28 September 2016

An Alien Sky - Andrew Wiseman with Sean Feast

Once again I am busy with magazine and editing work, and have just moved house, so I am turning to a guest reviewer to provide a bit of content for ABR until I can do so myself (I'm looking at another run of five reviews, at least, in mid-October). Zac Yates is a keen aviation enthusiast in New Zealand with an interest in more or less anything that flies.

The life story of Andrew Wiseman is a stunning one of unlikely survival. Born to a Polish father and American mother in 1920s Berlin as Andre Weizman, he was refused a membership in the Hitler Youth ("we don't want any f****** Jews!") and emigrated to Britain to become an air bomber in an Australian Halifax squadron, only to be shot down in 1944 and kept as a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III just weeks after The Great Escape.

His stories of pre-war Berlin, aircrew training, learning the English language, and the day-to-day life of No. 466 Squadron (RAAF) left me wanting to keep reading. He easily relates his travels to the fateful operation that led to him becoming a ‘kriegie’ in Nazi Germany, while his co-author, Sean Feast, adds historical notes where needed.

Wiseman was one of the countless POWs who took part in The Long March, an event I admit I knew nothing about prior to reading this book. His experiences in a camp near Berlin in the last days of the war provide an interesting insight into the often volatile relationship between American, British and Soviet forces. His position as a translator fluent in several languages meant Wiseman was privy to a range of fascinating - and sometimes humorous - events among the remains of the Nazi war machine.

This book is billed on the cover as "The story of one man's remarkable adventure in Bomber Command during the Second World War", but it is more than that. I was surprised that the end of the war came before the halfway point of this book, but I wasn't to be disappointed. Wiseman's post-war career as one of the first television producers at the BBC is covered in a scant few dozen pages but would have made for an excellent book in its own right. Likewise his experiences as an official translator for the British Home Office in his twenty-year “third career” are less than two pages. The final part of Wiseman's story is that of his life as a modern-day veteran, revisiting a former camp and attending reunions, and the long-overdue Bomber Command Clasp and Memorial ceremonies. 

Unfortunately I've used the past tense because, as related by co-author Feast, Andy Wiseman passed away just weeks after finishing the manuscript. I have to admit this news saddened me immensely as Wiseman was an excellent storyteller and I feel that An Alien Sky could have been so much more. His fascinating life could have easily filled a book twice as long.

The final forty or so pages are appendices by Sean Feast including biographies of Wiseman's crew on the night they were shot down, selections from the diary of mid-upper gunner and crewmate Bill Lyall, and a brief history of 466 Squadron and its ops record (again with additional content from Feast) from March to April 1944.

With my comments about its short length, I may seem ungrateful or even dissatisfied with this book. Far from it. I am immensely grateful Wiseman and Feast collaborated to record the former’s stories for posterity and our enjoyment and education. The fact Wiseman died so soon after finishing this work gave me casue to reflect on our veterans and how precious our remaining time with them is.

Happy to repeat myself, I'm grateful Andy Wiseman has told his story and it is a highly engaging one worth adding to any enthusiast's library.