Lancaster Gunners: ‘Hotting-up’

A recent acquisition was a fabulous charcoal drawing of Lancaster gunners preparing for a raid on Berlin in December 1943. Published in The Illustrated London News, 18 December 1943, it was drawn by Captain Bryan de Grineau, a war artist who had fought in the First World War and was 60 years of age at the time of making the drawing.

It is a wonderful image, full of life, and despite its seemingly careless dash immensely detailed. We learnt a very great deal from it. Who knew that the gunners would be ‘plugged’ in to test their suits for short-circuiting before flying? The scene is a Nissen hut where the gunners are undergoing their last preparations before the take-off. Some are already fully dressed up, wearing their parachute harnesses and flying helmets, and carrying their parachute packs. Others are being ‘valeted’ into their extraordinary clothing.

The text tells us that pilots, navigators and wireless operators can keep sufficiently warm in their ordinary kit, but in the gun turrets the cold is unendurable.

So, in the ‘dressing-room’ the gunners are being assisted to don their electrically-heated altitude suits, normally slim young men, for the most part, who, when their sartorial preparation is completed, recall somewhat the famous prewar Michelin ‘man’.

Overleaf, there are further details of electrical suiting. Again, it was news to us that the electrically-heated suits had buoyancy aids, although it makes sense as soon as you realise how difficult it would be for the gunners to swim if the aircraft ditched. There is also a note saying that a yellow dye can be released into the water from a fluorescent pad, the fluorescence being a key detail because it meant the pad would be easy to see in darkness. Although the odds that heavy bomber aircrew faced were shockingly bad, it cannot denied that a great deal of thought went into preparing their kit for emergency situations.