16 April 2016

Heroes Of The Skies - Michael Veitch

The anthology is, after the squadron history, the hardest type of book to write about. Well, it is for me. What to say without recounting the entire contents or repeating myself in the case of the former? I try to select a theme with every review, for better or worse, or play with a pattern I have picked up on, sometimes obvious, sometimes not. That’s a particularly hard thing to do with unit histories. It can be the same for anthologies as each subject can often stand alone. This is not so in the case of Michael Veitch’s third collection of aircrew interviews. While this is the final book of his trilogy (Flak and Fly preceded this one), the finite, almost sombre, feel has nothing to do with it. These men are the last of a generation. When they are gone, that’s it. No more living, real, connection to wartime aviation of the 1940s. It is a theme the author has injected in to the previous books but never quite as strongly as this.

This was actually the first of the trilogy I have read. Flak is on my shelf but I also have the audio book for it and Fly. I could not tell you how many times I have listened to both. If pressed I can still rattle off some of the names of the men featured. So, to finally sit down with Heroes Of The Skies felt familiar.

The airmen featured come from all walks of life and ended up in all commands within the RAF and RAAF. There’s a good smattering of Bomber Command men, for obvious reasons, and this continues a pattern of the previous books. The range of the rest of the chapters is impressive with Typhoons, 2TAF Mitchells, Kittyhawks over the desert and New Guinea, Fleet Air Arm Hellcats, Coastal Command Liberators and Beaufighters and, among many others, twenty in all, two Australians who flew with Liberator-equipped USAAF units against the Japanese. Those last two, and the Hellcats, are particularly uncommon. It is a good selection of aircrew, either by design or circumstance, and rivals those of the master of the anthology, ‘Laddie’ Lucas.

Each man’s war, and bits of his life before and after, is covered by a chapter of no more than twenty pages. One could rightly argue that this is not enough to do a proper job on each man. Indeed, each deserves his own book. However, it does make for a straightforward read and a book you can dip in and out of if pressed for time but itching to be spirited away. Every chapter, though, read solo or during a long session, manages to cram a lot in and more often than not is quite gripping. None will fail to leave the reader with a sense of awe. The direct quotes from each man, many and varied, are read with blinkers on. Nothing else matters and each word is a gem. That feeling of incredulity at their survival, and never being able to understand how such experiences have truly affected their lives, is a powerful constant.

The author has a lifelong passion for Second World War aviation so to write these books was pure indulgence but also a way of putting all of that knowledge to good use. In the previous books, he injected himself in to the stories, setting the scene somewhat, by detailing his journey to meeting a particular veteran or sharing his excitement at talking to someone who had flown a certain aircraft type. Even his reactions to a harrowing escape or achievement are recorded. It does help the reader feel as though they are in the room during the interview to some extent but it can be seen as diluting the content. More of that later. With HOTS, the ‘Michael character’ is less prevalent. Yes, he is most certainly there, and includes his presence nicely as a foil for the veterans to parry at times, but it is a smaller part that he plays. This could be because of a conscious decision to give more room and weight to the flyer’s story but this, after all, is the third book in the series. It is familiar territory and the author has established himself over the past ten years as a passionate enthusiast, and determined advocate for remembering these men, so there is nothing left to prove. He is, of course, an old hand at this now and uses the preface to provide an idea of his methods and, since this book can be read without the other two, establish his credentials somewhat.

The flip side of the author’s presence in the stories, as hinted at above, is that it is too much and that he needs to give the men more of a voice. Perhaps so, but while this is an important book from a history point of view, it is also one that needs to appeal widely. As much as I dislike the sudden fervent vigour for remembrance that many, many people develop around ANZAC Day or Remembrance Day, that seemingly disappears equally as suddenly, this is the market that the book needs to work in for these stories to reach as large an audience as possible. It is, after all, an affordable paperback by an excellently distributed publisher. Therefore, the nitty gritty has to be kept to a minimum somewhat. Detailing an airman’s flying training from square-bashing onwards, and then repeating it with the next chap and so on, will turn off the ‘uninitiated’. The hook for each chapter is the author’s connection to the veteran, the preamble if you will. For a small percentage of readers the squadrons, the aircraft (as suggested above), even the names of the men interviewed, are enough to set that hook. The more conversational approach in this book is just another tool and is an effective one at that.

Importantly, these stories are out in the world. For some of the men featured, this will certainly not be for the first time. Indeed, one, Dick Dakeyne (one of the RAAF chaps flying with the Yanks), published an excellent biography (Radar Gunner – to be reviewed here soon) shortly before he passed away early last year. To that end, his chapter did feel a bit rushed but it is doubtful this same opinion would be reached by someone who has not read his book. Others, like ‘Nat’ Gould, Murray Adams and Cy Borsht, are relatively well known personalities and have featured in books or other media. To that end, I still have yet to see Borsht’s name spelt correctly in a book. His shortened first name was a phonetic version in David Scholes’ Air War Diary and his surname is continuously and disappointingly spelt as ‘Borscht’ in HOTS. Along with the mention of machine guns in a Beaufighter’s nose and the Distinguished Flying Medal being referred to as a ‘silver cross’, I found such an error a little disconcerting. Names just have to be right, no question, or at least every effort made to get them right. Funnily enough, all three of these basic errors were not only the only ones I noticed but all were within the first seventy pages.

This book is both light and heavy at the same time. It is incredibly easy to read, due to the writing and layout, but it also, because of the subject matter, has a gravitas about it. The undertone of loss, in war and now in old age, is always there and the book, decent paperback that it is, can actually feel quite heavy if you stop to reflect on where many of these men will be, and what we will have lost, in five years’ time. The doomed youth, to use part of an oft-quoted phrase, so clearly portrayed on a cover that is representative of all the young men who flew, left behind the survivors to grow old and remember them. Some did not tell their stories until Michael Veitch showed up at their front door so he is very much a part of their story. Thank goodness for that because time is running out and I dread that day in the future when they are all gone. But, it’s inevitable and that’s why we have aircrew books and authors prepared to run the gauntlet to record what they can and keep the memories alive. Take this book for what it is – a well-produced, finely written, nicely illustrated tribute to a generation who will soon no longer be with us.

ISBN 978-0-670-07825-7

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