Flying Into the Mouth of Hell
Laurie Woods DFC.
Published by Boolarong Press
I will admit that although I have a fascination with Australian military history the main focus of that fascination has always laid with the Army, and predominately the Australian Army in World War 1. If you were to ask me a question about the Australian involvement in Bomber Command during World War 2 I couldn’t tell you much. That was until I read ‘Flying Into the Mouth of Hell’ and I now have a better understanding of that part of our history.
I was walking through my local shopping centre when I saw an elderly gentleman in a crisp blue suit and a row of medal across his chest and some books on the table in front of him. Maybe it was the fact that I, too, have sat outside that very bookshop meeting people and signing books, or maybe it was the fact that I always enjoy speaking to our returned servicemen and women, but I had to stop and say G’day.
The elderly gentleman in question was Mr Laurie Woods DFC, a bomb aimer in an Avro Lancaster Bomber as part of the Australian 460 Squadron of Bomber Command in 1944. He had four books on the table in front of him, but ‘Flying Into the Mouth of Hell’ is his personal story and so it’s the one I chose.
One negative before I get too far into it, and it really is an insignificant negative in the scheme of things. The editing and proof-reading really could have been a bit more thorough, and I say this as an author whose own work requires the finest-toothed comb in existence to be put through his own work. But as you’re following Mr Woods on a bombing mission and the tension grows as the target approaches, coming across a randomly placed coma or full stop in the middle of a sentence can be a little distracting. But as I say, it is an insignificant thing overall.
The book follows the story of the author from the moment he decides he’s going to join the Air Force, through his initial training in Australia, America and England and then onto his operational flights over war-torn Europe. It is told in the style which you would expect if you’ve ever had the privilege of speaking with these veterans, it’s a non-sensational, honest, ‘this is what we did and it was nothing special’ kind of fashion. There are no pretentions towards heroism, just ordinary men doing the job which was required of them. Mr Woods doesn’t shy away from expressing the fear which all the aircrew experience, nor the relief when finally back on friendly soil.
This book provides an insight into the day to day lives of these aircrew from the moment they return from a mission to when they load up to head out, often on the same day, to go and do it all again. The author also describes the ways in which he attempted to find some peace in the brief periods of rest he was allowed while on operational duties, and the compassionate English women who helped a young Australian to forget the war for a short while.
Mr Woods records each of the thirty two operational flights he participated in. The more ‘uneventful’ missions are covered in a couple of paragraphs while the larger raids are covered in full detail and cover areas such as the amount of flak they were flying through, communications between pilot and crew, near misses and witnessing yet another Lancaster plummeting to the Earth in flames. On most occasions he even records the coordinates which they flew and the bombload which they carried for each raid. Where available he has included the toll each raid took on the ground in number of building destroyed and lives lost.
And to ensure the full story of a bomb crew member’s experience is recorded he has also included extracts from reports from other crews, including the story of one Australian who bailed out over enemy territory and, for a while, joined the German soldiers who were searching for him before ducking down a side street, unnoticed and eventually making contact with the Dutch Resistance.
He describes the matter-of-fact way in which they accepted the regular loss of friends as each mission took more and more of them away. But he also shows his humanity with some quick references to a Commanders efforts to remove the term ‘Lacking Moral Fibre’ from personnel reports of crew members who could no longer summon the nerve to climb into their aircraft and head over occupied Europe. Apparently if you were in your early 20’s, had already taken part in fifteen to twenty to twenty five missions and seen countless friends and acquaintances blown out of the sky and you could no longer take the strain, you lacked moral fibre. Unbelievable.
Mr Wood’s operational flying ended with a memorable final flight, reminiscent of the American Flying Fortress ‘The Memphis Belle’ and the battering they took in their final mission. But unlike the Americans, we never made a movie about Mr Wood’s experience on his final flight. To find out what happened, and how he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for “an act or acts of valour and courage or devotion to duty performed whilst flying in active operations against the enemy”, you’ll have to buy the book and I highly recommend that you do so. Although it’s not likely to win a Pulitzer Prize for flowing, flowery prose, it will give you an insight into the lives of a group of men to who we all owe a great deal of gratitude.
Available at Amazon, Angus and Robinson, Booktopia.com.au, Dymocks and Fishpond.com.au.