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)

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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.

34 thoughts on “Len Deighton: Bomber (1970) Literature and War Readalong June 2012

  1. I thought I knew, even if i hadn’t read, all of Len Deighton’s books but I’ve never heard of this! Oops! Marginally tempted to see if the library could find it, but it sounds a bit long.

    • I think it is quite different from the spy stories or at least that’s what I’ve heard, if those are the ones you’ve read. But I’m not that familiar with his work at all. The Deighton Dossier did a great work and you might find others you didn’t know.
      It’s a long book, yes but worth the effort.

  2. This sounds like a very worthwhile book. I am a history buff with a fairly strong interesting in World War II. My understanding is that allied bomber crews suffered an incredibly high rate os casualties. Being in a city being bombed most have been unimaginably horrible.

    A few years ago I read “Dresden 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox” by Alexander McKee. It is non fiction and It details how Dresden was destroyed by bombing in 1945. It was informative but at times a difficult read due to the terrible human toll. These things are so very interesting but so very disturbing as so many people died so horribly.

    • Yes, I agree with. At first I thought including all the numbers was over the top but it worked wel. Ususally non-fiction mentions numbers but fiction doesn’t. It was a unique mix.
      It must have been horrible to be on those planes, trapped and shot at from all sides.
      Many survived over enemy territory but then still crashed later…
      He did a good job with the research and all and spoke to a lot of people.

  3. I’m still planning on finishing the book and writing about it! 🙂 I’m glad you’ve mentioned it does pick up as you’re right the beginning is slow going so I’ve often reached for other books when I know I should be reading the Deighton (plus I had an overdue library book that had to be finished and returned today–which also slowed me down). He does give quite a lot of detail and I was wondering if it would matter if I couldn’t quite keep everyone straight, but it sounds like it all comes together. I wasn’t sure how he was going to handle the story, but he has introduced some German characters–also soldiers/pilots, so that makes it more interesting, too. Just need to keep going another 100 pages or so and I suspect it will grab me, too!

    • I hope so. I started to worry after page 100 but then I just thought, I cannot abandon my own readalong book and forced myself a bit and really started to like it.
      There is just too much to absorb in the beginning. In my copy it says it is the first novel to have been written on a computer. I can see why he must have needed that. To keep all those strands together must have been somewhat challengging.

  4. Great review, Caroline! Glad to know that you persisted with the book and ended up liking it. It is difficult to plough through 150 pages before the story-proper gets started. I haven’t read any Len Deighton books before. Your review makes me want to read this one.

    • Thanks, Vishy, I’m glad I did but it was not easy going at first.
      It’s quite gripping after a while and very tragic. I’ve never read anything this detailed. You really hadthe feeling to be sitting there in the plain with them. And the end is heartbreaking.
      I hope you will like it as well. Maybe you would get into it faster.

  5. My dad was a fan of Len Deighton but I don’t remember him owning this one. I had him down as a pulpy sort of writer, but clearly I am doing him an injustice!

    • The wayit is structured is already way too clever to be pulp but that doesn’t mean this bok isn’t an exception. From one twitter reaction I saw that he is called “underappreciated” and I agree.
      However, this would’t be a book for you. It’s unbearably graphic in parts.

  6. Wow. For the past week I have been preparing to apologize and defend myself (with your curses ringing in my ears). You have completely thrown me.

    Here are the cons and pros as I see them:
    Cons
    1. The book is too long considering the time frame it covers.
    2. There are too many characters. I had trouble remembering who some of them were. Deighton would have done much better on this if he had designated each chapter to be dominated by a specfic character. I just got done with the first Game of Thrones which has a huge number of characters as well, but the author using this chapter technique and confusion was less of a problem.
    3. Related to #2, Deighton shifts characters and places (ex. planes) abruptly sometimes. The book could have used spaces for these shifts.
    4. You have to read carefully or some cool things will pass you by – for example, the severing of Pawlak’s arm (p. 425)
    5. I am not into meteorology or types of clouds. It was like Deighton was showing off his knowledge of those two topics.
    6. I thought the coverage of Sweet’s plane was increasingly fantastic, bordering on cartoonish. I visualized him flying through the air in just his seat by the end.
    Pros:
    1. You learn a lot from this book. I loved the details. There is a cool passage where he goes through the parts of a Briitish base from A to Z.
    2, Most of the characters are interesting. All the main ones represented plausible types.
    3. Some of the deaths are shocking, surprising, and abrupt. Just like in war.
    4. The scenes in Altgarten during the bombing are intense. Especially the hospital scenes.
    5. It is very even-handed. Lambert and Himmel make good heroes on opposite sides.

    Favorie quotes:
    “‘I’m interested in what happens to people,” said Lambert. ‘I come from a long line of humans myself.'”

    “‘The war in the East was like a traveling circus and a traveling zoo battling in the wilderness to decide which one would put on a show.'”

    “‘Sometimes I think it’s just the machines of Germany fighting the machines of England.'”

    August on the destrutive younger generation – “Every fit, aggressive youngster who tries hard can get himself a bomber or a u-boat or an artillery battery and wreak havoc upon the world that it took us old men so long to put together… They set fire to great cities and turn our society upside down in return for bits of colored ribbon.”

    “It wasn’t only cowards that died a thousand times, it was wives and mothers and sweethearts. Fathers too, perhaps.”

    Best passage – Gerd tunnelling to reach Anna-Louisa

    Overall, I liked the book, but surprisingly not as much as you. I agree that if you can make it through the first half, there is a big payoff.

    • Maybe you were reading it with a bad conscience? I did curse you during the first 100 pages. 🙂
      I’m honestly impressed now but the first 150 pages were hard, for all of the above “cons” reasons. Still, I like it when it’s done, like that and not chpaters dedicated to charcaters, it felt more literary. I suppose however if he had written in now, he would do it like it’s done in the Game of Thrones. Readers nowadays need much more guidance.
      I agree on all of you pros/cons, although the cons in the end were part of the pros for me.
      Even your favourite quotes all struck me while reading. The idea that young men get to play with the world is interesting.
      I’m surprsied you didn’t like it more. Very obviously you didn’t have an emotional reaction but I had.
      Spoiler
      ***********
      At the end, when Lambert waits for his friends, that’s such a heartbreaking scene. There are many more.
      ***********
      While I’m not sure, I’ll read him again, I’m glad I’ve read this one. It’s pretty unique.
      I would still like to know why it didn’t work that well for you.

  7. I have to admit I read the last three hundred pages wondering how I was going to defend the book against all the wailing from the readalong group. My first comment was going to be “mea culpa” until I read your review. Perhaps that colored my opinion.

    I did like the book, but there were some aspects that aggravated me considering Deighton’s reputation (I actually have heard of him, unlike the other authors we are reading this year). I do not like books where I have to go back and read to figure out what just happened. The transitions were awkward. Considering he uses spacing in parts of the book, it seems odd that he woukd not use it for transitions between characters.

    I also felt the Sweet shootdown was ridiculous.

    It did not have the emotional impact because I have read and watched a lot on these type of scenarios.

    I liked the quote about young men, but you could argue that its the old men who start the war so they can’t complain. After all, the old men bring the kids into the china shop.

    • I really had a feeling you would have liked it more withouth thing “we” would hate it. As it’s a long book, I knew there wouldn’t be a lot of participants and the lesson for next year really is… No more books over 350 – 400 pages with a majority of shorter ones.
      I didn’t think the transitioning was that bad or t least I didn’t notice.
      That shootdown is somewhat blurred now to be honest. I can’t remember the details. The part focussing on Lambert’s crew impressed me more.

  8. I can’t say it enough that I admire your persistence…if only I have half of your persistence when it comes to reading.

    I have read a book like you mentioned here, the building up takes too much pages … it bored me and then you can predict what happen next.

    • It was a risk I had to take under the circumstances and I’m glad I did. The operation he described was huge and to give a feeling for all the parties involved needed a lot of introduction.

  9. Really interesting to read everyone’s reactions to this book – which Anthony Burgess described as one of the top 100 fiction books of the 20th Century! I appreciate the nice words about my website.

    • I think it’s one of a kind and quite amazing. I didn’t have the problems mentioned with the transitions or anything. i thought it was well crafted and the intro part was needed. It reminded me of the movie battle of Britain but when you see faces it’s obvioulsy easier to follow than just names.
      You’re welcome. I think you’re site deserves publicity. It’s very well done.

  10. I see I’m the only one who’s never heard of Deighton before.
    Your review is great and the book sounds interesting but I don’t think I could read it.

    • I had never heard f him before either. Max comented on twitter when he saw I published this saying he was underappreciated. I think he must have been more famous 20 or so years ago.
      I don’t see you read this on the other hand, I had huge doubts as well but then I was quite fascinated. But it was sad.

  11. I finished it today. Apologies for the delay in joining in the discussions. I agree with the earlier comments that it took a while to get into but once the raid was underway I found it hard to put down. By then I cared about the characters and was hoping – hope against hope – that they’d survive.

    Len Deighton had certainly done his homework before writing it – although in places it was over-heavy with the research. It was as if he couldn’t quite decide if he was writing the equivalent of a drama-documentary or a novel. Of course by the end when one of the pilots is attempting to land his crippled Lancaster (notice how I avoided a plot spoiler there!) every detail about how he is trying to control the height and speed is of vital importance. Will he make it? – will he save his crew – you are living it moment by moment with him.

    I do have to confess that while I was waiting for my book to arrive I borrowed the Radio 4 dramatisation of the story from the local library which was considerably abridged and got me into the story more quickly as there were fewer minor characters.

    It is an important book although I wouldn’t go as far as Anthony Burgess in putting it in the top 100 of the last century.

    So no need for a mea culpea Kevin – I enjoyed the read

    • I’m glad you are joining the discussion and that you liked the book as well.
      Poor Kevin got a moaning mail from when when I was about 75 pages into the story.
      I really was afraid it was going to be like that until the end but once we have been introduced to all the characters it starts to move and, like you, I was emotionally engaged while reading.
      Pretty much for the same reason, hoping against hope.
      I think he aimed at a docuentary stlye book tha’s why I think he achieved what he wanted to do and did it very well.
      This is one of those books I wouldn’t have read if it hadn’t been suggested by Kevin, so I’m grateful as well.
      I wouldn’t go as far as Burgess either but it’s excellent. I’ve never read anything like it and think it allows even more than a movie to identify with the crews on the planes.

    • I’m glad I chose it for the readalong. I think this it was an eye opener not only for those who participated but also for those who knew Deighton and those who thought he was an enirely different kind of writer.

    • I’m sure you would like it. I’ve read a lot of war themed books by now but it’s quite unique. Like the movie “The Battle of Britain” but more impressive. Just keep in mind that the first 100+ pages are hard going.

  12. And for anyone who has had their appetite whetted by this novel – I’m now reading Bomber Country by Daniel Swift. His grandfather was a Lancaster pilot with 83 squadron and failed to return from a raid in early June 1943. The book is about him tracing what might have happened but also what people like Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf were writing at the time.

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