Book Review – Flying Into the Mouth of Hell

 

Flying Into the Mouth of Hell

Laurie Woods DFC.

Published by Boolarong Press

Flying Into the Mouth of Hell Laurie Woods DFC

 

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.

Why Write Historical Fiction

Well work is well and truly under way on my next book. Not to give much away but it will be another historical fiction novel, this time centering around a handful of battles which involved Australians in the Boer War, or more correctly the Anglo-Boer War.

The hardest part about historical fiction is getting the history right. In my opinion if the details are not accurate for the time, then all you’ve written is a novel set in a previous time and there is nothing historical about that. But that need for accuracy comes as at a price – first you have to find the detail.

Of course in many historical events the written record is vast and an author can just pick and choose the interesting bits and pieces according to how it all fits with the story they’re attempting to tell. But these events have more than likely been picked over many times before and their stories told in all sorts of different way. So because of this, and through some sort of masochistic desire to make life as hard as possible for myself, I like to seek out the lesser known stories, and unfortunately the records on these events can be hard to track down.

With my main area of interest being Australian military history, particularly our earlier involvement in foreign wars, there is an added complication. Up until mid 1918 Australian troops were considered to be a part of the British Army. This was the case also during the Boer War which erupted in 1899, two years before there was even a Federated Australia. The various colonies sent their own contingents over to South Africa and were absorbed into the British Army, fortunately keeping their own unit identity or tracking their exploits could prove near impossible. The problem with this arrangement is that the English chroniclers tended to cover all actions as being conducted by ‘British’ forces, when in fact they may have been undertaken by Australians, Canadians or Rhodesians. And so locating the right details can sometimes be frustrating.

So why do it? Why not just write fiction with no real base in fact?

Simply the truth is always more interesting than just straight fiction. Stories based on true events have more impact because the ‘that’s a bit far fetched’ factor that can creep into fiction is not there. It may sound far fetched, but it happened, and history is full of these moments. And it’s only through the research, the pouring through pages and pages of seemingly insignificant detail, that the true story emerges. There have been a few occasions when the direction I’ve had in mind for a particular character or story line has been changed by some small detail I’ve stumbled across and felt that I couldn’t possibly leave out.

And sometimes the best thing about writing historical fiction is the random events that the research can take you to yourself. A perfect example of that happened just this weekend. I had recently joined the Victoria Barracks Military History Society and asked them if they had any information relating to Queensland Units in the Boer War. Before I knew it I was contacted by Miles Farmer, former Commanding Officer of the 2/14 Queensland Mounted Infantry Regiment and a man with a deep passion for the Regiment, which had it’s genesis in the Qld Shearer’s Strike and served throughout the Boer War, and is still alive today in the form of 2/14 Lighthorse Regiment QMI. I got to spend a wonderful couple of hours with Miles and his wife Mavis, and he had prepared so much information for me to take away, from maps to photocopies of pages from the Official History and down to his own photos of visits to the area I’m particularly interested in for my next book. An absolute privilege for a bloke like me.

So in a nutshell that’s why I chose to write  historical fiction. The researching takes me through the lives of real people from history doing things which they probably didn’t think were particularly remarkable, but which I find fascinating. I learn so much about our history as well, which keeps driving me to find out even more. And best of all it allows me to meet some amazing people as I go.

Miles Farmer, a true gentleman and wealth of knowledge on Aussies in the Boer War
Miles Farmer, a true gentleman with a wealth of knowledge on Aussies in the Boer War

Lead By Example My Compatriots

Well here we are, the campaigning is over, votes are cast and mostly counted and we’re all still up in the air as to who will be the Chief Ring Master down in the Great Canberra Circus. So what do we do while we wait for the announcement of the final outcome? Some of us choose to wait patiently, basically happy with the fact that it looks like neither of the Clown Troupes will be able to form a majority government. But it seems that not everyone will take that approach, and as a result I’ve had one of those light bulb moments. Let me explain.

Sitting back and watching the end of the election coverage on Saturday eve, it became apparent that the result was going to be close. Neither party would be able to walk away from this without some soul searching. Or so I thought. Shorten claims some kind of victory in that they pulled back a lot of seats from the LNP, while Turnbull jumps up and basically insinuates that the only reason they got such a poor vote was because we, the great un-washed, fell for Labor’s scare campaign of lies etc, etc, etc.

As I sat watching Turnbull, the lead ball of disillusion hit ground zero somewhere around the pit of my stomach. Despite the poor percentage of votes achieved, neither of them managed to take it as a message from the voters of Australia. They still don’t seem to realise that a very large majority of Australians don’t like the way politics is done by our current crop of professional politicians. They don’t respect the voice or intelligence of the average Australian. Why?

Well that leads us to my light bulb moment. I often find that the best way to get a feel for the thoughts of the average person on the street is to read through the online opinion pieces where people basically get to state their point of view, safe behind the shield of on-line anonymity. The ABC’s Drum is one such forum which can be quite enlightening, but also to some degree are the more public forums like Facebook. Sure if you use your real name on Facebook people will know your opinion but if they disagree the worst they’ll do is ‘un-friend’ you, so what’s to lose. And it’s in these forums that I have discovered why the politicians have no respect for the opinions of Australians. It’s because we, the citizens of this great country, seem to have no respect for the opinion of the other citizens of this great country, if that opinion differs in any way to theirs.

Have a look through any forum where people are putting up their thoughts and you’ll see what I’m on about. Apparently if person X doesn’t like a particular candidate but person Y does, then based on nothing more than the notion that person X’s opinion must be right because person X believes it, person Y must be a moron, uneducated, an imbecile. There appears that, in the deepest parts of people’s psyche, there is no room for differing opinions.

A quick glance will show an absolute smorgasbord of invective against those who have voted for Hanson, Hinch, Lambie or any of the more notable candidates as well as the usual back and forth between rusted on Liberal and Labor voters. This invective seems to ignore one fundamental principle – these people were elected by a majority vote. I think they call that democracy don’t they? And isn’t that the whole point?

You may or may not support the policies of any of the candidates and as your opinion is based upon your own life experience that is a valid opinion. But that doesn’t make you the sole proprietor of the right opinion. Let’s take one of the more divisive issues going around that the moment, Muslim immigration, as an example.

Spending your life in your nice comfortable inner city environment, occasionally coming into contact with a down-to-earth, compassionate and tolerant Muslims will entitle you to your view that there is no conceivable risk to allowing an influx of Islamic immigration. And that’s fine, that’s your opinion based upon your life experience.

But what if that’s not your life experience? What if, as a young 21-22 year old you joined the Army (no this is not me) and were sent overseas to Islamic countries where you potentially witness the stoning deaths of ‘dishonourable’ women in the name of Allah, or at least the end result of that stoning, or you’ve seen the long line of executed young men who just happened to worship a different form of Islam. Of course you’re going to have a different opinion on the question of Islamic immigration. And that opinion is just as valid as the person who’s not been exposed to that.

Now if a candidate comes along who is advocating against open borders and a flood of people from a particular religious ideology, then obviously this young soldier is going to give that person their vote. And rightly so, based on their own lived experience. Could you really expect them to vote differently despite what they’ve witnessed just because the media is telling them there is nothing to worry about?

If the majority feel the same way and that particular candidate is voted in, then that is democracy at work. You may not agree with the candidate or the opinion of those who voted for them, but rather than resorting to the usual calls of ‘racism’ or ‘xenophobic Australian’ maybe a bit of respect for those people making that decision would not be out of order. Certainly shouting insults will achieve nothing, and attempting to see an issue from another’s point of view might actually broaden your own horizons.

For either side to resort to insulting each other, basically on nothing more than different lived experiences, shows a complete lack of respect for the other person’s opinion. And if we don’t respect the opinion of our fellow citizens, how can we demand that our politicians show respect to our opinions?

There can be no more beneficial outcome than to have as many disparate voices in the Senate as possible so that the opinions of ALL Australians get heard and then the final decision is made based upon the majority opinion. So instead of trotting out the same old bovine excrement that the politicians fling around when their opposite number has a varied opinion, how about we show them the standard we expect of them by living up to that standard ourselves, and show each other a bit of respect even though we freely disagree. Can’t be that hard.

Bloody Good Aussie Book – The Sundowners

The Sundowners

Ok, so time for a bit of a book review. I realise this is where most people go “boooring” and flick back to looking at videos of cats. Well don’t. Instead sit back, shut up and get a bit of bloody culture into ya! Wow, that escalated quickly.

Anyway, The Sundowners by Jon Cleary was first released in 1952. That’s right, way back before your interwebs and iFaces and ‘electronic’ books. Seriously what the hell is an electronic book, or ‘ebook’? It’s not a book, it’s a TV with words on it. But I digress. The Sundowners is the story of the Carmody family, Paddy, Ida and their fourteen year old son Sean. It’s set in country Australia between the wars and follows the family, and a tag-along by the name of Venneker, as they travel through the bush, droving sheep, in the shearing sheds, in the pubs and in the horse racing game.

Jon Cleary manages to bring the full beauty of the bush into the tale with vivid descriptions of the landscape, the events and the wonderous vernacular of the old Australia. Funny how you don’t hear too many people being referred to as an “Old Coot” these days. So much better than many of the Americanisms that have found their way into our way of speech since those days, especially the types that refer to performing carnal deeds upon someone’s mother.

The term ‘Sundowners’ refers to the itinerant travelers of the outback, in that where ever they are at sun down, that’s their home for the night. Paddy Carmody is one such man, never wanting to be tied down to one place, and so Ida and Sean are constantly on the move with him, despite wanting nothing more than to settle into a place of their own. Regardless of their desire, Ida and Sean stay loyal to Paddy as he leads them ever onwards.

Long before the women’s liberation movement kicked on, Cleary manages to set Ida, the main female character, as a strong, independent-thinking woman who won’t meekly submit to what the men tell her. This is best illustrated when the Carmody’s join a shearing team, and rather than be left behind Ida insists that she joins the team as the cook. Despite the protests of some of the men Ida wins and on a couple of occasions even gives the Boss an earful. Even Paddy is regularly put in his place by his strong, but ever-loving wife. To steal a phrase from today ‘you go, girlfriend’!

Then there’s Sean, a fourteen year old lad on the brink of manhood. He worships his father, but as the story goes on he comes into his own and forms his own opinions which are not always in line with Paddy’s. And as happens with all teenage boys, Sean becomes aware of the lure of the female of the species and his awkwardness around the more ‘worldly’ Marge Bateman will probably bring back uncomfortable memories for a lot of blokes. But Marge’s ‘worldliness’ only comes from books and it is soon shown that she is just as awkward as Sean. Nevertheless Sean’s journey as he crosses the threshold from boy to man is brilliantly conveyed, although that crossing does not involve anything untoward with Marge, this was written in the 50’s after all.

But the supporting characters are the ones who make the story come to life. From the loud and happy Mrs Firth, proprietor of the Cawndilla pub, to the shearers, to the lonely young wife of the station owner, Cleary captures many of the personalities of ‘typical Australians’ from that period. The two old blokes at the Bulinga pub, one commentating on a fight between Paddy and Venneker while the other constantly questions where the beer is, while complaining about his short-sightedness is wonderful. And they show up again at the end of the story, kind of like a couple of drunken book ends. Beautiful.

The main thing that makes this book such a good read is the humour, the sort of self-effacing humour you’d expect from Australia as it was (before everyone got so bloody oversensitive and started getting offended by everything). I won’t give it all way, but just as an example in one scene there is a blue (a fight to the un-Aussie lot out there) between two teams of shearers. Afterwards the team is discussing the event and one bloke points out that his mate kept getting knocked down by one of the others. Rather than take umbridge at the implication that he couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag he just states “yeah, I was up and down like dunny seat”. Enough said I reckon.

Anyway, it may be an old story but it still has an appeal, especially to those of us who still hold out hope that the best of the Old Australia will somehow mix with the best of the New Australia. And as evidence that it is a great story, even the Seppos (Americans) decided to turn into into a movie with Robert Mitchum (apparently he was a bit of a hottie back then), which is something I’m pretty sure didn’t happen with too many Aussie stories back then.

It’s a great read about great people in a great country. Get onto it.