Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 37
Hank Nelson, Chased by the sun: courageous Australians in Bomber Command in World War II, ABC Books, Sydney, 2002, ix + 319 pp., illustrations, maps, bibliography, index, soft cover, rrp $32.95.
Reviewed by: JOHN McCARTHY, RAAF Aerospace Centre
Hank Nelson has written a book that will stir memory and stimulate much talk for those who served with Bomber Command in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. It is a book also that should or must be read by those who wish to know what it was like to be in their early to middle twenties, to have undergone some eighteen months of training to become part of a bomber crew with almost no expectancy of completing the requirement of thirty operational sorties. One such was only twenty when taking part in his 25th operation. As Hank Nelson records, Australian airmen were about 24 years old when they died. It is legitimate to feel humble when faced with the evidence Nelson produces of their fortitude and sheer cold bravery.
This book takes us through an aircrew member's initial wish to volunteer; his initial training and the fear of being scrubbed, particularly from the pilot's course; the journey perhaps to Canada for more training, and the eventual arrival in Britain to encounter for the first time the British class system; and then, after forming into crews, to undergo the hazardous Operational Training before posting to an operational squadron.
It was there that training and expectation turned into reality. An air offensive, for example, against the factory complexes and cities of the Ruhr Valley began in March 1943. From April to June some 11,000 sorties were flown in the hope that the German economic system would be destroyed, along with the morale of the civilian population. It was not to be.
What was to be known as the Battle of Berlin, which the AOC Bomber Command suggested would turn out to be the decisive battle of the war, began on the night of 18/19 November 1943 and continued until the end of January 1944. The offensive was a costly failure. The fourteen large attacks on the city in the period saw the deployment of 7403 sorties for the loss of 384 aircraft. During this battle, there was no "gentle" introduction to the operational experience for aircrew joining a squadron. An attack on this most heavily defended city was likely to be a newcomer's first trip. Indeed, one Australian pilot found his first nine operations were on Berlin. In one chapter Nelson provides a gripping operational set piece which covers the briefing, the attitude of the aircrews, the flight to the target, the attack, and the return. Again, one marvels at the courage possessed by these people.
What the Battle of Berlin proved, however, was that the enemy could not be coerced into surrender by the use of strategic air power. Yet the loss rates in such attacks between July 1943 and June 1944 was 5.4 per cent. Although Nelson makes a good case for the positive effect that the bomber offensive had on depleting the German war making ability, he does conceed that the attacks on cities continued for too long.
It has been calculated that 51 out of every hundred aircrew were killed on operations, against only twelve who became prisoners of war. British aircraft design faults meant that few survived a serious attack on their machine. The wicked main spar of the Lancaster is one example; the small inward opening doors of the same aircraft another. Nelson provides a chapter on escape from a falling aircraft, evasion and imprisonment.
On another note, his chapter on the relationships that developed between aircrew and members of the WAAAF or other female organisations and groups show the desperation which often accompanied these frequently short-term associations. It was noted by one source that such marriages were of a type that a day, an hour, even minutes, were precious. Death was always present - to have a second aircrew husband when still aged in the early twenties was not unknown.
Hank Nelson has written a comprehensive, well structured and most readable account. It is one of tragedy. As General Sherman remarked during the war between the American states, "War is cruelty, no more and no less and cannot be refined". Such things, together with the courage demonstrated in this book, should not be forgotten.