26 November 2009

Holidaying On The Continent - Richard Munro

Launched in October, this is the story of the author's father, Jim Munro, who was bomb aimer with 460 Squadron RAAF. Shot down by a night fighter over Berlin only Jim and two other crew members, all badly injured, survive and end up as POWs in Stalag IVB (will be interesting to compare his experiences to those of Gus Officer below). Published by Australian Military History Publications, you can be sure this is a story that needed to be told.

25 November 2009

Six O'Clock Diamond - Gus Officer

This review has been a while coming for a variety of reasons including the usual excuse – I was busy (and, as I write this, no internet connection). Well, I was. However, more importantly, I admit I actually struggled to come up with a ‘theme’ for this review. For those of you who have read a number of my reviews either here on ABR or elsewhere you’ll know I try to give each review a theme or goal the respective book tries to meet. Besides not being able to give the review my full attention over the past month or so I couldn’t ‘pin’ anything on Gus Officer’s Six O’Clock Diamond – The Story of a Desert Harasser. Then it hit me. That was it. This book is what it says it is – the story of a flyer with 450 Squadron RAAF (The Desert Harassers). What you see is what you get … and that is the impression you get of Gus – open, honest, refreshing and just a little brash.

The first chapter is, as Gus’ son, John, told me, for the family. It details the extended Officer family heritage and, when you think about it, provides an idea, knowingly or not, of how many people could be affected through the loss of a family member fighting for his country. This opening is not the easiest to read as many names and family connections are mentioned and I have to admit I got lost on several occasions. What has to be remembered, though, is that Gus wrote his manuscript to record what he could of the family history and his wartime experiences. The record as it stands is invaluable.

Gus begins his service with the 4th Light Horse Regiment and very quickly we see his strong work ethic coupled with a rebellious streak that often came to the fore with respect to the privileges of rank. Finally getting his call up to the RAAF, Gus passes through ITS “reasonably well” before being posted to No. 5 EFTS Narromine to “start the flying game” in early 1941. Gus had a remarkable knack for names and he regularly rattles off the other chaps on the course which can lead to some interesting further research especially since he also provides occasional biographical details. Among the fairly standard hi-jinks you’d expect from lads in Tiger Moths, Gus manages to pass out of the course with a mark just short of an ‘above average’ rating. Moving on to Wirraways – clearly progressing down the fighter path – our hero completes numerous navigation exercises over country New South Wales. Many of his routes took him to/near towns I now live close to so being able to relate in that fashion was fascinating. Graduating as a sergeant – and noting some of the new officers in the course were no more qualified than him – Gus is packed off to the Middle East. Arriving in Egypt in October 1941 he is assigned to No. 71 OTU to fly Hurricanes.

Gus is quite critical of some of the ‘classist’ RAF types he meets but this is tempered by a veritable who’s who of the Desert Air Force many of whom he has the utmost respect for. He is also critical of some of the practices of the OTU but, all in all, he learns his craft as a fighter pilot … well, as much as an OTU can teach in clapped-out Hurricane Mk Is. He also manages, with a mate, to steal rations to supplement their meager diet and go absent without leave to visit his uncle in Gaza. Unfortunately, upon return, he realises he has missed a posting to an aircraft delivery unit and someone else has been sent in his place. A posting to the new air firing school at Bilbeis is quickly forthcoming in January ’42, however, and it is here Gus finds himself towing target drogues but still flying old Hurricanes – including a well-used Malta veteran. While he appreciates the accumulation of experience Gus is not a huge fan of target-towing and this is exacerbated after returning from a 48-hour leave (official) to find he’d again missed out on a posting. This time it was to an operational squadron. While life at Bilbeis was certainly eventful – and he made the most of it – Gus was understandably itching to get into the desert war.

A stint in Palestine and a return to Egypt, still flying Hurricanes for the various ‘schools’, eventually leads to a treasured posting to 450 Squadron RAAF and its Kittyhawks but not before attending his Harvard ‘conversion’ flight feeling ever so slightly the worse for wear from the night before – “In fact I was still drunk…”. Finally, in September 1942, after nine months in North Africa, Gus arrives at LG 91 and becomes a Desert Harasser.

Enjoying the ‘Pilots’ Mess’ – no separate sergeants’ and officers’ messes, an idea created by 3 Sqn RAAF that spread across the DAF – Gus settles into squadron life easily and is soon operational. His hours towing targets and his general natural flying ability come to the fore and he clearly fits in well – “My time with the squadron remains one of my life’s fondest memories.” He is heavily involved in bomber and fighter-bomber escort and also flies strafing and bombing sorties with the squadron.

However his time with 450 does not last long as he is shot down in early November – a promising operational career cut short. Wounded, and parachuting into the middle of a group of German soldiers, Gus is delivered to an Italian hospital tent at Mersa Matruh where, upon seeing the condition of his tent-mates, realises how lucky he was. Moving through a variety of lice-infested camps and POW ‘cages’, Gus and his fellow POWs (of who he provides wonderful detail) arrive in Tripoli for a fortnight before a harrowing journey to Naples in the hold of a ship. This is followed by a train ride – in cattle cars – to Bari on the Adriatic coast and ‘Campo Prigioneri di Guerra 75’.

Sadly, despite the privations of camp life, the officers and men are treated differently which justifiably makes Gus angry. While dealing with the terrible conditions and the rank ‘issue’ his injured leg and its regular swelling (resulting in hospital stays) typically rates hardly a mention.

Camp PG 85 becomes home in February 1943. Conditions are slightly improved but Gus and a mate decide to escape and steal an aircraft from a nearby airfield. They are re-captured after several days on the run. After the requisite time in the ‘cooler’ – shared with cheery South Africans – Gus moves onto Campo PG 57 north of Trieste. Here he finds many Australians and New Zealanders and camp life – well described - continues until the Italian surrender. Any hopes of freedom are quickly dashed when the Germans arrive and bundle the prisoners onto a train for a 10-day journey to Stalag IVB. There Gus stays until sometime in April 1945, after 906 days of captivity, the camp is liberated by Cossacks on horseback. His time in the German camp is a fairly standard account of life as a POW but it is full of a lot of detail of his fellow prisoners and their activities which makes for interesting reading.

With the Russians now manning the guard towers Gus and some other prisoners decide to head west. Their travels bear witness to the brutal Russian occupation, the utter destruction of German infrastructure and the complete desperation of the German people. They eventually meet up with some Americans and deftly avoid the transit camps full of ex-POWs before a Dakota flight gets them to France, a Norseman delivers them to the coast and another Dak delivers the former prisoners to England on May 10, 1945 – roughly two years and seven months after Gus was shot down. This is not the end of Gus’ travels though as he spends several months in the UK before returning to Australia. Happily, he settles into civilian life and works for a bank all over country Victoria while studying accountancy. Time away from family proves too much and, after a trying time working in Melbourne, Gus starts work with an accounting firm in Horsham in mid-1949 where his life, love and family blossoms.

I commented above that I struggled with the first chapter of this book. To be honest, and in keeping with the honesty displayed throughout the book, it took me a bit longer to get into. Early on I found myself cringing at some of the grammar. The style of writing also threw me but this was my, perhaps misguided, journalism training coming out in me. As I read deeper into the book I realised what the publishers (Gus’ sons) had done. They had taken the manuscript written by Gus and, as they mention in the book, given it a very occasional tweak. The end result is a book that has maintained the integrity of Gus’ writing and in doing so has provided the perfect record of his life. Gus pulls no punches and writes how he saw it. He is opinionated, at times disagreeable but always refreshingly open and honest. I don’t think I have a read a book that better paints a picture of a man. You come away from the book feeling as though you’ve just sat down to several beers with Gus and he’s done all the talking while you sat there letting your beer go warm.

SOCD is not high literature but, importantly, it doesn’t claim to be and was never intended to be so. It doesn’t need to be. It is out there and, like Gus, it will make an impression on you from the moment you start reading. Again like Gus, the book just gets down to business and tells it like it is/was.

This is a beautifully-presented book and with three sections of photos is well-illustrated. The appendices are very-readable and provide surprising detail about the day Gus was shot down. I have no idea if Woolhouse Press has or will publish further books but they’ve set a very high benchmark with SOCD.

I don’t know how well the book has sold but John Officer indicated in a recent phone call that they were very happy with the result and rightly so. A direct link to SOCD's website is accessible by clicking the cover in the right hand column of this page. Alternatively, just click here - Six O'Clock Diamond

Reviewed copy published by Woolhouse Press in 2008.
ISBN 978-0-646-50250-2

06 November 2009

Hyland's Bookshop

Neil and the team at Hyland's were always helpful and friendly when we lived in Melbourne and I had the chance to pop in. I also recently received two nice emails after ordering A.G. Dudgeon's The Luck Of The Devil (to accompany his Hidden Victory and Wings Over North Africa). I have not visited a more extensive collection of military books in Australia and their RAF and Commonwealth aircrew titles are a fine mix of new and older titles.

If you're hunting books that are perhaps hard-to-get or are just after the latest from your favourite military publishers or authors, I recommend keeping Hyland's in mind. You can also search their catalogue online:

Hyland's Bookshop