It can start with just a photo. Indeed, it can even start with just a name. Lucky are those with a shoebox full of memories and memorabilia or a cherished logbook. Of course, such things pave the road of research somewhat in that they already provide clues and leads, but a photograph can be a godsend or a frustration. Where was it taken? When was it taken? Who is that? A photograph can answer all of those or none. An image of a gravesite indicates the end of the story, at least for its occupant, and the two remaining queries – how and why. Sara Mosher had just that. A photo of a grave and its cross, before Commonwealth War Graves Commission attention, shortly after the war, and an apparently rushed photo of the subject returning from an op, was all she had to work with, but things grew from there and became Jimmy Muir from Trois-Rivières. She has given life to one of the many.
Born in Quebec, ‘Jimmy’ Muir instantly stands out in the aircrew stakes or, at least, in the aircrew I’ve read about. The French-Canadians were not overly supportive of the war, but his hard-working, staunchly religious parents instilled a sense of duty in their son and even though he soon, understandably, questioned the role of God in what he saw before him, even before he went to war, ‘Jimmy’ was as faithful a servant to the RCAF and RAF as ever there was.
Trained in Canada and successfully meeting every requirement to become a fighter pilot, Muir crosses the Atlantic and marvels at the clutter that is England and London in particular. For a young man from the wide open spaces of regional Canada, he is remarkably nonplussed by the change. He eventually joins No. 65 (East India) Squadron, one of the better known Tactical Reconnaissance units, and begins flying ops from England during the month leading up to the Normandy invasions. As the Allies push on, the squadron moves to Europe to stay close to the frontline. From June to the end of August, Muir flies fifty ops, the majority being armed recces dealing with bridges and motor transport and always, always, in the teeth of the flak.
The Tac/R sorties flown by the squadron is dangerous work, the rate of attrition steady and the flak indiscriminate. As detailed in the review of Peter Fitton’s Never Been Hit (Australian Les Streete flying Spitfire Mk.XVIs in Belgium with No. 66 Squadron), one aircraft could make it through and the second would receive a direct hit and cease to be. The pilot could be on his third op or his third tour. It didn’t matter. This was dirty, necessary work and survival was certainly down to luck more than skill.
‘Jimmy’ and his colleagues were flying the Mustang III. The squadron would continue to do so after it left Europe for a rest before returning to combat by escorting Coastal Command strikes across the North Sea. The Mustang is not an aircraft that crops up in RAF memoirs too often, relatively speaking, so it is a pleasure to encounter it here. That said, one of the strong aspects of this book is that the author uses quotes and excerpts from Muir’s colleagues on the squadron at the time. It is fortunate that at least three of them – Corran Ashworth, Tony Jonsson and Bob Milton – have had biographies published. They add the meat to the bones that is Muir’s five months with the squadron.
Good things really do come in small packages and this book is the epitome of that phrase. A mere 65 pages long, it can certainly be read in one sitting although I managed to savour it over four due to my wife being away for work and two children who have progressively succumbed to the sniffles. Sometimes it was almost too much to get through just a couple of the deceptively short chapters. It is an incredibly easy read, sparsely illustrated out of necessity, and the author uses her words well. She could easily have gone off on all manner of tangents, and she does to a minor extent, and made the book a lot longer than it is. This, however, would have lost our hero in the detail. A disciplined and focused narrative was needed to keep ‘Jimmy’ in the foreground, as the main player, and this is wholeheartedly achieved and very pleasing to see as it is so easy to succumb, and lose the reader, to the desire to provide context.
The efficiency of the words is what is most impressive. Despite the limited space, the Muir family history is very well done with enough convolutions to challenge the much longer family trees regularly encountered. In much the same way, the threat of the flak and the frenetic nature and danger of the Tac/R ops is in your face with barely a page turned. There is little in the way of build up (not much room for it), Muir’s operational flying just kicks off and settles into something resembling a routine albeit a repetitive, stressful and life-threatening one.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect that allows the reader to understand ‘Jimmy’ Muir in such a short space of time is that he was the author of the squadron’s Operations Record Book for much of his time there. It reveals both his gregarious nature, but also his ability to look inward and a feeling that he could quite easily feel alone in a crowd of friends and not be at all concerned about it. It is a surprisingly valuable gift in terms of ‘character development’ and one that the author surely had to pinch herself when she discovered it. Not all of the entries are included, of course, but what are show a lovely turn of phrase and humour. The quality of a squadron’s ORB depended on its author/s and 65 Squadron had a good one during this time.
The death is handled with both empathy and detachment, perhaps mirroring how Muir’s colleagues would have had to handle his loss. It is presented as but a small event in a world at war, but one that had a profound effect on his family. The detail of his discovery and burial shortly after his death holds little, if anything back, and serves to prove that the flak rarely spared its victims. Such was the nature of Tac/R. Fly low, fly fast, hit hard, get out or go in. After letting Muir grow on you, powerfully so despite the brevity of the narrative, it is a slap in the face.
Jimmy Muir from Trois-Rivières will not leap off the shelf at the book browser. It’s physical stature lends itself to being lost among the relatively bold and brash hardbacks with their aircraft, explosions and gunfire on their covers. It is a book of equal stature, however. With not a lot to go on, and with a clinical efficiency that belies the heart and soul invested in the narrative, Sara Mosher has crafted a remarkably moving and surprisingly descriptive account of a pilot who would otherwise have been consigned to a passing mention in books about his colleagues. Granted he had a much shorter flying career than his mates mentioned above, but that doesn’t mean he deserves anything less. In some ways, this book has given him more.
Then there’s the twist in the last chapter that will leave you with a sense of realisation and the smile to go with it.