Sunday, February 01, 2015

Never Been Hit - Peter Fitton


Publishing is an interesting animal (says he who has little experience in it).  Anything written can be published and passed off as a ‘legitimate’ book these days.  Yes, publishers still accept manuscripts but those that are rejected, or suit a very small niche market, can still be printed by the so-called ‘vanity’ or print-on-demand publishers like Lulu and Xlibris.  Some authors may even decide to publish through these publishers to avoid the hassle of the traditional approach and so they can do their marketing although, to be fair, the author is the marketer these days as publishers tighten their belts.  Even small print runs can be done by professional printing firms (see Chasing Shadows for a very good example).  The modern author has a variety of paths to follow to see his or her name in print or even digitally.  These books form almost a sub-culture in that they generally do not get noticed by the wider reading public – admittedly the reason why ‘vanity’ publishers exist – despite the efforts of the author who simply wants the story ‘out there’.  They may not be perfect but their existence is what is most important.  One such diamond in the rough is Peter Fitton’s Never Been Hit.

Towards the end of the war in Europe many Allied fighter squadrons, particularly those based on the Continent, were heavily involved in strikes on enemy transport, flak units and almost anything else that moved.  It was incredibly dangerous work.

It’s not often we learn about an Australian’s experiences during this time so NBH is particularly interesting and was something I was particularly keen to read (and support).  Les Streete, a well-known identity and community leader on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula post-war, grew up in country New South Wales and, upon joining the RAAF in October 1942, learned to fly at Narromine.  In July of the following year he sailed, like so many other Australians destined for the war in Europe, to Canada for advanced training and then to the UK before joining No. 66 Squadron, and its clipped-wing Spitfire Mk XVIs, in Belgium in late 1944.

His time training in Canada is detailed particularly well and his travels around North America while on leave provide a good picture of a ‘home front’ that was the polar opposite to what he would experience in the UK and Europe.  Well aware of the death and destruction on the other side of the Atlantic, there are times when Les feels guilty for enjoying what was on offer in the likes of New York and Montreal. 

Les was a fine athlete so performed well on and off the airfield.  He threw himself relentlessly into his studies and flying and by early 1944 was flying Hurricanes with No. 1 Operational Training Unit in Bagotville, Quebec.  Less than a month later he was forced to bale out, at more than 20,000 feet over the frozen Canadian countryside, when his Hurricane caught fire.  Losing a boot on the way down, Les ended up in a fir tree where he proceeded to wrap strips of silk around his now very cold foot before launching himself into the safest looking snowdrift.  Struggling to an isolated cabin nearby he thawed out while the two French-speaking old ladies of the cabin embroidered part of his parachute as a keepsake of his adventure that day.  He always flew with that ‘scarf’ from that day on.

The budding, and now somewhat hardened, fighter pilot still had a way to go before he began flying combat ops.  After some leave upon graduation, he did not arrive in the UK until late June.  It was a time when the optimism of the Normandy landings had everyone thinking the war would be over by Christmas.  This was somewhat tempered by the first V-1 flying bombs being launched against London.  It must have been an interesting time for newly fledged pilots as they wondered whether they would join a squadron before hostilities ceased.  It was the same for Les as, although he was kept busy with refresher training and then ferrying a variety of aircraft, he did not join No. 66 Squadron, newly arrived at Grimbergen in Belgium, until the end of November.

Despite this delay, which admittedly allowed a familiarisation of the local flying conditions, the tempo of operations on the squadron, weather permitting, soon made any perception of time wasted a distant memory.  Les was heavily involved in operations against harried German forces until he left the squadron at the end of April 1945.  He was a talented flyer who experienced considerable success dive-bombing ground targets (his Spitfire often carried one 500lb and two 250lb bombs).  He even managed to make the most of rare encounters in the air and was successful against several V1s and enemy fighters.  However, it was a tenuous existence.  The first V1 he destroyed, on a relatively safe escort sortie, blew up at close range.  Les was unable to take evasive action so had to fly through the explosion.  He was lucky to escape with just a missing spinner.

Ground fire was, of course, the biggest threat and the book is sobering in its regular accounts of one of Les’ squadron mates, flying either just ahead or just behind, collecting a packet and ‘going in’.  It was a rare occurrence, given the heights they operated at on ground attack ops, for a pilot to have any chance when hit.  It makes for such harrowing reading that when a pilot does manage to coax some height and/or distance out of his crippled Spitfire, before baling out or force-landing, the reader’s heart soars with relief.

Life on the squadron, as you might gather from the above, was busy, stressful and certainly took its toll on the young men.  Les, as expected, was fit and strong and thought nothing of the regular lectures, by the medical officer, on subjects like fatigue.  Yet, when he returned to England for a spot of leave, he was more than grateful to leave the bleak and dangerous existence of operational flying. 

Given the job the squadron was doing, losses were regular and often personal.  There are two levels to this.  Firstly, obviously, losing a squadron mate would be keenly felt by those left behind.  For a fighter squadron, where, at most, there were two dozen pilots, all of the aircrew would have been quite familiar with each other (perhaps more so than a bomber squadron with its greater number of aircrew and focus on the crew unit).  Secondly, most of the losses were witnessed at very close range and this could not fail to have an impact on such a tight-knit group of men and the individuals within.  Les, reeling from several losses of squadron mates, and hearing the news of the deaths of close friends, developed a simple weariness.  Gone was the exhilaration of being a young flyer piloting one of the finest aircraft ever built at low level.  This was not helped by an attack on a purported Gestapo Headquarters in North Amsterdam.  Acting on intelligence from the Dutch Underground, three Spitfires attacked the building successfully but without avoiding civilian casualties in the busy street.  All three men were haunted by the people they had seen killed and were devastated when they were told it was the wrong building – right target as per the intelligence but they had deliberately been given the wrong information.  Les was already suffering sleepless nights from this attack so he was relieved beyond belief when a return visit was cancelled due to bad weather.

The squadron flew until the end of April.  They handed their Spits over and returned to England.  Generous leave followed but Les was keen to keep flying so converted to Tempests.  With the war in Europe over, however, the writing was on the wall and the newly commissioned Les began his journey back to Australia in early August 1945.  He was just a few days short of his 23rd birthday.

As many returned aircrew experienced, Les was restless and ill at ease with civilian life.  He was still visited by visions of his mates going down and images of the ill-fated North Amsterdam attack.  Nothing held his attention for long but he married a very understanding and compassionate woman in 1948 and the two of them worked hard.  That hard work led to a successful business in the holiday mecca of Rye (now the outskirts of Melbourne) and, combined with his wife’s intuition as to what was going on in his head, Les slowly resurfaced from the war.  He never forgot, of course, but he recovered to make the most of what would turn out to be a life of service to his fellow returned servicemen and women.

Peter Fitton, a member of the Tyabb Aero Club, was fortunate to be given access to Les’ logbooks and diaries so the reader is able to gain a marvellous insight into this relative latecomer to the European war.  It was almost a rite of passage as he was first given the logbook and ‘formal’ diary before, trust being established, he was allowed to read the personal, more elaborate diary that had not been seen by anyone other than Les.  Good use has been made of all primary sources and an understanding of Les’ character allowed a bit more depth in the writing.  It’s not just “Les did this, then he did that”.  His place in the big picture is detailed with contextual passages covering the Allies’ push to Berlin.  Some of these, particularly the crossing of the Rhine and events leading up to it, are a little hard to follow without some knowledge of the geography.  Some maps are included but are a little confusing as there’s a lot going on.  The employment of a graphic designer here would have helped to clean things up a bit but these come at a price. 

The author does engage in a bit of poetic licence here and there to ward off any ‘dryness’ and, for the most part, does this well although there are times when an entire passage could have been removed without affecting the delivery of the story.  I am far from a prude but the failed sexual adventure of one of Les’ mates soon after arrival in the UK was completely unnecessary and certainly did not warrant almost two pages of Mills & Boon-esque imagery.  It could have been written in one or two sentences … if it had to be included. 

That said, the author’s experience as a pilot helps the reader to feel some of the flying sequences in their gut and the speed and danger of low-level flying is exceptionally well conveyed. There are a few technical and RAF terminology glitches however.  Add these to regular typos and grammatical issues and the print-on-demand book is more or less defined.  Yes, this book is well written but with a nice edit and tighten, it would be an easy sell in the ‘formal’ publishing world.  I hope it gets its chance.  Both the author and Les deserve it.

I bought my paperback copy of Never Been Hit direct from Xlibris.  All copies available online will ultimately come from Xlibris.  For what it is – a paperback of the American ‘floppy’ format and production value – it is not relatively cheap and, I believe, the price went up for all formats (hard, soft and e-book) soon after I bought it.  However, with the exchange rates now, it should work out quite affordably.  That’s a good thing as it draws attention to one of the unsung Australian pilots of the war.

ISBN 978-1-4771-2356-0

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