21 November 2014

Australia's Few and the Battle Of Britain - Kristen Alexander

For as long as books are written about aviation there will always be books about the Battle of Britain.  It is perhaps the one enduring ‘household name’ from the war.  Indeed, even its ‘stars’ – The Few, Churchill, Dowding, Bader, Spitfire, Hurricane – still roll off the tongue.  It must be considerably difficult, given so much has been written about this period of the war already, for an author to come up with a new angle that will be of sufficient interest to publishers and, of course, the target audience.  The key, however, is “The Few”.  The aircrew.  Every single one deserves to have his story told.  Many have.  Many haven’t.

Such was the impact of the RAF’s victory against the odds that the campaign still resonates with astounding clarity.  It is a popularity that has seen myths and tales repeated until they are accepted as fact before, thankfully, being debunked through good old-fashioned historical research.  This research, and the continuing interest in the subject matter, has ensured documents are re-discovered, or re-interpreted, and crash sites continue to be found.

The household names are such because, for the most part, they endured.  They added to their achievements beyond that summer of 1940 and provided future biographers and researchers with enough material to generate countless volumes of work.  Those who survived had a life after the Battle.  They had a voice with which to tell their own story.  What, then, of those who did not make it?  How can their voice be heard when, perhaps, it is hidden safely away in a shoebox in the cupboard of a still grieving widow or relative?  For many they are simply a name on a plaque or on a headstone.  A pilot of the Battle of Britain.

What was he like?  Why did he fly?  Was he married?  Who and what did he love?  Where did he come from?  Someone always remembers and that is how the lost are heard.  In the case of this book, realisation came before remembrance.  The author became inquisitive about the Australian involvement in the Battle after reading one of H.E. Bates’ classic works.  There followed a journey of discovery that produced astounding access to the personal papers and records of eight men who flew in the Battle of Britain and who are certainly not household names.  The result is a perfect blend of military and personal biography.  Now these young men have a voice again.

Crossman, Glyde, Holland, Hughes, Kennedy, Millington, Sheen and Walch.  All were Australians in the RAF.  Some learned to fly at Point Cook.  Others in England.  Some became aces.  Some earned the DFC.  One survived.

As expected, there is a lot of combat but these sequences are, as much as possible, told in the pilot’s words through snippets from logbooks and combat reports and judiciously selected comments from diaries and other musings.  This is, of course, what we expect of a book about the Battle of Britain.  What is expertly woven into the narrative, however, is exquisite detail of the personal lives of the men – their thoughts when on station, the evident tension experienced as time passed and fatigue grew and, most importantly, their experiences when not on duty.  Here we really learn who these men were. 

The most valuable material is, however, in the pre-war/pre-Battle narrative.  Logbooks and diaries are expected sources when writing about pilots in combat.  Discovering their lives before their greatest achievements requires a much more personal approach and a desire to tell the whole story and not just the exciting stuff.  The result of such in-depth research and analysis, lovingly so in each respect, is an understanding beyond anything official records will ever provide.  There is a reason why Kennedy never smiled in photographs, for example.  Yes, there is some reading between the lines but, given the extent of the source material at hand, it is very much an educated, informed and perceptive interpretation.

All eight men come to life as their lives are laid bare. The reader develops an affinity with each to the point where the losses are keenly felt.  Hughes, a phenomenally aggressive (Point Cook might still bear the scars!) and successful pilot and flight leader, particularly got under my skin as he built the foundation of a loving relationship and potential future family (he was, of course, not the only one to find love while overseas). The progressive losses set-up the final chapters as the stories do not end as seven men are shot down.  They leave behind families and friends who struggle to accept their shining light has gone.  This is where the writing really benefits from the author’s unsurpassed ‘eye for the personal’, as I like to call it, developed in her earlier works (Clive Caldwell Air Ace and Jack Davenport Beaufighter Leader).  While the entire book is written with emotion and caring, the closing chapters are almost heartbreaking as each family unit comes to terms, more or less, with their loss over the decades that followed the war.  The immediate reaction by colleagues and loved ones to each death is recorded in the main ‘action’ chapters but the Battle moves on and, of course, so must the narrative.  The last few chapters, however, are a delicately and expertly assembled section of the book that serves to remind us that these men left so much behind.

Such sublime content deserves an equally well-crafted package to be presented in. As much as this is the author’s coming of age as an aviation history writer, the publisher has gone above and beyond in ensuring this book is well presented. Indeed, the sheer presence of this beautiful hardback demands attention on the shelf.  The hardcovers replicate the dust cover artwork and prove there is more to life than dark cloth and gold-embossed text.  The pages are clean and crisp, the text is (justified!) the perfect size for easy reading and the photo section, cut down from a large number of images the author had collected, happily focuses on personal and intimate images of the men rather than stock photos of Spitfires and Hurricanes etc.  The effort put in to the design and layout is evident.  Someone at NewSouth really understood what the book is all about.  Add the professional notes and index and we have an example from the very pinnacle of book design.

If I’m honest, and that’s what ABR is all about, I tend to steer away from books on the Battle and prefer to hunt down those from lesser known campaigns, battles, squadrons and theatres.  That summer of 1940, however, is what I cut my teeth on when I first ‘discovered’ the world of Second World War aviation.  It’s always there, in various forms, on my shelves, online or, most of the time, at a local bookshop.  Why then, in this world of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Battle of Britain books, and with the 75th anniversary just around the corner, would you buy this book over the others?  The question really should be “why wouldn’t you?”  From cover to cover it is the perfect tribute to eight Australian pilots and, hands down, the best-presented ‘package’ I have seen in a while.  It can be tricky, as the narrative changes to another ‘character’, to keep abreast with who’s who but this is really only experienced early on before the reader gets to ‘know’ each budding pilot.  The timelines of all eight are well managed and I hate to think of the headaches weaving them all together must have caused.  At a little over 400 pages of narrative, notes, bibliography and index, you’d think this would be a longish read but it flows so nicely, and there is always something to discover on the next page, that progress is swift.

Eight men have finally had their stories told.  It couldn’t have been done better.  I am bloody glad to have read Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain.  I am bloody glad to have it on my shelf.

NewSouth Publishing 2014
ISBN 9-781742-234151

April 30, 2015 - Now available through Pen & Sword in the UK!

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