Sunday, 17 October 2010

Technical Excellence

In the ‘swinging sixties’ Len Deighton wrote a best selling novel called the Ipcress File. This was filmed with Michael Caine who played Deighton’s working class spy hero. I love the Deighton spy genre but his best work, and one of the most meticulously researched of all books about Second World War aviation, is Deighton’s 1970 novel, Bomber.

When it was first published Bomber was a very large book. In 1970 most novels were around 250 pages and Bomber checked in at around 500 pages. The only thing comparable,back then, was the three volume version of Lord of the Rings. Deighton used a computer to create Bomber having seen an early form of word processor in use by IBM for creating their technical documentation. His previous works, it seems, had used scissors and Copydex and had been reworked using a literal copy and paste process and retyping. The increase in productivity that composing directly on a computer gave meant he could navigate around a huge book and manage the intricate, and as far as I can tell, technically accurate plot.

Bomber is about an RAF night bombing raid that goes hideously wrong. Not that this was unusual, night time navigation in WW2 and bomb aiming was a technical problem of considerable magnitude. Deighton understands this and goes to lengths to examine it within the context of the story.
        The whole plot revolves around an initial incident which causes the first target marker flares to be dropped too soon. The intended target is the German industrial city of Krefeld, but the bomber force actually attacks the small, fictional, market town of Altgarten. Altgarten has a large number of greenhouses. These show up on the radars of the bomber force as similar to the factory buildings of Krefeld. A further phenomena, creep back, draws the bulk of the bomb damage back across Altgarden.
       What Deighton is doing here, I believe, is illustrating just how imprecise the British night bombing effort was. He manages to do this without diminishing the efforts, courage and skills of the British crews. By 1943 it was known by Bomber Command how imprecise the vast bulk of the night bomber force could be. But, pre-war, Britain had invested hugely in the bomber force assuming that it would be an effective deterrent. It took a while before British High Command were prepared to concede how inaccurate the early attempts at night bombing were.

Deighton describes in intricate detail the workings of the German night fighter defence. How this system operated, and how well it exploited the shortcomings of the RAF’s aircraft is described superbly, and possibly for the first time in any non-classified, English language text.

The use of Schr├Ąge Musik (obliquely mounted) guns, and the technique of attacking the bomber force is described. The German night fighters were guided into the bomber stream by operators on the ground who are using powerful and accurate ground based radars. The nighfighters themselves had quite short range radars. They are directed by voice commands into a position behind and below the bomber stream.
       In this position the fighter pilots could often see the glow of the exhausts and sometimes see the target aircraft silhoueted against the sky. The Lancaster crews, who had poor visibilty below, were unlikely to spot the nightfighters. A ball turret gunner might have seen them, and these had been fitted on some marks of Lancaster, but were removed by the time that Deighton’s story was set.
       The German obliquely mounted guns, which no one on the British side anticipated, (despite the fact that similair guns had been used by the British in the first world war against Zepplins) allowed the fighters to gain a positive ID, get into the optimum position for destruction, and destroy a bomber with one burst.

In a world where some mainstream novels dump technical information straight out of wikipedia into the text, with often little understanding on the part of the writer, Deighton’s Bomber stands supreme. The accuracy and originality of the research, the clarity of the narrative, and the central part in the plot that the technology forms, illustrates that Deighton knows, and understands, exactly what it is he’s writing about.

From time to time there are rumours of a Bomber film. It’s been suggested that ‘Memphis Belle’ might have started out as an attempt to film Bomber. Certainly some of the book’s moments, most especially the ‘Opera House’ where the German defence system data is all collated on an illuminated plotting screen, would look astonishing on film.
       The close poximity of the groups of adversaries, who could sometimes hear each other on their common radio frequencies, suggest an intimacy like nothing any other soldiers have faced.
       The brushing contact, via invisible radar beams, at a time when television was a rich mans toy. Travel from England, to Germany and back again, when at the time only the wealthy knew of foreign travel, or even cars, these give the whole battle a remarkable, surealistic quality.

At the start the story opens with Sam Lambert, an NCO Lancaster pilot who is trying to be persuaded to participate in a cricket match by his unit commander. On the weekend in question Sam has other plans.
   Sam Lambert is a decent man. He's trying to serve his country. He flies to Germany by night and encounters people who want to kill him. By day he is caught up in the mess of unit politics. In a sense he is just like one of Deighton’s espionage heros.

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