Wireless Operator tells the gripping story of a terrifying night-time Lancaster Bomber raid in WW2, told through the eyes and ears of the wireless operator confined in the claustrophobic aircraft. He, with the young crew battle through a maelstrom of violence to participate and become witness to one of the most contentious strategies of WW2, the controversial indiscriminate allied bombing of German cities.
Often, they were targeting cities for ‘de-housing’, as it was euphemistically referred to by the War Office. De-housing was designed to overwhelm the old medieval wooden cities with a firestorm, leaving residents no chance of escape. It is hard to imagine the scale of the slaughter. It is estimated that in Hamburg 35,000 civilians, mostly women, children, old men and refugees were burnt alive in one night. Was this a legitimate demoralising weapon of war? Or was it mass murder?
This play is a portrait of an honourable young men who in good faith participated in acts that history has judged truly appalling. Was this campaign – one of the most contentious strategies of WW2 – a deep betrayal of their trust, their youth, their innocence and their humanity? Or was it a justifiable moral equivalence?
Sanctioned by Churchill, the civilian bombing was executed by highly trained young men, some as young as eighteen. They were expected to kill cold-heartedly, and probably die. The statistics are shocking; only one in six remained alive for their tour of thirty operations. Most died before their tenth.
They volunteered to fight the tyranny of the Nazis but found themselves carrying out the orders of a government which had decided that the deliberate slaughter of civilians was a good strategy. What must it have felt like to carry out these merciless acts without anger or hate?
My father, Sergeant Joe J. Baldwin, a carpenter and a pacifist like the character on whom he is based, was a gentle and thoughtful man who served as a Wireless Operator in 630 Lancaster Squadron. Like others, he struggled to come to terms with what he had participated in and so repressed his feelings. He lived, as most did, with the continuing trauma of PTSD.
A short story he wrote provided the emotional heart of Wireless Operator, as it became clear how psychologically complex his war had been and the extent of the trauma he and his crew mates had endured. They didn’t talk about it; they didn’t get campaign medals and their contribution to the allied victory became a national embarrassment consigned to the back pages of history by a society unsure of its moral culpability.