Edinburgh Fringe 2019
A Lancaster bomber sets off on a bombing raid over Germany. The crew’s chances of a safe return are statistically slim, but even if they succeed, they will be forced to deal with their own collateral mental damage.
A young man forms part of a Lancaster bomber squadron, going out on yet another raid towards the end of World War II. The play conveys parts of the overall journey, with the plane being in almost constant mortal danger. John, the Wireless Operator, carries out his duties on the plane out of self-preservation and loyalty to his fellow crew-members. However, he is both terrified and wracked with guilt at the devastation wreaked upon the vulnerable population which he can easily imagine. He wonders how he will be able to reconcile the knowledge of his participation in mass killings with loving his offspring – if, that is, he makes it back.
Wireless Operator at surface level brings to life the story so frequently glorified in cinema. Yet the reality for the crew members was bleak. Claustrophobic, cramped conditions, extreme nausea, guilt, fear of stigma, freezing temperatures, not to mention the constant threat of death. This fear of death was statistically extremely well-founded. A rear gunner could expect to be killed within five raids. A crew member had a 2.5% chance of surviving two sorties. But their problems would only just be beginning if they beat the probabilities and survived. Guilt. Panic attacks. Nightmares. Depression. Rage. Suicidal thoughts.
Many servicemen and women fail to receive recognition for their efforts post-conflict. This was especially true of World War II bomber crews, whose narrative was downplayed out of post-war political expediency ; the scale of the German civilian casualties was an embarrassment for the Government and presumably a potential barrier to swift reconciliation.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is perhaps only in very recent times being acknowledged. Yet, the evidence of this condition pre-dates World War II, being the one of the subjects of Pat Barker’s World War I Regeneration trilogy. As post-World War II conflicts become more closely examined, we begin to understand the difficulties faced by veterans of Vietnam, The Falklands and Iraq, among others. PTSD is clearly a subject matter for our times.
Wireless Operator was co-written by Max Kinnings and Bob Baldwin, and it is Baldwin’s input which contains a personal angle, as his father served in Bomber Command as a Wireless Operator (similarly Barker’s Regeneration took inspiration from her grandfather). Baldwin also directs Wireless Operator, symbiotically conveying the suffocation and intense sense of terror. Thomas Dennis as John bears dignified testimony to the complexity of emotions and the juxtaposition that a peaceful and loving man must be feeling when dropping bombs onto civilian targets. John’s sense of isolation is complete when on board ; he is physically segregated from the rest of the crew, being only able to hear voices in his head.
Silksheen Productions deserve enormous credit for developing and telling this poignant story faithfully and powerfully.