Friday 14 August 2009

The reissues (4) - Bomber

The final book in the collection of four recently re-issued Deighton novels is - arguably - one of his greatest. Bomber. Certainly, in the opinion of the great English novelist Anthony Burgess, Bomber is one of the 99 greatest books in English published since 1939. The Sunday Times reviewer at the time described the novel as "quite literally - devastating".

Therein lies a clue to its reputation and its staying power as a popular novel, nearly forty years after being first published. It is excruciating in its detail of the technical aspects of the British night bombing raids over Germany in World War Two, and immense in its exploration of the impact of such hellish raids on both the pilots and air crews responsible for the bombings, and the civilians on the ground. The book is a devastating indictment of war and the inevitably of system failure in such a massive enterprise, with disastrous consequences.

The story arc follows Flight Sergeant Sam Lambert, 26-year-old pilot of an RAF Lancaster bomber. A pre-war recruit, he's one of the best flyers in the whole air force and based at the East Anglian bomber base of Warley Fen. His plane is the 'Creaking Door'. Lambert, 45 missions into his career, starts to question the sanity of the night bombing of German cities.

The narrative is subtitled 'Events relating to the last flight of an RAF Bomber over Germany on the night of June 31st, 1943' (naturally, of course, there is no 31 June, but without that one note the text is real enough to suggest you're reading a fictionalised account of an actual raid. Deighton captures well the essence of a typical raid - the fear, the boredom before getting down to business, the terror of fighter attacks, the youthfulness of the crews.

Lambert's fears about the impact of the bombings are not misplaced as, due to the jettisoning of a marker device during the raid, the German city of Krefeld is spared and it is the unfortunate inhabitants of Altgarten who suffer instead. Deighton caused some controversy at the time for being the first novelist to explore the British bombing raids from both sides, as much of the narrative explores the lives of a typical wartime German village. The bombing of German cities remains a sensitive and much-argued over topic with most war historians

In his introduction, Deighton recalls that he was the first writer to compose a book on what was then called a 'word processor'. After having had his secretary type up a chapter 25 times on an old Olivetti typewriter, Deighton was taken along by a keen IBM salesman to the Shell Centre to see the computers which produced their in-house manuals. He became the proud owner of an IBM MT 72 computer (indeed, the only private individual at the time to own one). A friend suggested that, as he liked machines so much, he should write a book about them.

It was on this computer that story ex machina was written. Deighton had always had an interest in the role of machines in warfare and had seen first-hand in London the devastation caused by the enemy's fighting machines during the blitz. War had become remote to the bomber pilots, high up in their flying bombers as they rained down phosphorous and high explosive. But a story about machines on their own would be dull; the human element was crucial, and Deighton recalls that he would have to create a cast of at least 100 believable characters, each of whom had a part to play in helping these machines to bring devastation down on the Germans.

Once he had the kernel of the story - a bombing raid and the hours leading up to it - Deighton recalls how he set about the immense amount of research required to get the story as authentic as possible:

"If 1943 German radar controllers and night fighter veterans were a complex challenge, then wait until I started to delve into the social life, scandals and Nazi-led politics of a small Westphalian town. Everyone seemed to have a war story. One lady found me some striped overalls that she had made from her nurse's uniform. A man I met in a restaurant had kept all his wartime documents and when I showed interest in them insisted that I kept them."

As well as ensuring he reflected the reality of German wartime life correctly, Deighton needed to get life on base flyers absolutely right. He went on visits to many RAF bases - many of which he'd known in his time in RAF intelligence after the war. The RAF veterans he met were great companions, he recalls, always full of anecdotes. He was lucky enough to be able to visit one of the very few Luftwaffe 'Opera House' command centres only days before it was due to be demolished.

Ultimately, while the detail of the raids and the German defences is impressive in its depth and variety, what makes the novel worthwhile is that in a story about massive, death-bringing machines it is the human stories that are at centre stage throughout. Deighton recalls in the final paragraph of the new introduction that this was precisely his intention:

"I wanted to emphasise the dehumanizing effect of mechanical warfare. I like machines but in wars all humans are their victims."

That is, sadly, still the case today.

If you only ever read one World War Two fictional account, you can't go far wrong by checking out Bomber. An immense work in so many way.


  1. There can be no doubt that Bomber is Deighton's greatest acheivement and one of the best books ever about wartime aviation.
    The quality of Deighton's research, and his comprehension of some highly technical aspects of radar and nightfighter technology is most impressive.
    Often writers will 'infodump' technology into the narrative, and just get it over with. Not so Deighton, it becomes an implicit part of the plot.
    For example, the Mosquito which is shot down just before the Altgarten target zone and just after the marker bombs have been armed - all that follows hinges around this one act, and it is, as far as I can tell, absolutly spot on accuratly described and totally plausible.

  2. It's an excellent book which I've reread many times, but there are a couple of errors; first, the Himmelbett system had been abandoned by mid 1943 for one that allowed much greater leeway to Luftwaffe night fighter pilots (they were no longer confined to map grid patrol areas), and, secondly, white cap covers were only permitted to ship commanders in the Kriegsmarine. An accountant could not possibly have been authorised to wear one. Not even an admiral who had never captained a ship was permitted one. Small quibbles, perhaps, but in a rigidly researched book like this it stands out, just like how the first name of an RAF aircraftswoman changed literally on two pages facing each other.