26 April 2017

Bomber Boys - Marianne Van Velzen

It’s always exciting when a new title is published on a subject that rarely appears in book form. I immediately think of Steve Bond and Richard Forder’s Special Ops Liberators and Graeme Gibson’s Path of Duty (and give a deserving nod to Craig Collie’s new Code Breakers) as relatively recent examples. Such was the case with this new book about the Dutch airmen who served in the RAAF’s No. 18 Squadron. To my knowledge, it has not been since Gordon Wallace wrote his two volumes in the 1980s, about his time with this unit, that 18 Squadron has appeared in a book dedicated to its memory. About the only title that might come close would be Doug Hurst’s The Fourth Ally. For students of the RAAF’s war, the sight of B-25 Mitchells in RAAF or Dutch colours is always a treat and more common than first thought. The great anticipation that came with the announcement and subsequent arrival of this book was found wanting, however.

Two twin brothers, both pilots in Java, narrowly escape the clutches of the rapidly advancing Japanese as they sweep all before them. While one brother manages to get away relatively cleanly, the other is momentarily detained, but escapes and makes his way to an airfield after meeting an Australian dispatch rider. The two of them repair a sabotaged Lockheed transport and make it to Australia where they come down on a Northern Territory cattle station. Both men are eventually posted to the nascent No. 18 (Netherlands East Indies) Squadron, and the twins reunited, which has been formed at the request of the Dutch authorities to make use of the stranded airmen. Great pilots like the legendary Gus Winckel and Guus Hagers are part of the scene as the unit gets to grips with its Mitchells and finally sees some action with anti-submarine patrols along Australia’s eastern coast.

In late 1942, the squadron moved to MacDonald in the Northern Territory. A poorly equipped airfield, it was nevertheless home to the squadron for six months before the move to Batchelor. From MacDonald, the first raids on East Timor and surrounds, including numerous anti-shipping ops, were flown. Losses were steady, but exacerbated by the lack of replacement crews, thus leaving the veterans to soldier on. A large contingent of Dutch had been sent to the United States for training as their compatriots stayed behind to form 18 Squadron. Relief, in the form of these new crews, did not arrive for almost a year after the move to the Top End. The original crews were then rested properly and, in the case of the twins, whom the narrative revolves around, one (the dashing one who is followed more closely) flies transports around Australia while the other, the more steady type, is tasked with setting up a Dutch fighter squadron.

The latter stages of the war saw the squadron heavily involved over some of its personnel’s former home and providing moral and physical support to the many prison camps in the region.

It’s a great story, exceedingly well told, of a group of airmen who, like the many ‘homeless’ European aircrew, refused to give up the fight. The nicely flowing narrative, built around the twins with a good supporting cast of Dutch and Australians alike, makes this an easy read. It is, however, eminently frustrating. You see, the twins are fictional characters created by the author after three interviewed veterans did not want their names used in the book. This is mentioned in the introduction and is nothing short of flabbergasting. Indeed, my first written note was “Fictional characters?! Why?!” What’s wrong with simply changing some names? If the actions of the twins, and I say ‘if’ because who knows what is true and what is not, are based on what some real chaps did, then surely those actions could be attributed to those real people if the reader did some digging. Changing the names would achieve exactly the same, but have a more authentic ring to it. By creating fictional characters, everything, from those they associate with, everything they do, to their entire story arc, is called into question. While the brothers were created out of the utmost respect, the reader is left wondering just what actually happened and what is fictional.

For a squadron that flew more than 900 sorties during the war, there is precious little of their action recounted here. What is included reveals an almost complete lack of aviation and combat flying knowledge on behalf of the author and subsequent editors which is quite surprising given the aviation history pedigree of the publisher. It borders on cringeworthy and is certainly not limited to the operational flying details. It is misleading for those who don’t know and embarrassing for those who do. It’s been a long time since I’ve written three A4 pages of notes for a book and the list of relatively basic aviation and general wartime terminology and chronology errors took up most of those pages. More effort was seemingly put into describing the dashing twin’s love life, the physical attributes of his lovers, and his reactions to them.

The most authentic part of this book is a very good photo section that features many of the real people who gave their all in the service of this squadron. Lack of aviation knowledge aside, Bomber Boys reads like a novel, albeit very well, but cannot really be called the story of 18 Squadron. After all, it would be lucky to mention ten percent of the aircrew involved and only concentrates on four or five main characters, two of which didn’t exist. The men arriving from the United States are given exceptionally short shrift yet they faced the same dangers and challenges and were as much a part of the squadron as the old hands. The reader is left with not really knowing what to believe. An existing knowledge of the unit does help, but this typically attractive Allen & Unwin paperback will most likely be seen and bought by those who want to learn just what the Dutch did. The opportunity to learn, however, is barely realised by this book. With luck, it will serve as a signpost that will lead readers deeper into the air war in this region, but the men, Dutch and Australian, of this bomber squadron deserve far better.

ISBN 978-1-76029-647-6

19 April 2017

A Ruddy Awful Waste - Steve Brew with Mike Bradbury

I think, maybe, it has begun. Imperceptibly, the flow of new Second World War aircrew memoirs and biographies is slowing down. For the former, of course, this is a given as time marches on and the veterans are taken from us one by one. We will have to rely on discoveries of unpublished manuscripts to increase the numbers there. New biographies will take longer to fade, but they will as those who are interested in the era, and have the skill and dedication to write about it, move on. The famous flyers - the Baders and Gibsons of the world – will no doubt continue to sell books. They’re a good thing as they are the poster boys that can attract a new enthusiast, a pending historian, and draw them into a world where ordinary men lived lives that no fiction writer could ever imagine. There is one chap who is talked about with reverence, seemingly more so than the others at times, yet he remains somewhat of an enigma. What is it about Eric Lock DSO, DFC and Bar, and why on earth has he not been written about as much as all the rest?

Eric grew up in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, and proved a good student and sportsman once he was settled. He worked at the family quarry and adjacent farm. As the second youngest of five children, Eric was barely a teenager when the last of his elder siblings married. His hard working parents, with established businesses, provided Eric and his younger sister with a sound education. At fourteen years of age, Eric had his first flight with Alan Cobham’s barnstorming operation. He didn’t look back.

Eric joined the RAFVR and began part-time service in early 1939 as part of the RAF’s rapid build-up for what was quickly becoming inevitable. He soloed on 3 March and eventually went to an Initial Training Wing in October, Service Flying Training School in December and then, finally, in June 1940, to No. 41 Squadron. This was the posting that would make him a household name in a very short period of time.

To some extent, Eric’s flying training benefitted from its timing. While things were becoming rather hairy on the Continent, and the RAF and Air Ministry certainly recognised this, the length of training periods was only marginally truncated and the period of the Phoney War allowed some courses to be lengthened slightly. For a gifted flyer like Eric, this allowed him to truly settle into his flying. Even his first squadron was operating in a quieter sector which again allowed him to get to grips with the Spitfire. His wedding, too, in late July, and subsequent leave, meant he missed the squadron’s busy, two week deployment to Hornchurch and he did not fly his first op until August. One can imagine his intense happiness with squadron and married life while chomping at the bit to get into operational flying. He was about to get his wish in spades.

As fortunate as Eric was to be somewhat eased into combat flying, there was always going to be that first op to be flown and, assuming it didn’t happen then, the baptism of fire. For our hero, and soon to be everyone else’s, the latter occurred on his third op when Luftflotte 5, based in Norway, attacked the supposedly lightly defended northern counties on August 15. Baptism of fire, first sighting of the enemy and the first victory. It was a red letter day for Eric Lock. There were to be many of those as the Battle of Britain reached its climax and Eric’s score continued to increase. At one stage his op/kill ratio was 1:1. The squadron’s move back to Hornchurch in early September saw it regularly engaged several times a day. Many of Eric’s kills were when he was on his own, as he preferred, and, curiously, given his rising seniority and leadership qualities, he was often employed as the squadron weaver, a role that was certainly the most dangerous in the squadron formation. However, Eric relished it, but it was flying in this position, with the Battle well and truly over (officially), and after two months of frenetic, unceasing flying, that he was shot down and seriously wounded in mid-November. His wounds, hit in the left arm and both legs, included his left forearm being broken in two places. Such was the seriousness of his injuries, that he was sent to East Grinstead and the care of the legendary Dr Archibald McIndoe. While renowned for his treatment of burns victims, McIndoe was, of course, a leading plastic surgeon and exactly what Eric needed to recover, at least physically. He thus became one of the founding members of the Guinea Pig Club.

After seven months of treatment, and not having flown in that time, Eric, inexplicably, was posted to No. 611 Squadron as a flight commander. The position makes sense, but the squadron’s role at the time does not. It was based at Hornchurch and heavily involved in Fighter Command’s offensive operations over the Channel. While his experience would have been welcomed, he certainly wasn’t up to scratch and would have benefitted from being eased back into squadron life. Perhaps the time recovering and recuperating was regarded as his rest period? It certainly seems that way. Anyway, he was flying again on 1 July and in a little over a month he was dead. During that time, he was again successful on several ops and, with hindsight, the victim of the mounting pressure placed on the experienced pilots. Time after time, new pilots arrived on the squadron, but most had very little operational time or, indeed, none at all. They could not take the weight off the flight commanders and squadron leadership, so already worn out men continued to climb into their aircraft for operations that, as the Germans found out the previous summer, could be dictated by the enemy. Still, it had to be done and Eric would not be the only eminently qualified RAF fighter pilot to be so cruelly lost.

There is a reason why it has taken until now (well, 2016) for a comprehensive Lock biography to be published. Surprisingly, for one of the RAF’s leading lights, very little in the way of documentation remains. There is no logbook. There is no diary. Most tellingly of all, Eric’s wife cut her ties with his family soon after he was lost. This dearth of primary sources makes A Ruddy Awful Waste all the more remarkable. The authors have drawn on what family records they could, but the vast majority of Eric’s flying career is recounted via combat reports and the memories of his colleagues and family.

Contemporary accounts are heavily drawn upon where it is known Eric would have experienced something similar. From those, conclusions have been drawn where they need to be. For instance, Eric’s initial field treatment after being shot down, and then subsequent recovery via skin graft operations, is masterfully pieced together by Brew and Bradbury reading between the lines, applying logic and a good dose of common sense (as is their investigation into the conflicting claims totals towards the end of the book). The authors clearly indicate what they believe happened, but reinforce it with detailed analysis and what supporting evidence there is. The pages explaining his injuries, treatment, the process of the skin grafts, and subsequent battle with infection, and recovery (aided by references from none other than Richard Hillary, among others, who shared a ward with Eric), are the best wartime medical writing I have read since Mayhew’s magnificent The Reconstruction of Warriors.

The same style is applied to Eric’s childhood and education with extensive use of local records to support what is known and what could be remembered. A nice touch is the images of landmarks (schools etc) from that time that are still standing and photographed by the authors. While not as obvious as the myriad of tangible honours rightly afforded to Lock to this day, they are important parts of a short life well-lived and just as important as the other images included in the typically impressive Fighting High glossy photo section.

Importantly, and this might seem an odd thing to say for a biography, the authors keep Eric at the forefront of the narrative. Because of the lack of the usual primary material, the reliance on other accounts, as mentioned above, is paramount, but these are only elaborated on in relation to the operations Eric participated in. This is particularly valuable as the Battle of Britain sequences have a very familiar feel to them. There is very little different to the reams of combats with Messerschmitts, Heinkels, Dorniers and Junkers that have already been written about, and will continue to be written, during the summer of 1940 and the authors thankfully avoid the trap of turning this section of the book into yet another account of the campaign as a whole. Very little space is given to squadron combats that Eric did not take part in. They are mentioned in passing, if at all. In that sense, the reader keeps in touch with him, reveling in the quiet efficiency with which he goes about his job (similarly, a detailed family history is left to the appendices). That said, he does seem to get a bit lost in the accounts of the combats over the Continent in mid-1941. His scoring was certainly not as prevalent during his final month of flying, but a large part of that was because the Luftwaffe controlled when, where, and if, they would intercept the RAF formations. It’s as if he had already started to fade away.

Eric Lock remains missing to this day. His memory lives on in an almost constant stream of memorials and honours befitting a man of his accomplishments. However, there is very little chance we will ever know the full story. The ultimate primary source, the man himself, took the most important resource, his memories, with him. Had he lived, there is little doubt that his story would be known backwards by now and in its umpteenth printed edition. One can but hope that this becomes the case with this book. It needs to be. Aspects of Eric Lock’s life will remain a mystery, but that’s not for the lack of intelligence and thoughtful analysis applied by the authors. He will continue to inspire and mystify enthusiasts and historians, pending or otherwise, but everything they need is in A Ruddy Awful Waste.

ISBN 978-09934152-3-4