29 October 2020

Bomber Command arrivals - how to tell a story


Two days, two Bomber Command book arrivals, both written by somewhat removed relatives. Same, same, but different. Two approaches to presenting a similar tale. Both allow the reader to ‘know’ the ‘hero’.


Jane Gulliford Lowes’s Above Us, The Stars is one of two new English Bomber Command biographies receiving a good dose of attention at the moment (the other being The Boy With Only One Shoe by John Meller and Caroline Brownbill). Above Us, The Stars is Jane’s investigation of her great-uncle’s experiences with 10 Squadron RAF. Jack Clyde was a Halifax wireless operator and completed his tour in early March 1944.


The author uses a creative narrative to tell the story, along with a tonne of references (and ten veterans personally interviewed, one of the first things I checked was the bibliography), and goes to great lengths to accurately portray the world these men inhabited. Little is left wanting in terms of understanding the stresses they went through with what appears to be a good study of the threat of being deemed LMF (Lack of Moral Fibre) supported by numerous comments from primary and secondary sources. The members of the crew, and specifically Jack Clyde of course, are also placed in social settings as readily as the familiar operational environment. This allows a greater understanding of their lives and gets them under the reader’s skin.


The second book to arrive was Over the Alps by Moonlight. This is a series of letters and aerographs written by Australian Lancaster pilot (12 Squadron RAF) Robert Yell and compiled by Susan Yell (his niece). An older publication, released in 2009, its approach couldn’t be any more different from Above Us The Stars. Instead of building a narrative, Susan wrote an excellent, well-referenced introductory ‘essay’ that sets the scene while also laying out Bob’s journey in detail not included in the letters. Other than single line entries from the logbook, interspersed between the letters as time progresses, Susan lets Bob do the rest. The correspondence is mostly from Bob to his parents, but also includes replies and letters to/from several other relatives. 


There is very little in the way of operational detail in Bob’s writing, for obvious reasons, so there isn’t a lot of hard evidence as to how he was getting on. Certainly, he was working and playing hard. He was clearly keen to reassure his family he was okay. There is one indication as to the mounting pressure he was under, however. He wrote 51 letters, averaging one a week, up until he started flying on ops. For the six months of his tour, from 24 July 1943 until he was lost on his 30th trip on 14 January 1944, he wrote just seven letters and preferred the shorter format of the aerograph (seventeen in all, a brand new method for mail to Australia in 1943). No doubt busy on ops and then busy wanting to relax and forget it all on leave.


Bob’s letters regularly include mention of what was making news of the time, nicely placing him in context. Other than a few photos, the collection of letters (handed down through the family over time), the headstone at Hanover War Cemetery, and perhaps the DFC he was awarded (for a ‘shaky do’ over Berlin on 26 November 1943), there is little to remember Bob by so this book is greatly valued.


As a lovely piece of serendipity, I noted, while flicking through both books, Jack and Bob were both operational at the same time, albeit Jack had a few ops to his credit before Bob got underway. A quick look revealed they both flew on the 24 July Hamburg raid, the first op for Bob and his crew. There may have been other nights when they attacked the same target, but I haven’t gone that deep yet. It was just nice to consider here were two books, written years and half a world apart, deposited on my doorstep within a day of each other, and featuring men who shared the same patch of night sky over occupied Europe on at least one occasion. That the books exhibit two different styles of story telling shows the variety that can be employed if the effort is made to really understand how the subjects lived, the skills they developed and used, what they experienced and how it affected them. That, surely, is the greatest way to honour their memory.


ISBN 978-1-83859-555-5

ISBN 978-0-73262-227-5

22 October 2020

Anthony Cooper's latest cover released


Several years after his myth-busting Paddy Finucane and the Legend of the Kenley Wing, the next instalment of Anthony Cooper's Australian aircrew books is finally, almost, with us! 


Anthony is perhaps best known for his superb Darwin Spitfires. He followed that book with Kokoda Air Strikes and RAAF Bombers over Germany 1941-42 and the aforementioned Kenley Wing title. This new book continues his look at where Australian aircrew were around the world during 1942, when our UK-based Spitfire squadrons were ordered home to defend northern Australia from Japanese air raids.


Cooper is an erudite type with a fine analytical mind and a penchant for not accepting things at face value. This approach was most evident with Darwin Spitfires, revealing the moderate successes of the squadrons (as opposed to the raging, almost colloquially so, success that is often repeated) in the face of technical, tactical and logistical deficiencies, and Kenley Wing, again proving all was not as was flagrantly reported and recorded to become legend. It must be noted there is never a lack of respect in these exceedingly well-written narratives, but the discussion is always frank and fair. There is no doubt the same will apply to Sub Hunters.


While not so much the stuff of repeated exaggeration, the Australian Sunderlands have not had anything written about them to this extent, excluding a couple of memoirs, since Norman Ashworth's The ANZAC Squadron (about 461 Squadron). The most prevalent story, besides one Sunderland versus eight Ju88s for example, is, of course, the sinking of U-boat U-461 by Dudley Marrows and his crew (flying Sunderland 'U' from 461 Squadron). There is so much more to the two squadrons (10 and 461) than these events. Anthony Cooper's intimate knowledge of the German language will have no doubt been put to good use examining records of such Luftwaffe heavy fighter encounters with the Sunderlands over the Bay of Biscay. 


Besides the finely crafted narrative, this Fonthill publication includes a rare thing in this publisher's catalogue of aircrew books - an index! It's the type of book that certainly needs one so it is pleasing to see space was allowed to include it. 


Coastal Command is not something I get to write about too often in the context of Aircrew Book Review. I am over the moon I get to now (and again in the future) and that it's from the pen of Anthony Cooper. Alongside the recent announcement of David Hobbs' latest book, we have another much anticipated literary highpoint for a rather challenging year.


Andy Wright