And you with your bright smile in the last of the light, The day before you went away; The picture of you that's still propped on the shelf, With the telegram, bearing your name. I’ve missed you by years, but I stand where you stood, And the storm rumbles low overhead, But the fug of the engines has gone from the air, And the flashes of gold are just gorse. Oh war takes away – war takes away, In Dresden, Stuttgart, and Mainz, The fire and rubble under your plane, The grief that crept in with the dawn. Oh war takes away – war takes away, Cigarettes, curses and talk; The clatter of engines, the shouts and the guns, Have faded to silence once more. If wishes could summon you, here you would stand, One hand on the wheel of your plane. But there’s only the sound of the wind in the trees, And birches, and bracken, and rain.
About the poem
A few miles south-east of York, there are the remains of an old airfield. Long concrete runways, semi-circular Nissan huts mushroomed out of the ground, blocky signal towers. Two enormous hangars, filled with a variety of 1940s planes, from petite fighters up to the bombers, built to carry a five-man crew and closer to a flying house than they are to a biplane. There are still posters on the walls of the mess hut.
The former RAF Bomber Command station at Elvington has been preserved as the Yorkshire Air Museum and Allied Forces Memorial. It’s a good place to go for a wander round and a cup of tea. Just down the road from it, though, there’s Skipwith Common. Skipwith Common is now a National Nature Reserve and an SSSI, but during World War Two it served as a training airfield for the RAF crews selected to fly bombers. Concrete roads and airstrips are buried within deciduous woodland. The brick bomb bays are overgrown by birch trees, and small black Hebridean sheep graze the drainage dykes.
Remembrance seems sometimes to ask for simple narratives – to remember those who gave their lives for our freedom – but my family is full of complicated stories. My great-grandparents were killed in a bombing raid on the south coast. My grandfather and his brother, two young airmen, returned from war to find their parents gone. But my brother lives in Germany now, in a city centre full of 1960s buildings. When I commented, when I was visiting, on how modern everything was, he told me, “Every major city in Germany is like the centre of Coventry. They all got bombed flat by the Allies in the war.”
My grandfather served as a navigator on an RAF Lancaster bomber in the second World War. On his very first mission, his plane was shot down in the night over Occupied France. The crew – those who survived – were rescued by the French Resistance and were smuggled in stages halfway across France and then helped to escape into Spain over the Pyrenees. Odd though it seems, being shot down probably saved my grandfather’s life. The agreement with the French Resistance was that no-one who they had helped to safety would be sent back to fight on European soil, for fear they would be caught by the Germans and would betray the Resistance networks. My grandfather, instead, was posted to the east, and served out the rest of the war in relative safety.
125,000 men served in RAF Bomber Command. 57,205 were killed. It’s a death rate of only a little less than 50%. At the same time, across three days in February 1945, the bombing raid on Dresden killed around 25,000 people. War takes away. And war takes away.