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