Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Thousand Shall Fall - Murray Peden

Remember all the things your parents used to say? “Eat your vegetables”, “You get what you pay for” and “You can’t judge a book by its cover”. Well, as we all know, our parents are invariably right and, as much as we hate it, at some stage in our lives, we will catch ourselves saying the same things. Having a book fetish as I do no matter how hard I try I do find myself “judging a book by its cover.” After all, that’s the whole point when it comes to selling books, isn’t it? Call to the potential buyer siren-like with a great looking book and hope for the best. As you will have read in the previous review, this can back-fire on the gentle reader but for this review, it works. However, wrapping A Thousand Shall Fall in brown paper would not matter a damn – it is truly the mother of all classic war memoirs.

Murray Peden is a Canadian who joins the RCAF the day after his 18th birthday in October 1941. He progresses through Initial Training School, Elementary Flying Training School (where he discovers the joys of flying Tiger Moths ) and Service Flying Training School (Cessna Cranes) before embarkation to England in November 1942. Pretty standard stuff for someone training to be a pilot but more of that later. Arrival in England brings leave in Bournemouth prior to blowing the cobwebs out on Tigers again at EFTS and then joining an Advanced Flying Unit and getting to grips with the Airspeed Oxford. Crewing-up, Wellingtons at OTU and then Stirlings and joining a Main Force squadron – 214 – follow in natural progression and I know this process is probably old hat to most of you. The thing, however, is that by the time Peden’s crew go on their first Main Force trip, you are already more than 230 pages into the book. The detail is phenomenal, some of Peden’s adventures (and misadventures) are epic and it is all just so easy to read. By page two I had chuckled to myself and by page four, I had laughed out loud. This sense of humour and keen observation prevails throughout but I digress.

Peden’s crew, after their captain does two second dickey trips (one decidedly dodgy and the other thoroughly professional), gets through their ‘Gardening’ (mine-laying) op and then gets stuck into their tour with raids on Germany and Occupied Europe. They certainly gel as a team and there is a firm sense of complete trust in each other. Yes, they have their scrapes but it comes as no surprise when they are seconded to 161 Squadron at Tempsford for training in supply-dropping to resistance forces in occupied France. There is an interesting but brief insight into these operations before a return to 214, further ops and then, joy of joys, 214 is taken out of Main Force, joins 100 Group and receives Flying Fortresses for use in ‘spoof’ raids and other electronic countermeasures to hopefully confuse the German radar and night-fighter defences. I say “joy of joys” simply because reading about Fortresses in the RAF is not a regular occurrence and combining them with 100 Group operations is just out of the ordinary for this type of book.

The conversion from Stirlings is smooth and the comparisons between the two aircraft (I’ll probably regret saying this) in the text must surely be unique in this genre. Peden, who is an above-average pilot (and writer) throughout, adjusts well and he and his crew continue their tour into 1945. I have to admit I found myself thinking they had a better chance of surviving by not being in Main Force. However, their work, by necessity, drew night-fighters to them (away from Main Force) or involved flying within the bomber stream to make life difficult for the defenders. Numerous countermeasures are used and Peden gives an excellent overview of the tactics of both sides in this most deadly of cat-and-mouse games.

Finally, the Peden crew completes their tour in early 1945 and after a short while of them all instructing new Fortress crews at 1699 HCU, they go their separate ways but not before flying their ground crew over past targets. The family is split up and the big adventure is over.

This book is pure, unadulterated brilliance. It is written by someone who is clearly very well read and has a delightful and accurate turn of phrase. Full of numerous laugh out loud escapades and typical aircrew hi-jinks, Peden’s writing is equally moving and emotional. He loses a number of very good friends (the book is partly dedicated to them) and, on one occasion during training in Canada, escorts the coffin containing his best mate back to the mourning family in the US. I challenge you not to get at least a lump in your throat. It is truly beautiful writing from a very talented author. An infinitely better writer than me could make it a lot clearer with reference to other clever writers but you know the feeling you get when you read a good book – that light-headedness and general sense of nirvana (maybe it’s just me)? With ATSF, you’ve got it by the second page.

This book is just over four years of Peden’s life in well over 400 pages. It’s a cast of hundreds and like Shakespeare’s world stage, the players have their entrances and, sadly in many cases, their exits. Peden weaves it all together and ... I’ve said enough. Want more proof as to how good this is? I’ll leave that to Sir Arthur Harris who read the first edition in 1979 and was compelled to write a letter to the author (which he starts with "Dear Peden"):

"I consider it not only the best and most true to life ‘war’ book I’ve read about this war, but the best about all the wars of my lifetime."

I stumbled across this book on Amazon early last year. It is a paperback with a thin card cover and a general feeling of being a cheaper production but this is reflected in the price and, overall, you get so much more than you pay for anyway. There’s an excellent array of photos but these are printed on the same paper as the text which is a tiny let-down but, again, it all combines to be a very affordable book and most impressive read. By far the best memoir I have read - superb.

The book is easily available on Amazon. I have not seen it in shops in Australia but I imagine it is easily found in Canada of course.

Reviewed copy published by Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited in 2000.
ISBN 1-5500-2454-X

5 comments:

  1. One of the best war book ever written from a Canadian perspective.A must read!

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  2. best description of rcaf training and ww2 service that i have read in over thirty years!

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  3. It truly is, isn't it? I still have yet to read a better Bomber Command memoir.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment on ABR.

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  4. My copy has basically fallen apart from the numerous reads. I'll never part with it though because I had the opportunity to meet Murray and have him sign it. A wonderful gentleman.

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  5. You will laugh and you will cry when reading this truly wonderful memoir. Mr Peden is a gifted author with a great story to tell.

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