Sunday, March 28, 2010

Under A Bomber's Moon - Stephen Harris

Every book is a journey. A good writer can make even a seemingly mundane assignment riveting to the point the reader is right there with him or her. But what about the ‘professional’ author, the enthusiast or the newcomer to the genre - none of whom lived the events they describe? Sure they are recounting the experiences of others but what about their journey from initial idea to published author? Often it is touched upon in the introduction and the rest of the book is dedicated to the subject matter. There is always a story behind the story. One might think it would distract from the main focus and, in some cases, no doubt this conclusion is correct. With Stephen Harris’ Under A Bomber’s Moon, however, what is really three stories in one works to enhance the reader’s experience.

UABM is as much a story of the author’s education in the bomber war as it is a tale of two airmen involved in that war. A journalist in Germany at the start of this century, the author in some respects brings several desirable skills to his quest – professional research and writing and the ability to speak German.

His project begins with family stories about his great uncle Colwyn Jones. These stories are ably supported by beautifully written letters by Col to his mother in New Zealand. Also a journalist – having completed a Master of Arts and working at the Auckland Star for 11 years – Col joins up and becomes a navigator with 149 Squadron. He is significantly older than the majority of Bomber Command aircrew and, to some extent, this is reflected in his observations and comments. He completes a hectic tour (more of that later) of 33 ops with 149, is awarded the DFC, serves as bombing leader with 1651 HCU and is then posted to 115 Squadron to serve as navigation officer. He flew one op during his seven month stay with 115 before losing his life on his first trip with 7 Squadron Pathfinder Force. Posthumously awarded a Mention In Dispatches I will tell you now his death left me feeling empty. He was a talented writer and navigator and was one of those people who everyone just seemed to warm to. Of course he had his close friends, many of whom were lost while he continued on, and Col’s letters (and the author’s writing) capture everything from immense joy to terrible sadness. The first, full-page photograph reproduced in the book is a portrait of Col and the big, toothy smile, tidy moustache, bright, smiling eyes and cap at a slight angle tell you almost everything you need to know about this man.

The letters written by Col are at the core of this book and, naturally, the author has expanded on them with contextual research. This research led – as research often does – to several instances of pure luck and, effectively, being in the right place at the right time. Early on, the author recounts the story of Col’s crew ditching their Stirling in the North Sea after an epic trip to Essen in early June 1942. In the course of his research Stephen acquires a CD of wartime BBC radio recordings of bomber crew broadcasting their experiences. Imagine his surprise when one of these recordings proves to be Col’s skipper, Eric Whitney, talking about the ditching. Having two personal recollections of such an event would be a boon for any aviation writer and the author certainly makes good use of this opportunity. However perhaps the most fortuitous opportunity to ‘cross his bows’ was the chance to meet and interview Otto Fries – a former Luftwaffe night fighter pilot whose tally of RAF bombers shot down is well into double figures. Otto’s story is given equal weight to Col’s and in many ways acts as a fascinating foil to what otherwise would have been ‘another’ well-written account of ‘another’ remarkable Commonwealth airman.

Otto flew the Me 110 and He 219 during his night fighter career but, while he obviously made an impact, his war was certainly not one-sided. Remarkably he and his radar operator survived being shot down several times by both RAF night fighters and the defensive guns of the bombers they hunted. Indeed his war could just as easily have made a book on its own. While I am familiar with the aircraft used by the Luftwaffe and their general ‘MO’, this was definitely the first time I had had a window into the minutae of a German flier’s life. What I knew already was that young fliers, no matter what nationality, were essentially all the same. It was just the uniforms, language and aircraft that were different. However, Otto’s memories and experiences also make a serious contribution that is not often encountered in books about Commonwealth aircrew – he gives the Germans a face. How often are Germans referred to as just a Ju 88 or Me 109 or even mere trucks or trains on the ground? This is usually out of necessity and due to a story being told by the person who experienced it (and all they would have seen was the machine). It is refreshing, therefore, to see what the night skies over Germany were like for ‘the other side’ especially when applied to the context of an Allied airman’s war.

While the biographies of either flier could easily take up another few paragraphs it is the writing and structure of this book that I really want to cover – the actual review as it were. Stephen Harris weaves his journey of discovery about Col and the bomber war in general with that of Col’s operational tour. He visits Col’s old airfields and haunts and gets to grips with the time and Col’s contemporaries (there’s a fascinating link to Middleton VC as uncovered in Col’s letters). However he casts an understandably modern eye over the bomber war and the destruction it caused. He is critical of the effectiveness and comes within a hair’s breadth of questioning the morality of it all before countering with reference to the persecution of the Europeans and the Germans' own contribution to large-scale bombing tactics (here he uses Col’s letters referring to exacting some revenge for the bombing of London and Coventry). That the author is new to this ‘world’ is evident – more of that later – and this fact is certainly not lost on him as he writes. It was clear he realised he was looking at events of 60 years ago with 21st Century ideals so his balanced approach stretches far beyond telling the story of an Allied AND a German airman.

An earlier review of this book featured in a military history magazine took offence to the use of ‘arsonists’ when referring to the bomber crews. At the time I was still reading the book and had yet to encounter that passage so reserved judgment while thinking perhaps the ‘modern’ ideals had ‘won out’ for a brief period of time during Stephen’s writing. My natural reaction to the use of this term is one of considerable frustration so I was relieved to discover its use at the start of Chapter Nine – a chapter that is devoted to Otto’s flying and his first victory – was to illustrate the opinion of a confused night fighter pilot over the burning cities of Cologne and Hamburg. While very much a controversial word to use in this genre, this is perhaps the tamest but maybe most relevant use I have seen. It was certainly not intended to stir!

The writing itself is easy to follow but the careers of both airmen might feel somewhat disjointed (and that’s not because of the various chapters dedicated to one or the other). The author, particularly with Col’s service, uses major career events to illustrate the bomber war itself (tactics, equipment etc) and these can jump around a little in terms of chronology. That said, this ties in with the author’s own discoveries and learning and is what makes the book as accessible and understandable to ‘novice’ readers as it is to Bomber Command regulars. It introduces the major factors influencing each force’s operations while providing enough gritty detail.

As alluded to previously the author is new to aviation and the bomber war in particular. His experience as a journalist overcomes most of the issues that this would bring but the occasional hiccup does get through. An aircraft’s horizontal stabiliser is referred to on several occasions as the “tail’s cross-piece” while the airspeed indicator becomes a “speedometer”. Little picky things, yes, but both serve to remind you that this is all new to the author while reinforcing the generally superb effort he clearly put in.

His journalistic skills come to the fore when using square brackets ([…]) to clarify jargon or tidy up running references in correspondence. You may recall my opinion of these was quite scathing in the review of Ford-Jones’ Desert Flyer but in UABM they are used expertly although occasionally there is a bit of over-kill – “…flying at 600ft [altitude]…”.

The handling of the news of Col’s death is understated (although the investigation and first-hand accounts of the incident are very well done) with the author simply relating the facts of what various family members did while leaving the emotion to those who knew Col best. Indeed, Chapter 14 includes more text from letters of condolence than it does descriptive text and is wonderfully constructed and a perfect epitaph.

With excellently laid-out endpapers UABM continues a tradition I’ve noticed with paperbacks about New Zealand aircrew – it looks superb. The thick card covers include flaps front and rear and the artwork is attractive … but quite improbable. With an He 219 in that position the mid-upper gunner on the visibly undamaged Stirling would be hammering away at the German aircraft and/or the bomber would be standing on a wingtip to evade. As I progressed through the book, though, my impression of the cover changed. Rather than this being an interception the cover is of two aircraft flying together in the night sky – comrades-in-arms as it were. In many respects that’s exactly what these opposing airmen were.

While on the subject of illustrations the two sections of photos – 36 in all – are wonderfully reproduced on glossy paper while several maps appear on the high-quality ‘text’ pages. The photos are excellent, were all new to me and cover both airmen’s experiences while also including recent photographs taken during the author’s investigations.

So, now that we’ve traveled through a review that barely scratches the surface of UABM, what have we got? The stories of three men – Col, Otto and the author – and their journeys of discovery, one of which was cut far too short. In a sense, the author continues Col’s story and breathes life into what otherwise would have been one of the many lost airmen who will never have anything written about them. In so doing he turns a remarkable journey into a very special one. While it is not known whether Otto and Col shared the same piece of sky like they do on the cover, the inclusion of Otto’s experiences not only opens the reader’s eyes to the German experience but adds to the understanding of the dangers Col, and the thousands of young men just like him, faced in the night skies over Europe. I can only hope Stephen Harris builds on the journey he has undertaken and applies his knowledge to another aspect of the bomber war. If it’s anything like UABM, it will be worth the read.

As I have said this is a superb looking book and, although a paperback, would easily compete with a hardback in terms of quality of production. Exisle Publishing is new to me and I do not think they have published any other books in this genre. Here’s hoping they get the chance.

This review copy came direct from Exisle and it is available from them online – Exisle Publishing. I have also seen it in several chain bookstores and museum gift shops so it is readily available. At more than 200 pages it is an easy size to read and is crammed full of information which makes it a very worthwhile purchase.

Stephen Harris also has a website which includes extracts from the book and other extra details. Well worth a look at – Under A Bomber's Moon.



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