Friday, October 09, 2009

Chasing Shadows - Stephen Lewis with Bob Cowper

There’s something to be said about being different. Do it well and you’re hailed as a visionary. Do it badly and, well, it all falls in a heap and is appreciated by very few for the brave attempt it was. There’s nothing wrong with being different at all but it is a particular risk if you are doing it commercially. Will it work? This was my first impression of Chasing Shadows when it arrived in the mail. At first glance it is immediately different – not the ‘expected’ paperback dimensions at all. However that’s where any fleeting doubts vanish because once you open this book you’ll see it’s not just the dimensions that are different – everything is handled with a fresh approach … and it works.

The subject is at once intriguing. A good-looking Australian night fighter ace who crashes in the desert but goes on to fly Beaufighters and Mosquitos with considerable success while twice being awarded the DFC, marrying his sweetheart and earning the right to be a member of the Late Arrivals and Caterpillar clubs. Such a story deserves to be told and told well. Fortunately, this Lewis/Cowper collaboration does just that.

The young Bob Cowper grows up in semi-rural South Australia and has a fairly typical childhood for the time. He leaves school at 16 but joins the RAAF on his eighteenth birthday. With initial training completed in Western Australia, he sails to Canada where he learns to fly the Harvard before becoming a Pilot Officer at 19 and joining 60 OTU at East Fortune in Scotland. We find him in late 1941 flying Defiants before his first operational posting to Ballyhalbert, Northern Ireland with 153 Squadron. He is perhaps lucky to achieve this ‘quiet’ posting rather than a baptism of fire as he has the chance to hone his flying skills – skills he will very much have to call upon in the years to come. Fortunately the squadron is re-equipped with Beaufighters and one F/S Bill Watson arrives to replace Bob’s Defiant gunner. The chemistry is immediately obvious. Watson, older, agreeable in nature but with sharp opinions in debate becomes the source of much hilarity throughout the book and the strength of his character is conveyed very well.

The other major relationship Bob develops during his time in Northern Ireland is with his future wife Kay. Seeing her ‘Australia’ shoulder flash in the Ballyhalbert Ops room, he introduces himself with a “Hello Australia” … and draws a shy response. He persists and romance blossoms. He does, however, have a hard time meeting her friends as Watson would regularly ‘brief’ him on his various conquests of said girls!

Yearning for something worthwhile to do to assist the war effort – “Nothing’s bloody well happened again” – the Beaufighter crew volunteer for a Malta posting which they are subsequently offered. The January 1943 flight is uneventful until leaving Gibraltar supplied with incorrect headings and drift calculations. Unable to work out their actual drift due to heavy cloud, the boys become hopelessly lost before force-landing in the Sahara. Forced to burn everything they can't carry they begin to walk to friendly territory. On the way they ‘collect’ a couple of ‘Arabs’ (dubbed “new friend with gun” and “new friend with bloody big sword”) who at first follow them and then engage them with rifle fire before finding the boys’ discarded cigarettes and realising they are “Englessi”. Here, despite the desperate situation they find themselves in, Watson is at his humourous best and the intelligence and good-nature of the two airmen win the desert people over.

When they finally arrive in Malta, it doesn’t take the Bob and Watson long to open their account in the night skies over the island. Island life and its hardships are well described. Barely six months after his desert escapade Bob, flying with another observer due to Watson being sick, shoots down a Ju88 which explodes and takes the Beau with it. The observer, P/O AW Farquharson DFM, is killed and Bob, at 21 years old, barely makes it out of the doomed aircraft. Picked up by a hospital ship the next day, he returns to active flying six nights later but suffers recurring problems from his rapid exit from the disintegrating Beaufighter.

The pair return to the UK in August of 1943 having well and truly earned their rest tour. Bob’s input to the text of the book is valuable and the detail he provides combines well with Stephen’s ability to blend everything together to form a seamless timeline. Case-in-point – training new pilots on Merlin-powered Beaufighter Mk IIs. There is barely any rest during this posting and it reads as well as the ‘action’ sequences with Stephen working together flying, marriage, parties and hi-jinks to create perhaps the best account of a rest tour I have come across.

This is all foundation though because Cowper and Watson are reunited with a posting to 456 Squadron RAAF in May 1944. The experienced crew must have been a godsend as the squadron re-equipped with Mosquitos and worked up for the Normandy invasion. This was to be an interesting time for the squadron. D-Day onwards was a stellar period for 456 – particularly for the Cowper crew – despite being commanded by an Australian Wing Commander who, while successful in his leadershp, was a bit too ‘gung-ho’ for everyone’s liking. Immense detail is provided of Cowper and Watson’s successes with combat reports and logbook extracts being provided (more on the illustrations later).

At 22, Bob becomes a father in November 1944 soon after returning from a terrible night’s flying over Arnhem – a flight that shook the experienced crew to the core. Bob is tired from a long war but his little family brings him joy even on the coldest days when the bitter cold in their tiny house freezes the pipes and turns the clothes on the line to ice. He continues flying intruder trips over Germany but the war’s end brings frustration at not being able to return to Australia and, when finally being able to travel, having to do so separately to his girls.

As in war, peace brings success for Bob and Kay. The grow their family and prove handy cattle breeders and racehorse owners. Happily, Bill Watson is not forgotten and his tumultuous post-war years are well-documented and match the long years of peace the Cowpers experience.

Chasing Shadows uses a very effective literary device in its first chapter – the detailing of an exciting/harrowing experience in Bob’s flying career. This really draws the reader in. Tim Vigors uses it well in his book Life’s Too Short To Cry when he opens his story by baling out of his burning Buffalo – the end of his operational flying career. Stephen begins CS with the Sahara forced-landing and, through the beautiful use of language, captures exactly what I imagine it must have been like to be lost over a dark sea and with fuel rapidly diminishing - the self-doubting begins, smooth running engines suddenly sound a bit rough, pinpricks of light are beacons of hope and the fuel gauge seems to drop like a stone. Admittedly, Stephen had Bob handy to recount this episode in detail but to put it down on paper effectively and generate trepidation in the reader is truly something else. Fortunately, the writing continues at this level throughout and is well-supported.

Well-supported? Indeed. The use of illustrations in CS extends beyond the ‘simple’ use of relevant photos of aircraft, the Cowpers, Watson and related subjects. The effort has been made to include black-and-white maps and photos of memorabilia like forage caps, medals, documents, period advertisements, newspaper clippings, badges and even telegrams. The collection included within the pages of CS is superb. There is not a two-page spread throughout the book that is not illustrated in some way. Further detail is provided by separate paragraphs or pages which provide context or an interesting biography of a person featured in the text. These ‘sidebars’ do not interrupt the flow of the main body of text but they certainly add to the overall story. I found myself unable to pass them up until the end of each chapter so my reading of the main text had regular ‘interruptions’. A more disciplined reader will find the text flows nicely!

Stephen Lewis runs a publishing company in Adelaide and has made a fine effort at writing and presenting the story of Bob Cowper. We can be grateful he took the time to produce this outstanding piece of work and we can be grateful Bob saw fit to tell his story. So many of his colleagues never did.

This book was sent to me as a review copy signed by Stephen and Bob. It is a thick 160+ pages long and is finished most attractively. The only thing I will mention with regard to its production is that the inside-front and inside-back covers are brown and face white pages. I have found, possibly due to our recent move, that the brown has transferred/rubbed onto the white pages in places so I strongly recommend you place a piece of paper between the two to prevent this happening. It takes nothing away from the book itself but if you like to look after your books like me…

CS is available from Stephen’s printing business. See the ad in the right margin of ABR or click on the following – Chasing Shadows.

Reviewed copy published by Digital Print Australia in 2007.
ISBN 1-921207-15-9

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