Archive for October, 2012

Book Review: Bomber Command – Australians in World War II

 

In June the Australian Government’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs released a book called Bomber Command: Australians in World War II. Launched at the Australian War Memorial in the presence of three Bomber Command veterans, it’s DVA’s second book in a series looking at Australians and their experiences in World War II (the first looked at Greece and Crete). Dr Richard Reid, of the Department’s Commemorations Branch, was the author (though interestingly he is not credited on the front cover). A couple of weeks after the launch DVA gave a copy of the book to each of the Australian veterans who went to London for the opening of the Bomber Command memorial.

The first half of the book contains an overview of Australia’s role in Bomber Command. Starting with a description of a raid over Berlin, it goes on to cover in some detail the typical path followed by many aircrew, from enlistment to training and right through to their operational squadrons. Reid makes good use of the Australians at War Film Archive (another DVA project in which he was involved) among other resources, to build a picture of ‘what it was like’, with a focus on individual Australian airmen. Unfortunately, though a well-respected and experienced military historian, Reid is not a Bomber Command specialist, and in places it shows. For example, on p. 150 he mistakenly calls the Avro Manchester the “prototype” of the Lancaster. While the Lanc was indeed a development of the Manchester, the final product was an entirely different aircraft – ergo, not a prototype. There are also some editing errors (which I admit may not be the historian’s fault): throughout the text, altitudes are converted to metres, an annoying move that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of technical terminology (in the Western world altitudes are and have always been measured in feet, regardless of whether the country uses metric measurements elsewhere). And, unforgivably, the airfield from which the Dambusters took off on the Dams raid is misspelt as ‘Scrampton’ and, on at least two occasions, the name of Britain’s first four-engined heavy bomber is misspelt as ‘Sterling’. Though minor errors in isolation, they all add up to an overall impression of a certain amount of ‘slapdashery’.

But then you reach the imagery. The entire second half of the book is taken up by a rather impressive collection of photos and other artwork, mostly taken from the Australian War Memorial’s collections. And this part of the book is very good. There are the obligatory photos that everyone has seen before (like the one of S-Sugar being bombed up at Waddington) but there are also many that are more unusual. They cover the entire journey through Bomber Command: enlistment, training, operations and homecoming (or, for those less fortunate, burial and remembrance). It’s a good collection, reproduced in high quality and with informative and comprehensive captions.

According to the press release that accompanied the launch, the book is “an invaluable resource, helping Australians learn about the important history of Bomber Command, including stories of those who served and died”. I’d agree with almost all of that. It will certainly make many of the stories of Bomber Command more accessible to Australians in the future – and in that sense, the Department have achieved something worthwhile – but it can only be an ‘invaluable resource’ if its facts are correct. Being a Government publication, it can be seen as an official record of what happened, and therefore it needs to be done right. Their hearts were in the right place, but unfortunately it would appear that those who produced this book settled for merely ‘close enough for government work’.

Bomber Command: Australians in World War II – which is, if you can look past its problems, still worth a look simply because of the images – is available from the Australian War Memorial Online Shop

 

(c) 2012 Adam Purcell

 

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Niet weggooien!

There’s an interesting campaign underway in the Netherlands at the moment, spearheaded by a loose conglomeration of WWII museums. Called ‘Actie Niet Weggooien’ (translated to ‘Don’t Throw It Away’), the aim is to bring to light the ‘stuff’ from the war years that people might have hidden away in a box somewhere. What better place to save these historical artefacts and documents for the future, say the organisers, than in a museum?

It’s an admirable sentiment, and the campaign has brought many amazing bits and pieces out of the woodwork – the website (link above) has photos of an SS flag from a public building in Groningen, for example, and a pair of ordinary-looking scissors with a story: they were recovered during the war from the wreck of a 150 Squadron Wellington that crashed in Friesland. Both artefacts would have sat, forgotten, in a box somewhere, perhaps until their owners died and the stories associated with them had been forgotten and a little piece of history lost. But thanks to the campaign by the Dutch museums, the stories of the flag and the scissors can be shared and the history lives on.

You never really know what might still be out there undiscovered. Just recently Kerry Stokes purchased and donated to the Australian War Memorial the ‘Lost Diggers’ collection of some 3000 glass photographic plates taken in the French village of Vignacourt on the Somme. The collection had been lying in an attic of an old farmhouse once owned by the French couple who had made them – whose descendants had no idea of the historical significance of the collection. On a level a little closer to home, Leo McAuliffe’s letter recently sent to me by William Rusbridge had been hiding in a box of his late mother’s papers and was only discovered recently. Gil Thew knew of a box of letters and documents relating to his uncle Gil Pate, B for Baker’s rear gunner, but said no-one had touched it for thirty years – until I contacted him out of the blue a few years ago.

What has been lost forever, forgotten or even thrown out by people who didn’t realise what they have? And on a brighter note, what else might still be in a dusty box in an attic somewhere, waiting to be found? Each new find adds a layer to the story of these men and each layer adds to our understanding of who they were and what they did – so helping to ensure that their stories will live on.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

 

Sam Alexander

In September 1916, Private Sam Alexander, of the 9th Brigade, 34th Battalion, 3rd Division, Australian Imperial Force, began writing in a diary. Over the next three years or so he would scrawl a few lines on most days about his experiences as a soldier on the Western Front.

Two decades later, as the world was plunging into yet another global conflict, a young neighbour called Kevin Jeffcoat sat spellbound as Sam showed him spiked helmets, medals, gas masks and guns, amazing him with stories of the trenches. “It was awful, it was terrible”, Sam told him. “But it was a grand adventure!”

Kevin would eventually become a professional author, writing books like More precious than gold: An illustrated history of water in New South Wales and Burrinjuck to Balranald: The Early Days. But he also wrote an unpublished manuscript based on his memories of conversations with his childhood neighbour. Called From Kangaroo Valley to Messines Ridge: A Digger’s Diary 1917-1918, it’s a remarkable mix of transcripts of Sam Alexander’s diary entries, with context added by explanatory notes based on research and on Kevin’s own memories.

My parents live in the NSW Southern Tablelands town of Goulburn, where my father is the Principal at one of the two state high schools in the town. Dad transferred to Mulwaree High School almost two years ago, though it took a year before he and my mother moved there. When we visited them a few days after they moved into their new house at Christmas last year, Dad managed to find a little time to show me one of Mulwaree’s hidden secrets. In an unassuming little cinder block building near the school’s main entrance is the Mulwaree High School Remembrance Library.

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Started in 1992, it’s a collection of some 4,000 artefacts, photos and documents relating to local men at war, dating from Vietnam all the way back to the New Zealand-Maori War of the mid-nineteenth century. The Australian War Memorial has described it as perhaps the best collection, outside its own, of war memorabilia in Australia.

Kevin Jeffcoat’s granddaughter is a student at Mulwarree. And in August 2012 she donated to the Remembrance Library a signed copy of her grandfather’s manuscript. It is beautifully written and a fantastic resource for the school. Kevin Jeffcoat has put Sam Alexander’s story into an easily understood form and so has ensured that those stories that he was lucky enough to hear ‘from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak, will remain accessible to new generations into the future.

© 2012 Adam Purcell