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.