On the night of September 3, 1943, a Lancaster bomber dubbed F for Freddie took off from Langar airfield in Nottinghamshire, bound for Berlin. Inside was its seven-man crew, drawn from England, Scotland, and as far away as Australia, which was not out of the ordinary.
What was out of the ordinary was that there were also two passengers aboard: Welsh BBC reporter Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and his sound engineer, Reg Pidsley. Vaughan-Thomas’ eye witness account of the mission, recorded in the belly of the plane by Pidsley and broadcast on UK radio the following evening after their successful return (which was never guaranteed), is one of the most remarkable pieces of wartime journalism I’ve encountered.
Now, thanks to Irish studio Immersive VR Education, it’s also one of the most powerful pieces of virtual reality I’ve ever experienced.
1943: Berlin Blitz is not a game; rather, it’s a short, 15-minute VR experience that places users in F for Freddie as Vaughan-Thomas’ incredible radio account plays. Users are essentially extra observers, listening in to Vaughan-Thomas as he describes the events occurring around him in real-time, but also witnessing those same events in a way the British public could never have dreamed of back in 1943.
The use of authentic, period audio in 1943: Berlin Blitz is not dissimilar to Immersive VR Education’s debut project, Apollo 11 VR, which used original archive audio to help users experience NASA’s first mission to the moon.
“That game actually used all the real audio from the event, then we heightened it with a lot of music,” explains Immersive VR Education founder and CEO David Whelan. “Some of the guys in the BBC, in the VR department, actually got to try that out and they wanted to meet me so I went over and had a conversation.”
The BBC presented Whelan with the Wynford Vaughan-Thomas audio recording and asked if there was something he could do with it.
“As soon as I heard the audio, I instantly said, ‘Look, what we can do is very similar to Apollo 11, where we recreate the actual events and give people a sense of what it was like back in 1943,” says Whelan. “Straight away they were on board with that and they commissioned us to make it.”
“It’s a little bit different because there’s more characters and more detail [than Apollo 11 VR]. The Apollo cockpit and space is quite easy to do. The hardest part for this one would’ve been the Berlin landscape, because that’s very, very detailed. In space you’re just looking at two spheres. On the real world you have all these particle effects and sky; you have explosions going off as well, and it all has to be timed up correctly. So that was probably the biggest challenge for us.”
Whelan says the team is pleased with how it turned out, noting also the high level of detail inside the Lancaster itself.
“I think the model that we created for the Lancaster bomber is probably the most detailed model around,” he states. “We even went down as far as there’s different types of Lancasters, as well, from different eras. We made it so that every dial and every switch is exactly as it would’ve been back in the day.”
“The BBC have ties with the RAF, and they got the details from the RAF. We got a 360 [degree] photograph of the interiors of the planes and they sent those to us. Very high-detail 360 [degree] photographs.
“To be honest, a lot of this detail that we put into the cockpit you won’t even see, because it’s so dark in the cockpit. But if you do look around – and you have to get very, very close to some of the panels – you’ll see that the writing and everything on it is what it should be.”
Your mileage from 1943: Berlin Blitz may vary but as someone with family history in Bomber Command I found it tremendously enthralling and ultimately extremely moving. Over the years I’ve pored over my great uncle’s records and leafed through his log book, which ends with a chilling note acknowledging his failure to return from his final mission. He was a Lancaster pilot in 463 Squadron; one of several thousand RAAF airmen posted to Bomber Command in the UK during WWII. He had a hard tour over 16 ops, returning heavily damaged several times and rarely flying the same aircraft for more than two missions. He and his crew were killed in action over Dortmund Ems Canal in November 1944. He was just 21.
It’s a story shared by thousands of others, which is sombre stuff. The RAAF accounted for just two per cent of WWII enlistments, yet they made up nearly 20 per cent of Australian fatalities for the war. Aircrew had only a 40 per cent chance of surviving a tour, making for one of the highest casualty rates anywhere Australian forces fought in World War II. 463 Squadron, an RAAF squadron operating within RAF Bomber Command, had the highest casualty rate of any Australian bomber squadron deployed to Europe during the war. Unfortunately, the odds were always stacked against him.
It's very cramped and dark inside but the atmosphere is amazing.
1943: Berlin Blitz is a unique glimpse of a tiny slice of this history and actually left me with a few tears. I can’t really understate how powerful Vaughan-Thomas’ audio is, from his introduction of the crew to his listeners to his vivid description of passing through flak, with just the barest quiver in his voice as the searchlights scour the sky for the plane. Listening to the radio chatter amongst the crew is equally enthralling, from their excitement after shooting down a German night fighter to their banter as they cross back over the English coast, singing the old Scottish song ‘Annie Laurie’ (you can tune into the complete recording on the BBC here). Combining this recording with virtual reality has made 1943: Berlin Blitz is an incredibly effective time machine.
Whelan says this kind of emotional reaction is not uncommon and truly believes in the power of VR as an educational tool.
“We’ve had a lot of experience demoing our software at places,” says Whelan. “With Apollo 11 we roughly get about one in 10 people coming out of the experience in tears because they get such an emotional response from it.”
“They get a lot of empathy as well for how brave these people were going up in a spacecraft like that. And a lot of people wanted to be astronauts as well, and this is the closest they’ll ever get to it. Because it feels really real as well.
“For education, how we learn is through experience in real-life. As you’re a child, as you’re being taught by your parents, you learn through experience. Like learning how to ride a bike, or learning languages. Not sitting down, listening to words and having to repeat those words. Your mother would’ve handed you a cup and said, ‘That’s a cup’ and you make a connection in your brain. That’s exactly what we can do with virtual reality as well. It’s a more immersive way of learning.”
There’s no interactivity in 1943: Berlin Blitz beyond the ability to look around the cabin as the plane soars over Europe.
“I did ask the BBC if they wanted interactivity, where the player themselves were to have to release the bombs, and they said no, because they want to use it in schools and stuff,” explain Whelan. “They didn’t want people to have the dilemma of actually dropping their bombs on Berlin, you know?”
The scale of the devastation is amplified significantly in VR.
The Commonwealth’s relationship with Bomber Command has been a complicated one thanks to the many ethical issues raised by Bomber Command’s area bombing tactics. It’s estimated that between 300,000 and 600,000 German civilians, including children, were killed by Allied bombing. Through a modern lens it’s tough to reconcile, but it’s worth noting that there was opposition to the practice even during the war itself.
In February 1944 George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, delivered a long speech in the House of Lords arguing against the bombing of civilians, and was supported by Labour Party MPs Richard Stokes and Alfred Salter (whose own house was bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz).
Prime Minister Winston Churchill attempted to distance himself from the tactic following the devastating bombing of Dresden in February, 1945 and, with public opinion splitting, famously omitted mentioning Bomber Command in his victory speech at the end of the war in Europe. This was despite Bomber Command suffering the highest operational loss rate of any British Commonwealth force in WWII (more than 55,000 of the 125,000 men in Bomber Command were killed during the war).
It wasn’t until 2012 that a memorial was opened in Green Park, London, in honour of both the 55,573 aircrew who died carrying out Bomber Command’s strategy and the civilians killed during the raids. 1943: Berlin Blitz similarly notes both the enormous losses of Bomber Command aircrew (the average age of airmen in Bomber Command was just 22) and the devastation on the ground as a result of what those young men were ordered to do.
“At the end of the experience that we’ve built we actually have some statistics that show that even though this act was done, many of the people who actually died where civilians on the ground,” says Whelan. “It was the civilians that suffered; not just military targets.”
“And it also shows that from the 22 bombers that actually went over, only half of them returned from that particular mission as well.
“It gives some gravity to the situation, but it is very hard for people who aren’t in the military to really kind of feel what those people feel unless they use something like virtual reality. I hope, when people try out the experience, that they do get a little bit of adrenaline and a little bit of nervousness, but then at the end they’re brought back to earth and say, actually this did destroy houses and did kill very many people on the ground.”
The wax record had to warmed up in Pidsley's jacket before he could cut it.
Starting with a loan from Whelan’s own sister to buy the assets to create the first demo for Apollo 11 VR, which was later a successful Kickstarter, Immersive VR Education has expanded to a team of 40 people, and is still growing. Outside of Apollo 11 VR and 1943: Berlin Blitz the team has also released Titanic VR, which allows players to explore the wreck of the Titanic and experience key events during its sinking in 1912.
“What we’re building here is, we have an education platform called Engage, where any educator can teach any subject to anybody else in a virtual environment,” explains Whelan. “So it really places people inside a virtual classroom and they can all interact in a very, very natural way.”
“That’s what we’re building towards here, and the reason we build these showcase experiences is to really excite people about the possibilities of virtual reality through these experiences. And when they try these experiences hopefully they’ll want to learn more. All the assets that we create in these experiences are available for people and educators to use in the engage platform, where they create their own content and their own new experiences, and their own new ways of learning.
“I know we’re a niche within a niche at the moment, but we expect that VR will really take off within the next three to five years. I know there was a lot of hype around the technology around two or three years ago, but I knew that was very, very unrealistic., we needed standalone headsets that were good quality and low cost and we’re only now starting to see that happen.”