05 May 2018

Liberator - Ron Watts

It’s been quite some time since I wrote a long review. In fact, I think it’s probably the longest period since ABR began. There’s been a variety of reasons, with paying work dominating my desk time, but also, quite simply, just the ins and outs of family life. I’ve also felt the language I’ve been using in the long reviews has become a bit repetitive. In short, while the brief magazine reviews have flowed okay, I’ve been a bit stuck on the long review. As time passes, too, since the read, it becomes harder to review a book without effectively going back through it in some detail. There was one book, however, that I’ve read in the past six months that has kept me looking ever forward. Why? It is as near to as perfectly crafted as you are ever likely to get. Just thinking about it makes me want to be better, makes me want to try to write something approaching this book. It is Liberator by Ron Watts.

‘Harry’ Hartwig grew up in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, the son of devout German Lutheran parents. It was not an easy upbringing, with considerable family heartache before he left home, but the Hartwigs were resilient people. Handy too. Harry’s father built his family a house, among other things, so they could supplement their meagre income with rent from their former family home. While clever with his hands, Hartwig senior was fond of a drink and, therefore, prone to extended bouts of unreliability which, in the late 1920s/early 1930s, was not at all useful. Harry’s ever suffering mother, and her strict faith, kept the family together. When he left home, indeed before that, Harry’s faith had begun to wane. He found freedom on his motorcycle and, unsurprisingly, a career in the wine industry. A female colleague rekindled his interest in religion, but it was not until 1941 that he returned to the flock as they say, albeit to a church that his parents, being Lutheran, would regard as non-conformist. 

At this juncture, I must point out that religion plays a very strong part in this book. Indeed, the book is published by the Mission Aviation Fellowship for reasons that will soon become clear. I apologise in advance for stumbling my way through that angle of the review.

Having served briefly as an Army dispatch rider, no doubt something he would have enjoyed, our hero learns to fly in Australia and Canada before electing to complete a General Reconnaissance course and then heading to the Bahamas, a clear sign he is destined for Coastal Command. The time spent on leave in North America is fairly typical of Australians overseas and Harry fell in love with the ‘endless summer’ that met him in the Bahamas. Now a prolific letter writer, particularly to his sister, the book benefits from regular enlightening quotes and depth to the already superb narrative. Such letters are worth their weight in gold as any aircrew book author will attest. 

While Harry and his colleagues are training for long sea patrols, flying Mitchells as a lead in to Liberators, their long flights over the ocean are effectively operational sorties. While not counted as such, it’s more or less what they were. Harry had already flown many, many hours in the big Consolidated bomber before he was posted to 206 Squadron RAF in Cornwall for ops over the Atlantic and North Sea. He transitioned to the Liberator just thirteen months after flying the Tiger Moth for the first time. Let that settle in. It’s unremarkable because it was expected, and familiar if you regularly visit these times, but it really is a hell of an achievement. 

As co-pilot, the steady, reliable Hartwig flew more than half of the required 600 hours that made up a Coastal Command tour. His pilot was several years his junior, but, along with several other personalities encountered at the time, proved a wise guiding hand to Harry’s faith as it began to evolve into something that remains tangible to this day.

The flying was not without its challenges, mostly due to bad weather, and Harry was soon back in the Bahamas to train as a captain at the head of his own crew. The war ended before he could fly operationally and complete his tour in this capacity.

Post-war, there is a realisation that aviation can further spreading of the word and assist those doing such work. While Harry is not the only one to think this way (there were similar ’pioneers’ with wartime experience in North America and the UK), and bolstered by discussions on the subject during the war, he continues the renewal of his faith by commencing religious studies in Melbourne as preparation for his intended life as a missionary. A passionate and driven man, he almost single-handedly raises awareness of the value of aviation to remote missions in Australia and further afield. Meeting some resistance during an aerial survey of the northern reaches of Australia, he sets his sights on New Guinea and is ultimately successful in establishing what has become a worldwide organisation. Flying supplies and passengers between missions and towns, journeys that would take days were whittled down to several hours. Medical services, in particular, benefitted from the aviation services Harry had worked so hard to establish. Sadly, however, after giving his all, Harry Hartwig gave his all while returning to Madang in August 1951. 

This is an exquisite read. It’s not full of combat operations or tales of derring do, but that makes the author’s achievement all the more impressive. Harry is there warts and all, his very thoughts laid bare or, at least, finely constructed into the detailed narrative. It is, as suggested above, a lesson in writing. 

The religious angle will possibly turn a few potential readers away. I had not read a book with such an evident ‘theme’ since the excellent Voice from the Stars by Tom Scotland DFC (and that side of things doesn’t appear until well into his tour when he has a night sortie epiphany). There are several passages that, my apologies, raised an eyebrow or two, but that’s simply because they’re not my beliefs. I’m quite happy, fascinated even, to learn what drives other people, what makes them who they are and how they see the world and live their life. A mile in someone else’s shoes and all that. It is all just nicely weaved into a magnificent account. Look at Harry Hartwig as an aviation pioneer because that’s exactly what he was. 

What is eminently frustrating, though, was the circumstance of his death. Pushing on for a mountain pass through bad weather, keen to get back to his wife and child, there is an underlying current of God’s will in his actions, and the outcome of those actions, as though it was his time to go. No, sorry, he flew into bad weather (in New Guinea!) and paid for his recklessness with his life. This was a man who had committed himself to a life of service. That is something, motivations and inspiration aside, that was ultimately wasted. He could have, would have, helped thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. "Just turn around and wait it out, Harry!" Extinguishing the potential of a young life is nothing unusual, sadly. After all, the world was still coming to grips with yet another global conflict that had done just that while looking ahead and seeing more of the same as Korea kicked off. Even the author, a deeply religious man and aviator (the perfect person to write this book), questions why ‘the powers that be’ decided to end Harry’s life early. 

A solid paperback of a little over 230 pages, Liberator is copiously illustrated with two-page spreads of text only in the minority. Harry’s legacy is in the modern day Mission Aviation Fellowship, a “strategic ministry” with operations around the world delivering the services envisioned by Hartwig more than seventy years ago. The title of the book, of course, cleverly refers to his wartime work and what would have been his lifetime’s work. It sets the tone from the start. The depth of thought exercised by the author to produce this fine example of the writer’s craft is reflected in what is really quite a succinct narrative. There is not a word wasted nor is there one out of place. Liberator is a window to a man’s soul, but shows the reader the door to writing perfection.

ISBN 978-0-9925763-1-8