01 January 2018

Lancaster Bale Out - Clive Smith

I get a bit twitchy when I see a new Bomber Command book written by a relative of an airman. That’s a bit jaded so don't mind me. My ultimate desire when reading is to bury myself in a memoir. A book written by a relative could never be regarded as a memoir. Or could it? Lancaster Bale Out is a quality Bomber Command book written by the second cousin of a 106 Squadron RAF WOp/AG. It is not really, however, a gunner's story. It is largely the wartime tale of his bomb aimer, the sole survivor of the crew. More than anything, it is his memoir.

The author’s second cousin, Jack Hougham, trained in the UK and was ready for OTU by late 1942. Fred Smooker, the bomb aimer, was from County Durham and a coal miner like his father. Interestingly, a number of the eventual Lanc crew had been miners or were from a mining family. Perhaps a sixth sense for that sort of thing contributed to bringing them together. Anyway, Fred began training as an observer proper in Canada. Clever and astute, he unfortunately suffered from terrible homesickness and gave up during his course to the point that he failed. He was re-mustered on the first bomb aimer course in Canada, returned to the UK and had joined a crew of five at OTU by the end of October 1942. His pilot was an American, a relatively rare thing in Bomber Command, and a chap who proved to have his head screwed on straight when it came to flying ops.

Before long they picked up another gunner and a flight engineer and converted to the Lancaster before joining 106 Squadron at Syerston. Their first operational trip as a crew was to Lorient in France on the night of 2/3 March 1943, but the intercom failed and they wisely returned home. Their first completed op was to Essen three nights later. They flew their fifth completed op at the end of April. Rosner, the American pilot, was one of those skippers who liked to keep weaving and rarely flew straight and level when not on the bomb run. He would also ‘go downhill’ on the way home so the Lanc picked up a bit of extra speed. His actions were indicative of an impressive, competent crew who got through a few scrapes during their tour.

Sadly, all the skill and attentiveness can never make up for a bomber crew’s luck running out, be it on their first op or their thirtieth. On the way home on three engines after their 20th op, a raid on Cologne on 8/9 July, they were shot down by a German fighter. The rear gunner managed to bail out, but was killed. Fred Smooker, the bomb aimer, was the only man to survive. He managed, through the help of a dizzying array of brave French men and women, to spend the best part of three months evading capture and was on the way to Spain by train when the authorities caught up with him. Amazingly, he then spent 56 days in solitary confinement in a Parisian prison before arriving at Stalag IVB in early December 1943. There he remained for the duration. He returned home with a desire to pick up where he left off and finished his mining studies to become a mining engineer. He took his young family to India for six years in 1951 to work on the railways and eventually retired in the early seventies for health reasons. While working in coal pits could never be referred to as good for anyone’s health, Fred’s experiences in France and Germany – the injuries, rough treatment and general malnutrition – must have also played a part. He died in 2008, some thirteen years after replying to the author’s initial contact.

This book has two main strengths. Firstly, the majority of the narrative was put together by Fred Smooker. He had written about parts of his wartime career over the years. Indeed, the author discovered he was still alive when he read one of these accounts. Once Fred and Clive got together, however, Fred committed to writing a full account of his war from start to finish. This is what LBO is all about and why it is really a memoir. The style is quite conversational and Fred is surprisingly honest about his fears and trepidation throughout his adventures, be they training in Canada or on the run in France. He is not afraid to expose his failings despite his upbringing in a stable household and ability to work in harsh conditions. His time underground built a natural strength, physically and mentally, that was tested time and again after he was shot down. It takes a special person to continually go deep into the earth to follow a relatively narrow coal seam and this determination played a large part in getting him through.

The second main strength of LBO is the author’s beautifully light touch. He recognises the value of what Fred provided him with in instalments over the years. Footnotes are many and detailed and the appendices include copies of official documents and list the crews, and the details of their losses, that some of the men Fred encountered were a part of. There are several sections in the narrative where it is clear the author has added some context or additional detail, but I am certain there are a few more I didn’t pick up on such is the seamless way they have been stitched into Fred’s words. There is very little discussion of bomber tactics, or the development and evolution of same, so the narrative remains focused on the crew and, of course, Fred. His writing is supported by a large number of letters written by his Canadian mid-upper gunner and the author inserts passages written by contemporaries, most notably the author of Lancaster to Berlin, Canadian Walter Thompson DFC*. That said, the training and operational side of things last for just over 100 pages, in a 300-plus page book, with Fred’s evasion and incarceration taking up the majority of what's left. His account of his time as a POW paints quite a bleak picture, but he slowly rebuilds his confidence and general health to the point where he begins to work on escaping. There is little mention of escape committees and the like. If anything, the theme is one of survival rather than continuing on with tales of derring-do. It doesn’t stand out in the myriad POW accounts, but it is well written and pulls few punches despite Fred having had the benefit of several decades to reflect.

You know how you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? Well, to some extent, and perhaps necessarily, I still do, so you can imagine what I first thought of LBO. Horrendous. The book has sold well, however, so a possible second edition should see a much more attractive and accurate design. This one was a product of the publisher and, considering how well Tucann did with the rest of the book, it’s a bit of a let down if you look for accuracy in a cover as an indication of an aircrew book’s content.

Lancaster Bale Out is a true page-turner. It suffers from very few niggles – some weird comma use and the mention of the US not being at war in 1942 were about it – that are almost completely hidden by a narrative that will hold any reader in rapt fascination. This book will not last long as a purely self-published (more or less) effort. A specialist publisher is bound to pick it up and run with it and it is exciting to think of Fred’s story, and the author’s fine work with the narrative, being presented in a second edition. Either way, this is one recent Bomber Command book that should be on your shelf. It is a solid, well-illustrated paperback that you will struggle to put down. While the author, when he set out to satisfy his enduring fascination with his second cousin’s wartime service, did not intend to tell Fred Smooker’s story, it is the outcome of one of those coincidences so often encountered when researching Bomber Command. A truly impressive package.

ISBN 978-1-907516-26-9