09 February 2017

The "Easy" Boys - Martyn R. Ford-Jones

From a book that grew from a photo to one that uses something a little more conventional and eminently easier to reference – the wartime diary. In this case, however, the entire package has come together in quite an unexpected way. Take one English Bomber Command historian, add the diary of an Australian mid-upper gunner and, believe it or not, a leading American publisher. The product, after several years on the boil, tells about as complete a story as you can get when it comes to bomber crews. Wrap it up in what remains (only just) my favourite aircrew cover and you’ve got a recipe for a very good book. I certainly went in with a great sense of anticipation and that, believe it or not, was all down to the beautiful production standard.

Remarkably, this crew, the Bourne crew, contained two Arthur Bournes. One, the Australian pilot, was known by his middle name Max (Maxwell), while the English navigator clearly had an advantage when he mingled with his colleagues during the crewing up stage at No. 26 OTU. Besides the man who wrote the diary around which this book is written, there were two other Australians on the crew, the W/Op and rear gunner. Six men, four Australians and two Englishmen, came together at the OTU and were later joined, of course, by their English engineer when they went through Heavy Conversion Unit.

All fairly standard stuff so far and it remains so as they progress through Lancaster Finishing School and join No. 622 Squadron at Mildenhall at the start of August 1944. They fly their first op a week later and complete nine by the end of the month. The total is double that before the end of September and already there is a feeling of it (their tour) all being over by Christmas. It is interesting to look at this run of ops in two halves. The August ops flown are a mix of Bomber Command’s bread and butter – two trips to Stettin, two to Rüsselsheim, one to Bremen – while the rest are in support of the Allied advance across Occupied Europe – Falaise, a petrol dump near Doullens, a railway yard etc. Such tactical support sometimes meant shorter daylight strikes at relatively low levels (under 10,000 feet). That might sound relatively safe and easy compared to what the bomber crews were doing a year before, but the lower altitudes brought them within range of the light flak and, of course, the gun crews could see what they were firing at.

The last trip is a mine-laying op on 19 December before the crew gradually disperses for leave and, ultimately, their rest tour. Here, the book follows Heffron in detail because, after all, he’s the one who wrote the diary. Several members of the crew, happily, kept in touch after the war and managed to reunite on occasion. The photos of these events are a nice way to close.

I will admit to beginning this book with a bit of prejudice. Firstly, as mentioned above, I am enamoured by the physical presence of the book itself. It is a glorious looking hardcover and, one of my favourite things that is surely not cheap to do, the dustcover’s artwork and design is replicated on the hard covers and spine. It’s colourful, glossy and has a good weight to it. Secondly, some of you may remember my underwhelming review of the author’s Desert Flyer (also based on a diary). I could still remember what annoyed me about that book so I went into this one with fingers crossed.

It was a relief to encounter a long and exquisitely detailed introduction to each member of the crew and their path, 68 pages pass before the first op, to becoming ‘The Easy Boys’ (their primary aircraft was E-Easy). Then, however, the diary entries began and out came the square brackets. As with Desert Flyer, but more so in this case, words were inserted into the diary entries to overcome Heffron’s apparent, perhaps necessary, brevity. Very, very few of them, if any, are needed. Such is the language of the diary entries that any reader will understand them without these annoying interjections that ruin the integrity of Heffron’s writing. I don’t think the reader is given enough credit here which is something I said in the review for Desert Flyer, but, in that book, the additions were clearly made for an American readership thought to be poorly versed in RAF desert ops. That sort of thing pops up in TEB here and there – chips are referred to as fries – but it is easily overlooked given its rarity.

Several typos were encountered that suggested the manuscript was produced from hand-written notes or some sort of OCR software. Repetition of ‘Avro Lancaster bomber’ or simply ‘Lancaster bomber’ gets a bit grating and, again, doesn’t give the reader enough credit. The ‘Rhur’ is referred to a couple of times and that cardinal sin, ‘hanger’, rears its unwelcome head as well.

I realise these gripes are trivial, but they were picked up because, firstly, I look for them, and secondly, I wasn’t completely engaged while the crew were on their tour. The detail is wonderful, but most of it comes from the author, not Heffron. I guess the clue there is on the cover – ‘Based on the Wartime Diaries…’. Obviously each op needs to be elaborated upon with reference to the squadron’s ORB and debriefings etc, building on Heffron’s diary, but it’s standard Bomber Command. Granted they were a fortunate crew who managed to complete a tour despite some bumps on the way. It’s just that it feels like the author, a noted Bomber Command historian, is phoning it in. There’s clearly more to the diary entries than what is included in the book as the author’s narrative references detail that could only have been recorded by Heffron. There would have perhaps been more punch to the narrative if there was more of Heffron and less of the author. I don’t know how much more of Heffron there was, but it felt like the description of the ops could have leant more heavily on his writing. Again, ‘Based on the Wartime Diaries…’ reveals all.

There is, however, a lot of Heffron during the crew’s down time or leave periods and the narrative here is entertaining. Where did they put all the food and drink?! As mentioned above, once the crew disperses following the end of their tour, the book follows Heffron and his adventures in the UK. Having already travelled far and wide, solo and with mates, to visit friends and relatives during his period on ops, there are further opportunities to do so as he awaits his repatriation. Again, the majority of the narrative is from the author’s hand with short diary entries from Heffron serving as signposts and date stamps. Here, however, the author does well in painting a picture of the places Reg travelled to, and stayed at, and the photos included support this part of the book perfectly. A well-recounted voyage home and we say farewell to Reg Heffron.

I really wanted to love this book for a number of reasons, but that tinge of frustration in reading it removed the giddying delight felt when actually looking at the thing. Again, it is a truly stunning looking book, but this level of presentation is standard from Schiffer. The detail is there in spades; the photos are the standard fare of aircrew, aircraft, targets, holiday snaps and the like, but all are a good size and as clear as possible; and the narrative does the job it’s supposed to. It allows us to cross another crew, needing their story told, off the list, but there is no feeling of fear, trepidation or stress. Despite that, it is worth tackling for the adventures and shenanigans (I forget how many cars they had) of the crew when they were not flying. While not uproariously amusing, there is a wonderful joie de vivre of men for whom the clock was ticking. The "Easy" Boys promises a lot and delivers to a point, but left me wanting more.

ISBN 978-0-7643-4789-4

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