05 February 2010

Flightpath To Murder - Steve Darlow

Murder is something you only really read or think about in passing in books about Commonwealth aircrew. Death is sadly prevalent but, depending on your views of the bombing campaigns conducted by both sides, murder only seems to 'directly' rear its ugly head when books venture into the realm of prisoners and downed airmen. Of course as I write this I am bouncing the idea around in my head trying to think of other circumstances in the genre covered by this site. Anyway, this is how I approached Steve Darlow's latest effort. I had to chuckle, as you may recall from the Seafire review below I read that book to take a break from Australian aircrew, when I found the airman involved was an Australian flying with the RAF. However this was the very last scrap of misguided mirth I was to utter with relation to this book. FTM is not your average 'derring-do' aircrew book and the story within is as disturbing as it is emotionally draining.

If you read books about aircrew with any sort of regularity you develop a 'sixth sense' of knowledge and the ability to read between the lines. You know the basic path a pilot or gunner will take before he flies on operations and you expect the searchlights and/or flak and fighters etc. In reading widely you will no doubt encounter stories of aircrew parachuting from their stricken aircraft only to be set upon - and injured or worse - by angry civilian 'lynch mobs'. In some cases there'll be a footnote, paragraph or appendix detailing those responsible being tried as war criminals. These accounts of 'terrorfliegers' are always confronting but are often lost in the myriad of edge-of-your-seat action and adventure. Imagine an entire book devoted to one such account...

Bill Maloney is one of the many – the many thousands of Commonwealth fighter pilots who will never be household names. However their contributions – and sacrifices – were no less important than those of Bader, Johnson, Caldwell or Kain. Maloney, though, belongs to a select and unfortunate group of young airmen whose death became the subject of a war crimes investigation and, ultimately, led to further loss of life. Other than that there is little that we know of Maloney. His story is supplied from official records, his logbook, family memories and his letters home. Detail and context are added by his squadron mates and contemporaries of the time. Other than that, there’s not much to go on so the author has done an admirable job in turning the Australian pilot into someone the reader can relate to and reflect upon.

Joining 80 Squadron in May 1944, Maloney flew their Spitfire IXs over Normandy on convoy patrols and provided escort to bombers hitting V1 launch sites. The obligatory fighter sweeps took on a whole new meaning when the squadron re-equipped with Tempests in August of that year. A busy month later (indeed, the day before Operation Market Garden) Maloney’s Tempest was hit by flak while attacking a train and he force-landed on the Dutch-German border near the town of Elten. While the majority of the book examines the war crimes tribunal, the lives of the civilians involved and the effect of the war itself on the local population, it is the pages following the account of Maloney’s loss that are by far the most moving. Letters to his family from the squadron and his mates are an indication of the esteem in which he was held. However, it is the letters to his mother – from the mothers of a good mate and acquaintance also killed and even from one of the staff of an officers’ club in London – from women who only knew of Mrs Maloney through her son that really hit home. Sharing an intense loss and voicing what Mrs Maloney would have no doubt felt, these letters – fully transcribed in the text – are most powerful and, sadly, provided the family with the most up to date news on the fate of the Australian. Believe it or not, the Maloney family was not aware of the war crimes investigation and subsequent prosecution until the author made contact.

Having established the mystery from the opening chapter and then showing Maloney in the thick of things while on operational service, the author dives head first into witness accounts of the pilot’s death. He introduces the ‘characters’ and major players in the story with great detail – examining their lives before and during the war. What struck me was the witnesses and civilian ‘participants’ in the crime appear to have been completely normal family men (for the most part). Ordinary men thrown into extraordinary circumstances.

The events following the forced landing are laid out from a variety of viewpoints and, of course, are detailed during the trial of the accused. The author follows the fortunes of those involved in the period leading up to the trial. The local population was, apparently, sickened by what had happened to Maloney and this seems to have had some influence on the suspects eventually handing themselves in although I suspect the belief they were ‘following orders’ was enough to clear their conscience.

I have deliberately not gone into the circumstances of Maloney’s death or the detail of the trial. To do so would require considerable time and, well, you’re better off reading the book. However, at the very heart of the investigation, is the determination of how the pilot died (and the ramifications this has on the accused). Was the beating he received from the soldiers enough to kill him or was it the rifle shot to the head fired by the civilian official (the coup-de-grace to put him out of his misery apparently)? As you can imagine, to examine such interpretations the author would have gone to some pretty dark places and he freely admits this. Similarly, it does not make for easy reading. Readable, yes, but completely confronting and disturbing.

The discussion about what caused Maloney’s death is mirrored, ironically, in the only execution of one of the accused. Hanging, as it turned out, was often not the cause of death for war criminals. They were hanged, yes, but a study ‘post-gallows’ often revealed the existence of a heartbeat in many cases. Death then came by way of a chloroform injection. I marvelled at the irony but it didn’t make it any more pleasant to read (or write this paragraph).

Time to look at the book as a whole as the tone is darkening. At the core of FTM is the death of a young man who was loved by his family and admired for his character. To some under his guns and bombs, he was evil and the source of all of their suffering. Indeed, this is a book of suffering – from the German civilians under constant bombardment to Maloney’s distraught family in Australia. Even the author is not immune. However he injects heart into what otherwise would have been a cold account of a war crimes trial (and that wouldn’t have made it into mainstream publication). The motivations and backgrounds of every single person featured in the trial are revealed to the reader so they are more than just names on a page. A sense of foreboding prevails right from the start and lasts for more than 50 pages. The business of meting out justice then takes over but this is slowly replaced by a growing frustration. Only one of the accused was hanged, the others managed to distance themselves from any violent act and had their lengthy sentences shortened to the extent they were free men by the mid-1950s - how quickly attitudes can change. That is, the accused who could be identified. The soldiers who did the bashing may still be with us enjoying their long lives.

But for the author’s efforts to write this book, Maloney’s family may never have known the complete circumstances of his death and the subsequent investigation. For them a great service has been done. For us, the general reading masses, we are fortunate the life of an otherwise forgotten pilot has been given the attention it deserves. While far more confronting than enjoyable, this book is a challenge and a departure from the standard Steve Darlow fare but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. If you’re a fan of the author or you like to maintain a well-rounded ‘education’ with regard to Commonwealth aircrew, FTM should be in your collection.

The reviewed copy is published by Haynes - Haynes - Flightpath To Murder. Best known for their motor vehicle manuals, Haynes has recently branched out into books of this genre. I believe FTM is one of their earliest publications along these lines and, if their production quality is anything to go by, they’re off to a good start. The photographs are reproduced in one section on ‘glossy’ paper and complement the text exceedingly well – faces to names etc.

I found it best to tackle this book in chapters. I know that sounds obvious but you will need to ‘break away from the darkness’ at times. Maybe that was just me but it’s worth suggesting it.

Reviewed copy published by J H Haynes & Co Ltd in 2009. ISBN 978-1-84425-541-2


  1. Thank you for another great review, Andy. Especially as it was such a tough subject, and not the "norm" for aviation books. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that it was a fighter pilot that was murdered. In almost all the other cases of post-capture murder I read about (except those who were killed in attempting to escape from POW camps) the victims were bomber crews - both American and Commonwealth. I suppose this was because most bomber crews were shotdown and found in civilian areas, and killed by the victims of the terrorfliegers, with either tacit or explicit connivance of the local Nazi petty officials. The fact that there was an attempt to bring some of the perpetrators to justice in this case is also rare. As has been shown in the attempts to investigate the shooting of the 50 POWs of the Great Escape, post-1948 the political climate changed enough to halt any further attempts at bring more to justice, and so only a fraction were.

    Look forward to the next review, as always


  2. Thanks, mate. An interesting commentthat adds context to the review. I really appreciate that.