13 December 2012

The Bomber Command Memorial - We Will Remember Them

June 2012 was a long time coming for many people, not least the veterans of Bomber Command. Decades of large-scale criticism and derision by those who chose to forget the whole reason behind the bombing campaign have given way, finally, to widespread respect, admiration and a lot of love for the Bomber Boys. That’s not to say there hasn’t always been honour for these men but it is plainly clear now that the work of authors, historians and enthusiasts has seen the general public and, importantly, the media, largely understand just what these men faced, fought and how they lived and died.

Despite this groundswell of ‘popular’ support, the men of Bomber Command remained officially unrecognised for their service. There is no campaign medal and, until June this year, there was no one public space that honoured this particular group of service men and women. It took a throwaway comment from a veteran in late 2007, admittedly while in good company, for something to happen.

The rest, to roll out the first cliché, is history. Driven by the Heritage Foundation and ably supported by other worthy organisations such as the Bomber Command Association, The Bomber Command Memorial became a reality when it was opened on June 28 by Her Majesty The Queen. Many veterans were present but for some, 70 years after they served, it was obviously too late. That they now have a permanent and magnificent place for anyone to reflect on their service and sacrifice is a testament to a dedicated group of men and women. From ‘leaders’ Robin Gibb and Jim Dooley to Steve Darlow donating proceeds of book sales; to the veterans, relatives, friends and enthusiasts sending in their hard-earned, arranging sponsorship or standing on street corners shaking a tin … it has truly been an unfathomable worldwide effort. The memorial’s very existence owes everything to many fine people.

The story behind the idea for the memorial right through to its unveiling needed to be told to not only honour the aircrew but also to shine a light on the ‘drivers’ of the project itself. Fighting High Publishing is still a relatively new name on the military publishing scene but it has certainly made an impact in a short time. Already renowned for high quality books, the company easily caught the attention of the memorial organisers through FH principal Steve Darlow’s efforts arranging book-signing events to raise funds for the project. Set the unenviable task of drawing together all aspects of the project from that throwaway comment to The Queen’s unveiling – on top of providing context through Bomber Command history – Fighting High has produced an astounding large-format hardback that, in itself, is a standalone memorial.

The Bomber Command Memorial – We Will Remember Them is a collective effort from familiar people – Robin Gibb, Jim Dooley, Gordon Rayner, Steve Darlow and Sean Feast – deeply connected to the project. As already mentioned it recounts the project from the germ of an idea through to the BBMF Lancaster anointing the structure with poppies from above. Naturally the bomber campaign is examined – expertly so as it turns out as it is broken into several sections throughout the book and a lot of information is provided in a relatively short space. This overview is ably, no, strongly, supported by ‘spotlights’ on particular raids throughout the campaign. These are very well done as they add the finer detail the Bomber Command at War sections necessarily avoid. The book is certainly well served by having Bomber Command historians Darlow and Feast on board.

It will be no surprise to discover the real gems of this book are the personal accounts from the air and ground crew themselves. The vast majority are from veterans who were interviewed especially for the book and who, collectively, form a complete heavy bomber crew. This is a marvellous device that serves to remind the reader that the loss of a crew was often the loss of seven, sometimes eight, men. I realise this sounds an obvious thing to say but think about it – 10 aircraft lost without trace, 57 bombers failed to return from the target. They weren’t all killed but…

The Last Letters sections hammer this ever-present aspect home and are especially poignant with the originals being reproduced in photo form with the text transcribed alongside. These sections are expertly dispersed throughout the book and the several featured are fitting endnotes to the many small photos of men featured in the small They Gave Everything insets. Behind each of these men were families who may have received such last letters or who may have only received an official telegram and a letter from an empathetic, if not sympathetic and grieving, CO.

The memorial is very much a 21st Century project even though it has been 70 years in the making and employed age-old skills in its construction. The extensive colour photos are a stark reminder of this but there is an even stronger link to the past. The veterans interviewed for the book were asked their opinion of the memorial and the efforts being made. To include these comments – made today by those who were there in their youth – is a masterstroke. The sum of these words would be lucky to be one per cent of the book’s content yet they are the most powerful and the most fitting. In some ways, the last words on the memorial have been given to those who deserved it so much.

That this book is a triumph is obvious. It is not only a tribute to those of Bomber Command but it is a record of honour for those who toiled so hard in the face of significant opposition (sound familiar?) to build something magnificent on a corner of Hyde Park in London. From the front cover photo – note the five aircrew in the image to signify the smaller crews of the Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens (an idea discussed with Steve Darlow in the early days) – to the back cover acknowledgements, the highest quality abounds. Fifty pages in during a ‘flick-through’ I was suddenly hit by a wave of emotion as I saw an artist’s rendition of the structure and the magnificent bronze sculpture (whose genesis and creation are also documented) within. It was, all of a sudden, so real. Everything is so well put-together that this really must be the benchmark for all future books featuring the exploits of RAF and Commonwealth aircrew. It is truly, powerfully, the finest work on Bomber Command yet to be produced. Nothing less would be expected from the publisher. Nothing less would be expected for the men.

I pre-ordered my copy to ensure 10 GBP went to the memorial. At 19.95 GBP plus another 13 for air mail to Australia it is a remarkably affordable book as far as ‘commemorative’ titles go. My copy, which arrived two days ago, is the standard, unsigned edition but there is also the option to purchase the book in a hard slip case and there is a planned UK signing event. All orders now will see sales proceeds and signing fees go direct to the memorial for its continued upkeep.  I truly believe this title will be the best-selling aircrew book of the year (1,000 had been sold by July) and that means a lot.

11 December 2012

Luck, pleasant surprises ... and Typhoons

I'm always on the lookout for books featuring the men who flew the Hawker Typhoon.  It is one of those aircraft that demands awe and, considering the environment it worked in, it certainly gets it ... the men even more so.  There's not a massive amount of books on the subject out there - there are some very well known ones - so I regard finding any memoir-style title about the Tiffie and her men as a bit of a coup.  As you can imagine, the excitement can know no bounds.

Anyway, in late October we were in Echuca, Victoria, on a family long weekend. Echuca is a lovely place with a lot of history. Anywhere with a river scores high on my scale of places to visit. As the family is wont to do, I found myself wandering the main street behind the heritage port precinct and stopping in at various shops selling trinkets and nibbles. As ever, my book senses were on high alert and any shop with a “oo” in its title (I hate bookkeepers!) had my attention. My nose was set to its paper setting and my ears were tuned-in for the rapturous screams of fellow book-lovers finding that one title they’ve always been after. A look through one second-hand shop – books and antiques – revealed an interestingly diverse military section but nothing that caught my eye.

We eventually made it across the road and I sauntered into a dedicated second-hand bookseller, Read Heeler (geddit?) Book Shop. A quick nod and “G’day” to the man behind the counter was the extent of my pleasantries as I made a beeline, again, for the military section.

Scanning the shelves, I was pleased to see several familiar titles but I did note the prices were beyond my budget or, at least, I had paid less for my copy of the same title. However, Michael Enright’s Flyers Far Away had “$10” pencilled on its first page and, since I didn’t have that title in my collection of ‘anthology’ aircrew books, the visit to this bookshop was already a good one. Not astounding, just good.

This changed rapidly as, several shelves further on in my scan, a slim volume caught my eye and two words that, when I had thought about it in the past, I thought I’d never see caught my eye as if they’d just lit up. There it was. Typhoon Warfare. Reminiscences of a Rocket Firing Typhoon Pilot. The first copy I had seen. Not since finding Sortehaug’s The Wild Winds at the RNZAF Museum had a book leapt off the shelf into my hands more quickly. Immediately I knew this was perhaps my one chance to buy this book (something to look into there regarding another edition perhaps?) as the author had passed away. He had been selling his copies for $20 so with some trepidation, I opened the cover and was pleasantly surprised to see $15. In reality, that’s what the book is worth as a slim, second-hand paperback.

Long story short, $25 and a few more pleasantries later, I was walking out the front door of Read Heeler in somewhat of a daze. No one, other than my wife, would understand my jubilation and, indeed, she did nod approvingly with a knowing smile (or was it a "That's nice, dear"?) as I had once again bought books to add to our groaning (since rationalised slightly) shelves. Ah, basking in the warmth of a successful hunt.

Funnily enough, I pulled another rabbit out of the hat just this past Saturday. This time, however, it involved a book I could find relatively easily but was a fair way down the ‘wish list’. If only I’d known just how good it is…

I was in Melbourne overnight as I had to sit an exam on Saturday morning. Melbourne is one of those cities with lots of lovely little alleyways full of cafes and shops and nooks and crannies. The kind of place you’d expect to find eclectic and specialist bookshops (indeed, one of the leading military bookstores in the country, Hyland’s, is in the Melbourne CBD). However, the discount bookshop I found – its name escapes me but it’s between 440 and 480 Collins Street – was not in one of these alleys. I refrained from popping in until after the exam – no one was more surprised than me when I passed. The glow of a successful brain dump continued as my usual scan of the shelves, initially interesting but not heart-grabbingly so, settled on a 200-page hardback nestled in to the end of a shelf. The first thing I noticed was the Grub Street logo at the base of the spine. “Ooh, hello”, I breathed quietly.

The rest is history as I discovered a lovely (Grub Street do make fine books) copy of To Live Among Heroes by George Armour Bell. The Typhoons (yes, Tiffies again) on the cover are enough for me but the “A Medical Officer’s Insight into the Life of 609 Squadron in NW Europe 1944-45” will soften even the hardest of aviation hearts. Despite my excitement with regard to Typhoon Warfare, Bell’s book has proven to be my purchase of the year (in a year where The Bomber Command Memorial Book is on its way).

As I flew back to Jodi and Maggie that afternoon, I started reading even though I have two other books on the go. I was immediately struck by Bell’s humour and heart. It is a truly wonderfully written effort and there are already hints of his understanding of flying stress and the affinity he had for the pilots … and the trust and love they had for him. That the squadron led him astray in many ways is an understatement (he was, after all, a young Scottish doctor who had had a relatively sheltered and peaceful life) but he grew as both a man and a professional and felt the loss of his charges as keenly as the pilots who witnessed the “ball of fire”. At one stage on the plane I had to turn away from my fellow passengers as I collapsed into uncontrollable, body-shaking, tear-inducing laughter as Bell recounted a briefing by CO Johnny Wells (with an attending Dwight D Eisenhower!). On the next page, after again smiling at a pilot putting on his silk inners (gloves) and saying there were that many Tiffies on the op he was going up to direct traffic, the still present tears began to build again, but for the opposite reason, as Bell waited for said pilot to return from a costly trip…

To Live Among Heroes is what you always wish for when you settle down to read a new book. It pushes all of the buttons, is delightfully written and gives you that light-headedness and warm glow all good books do. Find a copy.  The rewards are immeasurable.