By Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC
One of the great joys that stems from my passion for bravery is that I constantly meet war veterans, all of whom have a story or two to tell.
A few days ago, I was introduced to John Moseley, aged 90, who had served in the RAF during the Second World War as a navigator in Lancaster bombers.
Like the vast majority of the war veterans I have met over the years, Mr Moseley’s charm was matched by his modesty and his refusal to champion his own courage. This was a man who, like most of his fellow members of Bomber Command, risked his life time and again during the 1939-45 conflict.
Over a cup of tea and a chat at the House of Lords, Mr Moseley told me some moving and inspiration tales of lost comrades and great gallantry. But he also had a treat for me in the form of two poems written by Philip A. Nicholson, a fellow British airman but also a little-known war poet.
Nicholson’s poetry is unpretentious and straightforward which is why, some 70 years on, Mr Moseley still had copies of his work. Nicholson undoubtedly had a knack for capturing a moment – both in the skies and on the ground – and I’d like to share his two short poems with you…
Men for All Seasons
Fickle as a young girl’s heart,
Weather played a vital part.
Forecast winds could change and veer
A navigator’s constant fear.
In spite of every new device
All crews feared the demon ice.
Downstairs, if shrouding fog came down
“Ops are cancelled, off to town!”
Remember, too, those luckless types,
The ground crews who, despite their gripes
Worked through winters foul and grim
To keep their precious Lance in trim.
But there were times of awed surprise
As towering cloudscapes filled the skies;
And sunsets when the climbing kite
Glowed crimson in the fading light.
Supreme and proud
We had no common bond
Save that of youth.
No shared ambition,
Except to venture and survive.
Until, aloft within that roaring fuselage,
Each dependent on the others,
We found in war’s intensity
Good cause to say with pride in later years,
To those who chronicled the great events
We flew in Lancasters.
I strongly suspect these are words that will bring a tear to the eye of any surviving Lancaster crew who served during the war, and perhaps others besides.
I have long championed the massive wartime contribution of our Bomber Command crews. During the war, the average age of the aircrew was just 22 and the youngest were only 18. Three out of every five airmen became casualties and the more detailed statistics tell their own story: 55,573 men were killed, 8,403 were wounded and 9,838 were captured and held as Prisoners of War.
Indeed, the losses of Bomber Command were greater than those of any other service – accounting for 10 per cent of all British fatalities. It was for this and other reasons that, a couple of years ago, I made a substantial donation to the £7 million RAF Bomber Command Memorial appeal.
The generosity of the appeal’s supporters meant that in June last year a terrible wrong was righted when the Queen unveiled the new RAF Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park.
Since reading Philip A. Nicholson’s two poems, I have carried out some basic research on the internet. I have discovered that he wrote other poetry and indeed one of his poems, The Air Gunners, has been posted on the Bomber Command Museum of Canada’s website. This poem captures how the gun turret of an aircraft could, especially at night, be the coldest, loneliest place in the sky.
Furthermore, I tracked down a book Winged Words: An Airman’s Miscellany by Ron James, which contains no less than six of Nicholson’s poems, including Men for All Seasons.
As for John Moseley, who served as a Warrant Officer during the war, he also visited the Bomber Command Memorial for the first time during his visit to London as part of his 90th birthday celebrations. He described the memorial as “incredible”.
Mr Moseley’s visit to London was arranged by Bill Cash, the Conservative MP for Stafford, and two mutual friends. After returning to his home in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, Mr Moseley wrote to me and said (words that I am publishing with his permission): “Bill Cash asked me yesterday: ‘What was it like to fly in Lancasters?’ I did not answer fully and should have added privileged, proud, awed, thrilled and scared stiff. Apart from the last words I would wish to apply all of them to my visit to your House [of Lords]. Thank you…”
I can assure Mr Moseley that the privilege – of meeting such a distinguished and charismatic war veteran – was all mine and I thank him for introducing me to the inspirational poetry of Philip A. Nicholson.
* Lord Ashcroft’s latest book, Heroes of the Skies, published by Headline in hardback and paperback, is on sale now. All author’s royalties from the sales of the book are being donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund, the custodian of the Bomber Command Memorial. For more details on the book, visit: www.heroesoftheskies.com