Saturday, May 05, 2018

Liberator - Ron Watts

It’s been quite some time since I wrote a long review. In fact, I think it’s probably the longest period since ABR began. There’s been a variety of reasons, with paying work dominating my desk time, but also, quite simply, just the ins and outs of family life. I’ve also felt the language I’ve been using in the long reviews has become a bit repetitive. In short, while the brief magazine reviews have flowed okay, I’ve been a bit stuck on the long review. As time passes, too, since the read, it becomes harder to review a book without effectively going back through it in some detail. There was one book, however, that I’ve read in the past six months that has kept me looking ever forward. Why? It is as near to as perfectly crafted as you are ever likely to get. Just thinking about it makes me want to be better, makes me want to try to write something approaching this book. It is Liberator by Ron Watts.

‘Harry’ Hartwig grew up in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, the son of devout German Lutheran parents. It was not an easy upbringing, with considerable family heartache before he left home, but the Hartwigs were resilient people. Handy too. Harry’s father built his family a house, among other things, so they could supplement their meagre income with rent from their former family home. While clever with his hands, Hartwig senior was fond of a drink and, therefore, prone to extended bouts of unreliability which, in the late 1920s/early 1930s, was not at all useful. Harry’s ever suffering mother, and her strict faith, kept the family together. When he left home, indeed before that, Harry’s faith had begun to wane. He found freedom on his motorcycle and, unsurprisingly, a career in the wine industry. A female colleague rekindled his interest in religion, but it was not until 1941 that he returned to the flock as they say, albeit to a church that his parents, being Lutheran, would regard as non-conformist. 

At this juncture, I must point out that religion plays a very strong part in this book. Indeed, the book is published by the Mission Aviation Fellowship for reasons that will soon become clear. I apologise in advance for stumbling my way through that angle of the review.

Having served briefly as an Army dispatch rider, no doubt something he would have enjoyed, our hero learns to fly in Australia and Canada before electing to complete a General Reconnaissance course and then heading to the Bahamas, a clear sign he is destined for Coastal Command. The time spent on leave in North America is fairly typical of Australians overseas and Harry fell in love with the ‘endless summer’ that met him in the Bahamas. Now a prolific letter writer, particularly to his sister, the book benefits from regular enlightening quotes and depth to the already superb narrative. Such letters are worth their weight in gold as any aircrew book author will attest. 

While Harry and his colleagues are training for long sea patrols, flying Mitchells as a lead in to Liberators, their long flights over the ocean are effectively operational sorties. While not counted as such, it’s more or less what they were. Harry had already flown many, many hours in the big Consolidated bomber before he was posted to 206 Squadron RAF in Cornwall for ops over the Atlantic and North Sea. He transitioned to the Liberator just thirteen months after flying the Tiger Moth for the first time. Let that settle in. It’s unremarkable because it was expected, and familiar if you regularly visit these times, but it really is a hell of an achievement. 

As co-pilot, the steady, reliable Hartwig flew more than half of the required 600 hours that made up a Coastal Command tour. His pilot was several years his junior, but, along with several other personalities encountered at the time, proved a wise guiding hand to Harry’s faith as it began to evolve into something that remains tangible to this day.

The flying was not without its challenges, mostly due to bad weather, and Harry was soon back in the Bahamas to train as a captain at the head of his own crew. The war ended before he could fly operationally and complete his tour in this capacity.

Post-war, there is a realisation that aviation can further spreading of the word and assist those doing such work. While Harry is not the only one to think this way (there were similar ’pioneers’ with wartime experience in North America and the UK), and bolstered by discussions on the subject during the war, he continues the renewal of his faith by commencing religious studies in Melbourne as preparation for his intended life as a missionary. A passionate and driven man, he almost single-handedly raises awareness of the value of aviation to remote missions in Australia and further afield. Meeting some resistance during an aerial survey of the northern reaches of Australia, he sets his sights on New Guinea and is ultimately successful in establishing what has become a worldwide organisation. Flying supplies and passengers between missions and towns, journeys that would take days were whittled down to several hours. Medical services, in particular, benefitted from the aviation services Harry had worked so hard to establish. Sadly, however, after giving his all, Harry Hartwig gave his all while returning to Madang in August 1951. 

This is an exquisite read. It’s not full of combat operations or tales of derring do, but that makes the author’s achievement all the more impressive. Harry is there warts and all, his very thoughts laid bare or, at least, finely constructed into the detailed narrative. It is, as suggested above, a lesson in writing. 

The religious angle will possibly turn a few potential readers away. I had not read a book with such an evident ‘theme’ since the excellent Voice from the Stars by Tom Scotland DFC (and that side of things doesn’t appear until well into his tour when he has a night sortie epiphany). There are several passages that, my apologies, raised an eyebrow or two, but that’s simply because they’re not my beliefs. I’m quite happy, fascinated even, to learn what drives other people, what makes them who they are and how they see the world and live their life. A mile in someone else’s shoes and all that. It is all just nicely weaved into a magnificent account. Look at Harry Hartwig as an aviation pioneer because that’s exactly what he was. 

What is eminently frustrating, though, was the circumstance of his death. Pushing on for a mountain pass through bad weather, keen to get back to his wife and child, there is an underlying current of God’s will in his actions, and the outcome of those actions, as though it was his time to go. No, sorry, he flew into bad weather (in New Guinea!) and paid for his recklessness with his life. This was a man who had committed himself to a life of service. That is something, motivations and inspiration aside, that was ultimately wasted. He could have, would have, helped thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. "Just turn around and wait it out, Harry!" Extinguishing the potential of a young life is nothing unusual, sadly. After all, the world was still coming to grips with yet another global conflict that had done just that while looking ahead and seeing more of the same as Korea kicked off. Even the author, a deeply religious man and aviator (the perfect person to write this book), questions why ‘the powers that be’ decided to end Harry’s life early. 

A solid paperback of a little over 230 pages, Liberator is copiously illustrated with two-page spreads of text only in the minority. Harry’s legacy is in the modern day Mission Aviation Fellowship, a “strategic ministry” with operations around the world delivering the services envisioned by Hartwig more than seventy years ago. The title of the book, of course, cleverly refers to his wartime work and what would have been his lifetime’s work. It sets the tone from the start. The depth of thought exercised by the author to produce this fine example of the writer’s craft is reflected in what is really quite a succinct narrative. There is not a word wasted nor is there one out of place. Liberator is a window to a man’s soul, but shows the reader the door to writing perfection.

ISBN 978-0-9925763-1-8

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Pre-order discount on new Catalina book

Many of you will be familiar with the work of Hans Wiesman, 'The Dakota Hunter'. As you'll know, his interests range far beyond the realm of the legendary DC-3 family. His adventures have extended to several Catalina safaris with the aircraft, the former (famously) Z-CAT, that now operates in New Zealand. Those adventures, and his extensive network, have led to a book, no, to use the author's words, a "luxury photo album", about one of perhaps the two or three aircraft types that can rival the DC-3/C-47 for longevity in service. 

There is something about the Catalina and I reckon it is almost a household name. Perhaps that's a little too optimistic, but you know what I mean.

Anyway, this new book covers the history of the Catalina through a vast selection of images that extend well beyond the author's own impressive collection. The emphasis is on the photos (400+), but much of the research and proof-reading of this 288 page work has been performed by the doyen of Catalina research, David Legg.

The author and publisher are offering a 20% discount to enthusiasts who pre-order the book. That amounts to a US$10 saving which is nothing to be sneezed at. You'll also get a 'first day' photo print signed by the author. This can be framed or kept with the book.

This is something a little different to the norm for Aircrew Book Review, but if you visit the website below to look further, click on the cover as you'll find a sample of pages full of RAF and Commonwealth bods. For the RAAF, the Catalina remained, until relatively late in the war, the only type capable of deep, offensive sorties behind enemy lines.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Lancaster Bale Out - Clive Smith

I get a bit twitchy when I see a new Bomber Command book written by a relative of an airman. That’s a bit jaded so don't mind me. My ultimate desire when reading is to bury myself in a memoir. A book written by a relative could never be regarded as a memoir. Or could it? Lancaster Bale Out is a quality Bomber Command book written by the second cousin of a 106 Squadron RAF WOp/AG. It is not really, however, a gunner's story. It is largely the wartime tale of his bomb aimer, the sole survivor of the crew. More than anything, it is his memoir.

The author’s second cousin, Jack Hougham, trained in the UK and was ready for OTU by late 1942. Fred Smooker, the bomb aimer, was from County Durham and a coal miner like his father. Interestingly, a number of the eventual Lanc crew had been miners or were from a mining family. Perhaps a sixth sense for that sort of thing contributed to bringing them together. Anyway, Fred began training as an observer proper in Canada. Clever and astute, he unfortunately suffered from terrible homesickness and gave up during his course to the point that he failed. He was re-mustered on the first bomb aimer course in Canada, returned to the UK and had joined a crew of five at OTU by the end of October 1942. His pilot was an American, a relatively rare thing in Bomber Command, and a chap who proved to have his head screwed on straight when it came to flying ops.

Before long they picked up another gunner and a flight engineer and converted to the Lancaster before joining 106 Squadron at Syerston. Their first operational trip as a crew was to Lorient in France on the night of 2/3 March 1943, but the intercom failed and they wisely returned home. Their first completed op was to Essen three nights later. They flew their fifth completed op at the end of April. Rosner, the American pilot, was one of those skippers who liked to keep weaving and rarely flew straight and level when not on the bomb run. He would also ‘go downhill’ on the way home so the Lanc picked up a bit of extra speed. His actions were indicative of an impressive, competent crew who got through a few scrapes during their tour.

Sadly, all the skill and attentiveness can never make up for a bomber crew’s luck running out, be it on their first op or their thirtieth. On the way home on three engines after their 20th op, a raid on Cologne on 8/9 July, they were shot down by a German fighter. The rear gunner managed to bail out, but was killed. Fred Smooker, the bomb aimer, was the only man to survive. He managed, through the help of a dizzying array of brave French men and women, to spend the best part of three months evading capture and was on the way to Spain by train when the authorities caught up with him. Amazingly, he then spent 56 days in solitary confinement in a Parisian prison before arriving at Stalag IVB in early December 1943. There he remained for the duration. He returned home with a desire to pick up where he left off and finished his mining studies to become a mining engineer. He took his young family to India for six years in 1951 to work on the railways and eventually retired in the early seventies for health reasons. While working in coal pits could never be referred to as good for anyone’s health, Fred’s experiences in France and Germany – the injuries, rough treatment and general malnutrition – must have also played a part. He died in 2008, some thirteen years after replying to the author’s initial contact.

This book has two main strengths. Firstly, the majority of the narrative was put together by Fred Smooker. He had written about parts of his wartime career over the years. Indeed, the author discovered he was still alive when he read one of these accounts. Once Fred and Clive got together, however, Fred committed to writing a full account of his war from start to finish. This is what LBO is all about and why it is really a memoir. The style is quite conversational and Fred is surprisingly honest about his fears and trepidation throughout his adventures, be they training in Canada or on the run in France. He is not afraid to expose his failings despite his upbringing in a stable household and ability to work in harsh conditions. His time underground built a natural strength, physically and mentally, that was tested time and again after he was shot down. It takes a special person to continually go deep into the earth to follow a relatively narrow coal seam and this determination played a large part in getting him through.

The second main strength of LBO is the author’s beautifully light touch. He recognises the value of what Fred provided him with in instalments over the years. Footnotes are many and detailed and the appendices include copies of official documents and list the crews, and the details of their losses, that some of the men Fred encountered were a part of. There are several sections in the narrative where it is clear the author has added some context or additional detail, but I am certain there are a few more I didn’t pick up on such is the seamless way they have been stitched into Fred’s words. There is very little discussion of bomber tactics, or the development and evolution of same, so the narrative remains focused on the crew and, of course, Fred. His writing is supported by a large number of letters written by his Canadian mid-upper gunner and the author inserts passages written by contemporaries, most notably the author of Lancaster to Berlin, Canadian Walter Thompson DFC*. That said, the training and operational side of things last for just over 100 pages, in a 300-plus page book, with Fred’s evasion and incarceration taking up the majority of what's left. His account of his time as a POW paints quite a bleak picture, but he slowly rebuilds his confidence and general health to the point where he begins to work on escaping. There is little mention of escape committees and the like. If anything, the theme is one of survival rather than continuing on with tales of derring-do. It doesn’t stand out in the myriad POW accounts, but it is well written and pulls few punches despite Fred having had the benefit of several decades to reflect.

You know how you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? Well, to some extent, and perhaps necessarily, I still do, so you can imagine what I first thought of LBO. Horrendous. The book has sold well, however, so a possible second edition should see a much more attractive and accurate design. This one was a product of the publisher and, considering how well Tucann did with the rest of the book, it’s a bit of a let down if you look for accuracy in a cover as an indication of an aircrew book’s content.

Lancaster Bale Out is a true page-turner. It suffers from very few niggles – some weird comma use and the mention of the US not being at war in 1942 were about it – that are almost completely hidden by a narrative that will hold any reader in rapt fascination. This book will not last long as a purely self-published (more or less) effort. A specialist publisher is bound to pick it up and run with it and it is exciting to think of Fred’s story, and the author’s fine work with the narrative, being presented in a second edition. Either way, this is one recent Bomber Command book that should be on your shelf. It is a solid, well-illustrated paperback that you will struggle to put down. While the author, when he set out to satisfy his enduring fascination with his second cousin’s wartime service, did not intend to tell Fred Smooker’s story, it is the outcome of one of those coincidences so often encountered when researching Bomber Command. A truly impressive package.

ISBN 978-1-907516-26-9