Book Review: The Boy with Only One Shoe

It’s a familiar sort of story:

World War II begins. At first, the boy is too young, but he enlists in aircrew the instant he turns 18. Basic training follows and he’s awarded an aircrew brevet. Then comes operational training, crewing up, converting onto big four-engined bombers. The new crew joins a squadron, flies on operations and has one or two close calls. Then the war ends.

Call it a fairly standard career for a surviving member of Bomber Command. With greater or lesser degrees of variation, stories like this have been told in countless books over the years. Yes – the story of John Henry Meller, in the new book The Boy with Only One Shoe, follows much the same arc.


But what’s notable about this book is that it’s been published in 2020, seven and a half decades since the end of the war. It’s the rarest of rare things: a recently-written first-hand account by a Bomber Command airman. There just aren’t many veterans left alive these days, let alone ones who still have the drive and skill to vividly write a story about events of so long ago – and then publish it.     

To be clear, Meller’s daughter, Caroline Brownbill, a former airline pilot, is credited as a co-author. It’s not clear how much of the work is hers, but that doesn’t matter. The narrative is cohesive and in a consistent voice. Brownbill is also, it seems, doing a lot of the publicity work around the release of the book, which was self-published via Amazon in May 2020. The authors are planning to donate proceeds from sales of the book to the RAF Benevolent Fund, and Meller signs and writes a personal message on virtually every copy they sell, which is a nice touch.

John Henry Meller served as a wireless operator with 149 Squadron, flying operations on Lancasters from February 1945. That experience, and all the bits and pieces that go with it, necessarily forms the core of The Boy with Only One Shoe. But this book has so much more to offer too. The early sections about growing up in the English town of Warrington in the 1920s and 30s are detailed, and the descriptions of life as a teenage civilian in the early years of the war are full of life. Post-war, Meller remained in the Royal Air Force for a few years, and there are some very interesting sections about postings to exotic places like Egypt and Libya.

His personal recollections are great, and include some unusual details. I knew that RAF recruits, undergoing basic training in London, ate their meals in a restaurant at London Zoo, for example, but I didn’t know that while there they were also told that they would be responsible for “protecting or detaining” any of the zoo animals that might escape as a result of air raid damage. There’s also one of the better descriptions of the training and operational role of the wireless operator that I’ve seen in an aircrew memoir.

These are the sorts of details that you can’t easily get from official files and archives – you really need the recollections of someone who was there. There’s a fascinating discussion of a lecture attended during Meller’s wireless operator course, during which it was clearly communicated to the trainees exactly what risk they were taking by becoming aircrew. The fatality rate in Bomber Command at the time, they were explicitly told, was 46%. Common knowledge now, of course, and certainly by the time a crew had been on a squadron for a few months they would have been well aware of the ‘chop rate’, but this is the first time that I’ve heard of aircrew being directly told about it while still in training. It makes their decisions to continue that training all the more courageous. 

The Boy with Only One Shoe – the significance of the title is explained in a short introductory section in the book – came about after Meller’s son in law persuaded him to write about his wartime experiences, primarily for his grand-daughter. The book is therefore pitched at an audience that may not have much understanding of Bomber Command and the context into which it fitted. Meller provides a lot of that context with explanations of what was going on in the wider conflict at the time, and while some of these bits aren’t done as well as the parts of the story based on his own experiences, he nevertheless manages to successfully weave his own story into the wider one.

My only criticisms about the book are, I think, a direct result of its self-published roots. The story is great and the writing is engaging, but in some ways the execution doesn’t do the story all the justice it deserves. Editing can be hit and miss, with the occasional superfluous punctuation and, on one occasion, “where” used in place of “were”. There are one or two minor errors in terminology that probably should have been picked up, too: cumulonimbus clouds are called “Cumulus Nimbus” on p.175, for example. Formatting inside is a little inconsistent, particularly when dealing with block quotes. There is a contents page, but it’s not very useful: it only lists “Chapter 1”, “Chapter 2” and so on, despite all the chapters being individually titled. The cover – though attention-grabbing with an illustration of a Lancaster with an engine on fire – is printed on cheap stock and is not very hardy. My copy marked too easily, copping several dings from one or two trips in my bag.

Don’t get me wrong: I really liked this book, and Amazon’s global reach makes it very accessible to the widest possible audience. But it’s a great shame that this story was not picked up by a traditional publisher, who might have had the expertise to overcome the few niggles I had with it.  

Putting that to one side, though, The Boy with Only One Shoe is a good read. It’s honest, engaging and true to life – and it’s a never-before-heard Bomber Command story, written by someone who was there. Well recommended.

ISBN 9781838046705 –

Available from Amazon.

The authors sent me a review copy for this article, which was originally written for Aircrew Book Review.

© 2020 Adam Purcell

In which Adam ‘flies’ a Link Trainer

It’s shaped like a stubby little aeroplane, with comically short wings and a tail. It’s not very big: inside is seating accommodation for a single occupant only. When in use, it rotates and pitches and rolls on air-operated bellows and if you’re unfamiliar with this machine you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for one of those coin-operated children’s rides you find in dreary suburban shopping centres.

Though for a while a coin-operated amusement is exactly what it was, this 90-year-old piece of technology is actually a highly sophisticated simulator. It is, of course, a Link Trainer, and last weekend, I got the chance to try one.

Edwin Link – the man who designed the machine – did so using expertise gained from his previous career as an organ builder. Hence the bellows. In 1931, the world wasn’t quite ready for the leap in sophistication that the simulator represented. That’s why for several years the only models that Link managed to sell were the aforementioned coin-operated varieties for amusement parks. But when a number of pilots were killed flying air mail in the US in the mid 1930s, the Link Trainer’s potential as an instrument flight trainer became clear. When the Second World War erupted, the little simulator truly came into its own. More than 10,000 were built; apparently at its peak one rolled off the production line every 45 minutes.

Open the logbook of any World War II pilot and you will almost certainly find that they spent considerable time in a contraption just like this one. It seems to have been the custom at Australian training schools to add an extra column in one’s logbook to record time in the Trainer on the same pages as real-life flying, but once pilots got to the UK they transitioned to what was evidently the RAF way of doing things, dedicating entire pages in the back of the book to time in the simulator and leaving the main section of the book to the real aeroplanes. But relegating time in the simulator to a forgotten section at the back of a logbook seems rather like selling it short. This little box-on-bellows played a crucial role in pilot training, allowing the realistic simulation of instrument flying and procedures, at a much cheaper cost than flying in a real aeroplane, and at virtually no risk to life and limb.   

The operating Link Trainer that I had a go in is part of the excellent Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre in western Victoria. NAHC volunteers Wes and Trevor explained things as we moved around the hangar, and after looking at the Anson they have under restoration, the exquisite Wirraway parked in a corner and an airworthy Tiger Moth, eventually we ended up standing next to the trainer. We chatted here for several minutes before Trevor casually asked me if I had any flying experience.

NAHC volunteer Trevor with the Link Trainer

Well, yes, I admitted. But it was a looong time ago now.

That didn’t seem to matter. “Would you like a go in the Link?” he asked me.

I didn’t have to be asked twice.

Adam in the Link (Photo: Rachel McIntosh)

Trevor flicked a few switches on the outside of the machine while I climbed in. It took a little while for the valves to warm up – there’s nothing digital about this thing, everything’s electro-mechanical or pneumatic. I looked around the cockpit while I waited. The pilot’s seat is padded leather and the control stick is a big piece of turned wood that falls naturally to hand. My feet rested on flimsy-looking rudder pedals on the floor. In front of me was a wooden instrument panel with a standard ‘six pack’ of dials like you’d find in any aeroplane of the era, with a big artificial horizon in the middle. There was a throttle lever on the left wall of the cockpit and a compass between my knees, in the manner of a Tiger Moth or a Spitfire. There was even a Morse key mounted on the right-hand side. It was a reasonably comfortable little cockpit.

Link Trainer cockpit (Photo: Rachel McIntosh)

Once the instruments started indicating things, Trevor turned on the compressor that powers the simulator’s motion, released two stabilising metal strips, and I was away. The whole machine wobbled immediately, like it was floating on air – which, I suppose, on those bellows, it pretty well was. I started off carefully, with the hood open, getting a feel for how the controls moved and how the simulator responded. Before too long, though, I started pushing the envelope a bit, pitching the nose up and down as far as it would go and, somewhat more tentatively, rolling from one side to the other. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that it took me a while to realise that if I pushed the rudder pedals far enough, the Link would spin around – I later discovered that if I’d tried it, I’d have been able to rotate through a full 360 degrees.

As you will see if you watch this video, I had a grin from ear to ear. It was great fun! But it also wasn’t the point. The Link Trainer wasn’t for fun. It was a trainer, designed to allow pilots to learn and practice instrument flying so they could go flying in cloud without killing themselves. I wanted to get the full effect, so I asked Trevor if I could close up the hood. He nodded. So I did.

It was very dark under the hood (he says, obviously). The only illumination, apart from a tiny bit of light that leaked around the base of the hood, came from a pair of lights mounted on either side of the cockpit, bathing the instrument panel in a dim orange light. It was consequently not much of a challenge to concentrate on the instruments: there was nothing else to look at. With the vacuum pump running it almost sounded like a jet inside; the air flowing through the pipes made a reasonable approximation of a slipstream flowing past the fuselage. There was some ungainly wobbling, but I managed to fly something resembling straight and level for a little while, and even made some more-or-less coordinated turns. I was concentrating so hard I started sweating, but I was still grinning widely. It really did feel like flying.

Though Jack Purcell did start out on a pilot’s course, he was fairly rapidly scrubbed from that and remustered as a navigator. Presumably there was a Pilot’s Logbook that recorded his flying training but it hasn’t survived so I don’t know if he ever got into a Link Trainer. But his pilot Phil Smith certainly did, and it was towards him that my thoughts turned as I bounced around in the Link cockpit. It wasn’t much, but I could feel a distinct connection reaching back through the decades to him. For a moment, I could feel just a tiny bit of what these people experienced.

Then I opened the hood and got out again.

Thanks to my partner Rachel for the video and some of the photos in this post. She had a go in the Link too. Let’s just say I’m not a very good flying instructor and leave it at that, eh?!

The Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre is open on weekends or by appointment. See their Facebook page for the most up to date information.

© 2020 Adam Purcell