Your new book tells the story of a catastrophe during World War Two, explain to me a little bit about how the weather dealt a terrible hand of fate that night on 16 December 1943?
December 16th 1943 was a cold and increasingly foggy night and, although the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had made clear that he wasn’t pressing for RAF crews to fly on operations whatever the weather, in practice there was considerable pressure to resume bombing raids on Germany. There had been four raids on Berlin, for example, in late November, but none for the two weeks before the raid on 16 December. That night, 482 Lancaster bombers set off from airfields in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire, in weather that was judged acceptable for flying, but was to deteriorate rapidly in the time they were in the air. The returning aircraft were running desperately low on petrol, while the fog was widespread and very thick. 43 aircraft crashed trying to return to base.
What will local people in Lincolnshire find particularly pertinent when reading this book?
Lincolnshire was home to many of the Lancaster squadrons involved and most of the crashes on return were caused by pilots being unable to avoid the Lincolnshire wolds in the thick fog. Fourteen of the crashes happened in the county. The bleakness of the night is perhaps best summed up by the fate of Wing Commander Holford whose Lancaster came down near Kelstern and whose body was found next morning buried in a snowdrift. In addition to Kelstern, there were crashes at Hainton, Hatcliffe Top, Waltham (where two Lancasters collided in the darkness), Ingham, Ulceby, Barrow upon Humber, Caistor, Normenby, Market Stainton, Binbrook and Gayton-le-Wold.
I know you have explored crash sites for Black Night for Bomber Command. How did you find that experience and how did this help you write your book?
I decided at the outset of writing the book that I would visit each crash site. I wasn’t interested in finding aircraft remains; rather, I wanted to understand the circumstances behind each crash, the geographical factors which might have contributed. Increasingly, though, I felt I was paying some kind of homage to the men who died there. It was strange how often when I was at some desolate spot on the wolds, I would hear a single-engined aircraft passing overhead!
I understand you were inspired to write this book by your father-in-law who was a navigator with No 97 Squadron – which was based in Lincolnshire – why were his stories so motivating?
He is a remarkable man, a survivor, still hale and hearty at 93 years old. I wanted to understand more about what he went through: after all, he completed nearly 50 operations over enemy territory. I began by cycling to the bomber airfields near where I used to live in Yorkshire and was stirred by the ghosts of what had once been there, the comparison between the birdsong and tranquillity that prevailed now, and the noise and bustle of seventy years ago.
Who will this book appeal to and what do you hope readers appreciate most?
The book is basically an investigation into why such a catastrophe could be allowed to happen – and catastrophe it was, with over 300 men dying that night. It is not about the raid on Berlin, but focuses instead on the men who survived the flight home that night and those who didn’t. In writing it, I had in mind the general reader who wants to understand what those days were like, who appreciates a compelling and powerful story, and whose interest is stirred by the way ordinary people can cope in extraordinary circumstances. Clearly if you live in Lincolnshire, the importance of the location will appeal too! I hope readers will appreciate the distinctive way in which the story is told – I wanted the book to read like a novel, but be thorough and rooted in fact and detail too. I also want the reader to warm to the courage of those caught up in the events of that dark night and to reflect on how it is all too easy to require too much of those engaged in combat.