crab" — on the map which lies on the table, and he has been guided by the airman in the cupboard, who at intervals has sent him directions by wireless. His course when plotted on the map has traced out one of those geometrical patterns which are displayed on the notice board as an example to pupils; his flying has been as brilliantly exact.

In another room in the training center, in the "cubicle trainer," a whole bomber crew works together in a dark cupboard in which there are all the essentials of a bomber's equipment. They look out at a screen on which a lantern from time to time throws slides of a German landscape as seen from the air. To make things more difficult for the crew, as things would be more difficult for them in reality, lights dazzle them as searchlights would, and little flashes on the screen mimic the bursting of anti-aircraft shells. Inside the cubicle the crew remains for hours at a time, in wireless contact with the instructor outside, with the pilot at the controls, the navigator plotting his course on the maps, the wireless operator getting signals from his base.

By degrees the crews move from models to reality. The air gunner learns to shoot both with real and imaginary bullets, always in a real gun turret mounted on wheels, but sometimes at a range and sometimes in a darkened room. In the "Spotlight trainer" he aims at the silhouette of an aeroplane which appears on an enormous dome of concrete resting on its side. His guns have no bullets in them, but only an electric light inside which shines on the dome when he fires. Here it is a very quiet warfare of light and shadow, but at the actual range the noise of the machine guns is shattering, an unbearable assault on the ear drums even though only one turret is tiring at a time which is nothing compared with the noise of the eight machine guns of the Spitfire.

Here you can see what tracer bullets look like as they pass through the air; they do not look in the least like a moving particle of light, at any rate in the daytime, but there seems to be something, it is difficult to say what, cutting the air in two. Inside the heap of earth against the wall there is a little flame and a puff of smoke, a minute volcanic eruption caused by the bullets.

Later in their training the men go to the crew room, a long hut with lockers, much like a gymnasium, and strewn with what seems to be protective armour in which to play some unusually tough kind of football. They look young enough in their ordinary uniforms, but even younger in these ungainly overalls and helmets, padded, and hung with wires. All distinctions of rank are eliminated, as well as those signs and badges which give a due solemnity to military life. On the wall there is an encouraging poster telling the crews how much trouble will be taken to find them if they should happen to come down at sea. After a few last instructions they go out in lorries to bombers dispersed about the aerodromes. The bombers' airscrews begin to turn and there is a spurt of flame from the exhaust pipe and a violent sound of choking. Very slowly and rather clumsily the bombers waddle towards the runways of tarmac, turning corners with apparent difficulty, lumbering along until they reach the beginning of a great broad road across the aerodrome — in this weather, with the wet surface reflecting the sky, this looks more like a river.

Then the bomber begins to use the terrible power of its engines, and now it begins to look as though it were made to move along the ground, taking a very straight course, and quickly gathering speed. It has almost reached the end of the runway before there is any change and then the lift into the air scarcely seems as though it were meant to happen. After the fierce charge down the straight road flight is almost an anticlimax.

The crew has gone to drop bombs into the sea, dummy bombs filled with sand and containing a detonator to blow them to pieces. They are almost at the end of their training, getting very near to the real thing and anxious for it to begin. They have had enough of training by now, not only here, where they have learned to work as a crew, but in other schools before, where they were trained as individuals.

Back from their training flight they take a rest before dinner, still loosely divided into crews, for the crews have a way of sitting together even when not at work. There are dark blue Australian uniforms mixed with the lighter blue of the RAF, which Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans and men from all parts of the Empire wear. There is one man who has come from South America on his own to fly in a bomber against Germany — he wonders at intervals if the RAF would like to pay his fare but he does not expect anything much to be done about it in the near future. There is a very young man dozing in a wicker chair; with a kitten asleep on his knee. He has the rather long hair which flying men often wear and he looks much like an English undergraduate, lazy after a day on the river. Nothing but war would easily have brought these men together, but now they are together indeed. There are few closer ties than those which hold together the crew of a bomber.

This article was originally published in the November, 1941, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 40, no 11, pp 52-53, 140, 142, 144.
The original article includes 3 photos and two photo-quality drawings.
Photos credited to British Press Service, Acme Newspictures; drawings by A Leydenfrost.