12 November 2020

The Boy with Only One Shoe - John Henry Meller with Caroline Brownbill

We’ve been fortunate to see some heavily promoted Bomber Command memoirs/biographies see the light of day this year (as mentioned below). One that has been seemingly ‘everywhere’ is The Boy with Only One Shoe. The authors are working on a post-war sequel, which will make a nice companion, that will hopefully provide some insight into how a Bomber Command veteran adjusted to life outside the RAF. He served as a policeman after the war, so perhaps it was a more gentle transition, moving from one institution to another as it were. Anyway, BC historian, oral history interviewer, and long-time ABR guest reviewer, Adam Purcell kindly sent in his review of The Boy with Only One Shoe. You may remember him from his reviews for Norman Franks’s Veteran Lancs and Night Duel over Germany by Peter Jacobs. He also runs the Something Very Big blog about his ongoing research into a relative’s Bomber Command career. Andy Wright

It’s a familiar sort of story. World War II begins. At first, the boy is too young, but he enlists in aircrew the instant he turns eighteen. Basic training follows and he’s awarded an aircrew brevet. Then comes operational training, crewing up, converting onto big four-engine bombers. The new crew joins a squadron, flies on operations and has one or two close calls. Then the war ends. Call it a fairly standard career for a surviving member of Bomber Command. With greater or lesser degrees of variation, stories like this have been told in countless books over the years. Yes, the story of John Henry Meller, in the new book The Boy with Only One Shoe, follows much the same arc, but what’s notable about this book is that it’s been published in 2020, seven and a half decades since the end of the war. It’s the rarest of rare things: a recently written first-hand account by a Bomber Command airman. There just aren’t many veterans left alive these days, let alone ones who still have the drive and skill to vividly write a story about events of so long ago and then publish it.     

To be clear, Meller’s daughter, Caroline Brownbill, a former airline pilot, is credited as a co-author. It’s not clear how much of the work is hers, but that doesn’t matter. The narrative is cohesive and in a consistent voice. Brownbill is also, it seems, doing a lot of the publicity work around the release of the book, which was self-published via Amazon in May 2020. The authors are planning to donate proceeds from sales of the book to the RAF Benevolent Fund, and Meller signs and writes a personal message on virtually every copy they sell, which is a nice touch.

John Henry Meller served as a wireless operator with 149 Squadron, flying operations on Lancasters from February 1945. That experience, and all the bits and pieces that go with it, necessarily forms the core of The Boy with Only One Shoe. This book, however, has so much more to offer too. The early sections about growing up in the English town of Warrington in the 1920s and 30s are detailed, and the descriptions of life as a teenage civilian in the early years of the war are full of life. Post-war, Meller remained in the Royal Air Force for a few years and there are some very interesting sections about postings to exotic places like Egypt and Libya. 

His personal recollections are great, and include some unusual details. I knew that RAF recruits, undergoing basic training in London, ate their meals in a restaurant at London Zoo, for example, but I didn’t know that while there they were also told they would be responsible for ‘protecting or detaining’ any of the zoo animals that might escape as a result of air raid damage. There’s also one of the better descriptions of the training and operational role of the wireless operator I’ve seen in an aircrew memoir. 

These are the sorts of details you can’t easily get from official files and archives; you really need the recollections of someone who was there. There’s a fascinating discussion of a lecture attended during Meller’s wireless operator course, during which it was clearly communicated to the trainees exactly what risk they were taking by becoming aircrew. The fatality rate in Bomber Command at the time, they were explicitly told, was 46%. Common knowledge now, of course, and certainly by the time a crew had been on a squadron for a few months they would have been well aware of the ‘chop rate’, but this is the first time that I’ve heard of aircrew being directly told about it while still in training. It makes their decisions to continue that training all the more courageous.  
The Boy with Only One Shoe (the significance of the title is explained in a short introductory section in the book) came about after Meller’s son-in-law persuaded him to write about his wartime experiences, primarily for his grand-daughter. The book is therefore pitched at an audience that may not have much understanding of Bomber Command and the context into which it fitted. Meller provides a lot of that context with explanations of what was going on in the wider conflict at the time and, while some of these bits aren’t done as well as the parts of the story based on his own experiences, he nevertheless manages to successfully weave his own story into the wider one.

My only criticisms about the book are, I think, a direct result of its self-published roots. The story is great and the writing is engaging, but in some ways the execution doesn’t do the story all the justice it deserves. Editing can be hit and miss, with the occasional superfluous punctuation and, on one occasion, ‘where’ used in place of ‘were’. There are one or two minor errors in terminology that probably should have been picked up, too: cumulonimbus clouds are called ‘Cumulus Nimbus’ on page 175, for example. Formatting inside is a little inconsistent, particularly when dealing with block quotes. There is a contents page, but it’s not very useful: it only lists ‘Chapter 1’, ‘Chapter 2’ and so on, despite all the chapters being individually titled. The cover, though attention-grabbing with an illustration of a Lancaster with an engine on fire, is printed on cheap stock and not very hardy. My copy marked too easily, copping several dings from one or two trips in my bag. 

Don’t get me wrong, I really liked this book, and Amazon’s global reach makes it very accessible to the widest possible audience, but it’s a great shame this story was not picked up by a traditional publisher, who might have had the expertise to overcome the few niggles I had with it. Putting that to one side, though, The Boy with Only One Shoe is a good read. It’s honest, engaging and true to life, and it’s a never-before-heard Bomber Command story, written by someone who was there.

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