The BBMF Lancaster and Semiotics

Avro Lancaster

The BBMF Lancaster and vessel of British myths. Copyright Jonathan Irwin Photography

The biggest event recently in the UK was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. On the Monday, my wife, two friends, Andy and Angela White, and I walked up Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath, where there was a gaggle of spectators, probably no more than seventy-five, and watched the RAF flypast. Everyone else was in The Mall. This is the road which runs from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace. Trafalgar Square commemorates Admiral Nelson’s defeat of the French and Spanish navies in 1805, in which he lost his life. The victory ended the likelihood of Napoleon invading Great Britain.

For us, the flypast was about three miles away, and it included four Spitfires, one Hurricane and a Lancaster. We could hear them better than see them. The cloud base was 500 feet at best. The sky was chucking down the rain. As we turned to go home, water dripping from our noses, we felt Parliament Hill begin to shake. The six aircrafts’ combined nine Rolls-Royce  Merlins drowned out conversation as they thundered over Parliament Hill at 300 feet, using the high hill as a waypoint for RAF Duxford.

We all stopped and watched them go. I don’t cry easily, being British and having been to a boy’s boarding school or two for rather more years than I might have chosen, but this hit me. I looked at everyone else, and, for everyone, men and women alike, tears were coursing down their cheeks as well.

Why? Because these are iconic aircraft with meanings deeply embedded in them, all of which we completely understand as a nation. Many of the myths of the Second World War are kept alive by these aircraft, and will do so long after all who were alive during WW2 are dead.

HMS Victory, in a dry-dock in Portsmouth, keeps alive myths from an earlier war, the Napoleonic War. Napoleon posed the same threat to us then as the Germans did in 1939. When you ask kids in Portsmouth who poses the biggest threat to the UK, they always say the same thing: “The French!” Hmm, they might still be right.

Later, I rang my Mum, ex WW2 RCAF. She asked, “Did you see the Lancaster? It made me cry.” She wasn’t the only one.

And that is semiotics.

John Klawitter, who lives in California and whom I thank, added: “I have similar feelings when the last of the B25 Mitchell bombers roar by overhead at the airshows here in the West San Fernando Valley. They were built in Burbank, 19 miles east of here. As a young boy on a farm in Northern Illinois, flocks of them would fly overhead, stopping off in Chicago on their way across the Atlantic to help in WWII. A distinctive, very loud, rattly even, sound of the twin engines. I’ll run outside from my studio, to catch a glimpse of that or any other warplane from those days of yore.”

Finally, I’ve stumbled over a photographer, Jonathan Irwin, who provided me with the shot of the BBMF Lancaster. The photo is copyright, so please ask his permission first before downloading a shot. His Flickr site is outstanding, and well worth a visit. My thanks to him for his help with this post.