Lancaster Gunners “Hotting Up”


This detail from a fabulous charcoal drawing of Lancaster gunners preparing for a raid on Berlin in December 1943 was published in The Illustrated London News on 18 December 1943. The double-page spread 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.

The scene is a Nissen hut where the gunners are undergoing their last preparations before the take-off. Some are already fully dressed, wearing their parachute harnesses and flying helmets, and carrying their parachute packs. Others are being ‘valeted’ into their extraordinary clothing. Who knew that the gunners had to be ‘plugged’ in to test their suits for short-circuiting before flying?

The text tells us that pilots, navigators and wireless operators could keep sufficiently warm in their ordinary kit, but in the gun turrets the cold was unendurable without specialised clothing:

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’.

On the following page of the article, there are further details of electrical suiting, including the information that the electrically-heated suits had buoyancy aids, essential given how difficult it would be for the gunners to swim if their aircraft was ditched. There is also a note saying that a yellow dye could be released into the water from a fluorescent pad, the fluorescence meaning that the dye would be easy to see in darkness.

Although the odds that Lancaster (and other heavy bomber) aircrew faced were appalling, a great deal of thought, research and ingenuity had gone into preparing their kit for emergency situations.