I’ve always been a fan of history, it was one of my favourite classes in school. I would delve into it and try to imagine and conjure the world these people lived in, instead of simply memorising and delivering names and dates. When it comes to reading historical nonfiction I get a little reticent, because not all authors have the gift of imbuing that world with breath again, and simply report and regurgiate the facts.
I discovered that authors like Stephen Ambrose and Erik Larson helped to put the human face on the subject matter they were sharing, making it real, bringing to life historical events, but keeping them human. John Nichol has that ability, and in me has created a new fan.
His engaging tale of the Lancaster, a RAF bomber used throughout the course of World War II feels completely immersive. Crews boarding this incredible workhorse of the Air Force had a 40% chance of returning from their mission, but they clambered aboard, the common man called upon to do the extraordinary.
Filled with recollections from those who returned, and shared their stories, Nichol takes us on a guided tour of this massive bomber, and the conflicts in which she delivered her payloads. He takes us from the tense cockpits, to the shivering cold of the bomb bay, the communications station, to tail-end charlie tucked away in the the perspex rear gunner bubble that wasn’t even big enough to hold the gunner and his parachute (it was tucked away just outside the rotating bubble).
Nichol gives personality to the plane through its designs, its creation, and the souls who worked within it. Like the best of these historical accountings, there is no glory to be found here. This is not some heroic tale (though there are countless heroic actions), this is a recounting of a terrible war told by those who fought it; and how they fought it – high in the flak-filled skies of Nazi occupied Europe.
The Lancaster was defined by Sir Arthur Harris as a shining sword, but that tends to romanticise the imagery of war. She, the Lancaster, should indeed be celebrated for what she was, and what she and her crews did during the conflict, but should never be romanticised.
And Nichol won’t seem to have that either. There is love for the plane, and how can you not love a plane that has taken you into the heart of hell and then safely brought you home (if you were lucky enough to survive your run), but nothing is seen through a gauzy haze of heroism.
In fact, Nichol makes sure that while the Lancaster takes flight, he grounds his text in the human moments that took place inside and outside of her hull. In fact there were countless moments that I was moved to tears as these officers and crews shared their stories; knowing that these events will be with them for the rest of their lives.
Lancaster is a beautiful and engaging read that not only gives a deserved look at one of the most important planes to see service, but those who served.
And we thank you for it.
John Nichol’s Lancaster: The Forging of a Very British Legend is available now from Simon & Schuster, take a look at it today. And if that catches your interest check out his look at the Spitfire, and his upcoming exploration of the Tornado. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on both (and just as an aside, the covers for both Spitfire and Lancaster are simply beautiful, very Art Deco) – add them to your bookshelves today!