It’s always exciting when a new title is published on a subject that rarely appears in book form. I immediately think of Steve Bond and Richard Forder’s Special Ops Liberators and Graeme Gibson’s Path of Duty (and give a deserving nod to Craig Collie’s new Code Breakers) as relatively recent examples. Such was the case with this new book about the Dutch airmen who served in the RAAF’s No. 18 Squadron. To my knowledge, it has not been since Gordon Wallace wrote his two volumes in the 1980s, about his time with this unit, that 18 Squadron has appeared in a book dedicated to its memory. About the only title that might come close would be Doug Hurst’s The Fourth Ally. For students of the RAAF’s war, the sight of B-25 Mitchells in RAAF or Dutch colours is always a treat and more common than first thought. The great anticipation that came with the announcement and subsequent arrival of this book was found wanting, however.
Two twin brothers, both pilots in Java, narrowly escape the clutches of the rapidly advancing Japanese as they sweep all before them. While one brother manages to get away relatively cleanly, the other is momentarily detained, but escapes and makes his way to an airfield after meeting an Australian dispatch rider. The two of them repair a sabotaged Lockheed transport and make it to Australia where they come down on a Northern Territory cattle station. Both men are eventually posted to the nascent No. 18 (Netherlands East Indies) Squadron, and the twins reunited, which has been formed at the request of the Dutch authorities to make use of the stranded airmen. Great pilots like the legendary Gus Winckel and Guus Hagers are part of the scene as the unit gets to grips with its Mitchells and finally sees some action with anti-submarine patrols along Australia’s eastern coast.
In late 1942, the squadron moved to MacDonald in the Northern Territory. A poorly equipped airfield, it was nevertheless home to the squadron for six months before the move to Batchelor. From MacDonald, the first raids on East Timor and surrounds, including numerous anti-shipping ops, were flown. Losses were steady, but exacerbated by the lack of replacement crews, thus leaving the veterans to soldier on. A large contingent of Dutch had been sent to the United States for training as their compatriots stayed behind to form 18 Squadron. Relief, in the form of these new crews, did not arrive for almost a year after the move to the Top End. The original crews were then rested properly and, in the case of the twins, whom the narrative revolves around, one (the dashing one who is followed more closely) flies transports around Australia while the other, the more steady type, is tasked with setting up a Dutch fighter squadron.
The latter stages of the war saw the squadron heavily involved over some of its personnel’s former home and providing moral and physical support to the many prison camps in the region.
It’s a great story, exceedingly well told, of a group of airmen who, like the many ‘homeless’ European aircrew, refused to give up the fight. The nicely flowing narrative, built around the twins with a good supporting cast of Dutch and Australians alike, makes this an easy read. It is, however, eminently frustrating. You see, the twins are fictional characters created by the author after three interviewed veterans did not want their names used in the book. This is mentioned in the introduction and is nothing short of flabbergasting. Indeed, my first written note was “Fictional characters?! Why?!” What’s wrong with simply changing some names? If the actions of the twins, and I say ‘if’ because who knows what is true and what is not, are based on what some real chaps did, then surely those actions could be attributed to those real people if the reader did some digging. Changing the names would achieve exactly the same, but have a more authentic ring to it. By creating fictional characters, everything, from those they associate with, everything they do, to their entire story arc, is called into question. While the brothers were created out of the utmost respect, the reader is left wondering just what actually happened and what is fictional.
For a squadron that flew more than 900 sorties during the war, there is precious little of their action recounted here. What is included reveals an almost complete lack of aviation and combat flying knowledge on behalf of the author and subsequent editors which is quite surprising given the aviation history pedigree of the publisher. It borders on cringeworthy and is certainly not limited to the operational flying details. It is misleading for those who don’t know and embarrassing for those who do. It’s been a long time since I’ve written three A4 pages of notes for a book and the list of relatively basic aviation and general wartime terminology and chronology errors took up most of those pages. More effort was seemingly put into describing the dashing twin’s love life, the physical attributes of his lovers, and his reactions to them.
The most authentic part of this book is a very good photo section that features many of the real people who gave their all in the service of this squadron. Lack of aviation knowledge aside, Bomber Boys reads like a novel, albeit very well, but cannot really be called the story of 18 Squadron. After all, it would be lucky to mention ten percent of the aircrew involved and only concentrates on four or five main characters, two of which didn’t exist. The men arriving from the United States are given exceptionally short shrift yet they faced the same dangers and challenges and were as much a part of the squadron as the old hands. The reader is left with not really knowing what to believe. An existing knowledge of the unit does help, but this typically attractive Allen & Unwin paperback will most likely be seen and bought by those who want to learn just what the Dutch did. The opportunity to learn, however, is barely realised by this book. With luck, it will serve as a signpost that will lead readers deeper into the air war in this region, but the men, Dutch and Australian, of this bomber squadron deserve far better.