Sunday, May 29, 2011

Another Dawn Another Dusk - Kenneth Ballantyne

Perspective is a fascinating thing. It is, of course, inherent to the books featured on ABR (as it is for all books of all genres). In terms of the World War 2 aircrew featured here, we encounter stories told in the first person, by a fellow crewmember, by the veteran turned historian, by the ‘professional’ historian or by the enthusiast (for want of a better word) who has been lucky enough to stumble upon the papers of an airman, or the man himself, and thought “This would make a great book”. For all it is a challenge to convey what was experienced 70 years ago. Other than those who were there, how do you imagine what the flak or the loss of friends was like? Yes, being able to record or read first-person accounts is insanely beneficial but it still comes down to the writer’s ability to weave his or her magic. Hit or miss, the stories are out there and we are wiser for them for it is often the enthusiast that turns up the gems – the hitherto untold stories of remarkable people.

Kenneth Ballantyne is one of these enthusiasts but he’s had a little help. A father in the military and a lifelong interest in all things RAF surely must have made his job a little easier. The decision to write the story of rear gunner Trevor Bowyer DFC, ISM – a veteran of two tours – in the first person, however, was not the easiest path to follow. To see the war through Trevor’s eyes required an immense amount of knowledge of the war to begin with but certainly would have included long periods of time with the family and Bowyer’s contemporaries. A challenge if ever there was one. The result? Another Dawn Another Dusk – a well-produced paperback written with such insight I had to keep reminding myself it was Kenneth doing the writing not Trevor!

Trevor Bowyer grew up in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. Son of a railwayman and a dressmaker, his childhood was not privileged nor was it destitute. The sheer hard work of his parents saw him through a decent education and instilled a good work ethic in the young man. He earned pocket-money helping the milkman on weekends and holidays but it was an application to join the Post Office, upon completion of his schooling, that set him on a path of public service by way of a delightful interview process.

After more than four years TB transfers to Crewe. The call of the railway was obviously stronger than he realised as he spent from 1933 to the very early stages of the war working as a sorter on the Travelling Post Office – a series of special trains that ensured overnight mail delivery the length and breadth of ‘mainland’ UK. Sorters on these special trains were on their feet throughout their night shifts and had to maintain intense concentration for long periods of time. The journeys were often cold and, with the weather and then wartime disruptions, prone to long delays despite taking precedence over most other rail traffic. Surely there could not have been a better preparation for someone destined to be an air gunner?

The start of the war sees our hero still travelling up and down the country on the TPO. Well aware of how his country happened to be at war again - indicated by a variety of tangential and contextual passages (more on those later) - Trevor decides to volunteer for aircrew rather than wait for his inevitable call-up. Hoping to be a bomber pilot – being subjected to, and living among the ruins caused by, the Luftwaffe’s raids on London in the months leading up to November 1940 seems to have had a particular influence on this decision – but not really minding as long as he is “part of a bomber crew”, TB is surprised to find he has indeed been selected for pilot training. Initial training is at RAF Bridgnorth, a mere 20 miles from his hometown of Shrewsbury. Progressing happily enough, he ends up at RAF Cranwell to begin his flying training. While he learnt to fly the Tiger Moth he was told his eyesight was not quite up to scratch – he was slightly colour-blind.

Deemed fit to remain as aircrew, nothing was of interest besides the role of air gunner. Graduating his 10-week gunnery course as a sergeant just before Christmas 1941, our budding gunner had already experienced the first of his close shaves when the Botha he was training in loses an engine on take-off and crash-lands. Shaken but not hurt, the entire crew were back flying that afternoon.

No. 21 Operational Training Unit is Trevor’s home from early 1942 and he soon climbs into a Wellington for the first time. In short order, TB’s embryonic crew find themselves being briefed for the first 1,000 bomber raid. As luck would have it, 45 minutes after taking off for Cologne, the crew was landing back at base having had an engine fail.

Trevor does complete his first op (Essen) on the night of June 1. Engaged and damaged by a night fighter, and having fired his guns for the first time in combat, Trevor, wonders how on earth he is going to make it through an entire tour. A reprieve of sorts is forthcoming the following morning when his crew is posted to No. 70 Squadron in Egypt.

Transiting through the Mediterranean, Trevor and his crew soon lose their pilot – posted to Palestine – and fly their first three ops with three different pilots. Having settled into the Desert Air Force way of life proper, the crew were quite unnerved to be flying without a regular skipper, so much so the CO, a Wing Commander Wood, flew them on their next trip at the head of a squadron formation attacking troop concentrations. The crew were not allocated a permanent pilot until August. Soon after, down low strafing enemy transport, an AA shell exploded beneath the rear turret. Trevor’s oxygen mask is shot away by a cannon shell that would have killed him had he not been thrown back in his seat. The rest of the crew only knew he was still with them when they heard his guns resume firing. Indeed, upon seeing the condition of the tail and turret area upon returning home, everyone was surprised that all he made it out with was a sore head.

So much for a posting to the desert being a reprieve, huh? The tour didn’t let up as in early September 1942, during a raid on Tobruk, Trevor and his crew are shot down 30 miles behind enemy lines. Three days later, walking east, they were picked up by a friendly unit. Another crew shot down that same night made it back 23 days later! The Bowyer luck was holding.

Finishing his tour two months later, Trevor returns to the UK and serves as an instructor on No. 14 OTU before being requested by a Pilot Officer Basil Acott to join his crew at a Heavy Conversion Unit. Joining No. 61 Squadron at RAF Coningsby in early 1944, TB begins his second tour as a Lancaster rear gunner.

The following chapters covering this second tour are an absolute blur of ops. The writing is suddenly more business-like, reflecting Trevor’s vast experience and commitment to his job, but still takes the time to report on squadron life away from ops and the not-so-fortunate adventures of some of Bowyer’s contemporaries. While the ops tend to blend into each other, the detail of each is certainly not lacking and Trevor’s impressions and memories of each are quite clear. The routine and repetition of ops is evident but before long, after completing 59 ops over two tours in two theatres of war, Trevor finds himself sitting back at his parents’ kitchen table. He spends the rest of the war, what’s left of it, instructing and completing courses ... with a DFC ribbon sewed to his tunic.

Happily, Trevor’s life was a good one after the war. Married in 1946 and beginning to raise a family shortly after, he retired from the post office in the 1970s and was awarded the Imperial Service Medal for his work. Having lived through what he did and being privy to so much detail of his RAF career, it is particularly gratifying to read the chapter devoted to his post-war life.

How much of the RAF detail is actually his own thoughts as opposed to the author’s artistic licence is hard to tell and, I admit, I have not asked Kenneth this question. The writing is very descriptive and the imagery it invokes in the reader is particularly strong. I would argue the author’s greatest challenge was to not make the book seem like a dry memoir as could have so easily happened. Indeed, I was particularly taken by some of the metaphors used during Trevor’s time on ops. These are used powerfully and with great effect and indicate an author very much in tune with his subject. Perhaps the example that had me gasping with sudden realisation was, when referring to a Wimpey at night over the desert, this:

The ground beneath us drifted by like a pale silver cloth slipping slowly from the table over which it had been laid.

The author’s style, however, takes a little getting used to. As already mentioned he does go off on tangents. The term “tangential contextualisations” comes to mind (I think I just broke the grammar checker). Whether such a thing exists, I don’t know, but this is exactly what these ‘breaks from regular programming’ are. Be it discussing the history of the British railways, giving a quick overview of the history of the Army unit a colleague’s father served in or detailing the adventures of those whose paths cross with Trevor (or, in some cases, the author in the course of his research), these tangents appear regularly throughout the book. At first I couldn’t quite understand the relevance of discussing, for example, the action at Rorke’s Drift or the history of a town Trevor had just been posted to. Such things seemed to pop up as Trevor’s story was gaining momentum. Many of the tangents cover familiar wartime territory but it occurred to me that what was being discussed in detail was in fact Trevor’s world. To this extent the book would be particularly valuable for those not familiar with the time and world he occupied. For the ‘seasoned’ reader it gives the ability to step back from Trevor’s life briefly and see it as part of the big picture.

While some of these ‘intermissions’ can be quite distracting they are, for the most part, relevant to the storyline. Never is this more evident during Trevor’s ‘rest’ after his second tour. The tangents keep coming and, importantly, are a very good tool to remind the reader that even though Trevor’s war was over, it was very much an ongoing thing for many thousands of men just like him. In a way, ADAD is as much a tribute to the men featured in these vignettes as it is the story of a young man whose life of service started before the war and, fortunately, extended well beyond the end of it. This is an enjoyable, educational and fascinating read that will have you looking for more of the author’s writing.

ADAD, at just less than 340 pages, is surprisingly heavy for its size. The reason for this is the heavier, glossy paper stock used throughout which enables photos to be reproduced well in among the main text. There is a considerable section at the rear of the book which includes 40 images ranging from Trevor and his family to photos of the author meeting some of those who feature in earlier pages. I have not done a count of all of the photos in the book but would argue there are more than 100 (with 31 in the first 100 pages). All add to the text very well and are well-placed to support said text.

With the very colourful and original cover, this is affordable quality. It would be hard to buy a book of this calibre and breadth for a better price. ADAD is available direct from Laundry Cottage Books, the author’s publishing house ... literally!

The copy reviewed was printed in 2009 and bought (signed) direct from Laundry Cottage. ISBN 978-0-9550601-3-7

2 comments:

  1. Could not put this down a really good read. ADM

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  2. Superb and impossible to put down! I'm now looking out for 'The Journey' and 'The D-Day Dodger'.

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