Archive for January, 2013

Book Review: A Grave Too Far Away – A Tribute to Australians in Bomber Command Europe

Note this photo - from the publisher's website - appers to be of an earlier version of the book, with a different subtitle to that on the copy I bought.

A Grave Too Far Away: A Tribute to Australians in Bomber Command Europe is a new book by military historian and lecturer Kathryn Spurling. Essentially the book comprises stories about many Australian aircrew who were killed in action during WWII, adding together with each name a little bit of information about their backgrounds and eventual fates. Interestingly for me, included in the book is a short paragraph or two about the crew of B for Baker, along with a photograph of my great uncle Jack.

The general intention of this book was to tell the stories of some of Australia’s Bomber Command airmen and the effects that their deaths had on the families they left behind. It was certainly a worthwhile aim, but unfortunately A Grave Too Far is somewhat let down in its execution.

The book has a definite Australian focus. This becomes quite parochial in places, with much criticism of the way that Australian airmen were placed under the unfettered control of the British. The focus continues even to the point of completely failing to mention non-Australian airmen in some crews or, as for the crew of B for Baker, relegating the names of the three Englishmen to an endnote. The author has made heavy use of records from the National Archives of Australia, predominantly files from the A9300 and A705 series (service records and casualty files). This is conceivably a reason for the lack of information on some of the other members of the crews – it’s far easier to get access to Australian service records than it is British. It is clear that Spurling has accessed and read an extraordinarily large number of files from the NAA, and she should be congratulated for that, but the result overall appears to have favoured quantity over quality. The sections where the author has had more information available from a wider range of sources are done quite well – for example those concerning Don Charlwood and her own father Max Norris – but where the NAA files were the only sources used there is little to tie the individual stories together. Consequently the book reads like an endless stream of names, facts and figures, presented in a repetitive and almost formulaic manner. As such, I must admit that it becomes rather monotonous to read at times.

Unfortunately the overall impact of the book is diminished by poor editing. In places it appears not to have been effectively proof-read at all, with confused sentences and spelling errors littered throughout and entire sentences apparently missing. There are also a number of factual errors and inconsistencies: for example, on a couple of occasions the conversion between metric and imperial weights is messed up, and more than once there is confusion between aircraft and aircrew numbers lost on the Mailly-le-Camp raid of 3 May 1944.

Kathryn Spurling’s father was a Bomber Command wireless operator (indeed, he is mentioned in the dedication). Consequently she has a close connection with the overall Bomber Command story. Perhaps here is an explanation for some of the deeper structural problems with this book. It would appear that the emotional impact of the material covered, when combined with the author’s very personal stake in the story, has gotten in the way of a more balanced result. A desire to honour as many individual Australians as possible is a noble one, but here it has interfered with the coherence and hence the quality of the narrative presented. This shows the danger of ‘history as a tribute’ – where emotion hinders the dispassionate analysis of the story and indeed affects the factual accuracy of the writing.

History is, by its nature, a very human subject, both in its making and in its telling. And humans are emotional creatures. As such, one would expect a certain amount of emotion to come out in the telling of a story like that of Bomber Command, its airmen and the families so many of them left behind. But in this case, that emotion has been allowed to influence the author too much, resulting in an apparent ‘scattergun’ approach that tries to do too much for too many different people. In the end, sadly, some of it is not done particularly well.

A Grave Too Far Away – A Tribute to Australians in Bomber Command Europe is published by New Holland Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd, ISBN 9781742571614. RRP $29.95.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Just Jane to fly again?

Twenty miles east of Lincoln lies a small village called East Kirkby. In fields nearby are the remains of a Royal Air Force Bomber Command station of the same name. It would be just one of many similar old airfields liberally scattered around Lincolnshire, except that in a corner of this one is the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre – the home of Avro Lancaster NX611, better known as Just Jane.

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I went on a taxi run on Jane during my Bomber Command ‘pilgrimage’ to the UK in April 2009. It was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip. Sitting in the wireless operator’s seat (while the desk is still there, the navigator’s seat has been removed), feeling the vibrations as the aircraft moved and hearing the roar of the engines and the hiss of pneumatic brakes as we bumped our way around a small part of the old airfield, it was very easy to close my eyes and feel just a small taste of What It Was Like.

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There has been some significant press coverage in the last couple of weeks about a possible restoration to airworthiness for Just Jane. Indeed, a report on BBC News was reportedly the most viewed and most shared video on the website the day it was released. The museum has secured four airworthy Merlin engines and is slowly gathering more parts, including an almost complete Martin mid-upper turret. Certainly it would appear that the Panton brothers are serious about getting their treasure into the air again.

But restoring another Lancaster to flying status will be a significant challenge. It took a decade to get Canadian Warplane Heritage’s Mynarski Lancaster airworthy. Just Jane is in quite good condition but there are far more regulations and requirements surrounding an airworthy aircraft than those relevant to one that stays on the ground – maintenance becomes instantly more expensive as it would need to be signed off by a licensed engineer, for example. The Pantons are reportedly planning to carry out the restoration on site at East Kirkby. As I discovered when I visited in 2009, they do already have some heroic if limited restoration work already underway on projects like a Hampden light bomber, but a Lancaster – to flying status – is in a whole new level of complexity. Obstacles like these can be overcome, given sufficient determination, but they also need piles and piles of cold hard cash. Taxi rides on Just Jane are by far the biggest attraction of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, and with Jane inaccessible for two seasons at the very least, that’s a large proportion of their revenue affected.

I don’t know the full story, and it is entirely possible (even likely, given the increase in news coverage recently) that the museum has planned and saved already towards the restoration. There are a number of static Lancasters around the world so I feel the risk of losing one in a crash, while very real, is not a reason to leave it on the ground – after all, an aeroplane’s natural environment is the sky. But there is another perhaps more philosophical reason that I think should be considered before any work is commenced.

At the moment, Just Jane provides the only opportunity in the world for members of the general public to crawl all over a Lancaster in something close to wartime configuration. Following the taxi run, you are given the complete run of the machine – sitting in each crew position (though the mid-upper turret is at the moment a shell only), clambering over the main spar, handling the bomb sight and of course manipulating the flying controls in the pilot’s seat. The point is that once the aircraft is certified for flight, it will need to comply with civil aviation regulations and as such this freedom will necessarily need to be curtailed. And having gone to the trouble and expense of returning the Lancaster to flying condition, it’s debatable whether the museum would then tolerate the additional cost and wear and tear of public ground runs.

As current EU regulations stand, flying paying passengers on the aircraft would be nearly impossible (inflexible security laws introduced in 2008 mandate things like bulletproof cockpit doors and escape slides in large aircraft carrying paying passengers, requirements that are impossible or at least extremely impracticable for vintage aircraft of this nature). And about 20 miles down the road is the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, with its own flying Lancaster, so people can already see one of the old bombers flying on a regular basis. If Just Jane does ever fly again, the very accessible opportunity for members of the public to experience being in a Lancaster with its engines running will probably be lost. As good as it would be to see two Lancasters in the air at once, I feel that, rather than simply watching another aeroplane fly past, experiencing one of Just Jane’s taxi rides is a far more effective way to give modern audiences a personal feeling of What It Was Like.

Which, for people like me, is the whole point of the exercise.

© 2013 Adam Purcell