In September 1943, BBC war correspondent Wynford Vaughan-Thomas climbed on board a Lancaster bomber christened “F for Freddie” (from its call sign–it was usual to label the planes in a squadron by letter) and, along with recording engineer Reg Pidsley, rode along on a bombing run over Berlin. “Rode along” perhaps does not adequately convey the danger of this mission. The Lanc he was riding in was an active participant in the raid and was in danger the moment it crossed into enemy territory. The remarkable narration of this mission, recorded using a bulky device consisting of a spinning turntable with needle stylus inscribing on acetate discs, was quickly edited and broadcast the next day. Now, more than 75 years after the recording was produced, BBC Northern Ireland and Immersive VR Education, in partnership with BBC VR Hub has produced a Virtual Reality simulation of some of the highlights of that flight, using the archival recording as a guide and soundtrack. I got to experience this simulation at Canadian Warplane Heritage’s new exhibit yesterday, and it was profoundly moving, inspiring me to find out more.
A BBC radio program lent a great deal of background to the recording. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas was Welsh, and his storytelling was known for its poetic, flowery nature. The Berlin raid was apparently his “trial” as a war correspondent–a literal trial by fire. As anyone who’s ever seen one will know, Lancaster bombers were not known for their maneuverability or efficiency in a firefight. These long bombing raids were done without fighter escort, so Lancaster crews relied on each other, what evasive tactics they could take, and a great deal of luck. Canadian casualty rates in Lancaster bombers were about 30%, and overall death rates for the RAF as a whole were around 45%. This was a genuinely frightening assignment – not just for Vaughan-Thomas, but for the young crews who flew these missions as a matter of routine.
The decision to put Vaughan-Thomas into the cockpit of a Lancaster was one made at the highest levels of the war command. It was done not only to boost morale, but to impress Britain’s allies, the United States and the USSR. In 1943, Britain did not have a lot of “boots on the ground”, aside from some troops in North Africa and Italy, and were under pressure from the United States (which was heavily engaged in the Pacific) and the USSR (who were the main combatants in Europe, and had finally succeeded in starting to push the Germans back out of Soviet territory.) What the British were doing was bombing–lots of it. This was a few months after the famous Dambusters raid, and putting a journalist in the now-iconic Lanc was thus an excellent propaganda move–a gamble, for sure, but one clearly worth taking. And the Americans, at least, seem to have been impressed, with what they called “Operation Eggs.”
The decision to bomb cities rather than strategic military targets (often called “area bombing”) had been made partially because of the difficulty in precision bombing. The new tactic was to “dehouse” German civilians–to disrupt their routines and destroy their homes. The public was not generally aware of this new plan. Berlin had, up until this point, managed to escape damage, and life had continued as normal. According to one woman interviewed for the piece, who had been 11 in 1943, people were still going to cafes and enjoying themselves (even though the cheerful music of the Gypsy musicians had all disappeared). Berlin itself was well-defended, with 27 large bastions of anti-aircraft guns and 14 smaller ones, as well as three of the famous flak towers and over 500 bunkers. But between late 1943 and the end of the war, Berlin would be relentlessly pummeled into rubble. The target the night of the raid on that September night was the elegant district of Charlottenburg, and the opera house, town hall, and the residence of General Guderian were all destroyed during the raid–not that they were specific targets. Lancasters carried two types of devices. First to be dropped would be the 4000 lb “cookie”, meant to blow off roofs and set the scene for the incendiary bombs that followed, meant to set the rubble afire.
Aside from the enormous risk of being shot down, there were the conditions in the plane itself. The Lancaster was not a pressurized aircraft, and so the crew worked in freezing temperatures, with frequent frost-ups of glass, particularly in the turrets (where the gunners would sometimes knock out panels in order to be able to see better.) Recordist Pidsley, as mentioned, kept the acetate recording discs in his jacket, as the recording process would not work if they were cold. The difficulty of his job was compounded by the fact that Lancasters are loud and vibrate a lot even when not attempting to dodge flak or drop bombs. You hear him in the recording frequently saying “still cutting” to indicate that the recording is still proceeding. Apparently right after the Lanc’s 4000 lb main bomb was dropped, the whole aircraft jerked upwards and the stylus gouged a huge gash into the disc, but Pidsley was able to reset it and continue. (Apparently, this may have saved the Lanc, as there was a night fighter on its tail who missed a shot when the plane jerked upwards.) Finally, the crew were all wearing masks–as was Vaughan-Thomas, which accounts for the slightly muffled sound of his voice. As the BBC piece mentioned, this had an interesting side effect of taking off the edge of emotion.
The emotion does come through, however, in Vaughan-Thomas’ descriptive language. He speaks of the anti-aircraft fire, the searchlights, and the burning city below–“the biggest fireworks show in the world”– as like “watching somebody throwing jewellery on black velvet, winking rubies, sparkling diamonds all coming up at you.” The dying city was “horrible but beautiful” to see. “Fear clutches at your very bones,” he says, although he never asks the crew how they feel; as the BBC piece mentions, “but there is feeling in it, and what is repressed tells you about World War II.” The men flying these planes had “immortal courage,” but that did not mean lack of fear on each and every mission.
The virtual reality presentation lasts about 14 minutes, including takeoff, crossing over the Dutch coastline into enemy territory, the actual bombing run into Berlin, and then finally, the flight over the English coast on the way home. Your perspective at the beginning and the end of the flight is just behind the cockpit, moving to the bomb-aimer’s view up until the point the large bomb is dropped and then to the central turret, looking back over the plane to the tail-gunner’s position, as the bomber evades fire. During takeoff, you see the engines flame into power as the plane lifts off, and looking around you, you can see other Lancasters on the ground and flying ahead and to the side of you as the formation takes shape. I took this opportunity to look all around me in the cockpit, leaning a bit over to see over the pilot’s shoulder, looking down to the navigator’s seat, out to the sides to see the engines on each side and the other planes in the formation, and all the way behind, where I could see Pidsley with his recording device (my first thought, before realizing what he was doing, was “why do they have a DJ on the plane?). The level of detail and perspective inside the plane is amazing. And then, as we crossed over the Dutch coast, giant beacons attempt to catch the planes in their light, waving randomly back and forth so that anti-aircraft could spot the incoming bombers. You see the Lancaster ahead caught in the light and fired on, but somehow “F for Freddie” manages to miss the searchlights by dancing in between them (as much as a heavy bomber can dance. It is clear that luck has a great deal to do with its survival.
And then, we approach Berlin. Vaughan-Thomas’ description is absolutely spot on. The burning city glows like rubies in the dark, while the white beacons, anti-aircraft fire, and the flash of the falling bombs light up the sky like fireworks. You see other Lancasters under fire, and one falls to earth. You sit with the bomb aimer looking down on the conflagration as he prepares to release the 4000 lb “cookie.” You sit in the top turret and watch the rear gunner defend the plane as it turns for home. And even though you cannot actually feel the flak buffeting the plane, you perceive it on a visceral level, and your heartbeat and breathing quickens. It’s astounding, and indeed “horribly beautiful.” The final segment is as the Lancaster returns to British soil after eight hours in the air, its crew clearly exhausted. This time, the beacons are leading it home. The pilot sings “Annie Laurie,” and remarks on the new moon and clear night. Out to your right, another Lancaster silently flies alongside. At the very end, you learn the names of the crew (and that all but one survived until the end of the war).
At all points, you hear Vaughan-Thomas’ narration, along with the voices of the crew, and you see, as through their eyes, what his words describe. At all points, you can look in any direction and see what he or one of the crew would have seen, in beautifully-realistic detail. You quickly forget you are wearing a VR headset. It’s a tremendously visceral and emotional experience, even knowing that I was sitting safely in a padded chair in Hamilton, not in a hard cranny of a Lancaster over Berlin. Having sat in the cockpit of a real Lancaster, and having seen the engines fire up and the plane take off made it even more so. I think that points out a valuable feature of virtual reality: as an augment to the physical relics we are lucky enough to own (and in the case of Canadian Warplane Heritage, to fly). As much as I love the sound of those four Merlins firing up, and the dark beauty of VeRA, it’s easy to emotionally detach ourselves from the reason there were Lancaster bombers in the first place–particularly those of us with no memories of our own of WWII.
As writer Jason Kingsley noted in this article, “VR can create thought-provoking worlds, but staying on the right side of the line between too real and just real enough is vital for VR experiences. Being able to join the crew of F for Freddie in a Lancaster bomber is an amazing insight into history, holding a mirror up to our collective national memory and exposing the horrible realities of war.”
The 1943 Berlin Blitz experience is at Canadian Warplane Heritage through August 31, 2019 (although a number of us are hoping that it can become a permanent exhibit), and is included with the admission price. It can also be downloaded if you have your own virtual reality headset; this article provides further details. A series of excerpts from Vaughan-Thomas’ recordings are available on YouTube (here is the link to the first.)