Archive for the 'Books' Category

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





Book Review: From the Top of the Hill, by Kevin Peoples

Jack Peoples was nobody particularly unusual. One day in August 1915 the 18-year-old farmhand from country Victoria walked with his younger brother up a small rise near the family property. Leaving the younger boy at the top of the hill, he walked down the other side and into the nearby town of Mortlake to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force. He never came back, killed in action in France with no known grave.

The story was a familiar backdrop when a man named Kevin Peoples grew up. Sitting by the fire with his brother and sister, he would ask his father – who had been the boy who watched from the top of that hill as his brother Jack walked away – to “tell us about the day Uncle Jack went to war, Dad”. Aware of the shadow that the memory had cast on his father’s life, and aware of how little he knew beyond that oft-related vignette, Kevin would, after his father’s death, embark on a life-long journey to find the story of his lost uncle.

The result is a little blue self-published book named, appropriately, From the Top of the Hill, which I discovered after Tony Wright wrote about it in the Saturday paper a few months ago. It’s not a long book (I read it in a single afternoon), but it is a deeply heartfelt and honest account.


Peoples breaks the book into three sections. The first is the shortest at just four pages and tells his father’s story, writing about how the “dark, solemn presence of Jack lived on the wall in the corner, directly above my father’s chair.” Oh how I can relate to that concept. The second bit (twelve pages) is what perhaps you’d expect from a self-published book like this: a reasonably straight account of what Peoples knows of Jack’s life. But it’s what comes next, and what makes up the remaining 45-odd pages of the book, that is what sets this little story apart.

Starting with watching his university history lecturer breaking down in tears when trying to describe the horror of what happened at Pozieres, Peoples explains how he came to understand something of what his father felt when thinking of Jack. He visits what’s left of the old homestead to which Jack never returned, describing how “the sad old ghosts of my people have come out to welcome us”. He searches in dusty files at the Central Army Records Office (this was in 1977, pre-National Archives of Australia online catalogues) for something tangible of his uncle’s life. He visits France, twice, and he watches as the Unknown Australian Soldier is entombed at the Australian War Memorial in 1993, feeling somehow that the man in the coffin is Jack even while knowing it’s pretty well impossible. “That’s the wonderful thing about being unknown”, he writes. “…we can all name him and claim him as our own.”

There are occasional little things that betray the book’s self-published origins: one or two typesetting errors, one photograph that’s been printed upside down, and some inconsistent editing: I’m not a fan of the way Peoples mixes the present tense with the past tense. But From the Top of the Hill is for the most part beautifully written, and occasionally reaches the eloquence of poetry. “I see a letter signed by my grandfather, which I push to one side and instead start writing down all the dates and statistics,” Peoples writes of viewing Jack’s files at the Central Army Records Office. “As I write I become conscious of an old brown couch, an open fire, long legs resting on the sides of the fireplace and a hill with a young boy sitting and watching his brother walk away.”

What’s clear is that Peoples realises the importance of place when trying to understand history. The description of his first return to the ruins of the family homestead hints of an even darker history to that place, nearby which 35 or more Aboriginals had been massacred in 1839. His first visit to France, in 1998, left him feeling like there was an “unease insisting this matter of Jack and me was not yet finished.” (Funnily enough, I can relate to that feeling too.) So he returned to France a decade later – and you’re going to have to read the book to find out what happens there.

I found From the Top of the Hill a sad but lovely tale, well-told. I can very much relate to several aspects of Kevin Peoples’ search for ‘Uncle Jack’, to his sense of story and place and to the way an old family story like this one can embed itself in your bones and not let go. Well worth a read.


From the Top of the Hill (ISBN 9780994570307) is available as a print-on-demand title from BookPOD Australia, $19.95


(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

Guest Reviewer

It’s been a bit quiet around these parts recently.

There have been several distractions in recent months, both Bomber Command-related and outside. A few things have changed. But never fear – I’m still here, and I continue to write, read, and interview my way across the Bomber Command universe.

Occasionally I even get asked to write things for other people – like this article, just in time for Christmas, for my good friend Andy Wright. It’s a review of Norman Franks’ new book Veteran Lancs, and you can find it on Andy’s website Aircrew Book Review.

Thanks for your support of SomethingVeryBig, have a wonderful Christmas and, all going well, normal service will resume here early next year.


Lancaster Men at the Shrine

Peter Rees, author of the highly successful book Lancaster Men, delivered a talk about his book tonight at the Shrine of Remembrance here in Melbourne..

Peter Rees signing copies of his book

Despite the shocking weather there was a good-sized audience of perhaps 100 people present, all of whom listened in some awe to a very thorough presentation which covered the main themes of the book and told some good stories. Peter made certain to mention that Lancaster Men was his publisher’s choice for a title, not his – there were, as he rightly points out, other aircraft flown by Australians in Bomber Command! He told some stories from ‘behind the scenes’ of researching and writing the book, like Ted Pickerd, a 463 Squadron veteran who  who greatly assisted Peter’s research before he died last year. They would meet weekly at the Australian War Memorial to pore through documents and archives together, Ted still being in possession of his navigator’s eye for detail and accuracy coming to the fore. He also said that since publication the book has received strong support, so much so that it’s now on its third print run (and indeed the Shrine shop ran out of copies of the book tonight, like the Australian War Memorial did during the Bomber Command weekend in Canberra in June), and as a direct result of writing it he has received so many further stories from people who have read the book that he is planning a follow-up volume in a couple of years time.

A lively discussion followed the talk, with Dresden getting much of the attention – and, incredibly, adding their input from the audience were four Bomber Command veterans, three of whom had in fact been on the Dresden trip and who could add recollections of what they were told at briefing for that raid. That added a very personal, and quite immediate, touch to the discussion at hand.

Someone mistook me for an official photographer and asked me to organise a group photo of Peter with, yes, the Lancaster Men.

13Nov-Shrine+MEL 025small

Left to right, we have Len Swettnam (a bomb aimer),  Gerald McPherson (rear gunner), Peter Rees (author),  John Wyke (another rear gunner), and Gordon Laidlaw (pilot).

Peter cites the lack of recognition given to Bomber Command and especially its returning veterans at the end of the war as one of the reasons he wrote his book. This event, of course, tied in with the Bomber Command exhibition which is now showing at the Shrine. And next week at the Shrine will be a panel discussion with, among others, Peter Isaacson, perhaps one of Australia’s most well-known Bomber Command airmen. It’s all evidence of the increase in awareness of Bomber Command in recent times.

At least a little bit of the credit for that should go to Peter himself. His very readable book has made some of the extraordinary stories of the ordinary airmen of Bomber Command accessible to a mass audience. That can only be a good thing, if the stories are to live on.

Bring on Volume Two!

The Shrine has placed a podcast of Peter’s talk on their website. The download is here.

(c) 2013 Adam Purcell

EVENT: Lancaster Men – a talk by author Peter Rees at the Shrine, Melbourne, 28 November 2013

I reviewed Peter Rees’ book Lancaster Men: The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Command on SomethingVeryBig back in May, and I reckon it’s one of the better Australian books about Bomber Command to come out in the last few years. As part of a number of Bomber Command-focused events scheduled at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne over the last few months of 2013, Rees will deliver a talk about his book at the end of November:

Date: Thursday 28 November 2013

Time: 17:30 for 18:00

Cost: Free, but a gold coin donation is welcome.

Bookings are essential and can be made online via this page.


EVENT: Flak – a talk by author Michael Veitch at the Shrine, Melbourne, 23 October 2013

Australian author, comedian and journalist Michael Veitch’s life-long obsession with the aeroplanes of WWII and the men who flew them manifested itself a few years back in a fantastic couple of books. Flak, published in 2006, and Fly, from two years later, are remarkable collections of short stories based on interviews that Veitch carried out with about a range of airmen who flew in many and varied parts of the Royal Australian Air Force (among them Pat Kerrins) – and even includes a couple of former Luftwaffe pilots who moved to Australia after the war.

The Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne will host a talk by Michael Veitch about his books and some of the airmen he interviewed later this month:

Date: 23 October 2013

Time: 5:30pm for a 6.00pm start

Cost: Free, but a gold coin donation appreciated.

For bookings, or for more information, follow this link.

Unfortunately I’m unable to attend this talk, but if anyone does, please leave a message here afterwards to let us know how it went.

Book Review: Lancaster Men: The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Command, by Peter Rees

Published in April this year, Lancaster Men: The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Command is a new book by Australian journalist and author Peter Rees. It’s one of many books by Australian authors to be published on the subject over the last few years, and I think it’s one of the better ones.

Inspired by the stories told to him by Kathie Pickerd, daughter of Ted, a 463 Squadron navigator and later one of Australia’s highest-ranking Air Force officers, Rees began interviewing a large number of Bomber Command veterans and came to realise, he says, “that history had treated them harshly. It was time for their stories to be told in their own words.” The book, then, does not claim to be a definitive account of Australia’s role in Bomber Command – the Official Histories take care of that. Instead, it’s based on personal accounts taken from interviews, transcripts and memoirs, both published and unpublished. The result is a more or less chronological account of the experiences of Australians in Bomber Command, from enlistment to operations and from the earliest bombing raids to Dresden and beyond, as seen by those who were there. Given the vast spread of the campaign, over time, over different units and over a large geographical area, this is an appropriate way to look at things, though the concentration on Australians sometimes omits the airmen of other nationalities who flew in the same crews.

Rees’ journalistic talent is evident in his vivid descriptions and the book is well-written in an engaging style. The focus on the personal shows in the way that he tends to use first names for the main ‘storytellers’ throughout his book, and in some of the stories of off-duty life in wartime England, which arguably were as much a part of the experience of Australians in Bomber Command as the operational trips themselves. He also covers some interesting ground looking at life under the bombs – notably the effects of the 22 November 1943 raid to Berlin, which caused a tiger to escape from the zoo. The beast “made its way to the Café Josty, gobbled up a pastry and promptly [fell] down dead. […] Although nearly all the major hotels had been wrecked, the premier hotel of the Third Reich, the Adlon, survived relatively intact, but it had no heating and could muster up only cold cuts and potato salad.” (p.138) Stories like these add life to the history and are an important reminder that there were indeed people in those cities too.

There is a good section putting D-Day in the context of the war in general, and Bomber Command’s operations in the context of that (Chapter 26 and on and particularly p.242-243), and a very interesting discussion of the politics between Australia and Britain when dealing with Australian bomber crews, as evidenced by a ‘manpower fiddle’ that left 463 and 467 Squadrons short of aircrew in April 1944, when the British wanted to avoid disadvantaging RAF squadrons after the Australians demanded tour-expired airmen be sent home to fly against the Japanese (p.181 and on).

And then we get to Dresden, for which Rees says the reputation of the airmen has been unfairly tarnished. He is at great pains to note that it was not Arthur Harris who chose Dresden as a target (despite his copping much of the blame in the aftermath of the war), but Churchill (p.342). Rees’ sympathies clearly lie with the airmen but he gives, in my view, a reasonably balanced examination of the politics of the raid, explaining the origins of the inflated casualty figures and looking at the Dresden Stadt Museum to see current German views on the issue. The airmen who took part, he argues, “have had to wear the blame for the destruction wrought on the city for far too long due to their political leaders distancing themselves from responsibility.” (p. 356)

The only problem with Lancaster Men is that Rees is a journalist, not necessarily a historian. As a result historical rigour is not necessarily always present and he tends to take quotes directly from secondary sources without checking the original documents for accuracy. For example, he quotes the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book but cites another book (Dan Conway’s The Trenches in the Sky) as its source. He also takes figures for aircraft losses on the 10 May 1944 Lille raid directly from Rollo Kingsford-Smith’s memoirs without cross-checking with the ORBs… and so perpetuates the error that seven aircraft were lost on that trip from 463 and 467 Squadrons (it was only six – the mistake probably has its genesis in Nobby Blundell’s Squadron histories). He gets the figure right on a later page but the contradiction hasn’t raised any flags in the editing phase. Errors like these are an occupational hazard when dealing with personal accounts of history, particularly when those accounts were created upwards of seventy years after the events described, so it would have been nice to see a little more cross-referencing occurring.

But otherwise Peter Rees has painted a vivid picture of life as an Australian in Bomber Command. Lancaster Men is well-written, engaging, shocking, exciting, funny and sad, and well worth a read.

Lancaster Men (ISBN 9781741752076) is published by Allen & Unwin, and retails for AU$32.99.

An interview with Peter Rees, as broadcast on Radio National on ANZAC Day 2013, is available for download here.

(c) 2013 Adam Purcell