Saturday, January 30, 2016

Thunder Bird In Bomber Command - Sean Feast


As time passes, and as the last of the veterans leave us, the Second World War will be confined to books and whatever is written, for better or worse, on the internet. All we will have will be whatever the veterans leave behind. Future aircrew books will depend purely on archival material and by that I mean the usual suspects of letters, diaries, logbooks, recorded interviews etc. It is, of course, often the only way to tell a story, particularly so when the subject did not survive the war. For the most part, Sean Feast’s Thunder Bird In Bomber Command does just that. In fact, it says so on the cover – “The Wartime Letters of Lionel Anderson…”. It is so much more, however. Hidden inside is a quality unit history of one of Bomber Command’s unsung squadrons.

Lionel was from a Jewish family of Russian heritage that changed their surname to Anderson in an attempt to escape the prejudice, as was rife even beyond the Third Reich, of the time. His sense of adventure led him to the RAF and, following the usual path, he was soon in a convoy sailing for North America. His arrival in Canada was the beginning of a somewhat charmed existence in terms of hospitality and diet. Very little was too much trouble for the welcoming Canadians and food was plentiful. The situation only improved when Lionel was posted to Mesa, Arizona, and 4 British Flying Training School. Of course, there was a lot of hard work to be done but Lionel, and adventurous and outgoing type, certainly made the most of being taught to fly in the US.

Desert and mountains, snakes and spiders, oranges and cacti, rodeos and girls. It was a different world but the one common theme with any pilot in training is, of course, flying. Lionel soloed on a Stearman, the aircraft that did the same job as the Tiger Moth but with more power and considerably more presence. He took to it well and, after ninety hours on the big Boeing biplane, he progressed to the Vultee BT-13 and then the more complex North American Texan. He was finally awarded his wings in August 1942 and he returned to the UK in September with a tan and fond memories of, and no doubt a longing for, road trips to California, dining and dancing with movie stars, starring in a Hollywood film shot on location at the airfield and, as mentioned above, the phenomenal hospitality extended to the British airmen.

After a spot of leave, Lionel progressed though Advanced Flying Unit and OTU and waited anxiously for an operational posting. Spitfires? Typhoons? He was disappointed to find out he would be flying Defiants with No. 515 Squadron. The aircraft were worn out hand-me-downs and the accident and serviceability rates put a serious dampener on the squadron’s ability to do its job. However, it was a vital job and it did it well.

German radar developed at a rapid rate and was vital to the German air defences. Bomber Command’s war with these defences in particular was one of evolution. Tactics and technologies evolved but often the advantage was only held by one side for a short time as the enemy would quickly develop a counter. Two systems were developed to confuse or diminish the effectiveness of the German radar and both required the use of airborne jamming sets. ‘Moonshine’ was designed to give the impression of a large formation approaching. These ‘spoof’ raids were useful in directing enemy fighter defences away from day fighter offensive operations as well as daytime bombing raids. To ‘sell’ these diversions, the Defiants would fly in formation within about fifty kilometres of the enemy coast … in daylight. To operate the jamming set, the Defiant’s gunner had to leave his turret, descend in to the fuselage and work his box of tricks. The aircraft, save the occasional fighter escort, was virtually defenceless while jamming and several were lost to fighters during both day and night ops.

The other system, ‘Mandrel’, was kept in reserve. Once the cat was out of the bag, its days were numbered before an effective counter was developed. A series of orbiting Defiants could jam the German radar with noise from the ‘Mandrel’ sets so the radar could detect nothing or very little. The Germans cottoned on to ‘Moonshine’ relatively quickly so its effectiveness was soon diminished. The change to ‘Mandrel’ also meant the squadron switched to night ops. The screen produced by the Defiants allowed the bomber stream to at least get a head start in the ‘what’s the target for tonight’ stakes, or sneak home, and hopefully delay the deployment of German night fighters in particular.

Lionel arrived on the squadron in late January 1943 but did not fly a Defiant for another fortnight. He flew his first op several nights later and by early July had more than twenty under his belt. During that time, the squadron had been informed it would be transitioning to the role of long-range night fighters (read, intruders). Early hopes were dashed, however, as the ‘Mandrel’ ops had to be continued so, for the time being, the crews had to make do with their faithful, but failing, Defiants.

Operations continued but began to peter out and the squadron entered a strange period of limbo. It was still equipped with Defiants but Lionel and his colleagues were heavily involved in flying the variety of twin-engine types that had dribbled in to help the pilots convert. It was not until March 1944 that the first of the Mosquito Mk VI fighter-bombers arrived.

Now part of 100 Group, the new Mossie crews were seconded to No. 605 Squadron for an introduction to intruder work. Lionel followed suit, returned to his squadron and flew the first op of his second tour on the night of 26/27 April. He did not return.

Thunder Bird in Bomber Command seems like a straightforward tale. He trains, he writes home to the family, he flies, he dies. It’s a familiar story and, in short, this book shines a light on yet another airman. His younger brother, of course, was Gerry Anderson who went on to create classic television shows like the Thunderbirds. Gerry was inspired by his older brother and the connection between the film Lionel was an extra in, Thunder Birds, is evident. However, there’s a bit more to it than that. Much has been made of the Thunderbirds link and rightly so as it is a fantastic marketing angle. Would the book have been written without it? Maybe, maybe not. It is the marvelously told operational history of 515 Squadron that makes this book stand out but there is little to suggest this at first glance.

Lionel’s last letter or, more correctly, the last one kept and transcribed, was sent during his time at the Advanced Flying Unit. From then on, the narrative takes on a slightly different style as the author refers to operational and technical sources to reproduce, as best as possible, Lionel’s first tour on operations. The letters, mostly sent from Arizona, are truly superb. Lionel had an easy style to his writing and painted quite the picture of training and life in general in the New World. The author, accomplished as he is, barely gets out of first gear in this section of the book. Instead he lets Lionel do the talking and simply guides the story along with context, clarifications and introductions. It is practically seamless. He really kicks on, however, when the personal source runs out and the archival records have to take over. I was vaguely aware of the ‘Moonshine’ and ‘Mandrel’ ops but, thinking about it, they have only ever been mentioned in passing or as a side note in a much bigger campaign discussion. Thunder Bird was certainly the first time I had read about the squadron and its activities in any great detail and that is the great surprise about this book. It is, of course, the author’s bread and butter and he makes what could be a dry operational read spring to life with frustration, edgy flying, worn out aircraft and just enough about Lionel (probably all there is) to keep the reader focused on the main subject. It makes the book a must read for anyone wanting to go beyond the operations of Bomber Command’s Main Force.

There were a couple of little niggles on the aviation terminology front that made me wince but, in the interests of honesty as is ABR policy, they may have only been obvious to me. They are completely overshadowed by one of the best collection of photos I have seen in a biography for quite some time. Again, we have Lionel to thank for this as he was a prolific photographer. As much as the 515 Squadron operational detail is a valuable addition, the photos, particularly in conjunction with the letters, provide one of the best illustrations of life as an RAF trainee in the US I have ever seen. It is always bizarre seeing the RAF in such a setting. Refreshing, though.

Thunder Bird in Bomber Command will sell because of what’s on the cover. It will be sought after because of its contents. It is, as usual, a lovely hardcover from Fighting High, and has probably one of the most understated covers from this publisher to date. It is simple and straightforward but the more you look at it, the more the depth is revealed – “Wartime Letters”, “Legend”, “Thunder Bird”, the Mosquito, the white training flash on his forage cap. All of that indicates there is so much more to this book. It rattles along nicely, you get to know Lionel and then a rare operational account smacks you in the face. It is a rare treat.

ISBN 978-0-9926207-7-6

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Hurricane Squadron Ace - Nick Thomas


It was probably obvious, during the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, I would end up reading a few books on the subject. I prefer a memoir or biography so it was with some anticipation that I got stuck in to Hurricane Squadron Ace by Nick Thomas. This is about the fourth aircrew biography from this author and I am due to read his Beurling title in the near future. It was the first book of his I had read, however. A solid, detailed read, I nevertheless found it hard to connect to the great ‘Pete’ Brothers. It is hard to be critical of a book that clearly involved so much hard work on a superb subject and has actually been put together well. There are some absolute gems in Hurricane Squadron Ace but you have to dig to get to them.

Brothers earned his pilot’s licence in 1934 just after his seventeenth birthday. A natural flyer, and mad about aviation, it was a natural step to apply to join the RAF. Flying training began in late January 1936 but, with 110 flying hours to his credit, ‘Pete’ progressed relatively rapidly, maintaining an ‘above average’ rating, and was posted to No. 32 Squadron, RAF Biggin Hill, in October to fly Gloster Gauntlets. As Biggin Hill was the first station to have an Operations Room, the squadron was heavily involved in the development of the Home Defence procedures that would form the foundation for the epic struggle that was to come.

All activities slowly took on a more warlike appearance with the arrival of Hurricanes. Brothers’ Blue Section was scrambled shortly after the declaration of war on 3 September 1939 for what proved the first of many false alarms. The squadron would not have long to wait for action though. Brothers fired his guns in anger for the first time on 11 May 1940 when the squadron attacked Ypenburg airfield near The Hague. They were soon operating from France during the day and returning home in the evening. Brothers, who opened his account over France, thought their operations there were a waste as they didn’t appear to be achieving anything.

Over the next few months, of course, the squadron, and the RAF as a whole, certainly achieved something. After Dunkirk, the tempo of operations slowly increased. This period was easily the most frenetic of Brothers’ flying career and he steadily added to his score and developed into a respected fighter tactician. ‘Pete’, not one to blow his own trumpet, rarely told a story unless it was about someone else or was at least self-deprecating - “We were just ordinary chaps doing what we had to do”.

Brothers was posted in early September, after four years with No. 32, to the shattered and, consequently, inexperienced No. 257 Squadron. He joined as a flight commander under the leadership of Robert Stanford Tuck. The pair got on well and spent a lot of time passing on their knowledge to their colleagues, the majority of whom were barely out of OTU. They had to do it quickly as the squadron that had been thrown into the battle too early the month before was once again in the thick of it. Three months later, he was posted to No. 55 OTU and could finally recuperate from seven months of near-continuous operational flying.

Brothers converted to Spitfires in June 1941 and took command of the newly-formed No. 457 Squadron RAAF. It was not until March of the following year that there was a chance of seeing combat when the RAF went on the offensive. It initially cost the RAF dearly, the Luftwaffe could pick its fights, but it was a start.

Brothers was not keen when the squadron, a little more than two months later, was told it would be transferred to Australia. His remonstrations went nowhere but, somehow, he was given command of No. 602 Squadron based at Redhill and led it during the Dieppe landings. He was then posted as Wing Commander (Flying) of the Tangmere Wing in October. He led the wing until March 1943, adding to his score as he did during all of his operational postings, and was awarded a Bar to his DFC.

‘Pete’ then began his longest period off ops. He spent time with several OTUs before taking command, as Wing Commander (Flying), of the Culmhead Wing. He was to lead the wing over Normandy during the landings and during the months that followed. He then held several posts until he left the RAF in 1947 to join the Colonial Service in Africa. He returned to the RAF in June 1949 and flew Lincolns in Malaya and Washingtons and Valiants. He retired in 1973 and became one of the leading lights of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association and efforts to remember The Few. Everything he did, he did with his full energy. He died on 18 December 2008.

This is not the biography I was hoping for. The main problem, alluded to above, was Brothers’ reluctance to highlight his achievements in any great detail. Consequently, the narrative is peppered with his brief anecdotes and references. Each is delightful and perfectly placed. To counter the lack of lengthy reminiscences, particularly of action against the enemy, the author turns to the combat reports of those in Brothers’ squadrons and wings. These dominate the text during heightened periods of action. They endeavour to convey the sheer confusion of many of the encounters and lay out the events in perhaps the best way possible in the absence of our man’s recollections. This is largely achieved but combat report after combat report, written by pilots who enter stage right and exit stage left, some never to return, gets a bit much. There are times when Brothers is not mentioned for pages on end and the reader can lose sight of where he is. I naturally wanted to root for him but found it hard to connect when, at times, there was so little about him. Actions where he did not add to his score are covered in great detail using the combat report ‘method’ and, interesting as they are, dilute any literary rapport developed between the reader and subject. In all honesty, it can get a bit tiresome.

That sounds terrible. After all, it’s men fighting for their lives that you’re reading about but when the accounts blend in to the next and the next, I felt I lost sight of not only Brothers but whose successes I was actually reading about. Out of respect for these men, I hate that.

The style of the narrative reflects the author’s experience and understanding of the subject and genre and this could have been applied as a replacement for at least some of the combat reports which would have led to a less disrupted feel to the read at times. Funnily enough, however, perhaps because of less action, the narrative takes control during the latter stages of his wartime flying and details the combat rather than letting the reports do so. It makes for much better reading.

Notes may have been able to loosen things up a little. I have no idea whether these could have been applied to this title or not. The author introduces some fascinating characters, often by their full (and future) rank, name and decorations. Again, this breaks things up. Notes could have been referred to for further information. Medal citations could have been treated the same way, or included in the appendices, and I could say the same for the details of those lost but that is purely because the wording is identical with reference to the man’s parents, home town and commemoration details. Details of the men who served, scored and were lost during Brothers’ stay with each unit/airfield are superbly included at the end of each relevant chapter but may have been better placed in an appendix.

The copy-editors let the author down slightly too by, for example, letting “HMS Infatigable” and “B-39 Washington” through the net not to mention one chap being shot down during a morning sortie only to suffer the same fate in the afternoon and several pages later! Stanford Tuck is also introduced as “Tuck” several pages before being properly introduced. These pages are, however, some of the best analysis, built around Tuck’s comments, of the entire book and are the cornerstone of me wanting to read more by this author especially if he is given his head to analyse varying versions of the same event.

Hurricane Squadron Ace excels as an operational history of various units and airfields during Brothers’ tenure with them. It, therefore, is less the story of ‘Pete’ Brothers. It highlights the team effort and Brothers’ part as one of its leading lights. That said, the pre-war period is a superb, but all too short, description of flying fighters during this time and the reader develops a real feel for the man but subsequently struggles to maintain this in the largely ‘bigger picture’ of the following years. The connection is brought back somewhat towards the end of the war and Brothers’ fascinating post-war careers and, again, the author’s writing has a lot to do with this. Expect a read that requires effort but look forward to a solid, detailed service biography, with extras, of a great man.

ISBN 978-1-78159-311-0

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Geoffrey Guy's War - Jennifer Barraclough and David Guy


I read this book last year in an attempt to shake off the Bomber Command blues I have mentioned before. What I needed was something that set the hook just from its mere description (not that Bomber Command doesn’t), something based around what fascinated me most. So, what I needed was something off the beaten track. Did I ever make the right choice! North Africa, India, Burma, photo-reconnaissance. Yes, yes, yes and yes. Add text written by a pragmatic, natural author and I was in heaven. It was what I needed then and is what I need now. I haven’t written a review for ABR for months due to other writing commitments and tonight, as I looked at the books on my desk that I owe a review debt to, the slim white spine of Geoffrey Guy’s War did its job. It was then a struggle to find my notes. Could I be bothered even when I did find them? I flicked open the book and began to read. The glow I felt from remembering this book when I saw the spine earlier took hold. Geoffrey Guy’s War is one of those wonderfully written books that, like its author, goes forward with a minimum of fuss and fanfare and drags the reader along “as a magnet draws a helpless fragment of iron”.

After being evacuated to the Midlands in May 1940, Geoffrey Guy begins his first term at Oxford in the latter third of the year. During his short time there, he developed several characteristics that were to serve him well. After a poor showing in a history essay, he determines never to take the first and easiest option again. He discovers a whole new level of fitness through the University Boxing Team, despite already being a passionate cricketer, joins the Air Squadron and meets a girl. An innocent romance weaves around the 1941 season of cricket but paradise could not last forever. There was a war on.

Having served in the University Air Squadron, the author was not posted to the Initial Training Wing. Instead he spent an interminable five weeks waiting for his posting to Elementary Flying Training School. Mid-September saw him board a ship for a rough voyage to Canada. He and his mates then spent another five weeks waiting for the courses ahead to progress. That time was spent shovelling coal out of railway wagons. Winter had well and truly set in when he was finally posted to No. 32 EFTS at Red Deer. After ten hours of dual instruction, and barely a fortnight in to the course, our hero soloed on a Tiger Moth. His half-page description of this flight exudes delight.

Geoffrey is eventually posted to Moose Jaw and No. 32 SFTS to fly Harvards. He received his wings in July 1942 and became a sergeant pilot. Bitterly disappointed at not being made an officer, he was, apparently, ideal in all aspects but was an average pilot, he felt let down by the RAF and the system to which he had been so trusting since joining the University Air Squadron. Little did he know that his very rank would be the cause of his great adventure in Burma and the cornerstone of his personal growth during the war.

Back in England, after three weeks at AFU, Geoffrey is posted to General Reconnaissance School. He protests, to no avail, but finds solace in the fact that his is an elite profession. After navigation training, he is posted, oddly, to a fighter OTU. This time is punctuated by the characters he meets and his first flight in a Spitfire which, like his first solo, is a passionate piece of writing.

February 1943 comes around and finds the author at RAF Benson and finally part of No. 541 squadron. His sense of anticipation is eroded as he finds a distinct lack of camaraderie. That said, after ten days, our man is selected to fly a new Spitfire out to No. 680 Squadron PRU, somewhere in the Middle East, so his observations and conclusions, while often accurate, were certainly conceived in short order.

An almost four hour flight to Gibraltar is followed by continual journey east to Cairo where 680 Squadron is finally found. The entire flight from the UK was performed without maps but the author, despite asking for the precious commodity at each stop, began to learn to study what was available and memorise it for the next leg (a vital skill for the budding reconnaissance pilot).

Imagine the disappointment, again, when, upon arriving at the squadron, the CO says he does not want NCO pilots. The author spends six weeks in a transit camp, battling flies and other unpleasant aspects of life in and around Cairo at the time, before he is sent to Palestine and No. 74 OTU where he is, finally, to be trained as a PRU pilot. He enjoys his time flying there, despite a horrific crash on approach that puts him in hospital for two weeks, but has to wait around yet again upon completion of the course. Finally, in August 1943, Geoffrey is posted to No. 681 Squadron in India.

It is all frustrating and time-consuming but the writing is so succinct, so pragmatic, yet beautifully toned, that the waiting, the climate and other inconveniences are actually enjoyable to read. Although welcomed into the fold in India, and flying his first op towards the end of September, there is never an easy camaraderie in the squadron as a whole. Strong relationships are made, of course, and several of the chaps who were with Geoffrey from his time in the UK are still present, but it is not ideal.

Geoffrey’s first operational flights were in the squadron’s ageing Hurricanes. The long flights from Dum Dum, refuelling in Chittagong, were gruelling and energy-sapping with not a moment for relaxation as the impetus was on a speedy return home so the film could be developed and examined. Finally let loose on the scarce Spitfires, the ops become longer and more tiring.

Life on the squadron was not terribly pleasant so when the chance to transfer to No. 28 Squadron, a Tactical Reconnaissance unit, based on the Imphal plain in Burma, came up, Geoffrey and his mates jumped at it. Compared to PR, Tac/R was down in the weeds. He joined the squadron in late 1943 and stayed with it until early 1945. During that time, after several idyllic months, the war heats up as the Japanese advance and the squadron is in the thick of it. The author has his fair share of shaky dos but his luck holds while that of his colleagues does not. He is isolated as the only sergeant in his flight, partly by choice and an intense sense of duty at times, but this leads to him getting to know the other enlisted men of the squadron and developing the ability to build a rapport with all comers. His life in the diplomatic service post-war would benefit greatly from this most important of skills.

Geoffrey was mentally and physically worn out when he left the squadron in March 1945. He did not make it home until January of the next year but, happily, it was to a young lady who had patiently waited for him. They were married in 1946 and the author returned to university and, several years, later joined the Colonial Service and served with distinction for thirty years.

This is such a well-written book that I don’t think it could have been any longer than its 160 pages (and eight of those are photo pages). The author has honed his story-telling ability and uses words so efficiently that little needs to be said to get the point across. It’s an indication of the man and his approach to life – I am not going to beat around the bush here, I am going to get it done but, by golly, I am going to do it well. Several times throughout the book you can see him gritting his teeth, setting his jaw and pushing on through and that’s not just to do with his flying.

He was there to do a job and he was resigned to an expected fate or, at the very least, a long war. To that end, he told his family and loved ones, in the very few letters he did write, that they were to “write him off”, to forget him. He regretted doing this, particularly with his father whom he regarded as one of the great men of his generation, but hardened his heart and stuck with this seemingly callous attitude. He simply did not want anyone to hold out hope for him and then, should the worst occur, weep over his loss. They were to move on. To some extent, if you were to regard the aircrew of the war as some of the doomed youth of their time, it is a perfectly acceptable, albeit rarely seen and pessimistic, approach to take. I am already lost, do not grieve me, move on, live your life, do not let my passing hold you back. It is perhaps one of the greatest acts of love.

As much as Geoffrey Guy’s War is a masterpiece of the art of efficient writing (unlike this review), the reader will be left wishing for more. The manuscript was superbly edited by family members and I doubt much, if anything, was removed beyond the initial family history passages. A summary of Geoffrey’s life is included in an appendix but really only serves to tease the reader as the author’s post-war life was quite fascinating. However, what we have, really, is more than enough. A paperback with decent card covers, don’t let the small stature of this book put you off when it comes to spending money on it. It is worth every cent and then some. You will struggle to find a more finely crafted narrative in an aircrew book.

ISBN 978-1-4456-0022-2

Friday, November 20, 2015

Strike And Strike Again - the return!


I have always been a Beaufighter man. That sentence should really just have an ‘insert aircraft type here’ because I really am infatuated with anything flown by the RAF and Commonwealth air forces. However, the Beaufighter has always struck a chord with me. It was the strike aircraft that held the line but was there at the end. When the concept of the strike wings was being developed, the Beaufighter filled the vital anti-flak role and then took over torpedo duties from the Beaufort before reaching the zenith of its career with the widespread use of the rocket projectile. It exudes a sense of purpose. There’s a quality about it that I just can’t lay a finger on.  

As you can imagine, therefore, due to my struggle above to convey my enduring admiration and respect for this aircraft and its men, I am always on the look out for Beaufighter books. They aren’t thick on the ground but it is easy to build a nice library on the type. The ultimate Pacific theatre title is, easily, Neville Parnell’s Beaufighters In The Pacific (revised and updated from the ground-breaking Whispering Death of 1980). That’s the be all and end all when it come to RAAF Beaufighter operations in the region. There are, of course, a good number of memoirs from all theatres and all relevant air forces but, from an Australian point of view, the most elusive, to me anyway, has been Ian Gordon’s Strike And Strike Again. This book, the story of No. 455 Squadron RAAF 1944-45, was first published by Banner Books in 1995. This was a time when good, detailed squadron histories were beginning to be published (or re-published) and Banner was at the forefront. The first edition sold out and has been much sought after since. The secondhand market, over the past decade, has seen some silly prices for this book which put it out of reach of many an enthusiast and collector (myself included). Not any more.

After repeated requests for any stock he had left, and seeing a copy of the original edition listed on eBay for A$700, Ian Gordon, who now runs his own publishing house in Canberra, decided to produce a new edition of what to me was one of my holy grails. I had only ever seen one copy of the first edition before and that was behind glass in a museum never to be read!

The major hurdle, however, in producing this new edition was that there was no access to a digital copy of the original manuscript. A first edition was scanned and each page was manipulated and refined so that it did not look like a scan. The photos were copied separately and re-inserted. Several errors and oversights have been corrected but there is no new information. That’s fine although this is probably most revealing in the appendix that deals with the post-war lives of the aircrew. I don’t think this has been updated … yet. This is essentially a modern copy of a classic at a realistic, and affordable, price. Print on demand technology has progressed to a stage where single copies can be produced to a very high standard and this is certainly exhibited in the hardcover I have before me. It is 244 pages of Beaufighter goodness laid out on what I would call a mid-range paper stock (all the better for keeping the cost of the finished product reasonable). The photos are reproduced well and cover a good range of operational life. Most dramatic, of course, are the strike photos which always capture the danger and madness of the whole thing. Rarely is one taken from a level aircraft and the true nature of these operations is painfully clear. I have seen many, many strike photos through working with Graeme Gibson on his No. 16 Squadron SAAF project and, of course, being a sucker for anything featuring Beaufighters, but they never cease to tell story after story.

There are many stories in this book and this new edition puts them in front of a reading public again. Granted, it is a specialist topic but it has such a wonderful chance of doing well again because this, let’s call it the twentieth anniversary edition, is so reasonably priced, available as a hard or soft cover and, perhaps importantly in this technological age, as a PDF. Many of us turn our backs on this technology in favour of a real book but let’s not forget that it is technology that has returned Strike And Strike Again to the world. This time, too, it won’t sell out!

I will always be a Beaufighter man. To finally hold a copy of this book in my hands and, at last, see what all the fuss is about is one of the true highlights this hobby has given me. Now it is partly my responsibility to get the word out to all those who, like me, have always wanted to dive into Strike And Strike Again and live with the likes of Davenport, Whishaw, Clouston, Gordon, Wiggins, Milson, Masson, Cox, Ilbery et al. It has to be done. The Viking Boys will never be forgotten because of the foresight and technology employed to produce this new edition. That hole in your collection can now be easily filled. It is such a good thing.

ISBN 978-0-9943558-8-1 (hardback)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Shot Down - Alex Kerr


As you have probably guessed, I've been busy working on the most recent issue of Flightpath magazine. For once, however, I was lucid enough to realise I wouldn't have a chance to write my own reviews for some time so asked several friends, whose knowledge and writing I respect, to be guest reviewers. The whole point was to keep adding fresh content to ABR but, of course, I need the time to publish it in the first place. Anyway, first up, is a review that is a real treat. Not only is it the chance to discover this book and add it to your library, but it is written by an author currently working on a PhD focussing on the Australian prisoner of war experience in Stalag Luft III. Kristen Alexander is a long-time supporter, and featured author, of ABR and this is some of her best, most thoughtful and analytical writing. It is a review of a calibre that this site has not seen before. Grab a coffee, settle in and lose yourself in this. Andy Wright

Over the past decade or so, I’ve written about Australian pilots in the air war against Germany, exploring, among other things, how they coped in combat and with the after effects of battle. In some cases, their very identity was linked intrinsically to their capacity to fly and, indeed, for some, their need to fly was so strong they thought little of the cost. I began to wonder how they would manage when ‘wingless’, when they were taken out of operations not through combat injury but because they had been captured.

Even from the first day of the Second World War, Germany claimed airmen as prisoners of war. Australian airmen were a minority. Of the servicemen captured in Europe, 8,591 were Australians, and 1,476 of those were airmen serving in the Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force. This equated to approximately seventeen per cent of Australian prisoners. Australian airmen were imprisoned throughout an extensive and ever-growing German prison network and many of those captured in Mediterranean and Middle East actions had previously been incarcerated in Italian camps. Each branch of the armed services managed its own facilities but, even after the Luftwaffe established its own camps, airmen were not confined exclusively in Luft camps. So it was for Sergeant Alex Kerr, a graduate of the Empire Air Training Scheme’s No. 1 Course, who was imprisoned by the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe.

Twenty-year-old Alex had been operational with No. 115 Squadron as second pilot on a Wellington for less than a month when, on 10 May 1941, he and his British crew members were on their way home after a successful bombing run to Hamburg, one of Germany’s most fiercely defended targets.

With little warning, a night fighter announced its presence by firing on, and hitting, the rear turret. The pilot made every attempt to evade but the German fighter pilot fired again. Bullets ripped through fabric and metal and Alex was knocked backwards as he was hit. As the aircraft began to burn, as the fabric-covered Wellington was apt to do, he lay there, cursing the German pilot, and, for several seconds, knew the stark fear of the helpless.

Alex lost consciousness. When he awoke, his fear had gone, replaced by a ‘lulling, lethargic calm, a slowness of movement that could well be fatal in an emergency’, and so it would have been if Dave, the rear gunner who had amazingly survived the attentions of the night fighter, hadn’t shoved him out of the stricken aircraft, thus saving his life.

The West Australian’s injuries were so severe there had been talk of medical repatriation. After months in German hospitals, he was sent to a prisoner of war camp. He had had a relatively easy time of it in the hospitals, even quite enjoying the ‘gentle and friendly attitude’ of medical staff and fellow prisoners. He had even valued kindnesses from orderlies working behind the backs of German guards to acquire treats for the patients. But now, as Alex ‘saw barbed wire close up for the first time’ he ‘realised its grim purpose’. No chance of repatriation now. He was just a number.

Alex was incarcerated in Stalag IIIE, Kirchhain, then Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Stalag Luft VI, Heydekrug, Stalag 357, Thorn and Stalag XIB, Fallingbostel. In the final months of the war, he trudged across Germany in the Long March. After narrowly escaping death when the column was strafed by Allied aircraft, he and a mate escaped to Allied lines and freedom. These are the bare bones of a fascinating memoir which, as indicated in the foreword, reveals a man of great resilience and integrity who demonstrated strength, courage and devotion to his mates.

I will just point out here that this memoir is an important addition to Australian military history. Not just because of some of the particular aspects, which I will touch on below, but because there are significantly fewer accounts by Australians taken prisoner by the Germans. For example, in a review article covering books written by or about Australian prisoners between 1980 and 1989, Hank Nelson listed 48 works. Of those, 40 related to prisoners of the Japanese, two dealt with prisoners of Japan and Germany, and six are about prisoners of Germany and Italy. In his 2002 survey of the ‘prisoner experience as literature’, Peter Stanley noted that of the 500+ books in the Australian War Memorial’s Australian prisoner of war catalogue, three-fifths deal with prisoners of the Japanese, prisoners of the Reich account for a third, and those relating to captives of the Italians take up less than a tenth of the shelf space. The proportions have barely changed. To its credit, Big Sky Publishing’s catalogue includes a number of prisoner of war accounts dealing with captivity in Germany.

But back to Alex. Largely based on the diary he kept during imprisonment, Shot Down is written in such a matter-of-fact style that the reader on occasion has to peer through the lines to the full emotion of living in close confinement without a release date in sight, where ‘wingless’ airmen could not contribute to the fighting war effort and were so isolated from credible sources of war news that they could only trust that the Allies would eventually prevail. It is hard to imagine just what being a prisoner of war meant, but I had a go at it, as I wanted to get a good look behind the lines that Alex did not write, and to hear what he did not quite say.

Imagine living in an environment where there was no silence, in such profound intimacy that every breath, every sniff or snort, every fart and stomach grumble, every nightmare, every mood swing, every shift on lumpy palliasse and bed board-deprived bunk, every surreptitious movement under threadbare blanket was heard by every other man in the overcrowded barrack. Even thoughts were not private because, after living in such close proximity, almost anyone could read them and so, the only real solitude was in the cooler. Just imagine the tension building as men from all walks tried to muddle along with people so different in personality that they probably wouldn’t have bothered knowing them in ‘real life’. Consider trying to be cheery, friendly and tolerant when all you wanted to do was wring the bloody neck of the bloke who spilt the last teaspoon of the communal store of sugar. Imagine having to fill your time with any sort of busy-work just so you wouldn’t go crazy with inactivity. It almost defeats me to picture it, and I am sure it would defeat me to live it.

Alex, however, was made of much sterner stuff than me and despite everything, fared so well that he gained from his experiences. He also demonstrates that community can exist in enforced communal living. Indeed, it is one of the strengths of this memoir that Alex portrays a balanced account of life in a German prisoner of war camp. Monotonous, with great deprivation, yes - if not for regular Red Cross parcels, the men would have starved on German rations - but to compensate, lifelong friendships developed and were nurtured, and the foundations of many future careers were laid. In addition, much was discovered about goodness, kindness and humanity, and evil, in enemy, friend and self.

Like many other camps, Stalag IIIE had some benevolent guards who treated their charges reasonably well along with its share of tyrants ‘who had maltreated us’. Indeed, ‘Stalag IIIE was a camp in which violence had earlier been used and prisoners have been bashed by guards and subjected to harsh treatment ordered by the commandant.’ And so, after they had left Kirchhain, when Alex and his fellow prisoners were asked the names of the Germans who had traded with them, they handed in a list which included only the names of those who had mistreated them, knowing full well that the malefactors would be punished severely. To Alex’s credit, he does not let himself off the hook by refraining to include a story where he and his friends, perhaps understandably, exact retribution, especially when it seems he is not entirely sorry for his part in the scheme: ‘In retrospect it is probable that most of us felt rather guilty about the result’. And here is one of the reasons I like this memoir so much. There is nothing pretentious or literary about it. It is simple and unassuming and Alex is honest and open.    

Counterbalancing the darker side of humanity is a story which reveals true kindness and highlights all that is good about the ‘brotherhood of man’. Harry Calvert, who was older than Alex, had developed a well-earned reputation as Stalag IIIE’s most successful trader. As Alex sat on his bed contemplating how to celebrate his 21st birthday, Harry poked his head in the door: ‘I heard it’s your birthday today’. There were no secrets in a prisoner of war camp. Alex confirmed that it was indeed his birthday. ‘Happy birthday, Aussie’, Harry said, as he placed a precious egg in Alex’s hand. It was the first egg the West Australian had seen for a year, and a gift from a man Alex had barely met, even within the close confines of a prison camp. It was a gesture of compassion and generosity he would never forget.

As well as revealing the positives and negatives of the human condition and how many adjust to life without liberty, Alex recounts little known aspects of captivity in Europe. For example, he and 51 other prisoners tunnelled out of Stalag IIIE. He was on the run for ten days. He never forgot that ‘feeling of triumph and excitement’ during that, and subsequent escape attempts. ‘It was an exhilarating feeling knowing you were winning a dangerous cat and mouse game with maybe a disastrous result if you lost. The adrenaline was coursing through your veins almost continuously.’ Alex was one of the last to be recaptured. Fifty-one of the escapees were returned to camp. But not Harry Calvert, Alex’s birthday benefactor. He was the only casualty, shot for no apparent reason.

The Great Kirchhain Breakout was the largest, most successful escape attempt to date, yet, surprisingly, little has been written about it. Alex’s account is thus more than just a wartime memoir. It is a valuable addition to escape literature and, because of Australian involvement, our military history. So too is his description of life in Stalag Luft III. Rather than the usual officer-centric escape focus of the prolific Wooden Horse or Great Escape narratives, Alex offers a rare NCO perspective of everyday life and friendship in that most famous of camps.

Given the importance of Alex’s experiences, it is a shame, then, that in some instances his publishers have let him down. Or, at least, his copyeditor has. For instance, Stalag IIIE was located at Kirchhain, not Kirchain. The Luftwaffe’s reception camp was at Oberursel, near Frankfurt, not Ober Ursel, and the common parlance name of it, Dulag Luft, was an abbreviation of Durchgangslager der Luftwaffe, not Durchgang Lager. Messerschmitt ends with a double ‘t’. Spelling oversights were not the only instance of the copyeditor’s failure. There were multiple instances of the numeric ‘1’ appearing instead of the lowercase letter ‘l’. Being a fussy beggar (that should be spelled with a ‘u’, by the way), I was annoyed that there wasn’t an index. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a dozen times: history books need indexes. In fact, they should be mandatory. It is not just frustrated reviewers who need to flip from section to section, checking this and that, wanting to know if so-and-so appears in the text and so on and so forth. To atone (perhaps) for those sins of error and omission, the cover is eye-catching, full marks to the designer, and I was more than satisfied with the generous picture selection, including the use of colour rather than opting for cost-cutting greyscale.

Two photos in particular caught my attention and it really is true that a picture is worth a thousand words. These two perfectly illustrate the physical toll exacted by captivity. The first was taken in December 1940 after the nineteen-year-old had been awarded his wings. ‘A pilot at last!’ reads the caption. It reveals a young, innocent looking man, with eyes full of hope and expectation of a decent flying career. The second, of Alex and Joan on their wedding day in August 1947 (more than two years since he absconded from the marching column), is such a contrast. The groom was only 26 yet looks years older. Is that grey touching his forehead? Any residual baby fat had long since fallen from his still gaunt cheekbones. And his eyes. What they had seen.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I am interested in how men cope in captivity, and I was concerned that perhaps Alex had not ultimately coped with four years of imprisonment. This wasn’t because Alex had confessed to it (quite the contrary as I will discuss below) but because of the lack of emotion in some parts, such as Harry Calvert’s death, and a dispassionate style which might indicate that nothing had touched him. But Alex had coped and did so remarkably well. His prison life was full of activity such as arts and crafts, sport and music. When the prison education system was established, he signed up. Not only did he relieve the monotony of camp existence through study, but he received the sort of education few Australian lads could ever dream of attaining. He received a Certificate in Social Science from Oxford University (he did so well in this that Oxford considered the standard he had achieved under camp conditions to be equivalent of that required for University Honours) and a Bachelor of Science and Economics degree from London University. If anything, the dispassionate style is a reflection of the fact that Alex felt that his prisoner of war years had not been overly harrowing; ‘they did not seem so important to me at the time’. Yes, Alex had managed well in captivity and there are a number of reasons for this.

At the beginning of the book, when he talks about his formative years, Alex tells of his inbuilt sense of optimism, how faced with new, unexpected experiences he just got on with it. For example, when he was pulled from school because his father’s income had suffered during the Depression, he ‘commiserated with Dad over his loss’, found a job post haste, enjoyed what it had to offer and ‘matured quickly and tasted many new facets of life … made new friends and tried my hand at a lot of new activities…’ Alex could have easily written that at the end of the book and it would have been equally as apt because that is exactly what he did in a succession of prisoner of war camps. He clearly made the most of his camp life and the new friendships it offered. Friends coped better in captivity. They shared food and memories and supported each other. But camaraderie was more than just a means of survival for Alex. He had a gift for friendship, both giving and receiving and his relationships with crewmembers and fellow prisoners lasted a lifetime and beyond. In many ways, this memoir is a testament to friendship.

Shot Down is also a testament to optimism and, looking back, Alex believed his inherent optimism enabled him ‘to bear the vicissitudes of incarceration with fortitude’. Alex would be too modest to claim it, but I think his fellow prisoners’ ability to cope with seemingly limitless confinement would have been enhanced by his natural buoyancy.

That Alex considered his prison experience not so much ‘traumatic but rather exciting and overall beneficial’ is another reason why he survived captivity. So too is his attitude. ‘I had taken a positive view of life and had been determined to take every opportunity while in camp to improve my lot in life’. Apart from planning for his future through education, he grew in self-confidence, assumed leadership roles and developed important life skills. Without doubt, he ‘weathered the storm well’ and ‘came out of prison thankful that my life had so miraculously been saved’. Indeed, Alex admits that being shot down and imprisoned were perhaps the best things to ever happen to him. He survived for one, whereas many from Bomber Command did not. The statistics of his own training group are particularly telling. Of the forty members of his course, only twelve men were alive at the end of hostilities, and nine of them had been prisoners of war. Fully aware of how fortunate he had been, after returning home he promised himself to ‘make the most of the reprieve I had been given. I would live every day to the fullest’. And he did. The former newspaper office boy went on to enjoy a career in academia, where he became a professor and ultimately Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia. Alex’s achievements and life attitude firmly demonstrate that his years spent in captivity were not wasted.

There is perhaps another reason why Alex coped so well in the post-war years. He may not have been entirely sorry for ‘dobbing’ in the cruel camp personnel but he bore no real grudge against those who acted with decency and later accepted the essential humanity of those of the enemy who, like him were just doing their wartime job. He may have cursed the Luftwaffe pilot who shot him down but Alex contacted him after the war and they corresponded. It is clear to me that there was a measure of reconciliation, given and accepted, in their exchange of letters and experiences. ‘I got a good feeling to get so friendly lines from a former adversary’, wrote the former night fighter. For Alex, along with reconciliation, came the answers to questions which had puzzled him for half a century.

Hard core aviation enthusiasts may turn away from this memoir because it is a largely an account of captivity. That would be a mistake. The book includes enough training and operational details to satisfy any aviation nut - Alex’s account of his last op is sheer, nail-biting, storytelling magic. Shot Down is also an incredibly rich life story that even offers a gentle lesson in making the most of difficult circumstances. It is also a significant addition to Australian military, aviation, and prisoner of war history. Uplifting and recommended. Read it.