Back in the air, aged 89

The campaign for belated recognition of the wartime efforts of those who served in Bomber Command is gathering pace. At a recent parliamentary question time, Tom Harris MP elicited a reply from the government that a new memorial was under serious consideration. 

Scandalously, the aircrew of Bomber Command were never awarded their own campaign medal – the reason given at the time that because they were fighting from bases inside the UK, the Defence Medal would suffice. As Patrick Bishop has written:

The war had been a triumph for morality and civilized values, of light and darkness. The presence of Bomber Command loomed awkwardly over this legend. From then on, the political establishment colluded to keep it to the margins of the story [and] … when it came to awarding medals, care was taken not to identify the strategic bombing offensive as a distinct campaign. (Bomber Boys, Harper Press, 2007, p.368)

The Daily Telegraph has got in on the act with a fine new portal page on its website. There’s lots of great stuff here: archive pages from wartime issues, including the whole front page from the day after the dams raid, and a great piece about 617 Squadron’s Tony Iveson, a pilot who joined the squadron in late 1943, and took part in many operations later on in the war. He is now the chair of the Bomber Command Association. In his beautifully written article, with accompanying video, Gordon Rayner describes how he accompanied the 89-year-old Iveson on a flight in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster. When the pilot asked Iveson if he wanted to take over the controls for a short while, he leapt at the chance.

The link on the Telegraph’s portal page doesn’t seem to show the whole article, so I have taken the liberty of copying and pasting the whole 1300 words below. It repays reading!

The last time Squadron Leader Tony Iveson flew a Lancaster on operations, his bomber was so badly shot-up by a German fighter over Bergen that three of his seven crew bailed out, certain they were just moments from crashing. But the 25-year-old pilot wasn’t about to be beaten; despite losing an engine and with many controls out of action, Mr Iveson, determined not to become a prisoner of war, kept the stricken bomber in the air for several nerve-shattering hours before making an emergency landing on Shetland.
His courage that day in January 1945 earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross and signalled the end of his war, in which he had flown more than 20 missions over enemy territory with 617 Squadron, “The Dambusters”. He was one of the lucky ones. Of the 125,000 men who flew with Bomber Command, with an average age of 22, a total of 55,573 were killed, the heaviest losses of any unit in the Second World War.
Yet their sacrifice has never been recognised by a memorial, and as chairman of the Bomber Command Association, Tony Iveson is one of the veterans spearheading the campaign to raise the 2 million pounds needed to build a memorial in central London. The Telegraph’s Forgotten Heroes appeal, launched today, calls on readers to help fund that permanent symbol of our nation’s gratitude.
“Never a day goes by when I don’t think about the friends that I lost,” said Mr Iveson, who became a pilot with BOAC before joining Granada TV, where he rose to be head of publicity. “It becomes more poignant the older you get, because you realise all the more how lucky you were and how much of life those young men missed out on.”
After he had come so close to losing his life in a Lancaster, I was unsure how Mr Iveson would react when I asked him whether he might like to fly in one again. “I’d love to,” came his excited reply when I rang him at his home in Oxted, Surrey. At the age of 89, it was clear that his boyish enthusiasm for flying remained undimmed, as did his fondness for an aircraft that got him home safely so many times.
Within weeks, Mr Iveson, a widower with three daughters and six grandchildren, would not only be airborne but at the controls of a Lancaster, becoming the oldest person to fly the RAF’s most famous bomber. It would be one of his most moving post-war experiences. The chance to fly in the Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight had been offered by Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, the Chief of the Air Staff and a keen supporter of the memorial campaign.
At the end of last month, having spent the night at the Petwood Hotel in Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire (which had served as 617 Squadron’s officers’ mess in 1944), Mr Iveson and I set off in thick fog for nearby RAF Coningsby, home of the memorial flight. Awaiting us was Lancaster PA474, one of only two airworthy examples of the 7,373 built, and the only one in Europe.
Up close the Lancaster seems a living, brooding beast, carrying nobility and menace in equal measure. “It really was a weapon of war,” said Mr Iveson as we climbed aboard. “It looks so big from the outside, but it’s quite cramped because of all the weaponry. It was a tough machine. I flew 25 different types of aircraft during my career, from Spitfires to heavy bombers, and there was nothing better than the Lancaster for getting the job done. It would take a lot of punishment and still be able to fly, and that was comforting to know when we set off on operations.”
PA474 has been beautifully maintained and still looks ready for battle. It even has racks filled with hundreds of bullets running down the inside of the fuselage to feed the four machine guns in the rear turret. Was it as Mr Iveson remembered it? “The smell is there and that brings it all back,” he said. “But I can’t believe how small the cockpit is. Did I really spend all those hours in such a tight space?”
Mr Iveson flew Spitfires with 616 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, and survived being shot down and landing his fighter in the North Sea before his transfer to Bomber Command and more than 20 raids with 617 Squadron, including the sinking of the Tirpitz in 1944.

But on this occasion, as Flight Lieutenant Mike Leckey fired up the four Merlin engines, Mr Iveson would have to squash into the wireless operator’s seat at the back of the cockpit. Fiddling mischievously with the Bakelite morse code sender, he said: “I’d never sat in this position before. It really is a tight squeeze and it’s only now that I realise how difficult it must have been for the wireless operator, sitting here for up to 12 hours at a time.”
With engines idling, the floor began to judder, and as Mr Leckey opened the throttles, the aircraft accelerated with surprising speed down the runway, pinning me back into my seat. Suddenly the juddering stopped, we were airborne and the Lancaster rose effortlessly above the Lincolnshire countryside. As Mr Iveson stared out across the wing, I asked him what memories were running through his mind.
“Flying was a huge thrill, and it was a great privilege to fly with my squadron,” he said. Then, with the compulsory understatement of the war veteran, he added: “It wasn’t pleasant at night over Germany. We lost 70 aircrew during my time on the squadron. It was something you lived with and tried not to dwell on.” 
I tapped the metal skin of the aircraft, not much thicker than a tin can, thinking just how exposed the men inside a Lancaster must have felt. I couldn’t help comparing it with the Volvo I had been driving an hour earlier, with its chunky doors and airbags to cocoon me from the perils of the M11, and suddenly felt faintly ridiculous.
Nor did Lancaster crews have such luxuries as a pressurised or heated cabin. Flying at altitudes where the outside temperature could be minus 40C, they relied on several layers of thick clothing, a flask of coffee and a ration of chocolate.
Half an hour into the flight came our moment of history. Mr Leckey invited Mr Iveson to slide into the flight engineer’s seat next to him, where he sprang the surprise of asking whether he fancied taking the controls. There was never any doubt what the answer would be. “It feels wonderful,” said a remarkably composed Mr Iveson as he gripped the control column and put his feet on the rudder pedals. “I never thought I would get the chance to do this again. It’s quite overwhelming to have this machine in my hands once more. It takes me right back to when I would fly over the North Sea at the crack of dawn.”
During the flight, adrenalin kept Mr Iveson focused on the job, but back on the ground his eyes began to well up as he was hit by the enormity of what his younger self and comrades had gone through. “Having the controls of the aircraft again affected me in a way I hadn’t expected,” he confided. “I really don’t know how we did what we did. It’s a sobering thought that we lost three and a half thousand Lancasters. This flight made me realise for the first time in 50 years just how lucky I am, because no matter how skilful you were, it was the luck of the draw whether you survived. It makes me all the more determined to ensure that we build a memorial to those 55,000 men who didn’t make it back.”
© Daily Telegraph, 29 October 2008 

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