Another book about Bomber Command. A bad thing? Of course not and stop reading if you think it is! With more than 120,000 aircrew flying operations, Bomber Command is easily the largest source of stories about RAF and Commonwealth aircrew. Therefore, there should be a lot of books. In fact, since the aircrew are finally receiving the widespread attention they deserve, admittedly when it’s almost too late, there is a seemingly endless (hopefully) supply of these books. As ever, they all vary in style and content, but all with aspects that are repeated, and the material available to an author can range from feast to famine. However, imagine living next door to a veteran, I’m sure many of you have, and slowly learning about his war and, as a consequence, becoming immersed in the world of Bomber Command. Imagine too that your research would also benefit said veteran by reuniting him with members of his crew. Chris Keltie, author of Riding in the Shadow of Death, the story of Bill North’s No. 61 Squadron Lancaster crew, has experienced all of that and more.
Chris grew up in the house next door to the Norths and they remained close friends until Bill’s passing in 2011. Over those forty years, the author grew from an inquisitive child, asking about a photo of a Stirling, to an eternally inquiring adult neck deep in all things Bomber Command. Books of this genre, especially those about the bomber crews, need to be written with heart, and it is here in spades.
There was nothing extraordinary about the North crew. They were simply one of many, many Lancaster crews doing their jobs to the best of their abilities despite what they encountered night after night. That in itself, of course, makes them extraordinary, so let’s just say they were ordinary in their extraordinariness. They came together in the usual ways, through a variety of training paths around the world, and became one of the most remarkable things to ever be produced by the air war – a seven-man bomber crew that, for all intents and purposes, had bonds stronger than that of a family such was their reliance and trust in each other. Again, this is not something new within the confines of Bomber Command reading, but it is rarely told with such care and attention by someone who has not lived it.
Battling their way through operational training and the Heavy Conversion Unit, the North crew joined 61 Squadron and, after Bill’s second dickie trip, flew their first op in mid-May 1944. By the end of the month they had flown five ops and, indicating the increased tempo in support of the Normandy landings, had completed sixteen by the end of June. Number seventeen, however, was to be their undoing. Attacking a V-1 site hidden in caves near St Leu, France, the North crew successfully delivered their bombs, but were attacked by a night fighter on the way home. The first attack knocked out the port inner and wounded the mid-upper gunner, Dennis Bartlett, and Bill, who was badly hit. With a shattered and useless left arm and two bullets through his left thigh, the pilot stayed at the controls, while continuing to try to evade the fighter’s fire, to allow his crew to abandon the aircraft. It was only when he realised he had three of his crew still on board, one of whom had lost his parachute to the gunfire, that he decided to attempt to put the ailing bomber down. That he did, in his condition, was nothing short of miraculous and there are equally amazing photos, one of which is on the cover, to prove just how good a forced landing it was.
Two of the three men who rode the Lanc down with Bill refused to leave his side. In the end, five members of the North crew were taken into captivity while the other two successfully evaded. The POWs of the crew would eventually endure The Long March, but all made it home.
It is a fascinating tale of a devoted bomber crew that is made more so by the efforts of the author to not only draw everything together, but the coincidences and reunions that came about as a result of recording, researching and writing it. No (more) spoilers here, but it gladdens the heart when old crewmembers see each other again after decades.
On the strength of that summary, and it should be noted that there is some good detail about the crew’s time as POWs, this is a Bomber Command story that needs to be in the collections of all students of the campaign. However, in the interests of honest reviewing, which ABR is all about, this could be one of the most frustrating narratives currently available. The author is at one with Bomber Command, not an easy thing to do and something that takes years, which many would-be writers don’t necessarily understand. It is the editing that completely and utterly lets the book down. It actually elicited several vocal responses of despair!
Everything you can think of error-wise when it comes to aircrew books is present here on almost every page. Names are spelt inconsistently, aircraft are incorrectly identified, people are mentioned or referenced with no introduction as to where they fit in the story (or their significance), typos abound, photos and details in the text are repeated, and some images are too small to be of any use. The narrative contains too many little diversions, or interruptions, to maintain a flow that builds to the eventual crash landing and, because of these diversions, the repetition comes into play as main characters are reintroduced or the reader is reminded where the crew is up to in their tour. As an example, the crew’s memories and notes (mainly from the pilot and the Australian bomb aimer, Norman Jarvis) about their first op are riveting, but, for some reason, the narrative goes off on a tangent to discuss flak and then, three pages later, takes two pages to discuss Scarecrows and night fighters. At this stage of the book, more than 120 pages in, the reader has heavily invested in the crew as, despite the faults encountered to this stage, the warmth and heart with which the narrative has been written is prominent. The chapter before the last op is a well-written and welcome discussion of the roles of the ground crew. It is a great tribute to read, but, again, it gets in the way. You want to know how the crew got on. Indeed, you are itching to know and to read about aspects of the bomber campaign that should have been discussed earlier or even in notes or an appendix, is frustrating. If anything, it does make you read on, but there are so many of these interruptions that the book almost develops a staccato quality. It all works, but it is often hard to make the leap to connect it.
A lot of this information, what makes up the interruptions, had to be included, however. Bomber Command readers are going to pick this book up. At the same time, however, it has to appeal to those with little to no idea of what Bomber Command was all about. It is perhaps a case of trying to fit too much, and there is a lot once you dig into the bomber war, into the narrative. More use of notes and appendices would have removed the more cumbersome passages with the flick of an annotation. The focus can then be on the North crew. Just as importantly, the relevant memories of the veterans the author met in the course of his research can also shine through when there is less clutter. One pilot, although from another squadron, flew on many of the same ops as the North crew so his memories are particularly significant as they lend another viewpoint and context.
The North crew lost their flight engineer early on after he cracked up. Rather than be tarred with the dreaded LMF brush, the wing commander takes him on and gets him through his tour. This says a lot about both men and is certainly a rare account. There are gems like this dotted throughout the book, an indication that it holds a lot of merit, but you have to have your wits about you, lest you miss them, as the narrative jumps around.
After all that, should you consider this book? Absolutely! Notwithstanding the myriad of problems (many caused by the mad scramble after the manuscript was corrupted shortly before going to print), this is such a great story. As I said above, it’s yet another Lancaster crew who were shot down. Lots of correlation with everything you have read on the subject to date. Their survival, in no small part due to the skill and determination of their pilot, meant this story could be told at length rather than being forgotten or mentioned in passing. Survival is key, but so is the ability of the author to tackle the mountain of information while keeping a handle on the emotion that inevitably comes with delving into Bomber Command. His research led to life-long friends being made and old crewmates being reunited. However, there is always death with Bomber Command. Indeed, that is true for all aircrew books, but a writer on the subject has to deal with wartime ghosts and, in all likelihood, based on the success of the research, has to deal with new ones as the once young men see their lives out. It is a necessary evil, always unwelcome, and the author is not afraid to let the narrative slow down and reflect on the passing of one of the ‘remarkables’. That said, sometimes a bit of distance needs to be kept to maintain objectivity despite the close relationships clearly maintained with the veterans.
A second edition of this book is currently underway. The author is aware of the issues the first edition has and is working to rectify them. Interestingly and excitingly, he has gained the support of one W.R. Chorley (of Bomber Command Losses fame). To have such an eminent historian on board is nothing short of stupendous and really hammers home just how good this story is. The book is rough around the edges, but that sort of thing can be tidied up with dedication that is certainly not lacking here. It is the tale of the North crew that truly shines and it is fair to say that this is only the beginning for Riding in the Shadow of Death.