02 November 2019

Fatal Mission - Mal Elliott

Amid the flurry of Australian aircrew books released mid-year by at least three publishers, a re-invigorated Big Sky Publishing contributed two (three if you count Bob Grandin’s Vietnam-era Answering the Call). Pleasingly, one of these books looks at a Lancaster crew with 467 Squadron. Despite the continued, sadly belated, public recognition of Bomber Command and its people in recent years (coinciding with the memorial construction and unveiling in London in 2012), I am struggling to think of another recent book concentrating on 467 Squadron. Therefore, Mal Elliott’s Fatal Mission is most welcome, particularly as it tells the story of another crew in detail, a crew that would most likely have remained remembered by family members and little else. While falling short in some of the important periphery knowledge, most of which should have been picked up in the editorial process, Fatal Mission makes sense of the confusion and emptiness too often left when a crew went down.

The author is the nephew of one of the men in the crew. Oscar Furniss, the navigator, had a fairly average childhood, albeit in the idyllic surrounds of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, and graduated with a Diploma of Agriculture in 1941. Aviation had always distracted him, however, so, with the war well and truly underway, he signed up in December before officially enlisting in July 1942. Selected to become a navigator, partly because of his strength in mathematics, Oscar went to Canada, receiving his brevet in April 1943, before finally reaching the UK in June. Caught up in the system, the subsequent months were interspersed with periods of idleness and, of course, eventual postings to an Advanced Flying Unit and then an OTU. Oscar was slowed down somewhat, by proving susceptible to the cold and wet English weather, and was hospitalised several times with bronchitis. Despite this, he managed to stay with his crew as they progressed to a Heavy Conversion Unit and then Lancaster Finishing School. It was not until April 1944, more than three years after signing up, that Oscar (and his crew) was posted to Waddington and 467 Squadron (he was eventually told he would be discharged once a replacement nav was found).

A frustrating start of two cancelled ops quickly gave way to the crew successfully completing their first on 18 April when they were part of the raid attacking the Juvisy railway yards near Paris. By 4 May, five of the seven-man crew were dead.

They were shot down by a night fighter during the successful, but tragically confused, Mailly-le-Camp raid to the east of Paris. Interestingly, unlike the majority of Lancasters, which were shot down while orbiting and awaiting the order to bomb, the crew of ‘Naughty Nan’, the rather troublesome veteran Lanc they had flown their first op on, was lost as they cleared the target. Two men survived, Stan Jolly and Bob Hunter, one badly burned (Hunter), and managed to avoid German imprisonment, albeit with Hunter confined to hospital, until liberated by advancing Allied forces. It is their memories, along with eyewitness accounts on the ground, which add substantial, and important, detail regarding the bomber’s final moments.

The book is a fairly standard approach to this kind of story. There is a personal connection followed in detail, crew members are progressively introduced, their roles and training explained, contemporaries add depth, and then there’s ops and the loss. A lot of work has clearly gone in to every stage with the analysis of the crash, and piecing together its timeline, done really well. I was somewhat concerned to read, in the acknowledgements, the author thanking an esteemed military author for massaging his notes into a ‘richly detailed manuscript’. Having already flicked through the book beforehand, and having met the author several weeks previously, I had wondered where his voice was as it did not seem to come through strongly at all. The narrative is, however, very nicely done and despite the issues I had with some core Bomber Command knowledge, Fatal Mission was near impossible to put down.

Near impossible to put down, but so very frustrating on occasion as a myriad of avoidable errors dilute the effectiveness of the delivery. Granted, it’s quite likely the ‘man on the street’ might not pick up on such things, but this is history so the effort needs to be made. 

While nicely illustrated, with images placed throughout the book, the reproduction and inclusion of some photos left much to be desired. Two menus are included in a timely manner, but are so small they are virtually unreadable and, therefore, of little use. A photo of a replica (fibreglass) Spitfire on a pole, a restored, unarmed ‘warbird’ Mosquito and a post-war modified Anson are used to depict these types. Fair enough, they get the point across, but the availability of wartime images of all three means a missed opportunity, and a relatively easy one that could have been fulfilled. The Anson in particular looks to be one of the post-war developments of the Mk.XIX. When there were literally thousands of Ansons serving in Canada, it is frustrating an image of one of these, of which there would be many, could not be used instead to better depict what Oscar trained on.

Unit codes for 467 Squadron are photo-shopped onto a descriptive image of a Lanc in Chapter Five (a chapter that purports to be about the Lancaster as an aircraft, but loses its way somewhat despite some good images of crew positions). Sadly, these codes are not easy to distinguish and the effort performed on this image makes one wonder why the same wasn’t done to the aircraft on the cover, the codes and configuration of which bear little resemblance to ‘Naughty Nan’ (also mentioned on the cover).  

That’s all a bit anorak-y of me, more so than usual, but here’s another one. Off the cuff comments like ‘…the Lancaster and the P51 Mustang were generally fitted with Packard engines’ are misleading. Less than half of the Lancasters built had Packard Merlins. Nothing general about it. Look, things like the cover will attract attention and make the book sell. Good. It’s quite possible most people who read it won’t even notice what’s mentioned above, but the perpetuation of such things does nobody any good. Like referring to using Harvards as trainers in Australia or Cheshire being Master Bomber for Mailly-le-Camp…

The appendices are particularly good and evidence of the amount of digging the author did to uncover the story of his relative and the crew. The accounts of the two survivors are included in full, with additional comments, and must have been difficult to contemplate given the details they provide about Oscar’s final moments. The book ends, however, with the bibliography. There is no index. It needs one, as does any book of this genre. Four index pages, two leafs, would have been enough to elevate this work further.

An attractive paperback of just over 200 pages, Fatal Mission exudes quality, but falls a little short with the fine detail, the supporting detail that would have added further depth to the extensive research performed by the clearly inexhaustible author. Could some of it have been lost in translation by the ‘ghost writer’? Possibly, but the flip side of this is the nicely crafted narrative. An enjoyable reading experience will probably trump the various niggles in the historical fact and this is to the benefit of the men of ‘Naughty Nan’. They are more likely to be fondly remembered, by a reader with no prior connection to them, if the book is savoured. That is, after all, the whole point – to keep their memory, and their story, alive. Mind you, understanding their world, and portraying it accurately, helps too.

ISBN 978-1-922265-14-2