Bomber (novel)

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First edition (publ. Jonathan Cape)

Bomber is a novel by Len Deighton and published in the United Kingdom in 1970. It is the fictionalised account of the events of February 18th 1943, in which an RAF bombing raid on the Ruhr area of western Germany goes wrong. In each chapter, the plot is advanced by seeing the progress of the day through the eyes of protagonists on both sides of the conflict.

Bomber was the first novel to be written on a word processor, the IBM MT/ST.[1]

Plot summary[edit]

Sam Lambert is an experienced RAF pilot based at an East Anglian bomber station. He has flown almost fifty bombing missions over Germany since the start of the war. As he nears his tour's end, he is developing signs of exhaustion. The stress of flying is exacerbated by a plot device similar to that found in From Here to Eternity. Lambert is an accomplished cricketer and the station commander needs his participation to assure victory against a rival. Lambert's refusals to do so put him at odds with his flight commander, an ambitious and unscrupulous flight lieutenant, who seeks to force him out of flying by individually taking Lambert's best crewmen and replacing them with poor performers (this chimes with another war movie, Twelve O'Clock High). At the same time, his crew revere him and believe that he is the one factor that will ensure their survival. RAF Bomber Command is organising a large raid on Krefeld. We join the bomber crews at rest and in preparation for the ordeal. The men, their planes, weapons, responsibilities, attitudes, thoughts and fears are described in great detail with minute historical accuracy. There are frequent references to weather conditions, meteorological phenomena and forecasts that add to the foreboding in the plot.

Meanwhile, across the Channel in northern Germany people in the small market town of Altgarten go about their daily business. Its residents and wartime guests appear aware of the war's progress but curiously untouched by it.

We follow Oberleutnant August Bach as he returns from home in Altgarten to his duties at a Freya radar installation on the remote Dutch coast looking out towards England. Bach is a World War I veteran serving as commander of a radar station charged with detecting and tracking the Tommi Terrorflieger on their night-time raids against the Nazi Fatherland. The counterpoint to this is his son's membership in a Waffen SS unit serving in Russia. He is a widower with a second younger son, looked after by a state provided caregiver.

Back in Altgarten, the Bürgermeister finalises preparations for his own birthday banquet, to be held in a cosy restaurant located in one of the timber-built houses surrounding the medieval town square. We are introduced to the Altgarten TENO (Technische Nothilfe or "Civil Defence") engineers who regularly work heroically in the nearby Ruhr cities following air raids, and the local fire crew, adequate for a small country town but useless against what is to come.

The bombs are loaded into the Lancasters, the German radars are allowed to "warm up", the aircrews adjust their night vision and everyone sits and waits and waits. Superstitions, rites and rituals are respected as the combatants ready themselves. Meanwhile Altgarten's people continue with their day-to-day routines.

Eventually the raid gets under way. The British bomber stream forms up and navigates its course avoiding known flak concentrations and searchlight batteries. As the bombers are pinpointed by German nightfighters, we discover in the minutest detail how tiny pieces of shrapnel from an 88mm anti-aircraft shell can destroy each of the Lancasters, each costing more than £42,000 at 1943 prices.

Despite the meticulous planning, things go wrong immediately: a Lancaster almost crashes on take-off; a Junkers fighter crashes into the sea after hitting birds over the IJsselmeer; another is shot down by a friendly flak-ship. A pathfinder Mosquito is downed and the marker bombs it is carrying explode to the south east of Altgarten; with little flak and clear bombing conditions, Christmas Tree marker pyrotechnics are placed over the wrong target. Creepback ensures that the entire town of 5,000 inhabitants is carpet-bombed by a force designed to destroy a city: a firestorm results.

The author maintains a detached vantage point, understating and implying the horror of the characters' situations. Even so, the protagonists' injuries and deaths are described in the same detail as the airmen's tactics. Each successive event is clinically dissected and analysed almost as though in slow-motion. As is the case with virtually all of his works, the author does portray some characters' actions as counter-productive to their own cause. By the time the raid is over, Altgarten is destroyed; many of the main characters are dead or have lost those close to them. Despite the attack going terribly wrong, no punishments are meted out in direct consequence of its failure; two admirable surviving characters from the opposing sides (Himmel and Lambert) are singled out for execution/demotion by their evil, or perhaps just incompetent, stupid or blindly ambitious, superiors. The book ends with an epilogue which gives details of the post-bombing-raid lives of the major characters, some of whom are purportedly still alive at the time of the book's appearance.


  • The crew of RAF Lancaster bomber, nicknamed "Creaking Door", particularly its pilot, Flight Sergeant Sam Lambert
  • August Bach, the commanding officer of a Luftwaffe radar station on the Dutch coast
  • Oberleutnant Victor Löwenherz, an aristocratic Luftwaffe night fighter pilot and his fellow crew members
  • Bach's housekeeper/mistress, Anna-Luisa, and his young son, Hansl, at their home in Altgarten, a small German village close to the Dutch border
  • Altgarten's burgomaster, fire chief, civil defence (TENO) engineers and various residents


Bomber is highly regarded by some critics. Anthony Burgess, in Ninety-nine Novels, cited it as one of the 99 best novels in English since 1939.[2]

In 1979 Motörhead frontman, Lemmy, dedicated the band's third album Bomber to Len Deighton, as it was his novel that had inspired the title-track.

Bomber was announced, on 1 February 2010, as one of twenty-one titles longlisted for the "Lost Man Booker Prize" of 1970, a contest delayed by 40 years because a reshuffling of the fledgeling competition's rules that year disqualified nearly a year's worth of high-quality fiction from consideration.[3] The book did not make the shortlist.


Home station BBC Radio 4
Narrated by Tom Baker
Original release 1995 (1995) – 1995 (1995)

In 1995 the BBC's Radio 4 broadcast a "real time" dramatisation of Deighton's documentary novel Bomber, covering the novel's action following RAF Lancaster bomber O-Orange's take-off in 1943, life in the German town that was its allocated target, the bombing raid and the plane's return at night. The drama threaded through the station's unchangeable schedule of news and current affairs from early morning to midnight.[4] It starred Tom Baker as the narrator, Frank Windsor as Air Marshal Harris, Samuel West as Lambert, Emma Chambers and Jack Shepherd and told how the raid had "changed the lives" of many men and women – British and German. It was repeated on Radio 4 Extra on Armistice Day 2011.


  1. ^ Kirschenbaum, Matthew (1 March 2013). "The Book-Writing Machine: What was the first novel ever written on a word processor?". Slate. Retrieved 2 March 2013. 
  2. ^ "The Collections: 'Bomber', by Len Deighton". 
  3. ^ "The Lost Man Booker shortlist announced". 25 March 2010. Archived from the original on 23 September 2015. 
  4. ^ [1] Archived 6 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine.

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