On Remembrance Day: Man, Book, Machine

The man is Philip Gray, who served in the RAF in World War II as the pilot of a Lancaster bomber. The book is his memoir Ghosts of Targets Past, published in London by Grub Street Press in 1995 and available on line. The machine is the Lancaster bomber that stood on a plinth near the Canadian National Exhibition and is now being painstakingly restored after decades of exposure by a band of volunteers at the Canadian Air and Space Museum in Downsview Park, Toronto.

I have tremendous respect and admiration for Mr. Gray. As a young man, he put his life on the line in defense of democratic values, freedom of religion (something that particularly matters to me as a Jew), and indeed western civilization. As a senior citizen, he has preserved the memory of his wartime experience in his book. Most weekends he can be found beside the Lancaster at the museum, selling his book. His being there is not a matter of bragging rights, though he is certainly entitled, but of bearing witness as a link with the past.

I greatly enjoyed Gray’s book and enthusiastically recommend it. His approach is what reviewers call “gritty realism” and anthropologists call thick description. By that I mean Gray goes into considerable detail describing his training, the organizational culture at the RAF’s Stradishall base where his crew was posted, the difficulties and risks of flying bombing missions, and the emotional impacts of a job where death was a commonplace, such as the frequent romances or hookups between pilots and the women working at the base. (The latter brings to mind an old joke about aging: the memory fades, the sex fades, but the memory of sex never fades.)

Professionally I am interested in organizational culture, incentives, and deployment of resources; Gray’s book gave me much to contemplate. He recounts that in the base’s briefing room there was a large color portrait of Air Chief Marshall Arthur (“Bomber”) Harris, with these words printed underneath: “When he says you go, YOU GO!” Gray also mentions that the RAF installed on the underside of the fuselage of the each bomber an automatic camera that took pictures 25 seconds after the bombs were dropped. Gray describes the photos as a “passport of credibility for the crew” to prove that they hadn’t minimized their risk by returning home too quickly.

On one occasion, bad weather forced Gray to land at an American air base, so both his crew and the Americans compared the British Lancasters with the American B-17 Flying Fortresses. The American planes carried much more defensive weaponry, a bigger crew, but only a quarter the payload of the Lancaster. Gray observed that the Americans were using forty men to deliver the same weight in explosives as seven British crewmen.

The Lancasters were flown in a linear stream that bombers stationed at any base could join, while the Americans spent considerable time and fuel marshalling groups of 36 planes into a V formation. Thus, there were sharp differences between the air war as conducted by the Americans, with their much greater resources, and by the tightly constrained British.

The Lancaster is not a beautiful piece of machinery. It has no silver fuselage or delta-shaped wings. It is painted in camouflage black on the bottom and dark green on top. Its nose contains a bulbous gun turret and its fuselage a bulging bomb bay. But it was effective, and a restored Lancaster will remind us of both the Canadian workers who manufactured them at Downsview and the Commonwealth pilots who flew them over Germany.

Remembrance Day is, in its essence, a day to remember those who, serving our country, did not return, and to honor those, like Mr. Gray, who did, and to thank him for sharing his story with us.

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