The November/December 2006 issue introduced a new feature to the magazine: the essay. Freeman Dyson’s remembrance of his time spent working for Britain’s Bomber Command in 1943-1945 (“A Failure of Intelligence”) prompted many letters.
I was a rear gunner flying Lancasters in 300 (Polish) Bomber Squadron, which flew alongside Britain’s Royal Air Force and operated out of Britain. Reading Freeman Dyson’s essay brings back many memories, not all of them pleasant. I share some of Dyson’s views on the ruthlessness of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, commander in chief of Britain’s Bomber Command. My expression of the revulsion I felt when ordered to bomb Chemnitz, Germany, the day after Dresden was burnt–and after being told that the refugees from Dresden were filling the streets of Chemnitz, where there was no room in shelters–nearly got me court-martialed!
The night flying in “streams” was deadly! That is when we could have used an additional half-dozen eyes. The sight of glowing exhaust manifolds bearing in on you made your “fighter affiliation” exercises pay off. And on cloudy nights, the fear of collisions was such that at the end of each “leg,” the planes in the stream would, before turning, switch on their navigation lights for a moment. It looked like a Christmas procession.
The Operation Manna flights, wherein Allied bombers were used to feed people in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands in 1945, were a blessing. I participated in four such flights. Recently, when I was talking to Delft University of Technology professor Hans Blok over dinner, the subject came up. I found myself describing the feeling of seeing hundreds of people on the roofs and balconies, waving flags and waiting for food. Professor Blok smiled, then floored me: he was one of them.
The Freeman Dyson essay took me back 62 years. In 1944-‘45, I was in charge of a small Eighth Air Force radar unit in England, France, and Germany. It was part of the Micro-H system for guiding American and English bombers to their targets in Germany. I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the fleets of bombers and other aircraft that flew over the channel when the weather cleared in late December 1944 to support our troops in the Battle of the Bulge.
While in England, I made the acquaintance of a navigator who flew in a Lancaster bomber. I have sent him the Dyson essay; it has brought back memories of those harrowing days to him.
Freeman Dyson’s essay really struck a chord with me. Perhaps that’s because a part of the essay reports on the effectiveness of electronic countermeasures used during World War II–a subject that aroused my curiosity long ago.
As a lieutenant in the United States Air Forces in England during the war, I enjoyed working on extra-secret radar countermeasures, but I was never able to tell whether or not my efforts were producing the desired results. Although Dyson studied the Royal Air Force, I think his results also apply to the countermeasures used by the USAF.