Bringing history to life

The sense of relief is palpable as the English coastline comes into view, the Lancaster’s four big Rolls-Royce Merlin engines droning reassuringly in the dawn’s early light.

“Berlin burning seen from 19,000 feet was the most beautifully horrible sight I’ve ever seen,” said BBC reporter Wynford Vaughan-Thomas after flying along on a Lancaster bombing mission in September 1943. Visitors to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum can now experience that same mission through virtual reality. CWHM Image
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Skipper Ken Letford asks for the nav lights to be turned on. Someone in the back calls for the flight engineer, Charlie Stewart, to sing a song. He obliges.

It is the wee hours of Sept. 4, 1943, and the crew of Royal Air Force Lancaster bomber “F for Freddie” is coming home from a raid over Berlin. Of the 316 Lancaster bombers that took off the previous evening, 22 never made it home. This crew was one of the lucky ones.

The cockpit scene fades from view and I take my virtual reality (VR) headset off, blinking as I am instantly transported back to 2019. I’m inside the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum (CWHM) at Hamilton International Airport, where I’ve been immersed in its latest exhibit, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s VR presentation of the 1943 Berlin Blitz.

On board “F for Freddie” that night in 1943 were two additional passengers, BBC reporter Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and his engineer, Reg Pidsley. Armed with only a microphone and a BBC midget recorder that used direct cut acetate disks, the two men produced one of the most detailed eye witness accounts of a wartime raid.

“It was certainly the most terrifying eight hours I’ve spent in my life, because I didn’t know what was coming,” said Vaughan-Thomas in a post-war interview. “Berlin burning seen from 19,000 feet was the most beautifully horrible sight I’ve ever seen.”

The BBC took Vaughan-Thomas’ original audio recording and built a masterfully animated VR presentation around it. CWHM Image

The terror and the danger of the eight-hour mission is evident in the recording – as is the relief and joy to be returning home unscathed.

The BBC took Vaughan-Thomas’ original audio recording and built a masterfully animated VR presentation around it, bringing the viewer on board “F for Freddie” for a 360-degree immersive experience.

It is as close as we will ever get to flying in a Lancaster during the Second World War.

As CWHM’s marketing manager, Al Mickeloff, said, “If someone has a connection to the Lancaster – say their grandfather flew one – now they can see and feel what that was like.”

Released six months ago, the 1943 Berlin Blitz experience is currently available in England, although the CWHM is proud to host its North American debut.

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Staff at the museum designed and built a display space to host the attraction, complete with period artifacts and info-graphics that discuss the September 1943 night raid on Berlin, which killed more than 400 people on the ground.

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That mission happened almost 76 years ago, but thanks to the BBC it will never grow old.

If your travels take you anywhere near Hamilton, the 1943 Berlin Blitz experience at the CWHM is not to be missed.

Released just in time for March Break, the new exhibit will be available until the end of August, and it’s expected to be one of the museum’s most popular attractions.

While it is restricted to ages 13 and over, there is no additional charge for museum visitors other than the price of general admission. Up to six people can don the VR headsets at the same time.

Visit the museum’s website for additional information on the exhibit.

To learn more about the BBC’s recorded mission in “F for Freddie,” listen to BBC Sounds’ Archive on 4: Bombing Berlin.

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