Len Deighton: Bomber (1970) Literature and War Readalong June 2012

It is very rare that I abandon a book. Often I regret this persistence when I finish it anyway and have to find out that it simply isn’t good. Sometimes I’m incredibly glad I went on. Len Deighton’s Bomber was one of those. I struggled badly for 150 pages and the idea to have to go on for another 400 seemed daunting. But it was worth the effort, it really was and looking back, I have to say, how lucky this was part of my readalong or I would have given up and missed out greatly. Bomber is amazing. It’s maybe not refined and highly literary but it’s a huge achievement. Not only because it is extremely accurate and detailed but also because it’s very engaging and admirably well constructed.

Bomber is an epic. A book with a huge cast and numerous different settings and story lines. Deighton really needed 150 pages to set the scene and introduce everyone, including the different aircraft. That part was really challenging to read as there were so many names and one had to try to constantly picture a map to see where they were located. Once the set up was done, the story moved on nicely, all the different story lines were tied together, the characters had become more than just names but people with a story.

Bomber tells the story of a bombing raid that takes place on June 31st 1943. Deigthon deliberately chose a date that doesn’t exist, knowing well that his book felt so realistic and authentic that people would always end up assuming it was non-fiction.

The 31st is a full moon night and all the crews get ready for a night of bombing and fighting. The target is the city of Krefeld in Germany. The planes take off from Warley Fen, head towards Krefeld and have to try to not get shot down before they have dropped the bomb. But before they can drop a bomb

First the PFF Mosquito aircraft will mark the target with red markers. Their gear is much more accurate than anything we have, so their reds are what the Finders must look for. The Finders will put long sticks of flares over the reds. Mixed in with the Finder aircraft there are Supporters – and these are mostly crews on their first couple of trips – who are carrying only high-explosive bombs. That’s because incendiaries could be mistaken for red markers.

What you just read is part of the instruction the pilots receive before flying off. But this part is more than that, it points towards the core of the book because the tragedy of the story has it’s source in the fact that, due to many unlucky circumstances, the markers were dropped on the wrong targets and what was bombed was the small city of Altgarten. No factories, no strategic points, just civilian buildings.

The first third of the book, sets the scene, the next third describes a lot of action and how the mistake happened and the last third is describing the drama in the air and on the ground in a very graphic way. I had to swallow hard a lot of times.

What I liked is that Deighton described a wide range of German characters, from the fanatic Nazi to the likable soldier. The portraits are nuanced and we get a feel for the diversity of the people.

The British crews are equally diverse but for other reasons. There are also Canadians and Australians, upper class and lower class men, married guys and womanizers, men who just do their duty, cowards and heroes.

In the death scenes Deighton’s sympathies clearly lie with the German civilians and the British bomber crews. Each part has one or two main characters and a lot of secondary characters and the fate of the main characters is equally sad in all the parts. I cannot go into too much detail, if you want to read it, you want to find out for yourself who will survive and who will die.

I’ve read a few harrowing accounts in the past and the one or the other book has depressed me incredibly. Bomber didn’t depress me but it brought a few tears to my eyes, a thing that rarely if ever happens to me unless something sad happens to an animal.

Bomber offers an interesting mix of emotional story telling, accuracy and numbers. We are informed of everything. How many people were involved, how many died, how many were injured, how many bombs hit target, how many were jettisoned, how many missed or didn’t go off and so on and so forth. At the end of the book were also informed about each and every surviving character’s future. It’s as if Deighton wanted to answer each and every question someone reading his novel might have.

If you ever wondered what it is like to be in a city which is bombed, this book will bring you close to this experience. If you ever wondered what it is like to be in plane on a bombing raid, this book will allow you to experience this as well.  In any case, if you are interested in WWII and how it was fought in the air, this is the book you should read.

If you’d like to find out a few things about Deigthon and his other books don’t miss visiting the Deighton Dossier. It is a site dedicated to Deigthon’s work and it is done with a lot of passion.

Other reviews (I’m somewhat doubtful that there will be any)


Bomber was the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain. Discussion starts on Monday July 30, 2012.