25 April 2009

Wings of Destiny - Charles Page

With the subtitle giving no doubt as to the subject matter this book by historian Charles Page looks the part on the shelf and in the hand. Delve into the pages and you’re confronted by a remarkably readable and detailed biography of an immensely likeable character and one of Australia’s great wartime leaders.

Charles Learmonth grew up in country Victoria to the west of Melbourne and joined the RAAF before the war. He was eventually posted to 14 Squadron and its Ansons in Western Australia. Flying convoy patrols (including escorting his brother’s unit as it headed to the UK for service in North Africa, Greece and Crete – John Learmonth was eventually captured and spent most of the rest of the war as a POW) Charles began to build the experience that would see him emerge as an expert bomber pilot. Converting to Hudsons the squadron was heavily involved in the search for survivors of the cruiser HMAS Sydney off the Western Australian coast with Charles playing a key part.

Never without a date on a night out, Charles eventually falls in love with Marjorie who, happily, was still alive and living in Perth, Western Australia when the author presented her with an advance copy of the book (she died on April 11, 2008). An eventual transfer east and Melbourne wedding sees Charles join 22 Squadron and convert to Bostons. Now his career as a flyer really builds momentum. In the thick of the action soon after the squadron’s arrival in New Guinea, Charles develops into an inspirational leader loved by all. He shares his adventures with well-known RAAF characters such as Black Jack Walker, Bill Newton VC and Bull Garing. Garing’s inclusion of course alludes to Charles’ involvement in The Battle of the Bismarck Sea and Walker and Newton ensure amusing stories abound and, in the case of Newton (and others), the grief of losing close friends is evident. Eventual command of the squadron and then a posting back to 14 Squadron as its CO sees Charles’ service come full circle and, sadly, end. The squadron was then equipped with Australian-built Beauforts and the coverage of the problems this aircraft encountered and the subsequent investigations is handled expertly and with extensive detail.

The author has used his unprecedented access to the letters written by Charles and Marjorie to wonderful effect. Both were prolific correspondents and the insight their writing provides is remarkable. Excellent contextual research exists throughout and the feel of the era is very well conveyed to the reader. Family members, friends and acquaintances were interviewed or their correspondence used and this level of detail really adds to the picture of our hero. From the first chapter you know how things will end but as the book progresses you’ll find a friend you’ll never meet in Charles Learmonth.

This book fills a big hole in the understanding of what the Boston Boys did in New Guinea but it also provides a door into the life of a remarkable man who lived, loved, partied (often) and died before many of us were born. Very hard to put down and excellently illustrated, and ignoring a couple of small typographical and factual errors, this book is simply brilliant.

I found Charles' adventures growing up in Victoria and the postings to Western Australia particularly interesting as I am very familiar with both areas. I could very easily picture the places he frequented in Perth as I know them well!

My copy of this title was bought from the shop at Melbourne's Shrine of Rememberance. A good friend of mine purchased it from amazon.co.uk. A good, solid paperback, everything about the book exudes quality and is therefore a fitting tribute.

For those of you who know of Australian cricketer Brett Lee - is he not a dead ringer for that photo of CL on the cover?!

Available in Australia from Alexander Fax Booksellers

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