Archive for the 'Books' Category

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 Instead, it’s based on personal accounts taken from interviews, transcripts and memoirs, both published and unpublished.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

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

Book Review: Bomber Command – Australians in World War II


In June the Australian Government’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs released a book called Bomber Command: Australians in World War II. Launched at the Australian War Memorial in the presence of three Bomber Command veterans, it’s DVA’s second book in a series looking at Australians and their experiences in World War II (the first looked at Greece and Crete). Dr Richard Reid, of the Department’s Commemorations Branch, was the author (though interestingly he is not credited on the front cover). A couple of weeks after the launch DVA gave a copy of the book to each of the Australian veterans who went to London for the opening of the Bomber Command memorial.

The first half of the book contains an overview of Australia’s role in Bomber Command. Starting with a description of a raid over Berlin, it goes on to cover in some detail the typical path followed by many aircrew, from enlistment to training and right through to their operational squadrons. Reid makes good use of the Australians at War Film Archive (another DVA project in which he was involved) among other resources, to build a picture of ‘what it was like’, with a focus on individual Australian airmen. Unfortunately, though a well-respected and experienced military historian, Reid is not a Bomber Command specialist, and in places it shows. For example, on p. 150 he mistakenly calls the Avro Manchester the “prototype” of the Lancaster. While the Lanc was indeed a development of the Manchester, the final product was an entirely different aircraft – ergo, not a prototype. There are also some editing errors (which I admit may not be the historian’s fault): throughout the text, altitudes are converted to metres, an annoying move that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of technical terminology (in the Western world altitudes are and have always been measured in feet, regardless of whether the country uses metric measurements elsewhere). And, unforgivably, the airfield from which the Dambusters took off on the Dams raid is misspelt as ‘Scrampton’ and, on at least two occasions, the name of Britain’s first four-engined heavy bomber is misspelt as ‘Sterling’. Though minor errors in isolation, they all add up to an overall impression of a certain amount of ‘slapdashery’.

But then you reach the imagery. The entire second half of the book is taken up by a rather impressive collection of photos and other artwork, mostly taken from the Australian War Memorial’s collections. And this part of the book is very good. There are the obligatory photos that everyone has seen before (like the one of S-Sugar being bombed up at Waddington) but there are also many that are more unusual. They cover the entire journey through Bomber Command: enlistment, training, operations and homecoming (or, for those less fortunate, burial and remembrance). It’s a good collection, reproduced in high quality and with informative and comprehensive captions.

According to the press release that accompanied the launch, the book is “an invaluable resource, helping Australians learn about the important history of Bomber Command, including stories of those who served and died”. I’d agree with almost all of that. It will certainly make many of the stories of Bomber Command more accessible to Australians in the future – and in that sense, the Department have achieved something worthwhile – but it can only be an ‘invaluable resource’ if its facts are correct. Being a Government publication, it can be seen as an official record of what happened, and therefore it needs to be done right. Their hearts were in the right place, but unfortunately it would appear that those who produced this book settled for merely ‘close enough for government work’.

Bomber Command: Australians in World War II – which is, if you can look past its problems, still worth a look simply because of the images – is available from the Australian War Memorial Online Shop


(c) 2012 Adam Purcell


Bomber Command – Failed to Return

I have just received a new book called Bomber Command – Failed to Return. From Fighting High Publishing in the UK, it contains eleven chapters, written by six different authors, each chapter concentrating on the story of a particular airman or crew who failed to return from operations. I was one of the contributing authors, writing a chapter profiling rear gunner Gilbert Pate. Keen eyes might also recognise the photograph that appears on the cover of the book. It is, of course, the only known photo of the entire crew of 467 Sqn Lancaster LM475, B for Baker.

This is the first time I’ve written anything for publication in an actual book, and it was rather exciting to spy on my front step the package containing my copy, open it up and see the front cover, with my name one of the six underneath the title. I’m also stoked that Steve chose the crew photograph for the cover. Its prominent position (and there’s a full double-page spread of it inside too) means that the story of B for Baker and her crew can now reach an even wider audience.

I am indebted to Gil and Peggy Thew, the nephew and sister of Gilbert Pate, who extremely graciously allowed me full access to and use of Gilbert’s papers for this project. Much of my chapter was based on those letters and reading them all gave me a very good idea of who the man was. I can only hope that in what I’ve written I’ve done justice to Gilbert’s story.

Steve says the book has received some very good feedback in the UK already, and there was a launch event in early September at Duxford, attended by among others two of the airmen who feature in the book. If you’ll excuse the blatant plug, copies of Bomber Command – Failed to Return are available from the Book Depository, or direct from the publisher.

© 2011 Adam Purcell