When the fates of the ten men shot down in an Eighth Air Force Flying Fortress range from killed in action, capture, imprisonment or evasion, to fighting with the Resistance, there’s a lot of ground to cover and the challenge is to keep a tight rein. Throwing in a myriad of brave French and Belgian civilians, and families back home, only serves to make that task more difficult. Steve Snyder provides an incredible amount of detail without getting bogged down and is guided through his father’s war by a treasure trove of material left behind by his parents. Shot Down is a fine example of an immediate relative taking the time to understand and explain the greater conflict while placing the reader alongside the main protaganists as they experienced their greatest adventures.
Howard Snyder’s crew named the bomber they flew to the U.K. after their skipper’s first daughter. As expected, although not by them, they never flew the aircraft again once it was delivered to the air depot in England in mid-October 1943 during the build-up of aircraft and crews following the Schweinfurt raids that almost spelled the end of the USAAF’s European campaign. Each man was destined to fly a number of missions each, but rarely with all of the men he had completed training with. Due to illness and an injury, Snyder had flown three missions by the time his co-pilot had flown seven. Towards the end of their time on operations, however, the crew came together and flew a series of raids before they were shot down on 8 February 1944.
Some were captured, but several evaded to varying levels of success. This is where the book is at its strongest. By the halfway mark, having experienced the breathless account of the bomber’s last moments in the first chapter (setting the hook), the narrative emerges from the rabbit hole that is USAAF equipment, tactics and opponents. It is quite well done, weaving the Snyder crew’s experiences in and around the bigger picture of American strategic bombing operations in Europe. At times, though, the crew gets a bit lost and there is a need to remind oneself who is who (there is a useful crew list on page 47). When they are shot down, it comes at the end of a series of missions where they finally appear to be hitting their straps, getting into gear to push their tour along.
Then it gets really complicated. Each of the eight survivors is followed from the time of their bail out to the eventual culmination of their journeys. For those that were hidden by the local community, the constant fear of discovery or betrayal, or both, is palpable. Many French and Belgian civilians are involved and, again, it becomes quite difficult to keep a handle on the various players. Several contextual paragraphs or chapters, where the author lifts his gaze to explain what is happening at that stage of the war, don’t make this any easier. Footnotes would have worked perfectly here as I was itching to know what Snyder, for example, was going through and not what General Patton’s nickname or mantra was. Snyder had by far the most interesting story of survival (the majority have relatively short tales one way or the other), but he seems to get a bit lost here and there among these well-researched passages and even among the accounts of the fates of the other airmen.
Exceptionally illustrated, complete with images of the buildings in which the men hid or were hidden, the proportion of two-page spreads without at least one photograph included is quite low. This is no small feat for a main body of text that fills 340 pages and is, in turn, supported by twenty pages of bibliography and a very good index. The technical detail is very readable and mostly on point especially where entire books have been written on several of the areas covered. There are several photos, however, that either need to be swapped out with something else or have their captions re-written entirely.
I did read this with a lot of interruptions due to pressing deadlines so keeping track of the crew, and the brave French and Belgians, would obviously be easier if the reader were to tackle this book in long sittings. It is certainly not one that lends itself to dipping in and out of, but it was never intended to be. There are some wonderful gems of information to be found, not least being the left waist gunner, Joseph Musial, having flown 72 missions in the Pacific prior to this tour! He is certainly someone deserving further research. The excerpts from Snyder’s letters, too, provide a window into his life in England as well as the relationship with his wife. The descriptions of English civilian life, partly based on Snyder’s writings, are fairly standard from ‘an American in England’ (and a married father at that!), where everything is interesting and different, and worn down by four years of war, but not a patch on back home. Snyder, however, proves an astute observer (unlike Ernest C. Ford who commented that all Australian women had wooden teeth!) with an empathy indicative of his age and fatherhood.
A beautifully put-together book, complete with a semi-gloss finish to the boards which accentuates the gold lettering and does not soak up greasy fingerprints (you take the dustcover off to read, don’t you?!), Shot Down is at the top end of self-published works. The author, as tireless as he was to bring together the stories of what must be easily more than fifty people, has gone above and beyond to spread the word about the book and, therefore, raise awareness of the Snyder crew and the many thousands like them. It is an effort that matches the epic sweep of this book and long may it continue. This is one of those books that has reached, and educated, thousands. What they take away from it is entirely up to them, but, at the very least, there are ten young men who will live on in the hearts and minds of some who had no previous connection to them. Education and remembrance, it’s all an aircrew book can hope to be, and Shot Down is an admirable example.