Lancaster: WW2 veterans tell story of aircraft in emotive documentary

The poignant story of the iconic Second World War heavy bomber, the Avro Lancaster, is being told through the words of the last surviving crew members, re-mastered archive material and extraordinary aerial footage. 

Feature documentary 'Lancaster' is from the filmmakers behind the box office hits 'Spitfire' and 'Armstrong' and uses breath-taking aerial footage from the world’s top aviation photographer, John Dibbs, filmed from the RAF’s last airworthy 'Lanc' as it became affectionately known by those who flew it. 

The much-loved aircraft took part in many of the most famous missions during the Second World War and its work left painful scars on the memories of those who flew it.

Avro Lancaster aircraft feature documentary Lancaster 5 CREDIT John Dibbs
Avro Lancaster aircraft (Picture: John Dibbs).

Veteran Peter Kelsey, who flew in 186 Squadron, was interviewed for the feature documentary prior to his death in 2020.

He told how flying in the Lancaster during the Second World War left life-long damage to his mental health, saying: "I fought my war from five miles up. 

"I dropped, at one time, seven or eight tonnes of bombs on somewhere, came back, had my breakfast, out on the booze the next day and thought nothing of it. 

"It was totally another world, but I realised that what I had done was fundamentally wrong, but the circumstances were such that we did it and I can't reconcile those two points, I can't reconcile them."


From the Dambuster raids to the controversial bombing of Dresden, the Lancaster helped turn the tide of war, but there was a deadly price to be paid.

Between 13 and 15 February 1945, 13 square miles of the historic German city of Dresden were bombed to a pile of rubble and burning embers, leaving 25,000 men, women and children dead - the aftermath of thousands of tonnes of high explosives dropped by British and American bombers.

Avro Lancaster aircraft feature documentary Lancaster 2 CREDIT John Dibbs
Avro Lancaster aircraft (Picture: John Dibbs).

The raid is considered to be highly controversial as it took place just two months before the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allies on 7 May 1945.

David Fairhead, one of the feature documentary's co-directors, spoke to Jo Thoenes, a BFBS the Forces Station broadcaster, about how challenging it was to tackle some of the more difficult aspects of what the pilots of the heavy-bomber aircraft were asked to do, saying: "There's still controversy around certain aspects of the bombing campaign and what have you, and we knew we had to tackle that stuff head on, but at the same time we knew we wanted to do justice to the veterans who have lived under this cloud for 70 years. 

"So, there was a challenge right there. How do we tell that story that is fair to them and does justice to the story?"

Veteran Rusty Waughman Flight Lieutenant 101 Squadron Second World War Lancasters CREDIT Altitude Films
Veteran Rusty Waughman then and now (Picture: Altitude Films).

Veteran Rusty Waughman, who was a Flight Lieutenant in 101 Squadron during the Second World War, spoke of his experience flying Lancasters, saying: "I was 20 years old, very naïve, didn’t have any experience of life at all.

"You knew you were facing death all the time.

"Night after night after night. But it’s just a thing you accepted."

About half of Bomber Command’s 120,000 aircrew - 55,573 to be precise - were killed over Nazi-occupied Europe. The highest casualties of any unit in the Second World War. 

The moving feature documentary focuses on 38 of those pilots who speak about learning to fly and heading off to war. 

The men are the heart of the documentary because this is the last time many will be able to share their stories. 

Avro Lancaster aircraft feature documentary Lancaster 3 CREDIT John Dibbs
Avro Lancaster aircraft (Picture: John Dibbs).

At the time of recording the interviews, the youngest veteran spoken to was 95 years old with the eldest older than 100.

Another of the documentary's directors, Anthony Palmer, revealed to Jo Thoenes how uncomfortable it was to ask these veterans to return to difficult memories they might have tried to forget about for decades, saying: "When you interview someone ... in their late 90s, there is a very different way in which they reflect about those moments and at times David and I felt uncomfortable about asking them to go back. 

"Back to being inside the aircraft, back to looking through the windows at all the bombing that was going on below them. 

"I think that was a difficult thing to do. In terms of their evolution, a lot of the time they told us that they were just doing a job they were asked to do and that's why it was so difficult, having done that job at the end of the war, they found that, you know, Churchill and the politicians turned their backs on them because they only did a job. 

"I think even today when we did our interviews and we asked them about the controversial bombing of Dresden, they were very clear about it and they were told it was legitimate military targets." 

Avro Lancaster aircraft feature documentary Lancaster 1 CREDIT John Dibbs
Avro Lancaster aircraft (Picture: John Dibbs).

Both David and Anthony strongly believe that being involved with the making of 'Lancaster' was the last chance for these Second World War veterans to tell their personal stories.

David says they were "kind of overlooked in all the celebrations of the war" adding that they did not get the Bomber Command Memorial in London's Green Park until 2012.

He said: "How long have you got to wait to be recognised, publicly recognised, for the part you played in defeating Nazi Germany? 

Bill Gould, a veteran who flew with 622 Squadron, says in 'Lancaster', "war is an ugly business" and having spent so much time with these veterans, David agrees, saying: "There's no truer thing said, you know, it was just that's what they were asked to do, and they did it, and they did it in our name and they did it to save the world, essentially." 

The film was produced by Haviland Digital, Trevor Beattie Films and British Film Company. The individual producers are Trevor Beattie, Jeremy Chatterton, Gareth Dodds, Keith Haviland and Steve Milne. The historical consultant is Steve Darlow.

'Lancaster' is released in cinemas and on digital today and on DVD and Blu-ray on 30 May.

Cover image: Avro Lancaster aircraft (Picture: John Dibbs).