30 June 2013

Australian Eagles - Kristen Alexander

The Battle of Britain is where it all started for me.  At the age of nine I borrowed a book on this most famous of aerial battles from the school library.  The title and author are now forgotten but I do remember it was a large format book with good-sized colour profiles of some of the aircraft involved.  I lapped up everything in what was my first detailed foray into WW2 aviation.  Over the years, as I read widely, I became additionally enamoured with the American experience before concentrating on the RAF and Commonwealth air forces.  Always preferring to discover and learn about the more obscure and forgotten, my reading gravitated to feeding a fascination for North Africa, the Mediterranean and Burma.  It was almost like I had cut my teeth on the BoB, learned the true meaning of courage and moved on.

It’s always there though.  All WW2 aviation-minded types at least know the basics – Spitfire, Hurricane, The Few etc.  Indeed, some of the men involved – Bader, Dowding, Park – are still almost household names.  Winston Churchill, the man who coined the famous phrase “The Few”, most certainly is.  Such was the impact of their struggle against the odds that their achievements still resonate with astounding clarity.  This clarity will never fade due, in no small part, to the extensive research and writings published, almost constantly, since the RAF ‘victory’ in October 1940 and look set to continue for some time yet as new crash sites and documents are discovered.

The vast majority of the books written about Britain’s finest hour have, naturally, been campaign studies.  Practically all angles have been considered but still new analyses, insight and material comes to light (and, in all honesty, it sells).  There have been memoirs and biographies of course and several authors have concentrated on groups of pilots and their involvement in the battle.  In many cases these men survived and were able to tell their story or, at least, left behind some sort of record beyond their entries in the Squadron Ops Book.  What, then, of those lost?  Are they to be consigned to a list of names on memorials, a headstone in a churchyard or a small plaque in a corner of the field in which they crashed?  Of course not.  Happily, someone always remembers and that name on the memorial will shine from having been touched reverently, the headstone will sit in a well-manicured lawn and that plaque will regularly receive visitors with fresh flowers and the time to reflect.  To many, though, the name is ‘just’ that of a Battle of Britain pilot who died saving the country, the Empire, from tyranny.  What was he like?  Why did he fly?  Was he married?  Who and what did he love?  Where did he come from?

Jack Kennedy.  Stuart Walch.  Dick Glyde.  John Crossman.  Desmond Sheen.  James Coward.  Battle of Britain pilots.  With the possible exception of Glyde, I knew for certain I had only read about Sheen and Coward.  I may have come across the others in one of the myriad of photos from the period – photos that give a little detail, list off the names of those identifiable and leave it at that.  They were just names.  Names remembered by some but collectively honoured whenever The Few were commemorated.  Besides their combined efforts in the BoB, these men had another thing in common – they were all Australian (Coward settled here post-war so his title is ‘honorary’).  However, we would not be talking about them at all if it were not for another common theme.  These six are the focus of the new Kristen Alexander book, Australian Eagles, Australians in the Battle of Britain.

The Few, as a collective group, will never be forgotten.  But for the writers and researchers, many of the individuals would be lost beyond their ‘sphere of influence’ (families, schools etc).  A few of The Few were Australians who grew up half a world away.  I am not a BoB ‘expert’ so please forgive the generalisations that follow.  The Australian BoB veterans are a bit of an enigma.  They were not a large group of men – a little over 30 in all and there is some conjecture as to the true figure – and they were mostly already serving RAF pilots when war broke out so there was no fanfare about them heading off to serve “King and Country”.  There has not been – other than the high profile individuals and mentions in ‘overview’ campaign works – any concerted effort to trace in detail the lives of these men.  With Australian Eagles this is no longer the case … and it is a portent of things to come.

The author had not set out to research the Battle of Britain and the Australians who fought in it but reading an HE Bates classic got her thinking – were there Australians involved and how could she honour them?  The resulting collection of magazine articles – the first results of in-depth research – has led to a major project still very much a work in process.  It is these articles, though, suitably edited and enhanced, that form the basis of Australian Eagles.

Previous works by the author have revealed a particularly detailed eye for the personal and this is very much evident in AE, especially so for those featured who did not survive the Battle.  Letters and, in some cases, diaries have been pored over and it is clear from each of the ‘biographies’ that there has been much reading between the lines.  The standard format of childhood, education, employment, learning to fly etc is, understandably, followed but as much attention is paid to the pre-service life of each man as it is to the ‘exciting’ stuff – their time as pilots.  This balance is of course not seen with Sheen or Coward as both survived the Battle (and the war).  Reflecting on their survival, the attention paid to the pre-war lives of the men who weren’t so lucky becomes all the more important.  Other than their families, where they are still mourned, who else will know why John Kennedy rarely smiled in photographs or that John Crossman’s first flight in his life was with Charles Kingsford Smith?  The result of such in-depth research and analysis, lovingly so in some respects, is an understanding beyond anything official records (and most books) will ever provide.  The reader is introduced to each of the men and develops an affinity with them – so much so that one can suddenly see behind the cocky grin and rakishly angled service cap.  The grey tones of the photographs are noticed less and less as you see the colour of their lives.

In the case of Dick Glyde, no other treatment could suffice.  It is fair to say that, other than what’s written in AE, no other study of his life exists.  His time in Belgium (pre-BoB) is a triumph for this book and its author and has to be read to be believed (and there’s a photo!).  Such was the lack of material that the author has included an interlude after Glyde’s biography briefly detailing the difficulties encountered in pulling his story together.  It is an insight into the dedication, tenacity and passion the author has brought to bear on the subject.  The life of Dick Glyde deserves nothing less.

Australian Eagles is a work of remembrance.  Bringing the forgotten to the fore, the book has one foot firmly planted in the past but, surprisingly, one also in the present.  These men aren’t as forgotten as I may have led you to believe.  There are several chapters in AE dedicated to the ongoing efforts to commemorate the Australian Battle of Britain veterans in a country whose focus is very much on the Pacific and, most recently, what was achieved and sacrificed by the crews of Bomber Command.  Indeed, each biography ends with how that particular pilot is honoured be it by a stained-glass window, a name on a memorial, a headstone in a churchyard or a plaque in a field.  Really, they will never be forgotten but they do need a bit of attention so they may be remembered by name as pilots of the Battle of Britain … as young men whose lives were more than just that.

This is a beautifully produced hard cover perfectly befitting the fine lives detailed within.  The paper is a high-quality stock that is only surpassed by the dust jacket.  Folded down to size from an unusually much larger sheet, it can only be described as luscious!  You’ll know what I mean when you see the book.  The cover image is, of course, earlier than the BoB but is of one of the squadrons featured in the book and captures the urgency of the period well (but not good dispersal practices!).  Inside, the text is clear and well-spaced and the photos are kept to a manageable size to maintain clarity and to fit in with the text where they are of most relevance.

AE is a comfortable and flowing read of a little under 170 pages with the remaining 20 or so dedicated to a particularly comprehensive bibliography and, happily, something not always seen in books of this ilk – a good index.  For its size it is not super-cheap but the print version is limited to 500 signed and numbered copies and, as mentioned above, production standards are high.  Everything produced for the hard copy book is replicated in an easily accessible and affordable pdf e-book.  Either way, Australian Eagles will give you food for thought – who were the other Australians in the Battle of Britain?  Watch this space!