A formation of Cessna Cranes on the cover of a book about the members of a RAAF training course is not something you expect to see. Surely an Australian book should feature Ansons or Oxfords if it’s going to showcase twin-engine trainers. It does, however, suggest the journey of many Commonwealth airmen as the vast majority, drawn from almost all points on the compass, converged on the war in Europe. While Tony Vine’s first book, High in the Sunlit Silence, focuses on just the one course, the men’s stories are, like the cover, representative of those who undertook earlier or later courses in Australia, or those who did the same in New Zealand, Canada, Rhodesia and South Africa. Representative, yes, but all unique. As I often say with a book about a bomber crew, “here’s another x aircrew that have had their stories told at last”, and that is very much the case here. To tackle the lives of fifty men, however, takes some doing.
The trainee members of an elementary flying training course share a bond equivalent to those shared with the squadron mates most eventually served with. To trace the various service paths of each trainee is relatively straightforward. After all, that’s what archives are for, albeit full of abbreviations, acronyms and jargon that are just screaming to be fleshed out. That’s where the challenge lies. Successfully telling the stories needs more than service records. It needs family members and friends, diaries and letters. Even then the rich vein of information deposited by one man, and keenly followed by the researcher, simply does not exist with another. Some were prolific writers, for better or for worse, while others may not have had the chance to do so and left little behind. Multiply that mix of endless hope, occasional despair, and enduring fascination by a factor of fifty and you can understand what the author has gone through to trace the men who made up Pilots’ Course 20 at No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School, RAAF Narromine.
The timing of the beginning of the course, December 1941, is significant, as another ‘front’ requiring men and machines opened as the training progressed. The vast majority of the men who became aircrew ultimately served in Europe, however, and they arrived, for the most part, in the second half of 1943 and many ended up in Bomber Command (a surprising number joined Coastal Command or flew medium bombers with 2 TAF). That time of the bombing campaign was not a good one for the RAF. The Battle of Berlin was soon to get underway and losses were already incredible. That’s why so many of the men who were part of Course 20 ended up in the UK. They went where they were needed the most.
The genesis for this project was the author researching his uncle. Bill Gunning was killed at the controls of a Wellington in 1943. He had trained with some of his course mates in Canada (hence the Cranes on the cover) and kept in touch with others so his influence is fairly consistent through many of the biographies.
Eighteen of those on the RAAF Narromine course were killed in accidents or in combat. Several did not become pilots in the end, instead re-mustering in another aircrew role, while a couple did not make the grade at all, but continued to provide good service. Eighteen out of fifty, relatively and a little indelicately speaking, is not the worst attrition rate considering some of the earlier courses were all but wiped out, and there are memoirs, like Hugh Garlick’s excellent One Life Left or ‘Bush’ Cotton’s marvellous Hurricanes Over Burma, that provide sobering evidence of this. How many times have we seen photos of ranks of men lined up in front of an aircraft with some, many even, having a little cross drawn in pen over their heads?
The great thing, of course, is that most of the men featured survived the war. Unsurprisingly, a decent proportion lived fractured lives in peacetime. We call it post-traumatic stress disorder today, but back then, while it wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by those close to the subject, it just wasn’t dealt with.
High in the Sunlit Silence is a page-turner, but its 330 pages are best read in short sittings. That’s a weird thing to say as everyone wants a book that is hard to put down, something you can lose yourself in. However, each biography is presented as a standalone chapter. Each chapter has effectively been written for the family of the man featured. There is, therefore, a lot of necessary repetition from chapter to chapter, especially for those men who travelled the same path to war (Narromine, Pacific crossing, Canada, Atlantic crossing, UK). While the author has done a fine job to tweak each biography to make them all read differently, there’s only so much you can do with the same information and the first few paragraphs, pages even, rapidly become familiar territory. If the reader is not careful, they will find themselves succumbing to the temptation to skim these parts and, frankly, not giving each man the respect he deserves with a good, thorough read. I caught myself doing that a couple of times before I changed my reading sessions from “I need to cross another book off the list”. I recommend tackling five chapters in each sitting. There is less chance of the stories blending into each other. Take your time.
There’s also a feeling of dread that permeates the book as the reader progresses through it. This is partly caused by the anticipation of wanting the subject to survive, but is largely due to the footnotes. When other personnel are mentioned, the author helpfully includes a footnote listing basic biographical detail. When a crew is listed, and there are dates of death after many of them, you know what’s coming. As mentioned above, less than half of the men from the initial course were lost, but it feels like a lot more.
A solid paperback, the book is not heavy with photographs, but it does provide a good selection beyond the headshots (from various sources) that kick off each chapter. The writing is to the point and the author does not embellish where the information available is lacking. Rather, he ensures as well-rounded and as careful a biography as he can before moving on to the next one.
There’s the occasional missing word in the text, but nothing out of the ordinary or of a material nature. It would be good, however, to see some of the aircraft names tidied up. ‘Montrose Master’, ‘Oxford Anson’ and ‘Hampton bomber’ escaped the proof-readers and, while perhaps worthy of a wry grin when encountered, are details that might mislead, especially when the chapters are written so families can use them in memorial services or other relevant events or displays.
So many of the men featured in High in the Sunlit Silence would be barely known outside of their families. The author has done remarkably well when, in several cases, he hasn’t had a lot to go on. Each subject is given equal attention, and obvious research effort, lack of material notwithstanding. It’s a bit of a dark horse in the way the practical writing style lays out the story in a straight-forward manner, but allows the circumstances of each tale to dictate the reader’s connection and emotional response. There’s a depth to this book that is not immediately evident. It is all the more valuable for its very existence.