Tells about the events surrounding a single RAF bombing mission in summer 1943. But while the "main" story is of the Lancaster crews, most of the book is devoted to other people affected by the raid: the German radar operators and pilots who are tracking the RAF airplanes; the people left behind at the RAF base while the raid is in progress; the inhabitants of the German town which is bombed.
I had the book out of the library last year, but only managed to get about half-way through it before it had to go back. So I ordered it again on audiobook (it's a new recording, so good to see that the publishers have recognised that there's an interest in it) and started again from the beginning.
Something I found quite surprising was that when I first abandoned the book, the story had only just reached the part where the bombers took off: there is an awful lot of other stuff that happens first, mainly relating the story of the German citizens and military who will, we assume, be the target of the RAF strike. Some of these stories were fairly simple, showing how life goes on regardless of the war; some more disturbing, including the moral dilemma posed to a German pilot who comes across a report by a doctor of experiments performed on inmates at a concentration camp. But there's also a fair amount of stuff about the RAF crews, so that by the time the raid starts, we know them quite well.
The raid itself takes up most of the second half of the book (the book's fairly long - I think it was 14 CDs). There's quite a lot of detail in the book about how the planes work, how much a single raid would cost (including so much for the building of the plane, so much for the bombs, so much for the staff training, so much for the fuel, etc.). There's also quite a lot of detail about what happens when things go wrong. Time slows as a descriptions are provided of individual explosions, detailing how specific pieces of shrapnel and bomb debris spin through air and water, buildings and people, causing various types of damage.
Some of the technical details I'd not really thought of before: the way that the bombers are preceded by smaller 'planes which drop flares to indicate the bombing route; the way that they mixed incendiary, high explosive, and delayed action bombs to cause maximum damage, etc..
A couple of quotes (some from memory, so may not be accurate) stick in my mind. When one pilot relates certain anti-war sentiments of his brother, he's challenged:
"That's the kind of thing that gets us into trouble. He should be shot"and
"He was sir, at Dunkirk"
"I'm interested in what happens to people. I come from a long line of humans myself"and
Polished a thousand times, the windows [of the plane] had become a delicate optical system that edged the landscape with halos and made the sun a bundle of gold wireand the end of the book, where the epilogue talks of what the WW2 airfield looks like these days
Only the control tower is in anything like its original condition. Although if you ascend the iron staircase, be careful: you might end up writing a book about it
All in all a very worthwhile read.
Read it (actually, listened to it) again in 2015. I'm pretty sure this was a different audiobook version: read by someone else, and including a foreward with Len Deighton talking about how he came to write the book. This was quite interesting - he really did do a lot of research.
What I'd forgotten was just how much of the book is taken up with what you might call "scene setting", before the actual bombing mission begins.
A couple of passages in the book had quotes I wanted to remember - one being the last sentence of the book. I googled it to see if I could get the exact quote, and this web page (with my 2010 review) came up. I'd also intended mentioning the "shot at Dunkirk" thing again. I suppose it's good that I'm consistent in being impressed by the same things in the book but it's a little disconcerting to see that I'd completely forgotten mentioning them before.
Completed : 23-Jan-2010 (audiobook)
Completed : 24-Mar-2015 (audiobook)