Archive for November, 2017

Book Review: Barney Greatrex by Michael Veitch

Michael Veitch, I’d wager, has heard some pretty amazing stories in his time. He has, after all, filled three bestselling books with them. Flak (2007) was the first, and as Veitch writes in the introduction to that tome, “inside the head of every pilot, navigator or gunner who flew during the Second World War is at least one extraordinary story.” In Barney Greatrex, however – Veitch’s seventh book, and his fifth about aircrew in WWII – he just might have found the most astonishing story of them all.

Barney Greatrex – for that’s his name – was a 61 Squadron bomb aimer. The book begins with a good old-fashioned cliffhanger. A month after parachuting from his crashing Lancaster into occupied France, Barney witnesses the execution of a collaborator by members of the Maquis band he had become associated with. You’re drawn into the story immediately: what’s this bloke doing in France? How did he get there? What’s he doing with the Maquis? Veitch proceeds to answer those questions, and more, in his usual extremely readable fashion.

We get taken right back to the beginning, the story initially following a well-trodden path of family background, schooling, enlistment and training that is familiar to anybody who has read a book about Bomber Command aircrew. We’re 49 pages in before Barney reaches his squadron and begins flying on operations. This is not to say that the early part of the book is in any way boring. Veitch skilfully weaves explanations of things like the Empire Air Training Scheme through the narrative, and puts Barney’s experiences into the overall context of the war itself. There are one or two errors of fact (such as confusing which rudder pedal a pilot would use to cope with two engines out on one side), but generally he makes good use of the significant background knowledge that comes from countless hours and dozens of interviews with veterans conducted for his previous books, and the lifelong fascination with the aircrew of WWII that motivated those earlier projects.

The descriptions of flying during the Battle of Berlin period, and particularly of what happened following a mid-air collision over the ‘Big City’ in November 1943, are compelling reading. But then comes the fatal trip to Augsburg on 25 February 1944. Barney just manages to escape his crashing Lancaster before it hits the ground and tries to walk to freedom, but after a couple of days decides to seek help in a farmhouse he comes across – and it’s from this point that the story becomes truly incredible. Barney becomes actively involved with the French Maquis. Without giving too much away, the story involves several Resistance units, many hiding places, much cloak-and-dagger sneaking around, tense stand-offs, and somehow surviving many, many narrow squeaks. It’s the sort of stuff you used to read about in those Commando war comics (you did read Commando comics, right?) – and indeed, I found myself visualising the scenes in Commando-style black-and-white line drawings as I read the sections featuring Lieutenant Colonel Prendergrast and his merry band of ‘Jedburghs’. The difference, of course, is that the events described in Barney Greatrex actually happened.

It’s a rollicking read, one that I devoured in just two nights. The way Veitch writes – clear, respectful, occasionally awestruck – is an excellent fit for the story. When he writes how several interrogators, after Barney’s liberation, “took notes but mainly looked at him in stunned silence, mesmerised by the story of his adventure” I could easily imagine Veitch himself doing exactly that, as he researched the book.

A lot of the research for Barney Greatrex was, in fact, completed by two other men – Alex Lloyd and Angus Hordern – who, like Barney, are alumni of the exclusive Knox Grammar School in Sydney. The book has its genesis in a documentary project called For School and Country, which premiered at Knox in 2015. Veitch was approached to turn the story into the book, a task he took to with gusto.

It’d be hard not to make a good book out of the quality of source material and the bones of the story itself that Veitch had to work with, and Barney Greatrex more than lives up to the promise. It’s a very readable, informative and outright exciting book that opens up one more airman’s astonishing story to a mainstream audience.

 

Barney Greatrex: From Bomber Command to the French Resistance – the Stirring Story of an Australian Hero, Hachette Australia. ISBN 9780733637230

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

 

 

 

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The perils of oral history

There was a quite interesting article in Good Weekend, the magazine that comes with the Saturday newspaper here in Melbourne, last week. In Afghanistan, a split-second decision separates life and death is an edited extract of a new book called No Front Line by Chris Masters, who as a journalist was ‘embedded’ with Australian Special Forces units in 2006.

The article (and I suppose the book, though I haven’t read it) looks at some of the troubling issues to rise out of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan: the moral ambiguity, the culture of the Special Forces and the questions that remain over what actually happened there. It’s worth a read.

It was a little snippet contained within the article that really grabbed my attention, though. Much of the extract published in Good Weekend centres around one particular action that happened in early June 2006  in the hills around the Chora Valley, near Tarin Kowt (where one of the principle Australian bases was located). An Australian patrol made up of six men climbed up into the hills to establish a reconnaissance post overlooking the valley, which had recently been overrun by Taliban troops. “Later accounts of what occurred vary markedly,” Masters writes. Two soldiers who were involved in the incident recalled a young Afghan male, who carried nothing, approaching their position. He “looked past the OP, then walk[ed] on across their front from right to left.” Then he came back, this time carrying a bag. Sometime around here was when it was decided that the man was a danger to the soldiers at the observation post, and two of the soldiers stalked him and, in the euphemistic language of the later after-action report, “neutralised the threat.” Whether or not this shooting of an apparently unarmed man, who may or may not have been a civilian, was justified is one of the moral questions that often arises in war.

And this is where it gets interesting. One of the other soldiers involved in the incident was Lance-Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith (who would receive a  Medal for Gallantry for this action, and later a Victoria Cross for another incident). He was interviewed by an Australian War Memorial historian in 2011 about what happened on the ridgeline. “A couple of blokes just walked up, literally,” he said, “probably about two hours before dark, walked straight up to the front of the OP, got about 30 metres to the front…”

Note Roberts-Smith’s first sentence: “a couple of blokes” [my emphasis]. The presence of two potential enemies rather than just one paints the incident in a rather different light. So here we have accounts from three eyewitnesses, all soldiers who were directly involved in the action, that differ over a quite significant basic fact. Adding to the confusion, in a different, later, interview, Roberts-Smith said “an armed insurgent walked to within 30 metres” – an. A sole individual.

Which was it, really? The post-action report, written later by the patrol commander in the aftermath of the incident, identifies a single person. That, the original two soldiers’ testimony and Roberts-Smith’s later interview all agree that there was just the one Afghan who approached the observation post, so it’s likely that this is the true number. So why did Roberts-Smith apparently get it wrong when talking to the War Memorial?

I reckon that it’s most likely simply because of the way the human mind works. Roberts-Smith wrote to the AWM after the interview, setting out a few factors that could explain it: Firstly, five years had passed between the incident and recalling it in an interview. In the interim, he had been sent to Afghanistan four more times. And the interview itself was more than two hours and 40 minutes long. “It would appear,” he wrote, “I have confused my many engagements.”

And finally we get to the point. Oral history depends on memories – indeed, oral history is made up of memories. But memories are volatile things. Time can dull the stories or even remove details entirely, and experiences can, perhaps, get muddled together in retelling – even more so when, as is my experience of collecting oral histories, those doing the remembering are nonagenarians  dealing with events that took place more than seven decades ago. Memories can be manipulated, too: if you tell yourself often enough, intentionally or otherwise, that something happened, before too long you’ll believe it really did.

In short, oral histories are not particularly reliable for the bare facts of history. They remain extremely valuable sources because they are first-hand accounts of the time under study and can capture a feeling of what it was like. But make sure you check the facts against documented sources before taking them as gospel.

It’s nothing deliberate on the part of those being interviewed. It’s just the way the mind works.

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

 


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