Book review: And Some Fell on Stony Ground

And Some Fell on Stony Ground: A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot, A Fictional Memoir by Leslie Mann (Icon Books in Association with Imperial War Museums, 2014) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

And Some Fell on Stony Ground: A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot, A Fictional Memoir by Leslie Mann (Icon Books in Association with Imperial War Museums, 2014) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Their country was likely doomed and within the month, or several months at most, they would almost certainly be dead. And still they volunteered. In the early days of the Second World War, the young men of Britain’s RAF Bomber Command took to the skies in obsolete aircraft and, night after night, flew out over Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. The damage they inflicted was insignificant. They message they delivered was monumental: It told the enemy and the neutral countries of the world and also those countries of Europe that had succumbed to Hitler’s Blitzkrieg that Britain was still in the fight and was striking back.

In 1941, Flight Sergeant Leslie Mann was such a young man. He was a tail gunner in an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley twin-engine bomber. The Whitleys were awkward-looking planes that were out-of-date before the war had even started. They had none of the caché of the later Wellingtons or the fame of the Lancasters, Halifaxes, and Stirlings that were to put in solid service nearer to the end of World War II. Leslie Mann’s plane was shot down over Dusseldorf and, after the war ended, he described his experiences in a fictional memoir that remained unpublished until 2014: And Some Fell on Stony Ground: A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot—A Fictional Memoir by Leslie Mann (Icon Books in Association with Imperial War Museums, 2014). British historian Richard Overy has written a masterful introduction.

A series of striking photographs add value to the book and reveal that author was an eye-catchingly handsome man, even Clark-Gable handsome. His text dispels, in the first few pages, the fiction of the glamour of war. Leslie Mann’s book is about the everydayness of war, the drudgery of war, the routine, the cold, the exhaustion, the moments of terror, the fear of disfigurement. ‘The sky could kill him whenever it wanted to,’ muses Pilot Officer Mason, who is Mann’s fictional hero (or anti-hero, as Richard Overy shrewdly puts it).

The book has its touching moments: the scene at the shop where the woman behind the counter takes pity on Mason and sells him a pack of ‘under-the-counter’ cigarettes, or at the dance when Mason notices the ‘girl in green’ but sees no point in pursuing her, realizing that he does not have the luxury of a future.

Descriptions are sometimes whimsical, like that of Mason’s buddy, Simpson: ‘He had those funny shaped eyebrows that made him look perpetually worried. And enormous feet.’ When a ‘first-tripper’ asks Mason what it will be like to fly on a mission, words such as ‘sickening,’ ‘bloody awful,’ and ‘fatal’ flash through Mason’s brain. Eventually, he just says, “Oh, not so bad. A bit shaky sometimes.”

Above all, the book is marked by its realism, the fiery crash that kills Mason’s friend, Ken, the nightmarish take-off and engine trouble that caused Mason’s plane to turn back and crash-land near the Pennines, the attack on the German oil refinery ‘…the aircraft stalled and hung in mid-air, then lurched horribly…’—all authentically described by a man who was actually there.

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This week in the War, 19–25 October 1942: The Battle of El Alamein

British tanks advance during the Battle of El Alamein, Egypt, October 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

British tanks advance during the Battle of El Alamein, Egypt, October 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

For the Allies, there was little reason for optimism at start of 1942. By the end of the year, the situation had changed dramatically. The Americans had scored a massive naval victory at the Battle of Midway, the Russians had triumphed over the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad, and Montgomery’s Eighth Army had defeated the Italians and Rommel’s Afrika Korps at the Battle of El Alamein.

The Sound of History: El Alamein 1942-----by Richard Doherty (Spellmount, Staplehurst, 2002) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

The Sound of History: El Alamein 1942—–by Richard Doherty (Spellmount, Staplehurst, 2002) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

This week in the war, on 23 October 1942, Montgomery launched the offensive that would be known as the Battle of El Alamein. Much of what transpired is described in Richard Doherty’s The Sound of History—El Alamein 1942 (Spellmount, Staplehurst, 2002) and in Montgomery’s own memoirs, The Memoirs of Field-Marshal Montgomery (Collins, London, 1958). Victory for the British and British Empire and Commonwealth forces at El Alamein would lead to the eventual expulsion of all Axis armies from North Africa.

The battle began with a fierce bombardment. (Doherty reports that nuns, sixty miles away at the Sacred Heart Convent in Alexandria, felt their building shake.)

The plan was to punch two holes through the enemy positions, which were heavily defended by anti-tank guns and minefields, and then to pass through 10th Corps, which was strong in armour. Montgomery correctly predicted: “This battle for which we are preparing will be a real rough house and will involve a very great deal of hard fighting. If we are successful it will mean the end of the war in North Africa.”

The battle lasted until 4 November, when the British armoured car regiments burst through enemy lines at dawn and the tanks followed the armoured cars out into the open desert where they could harass the supply lines of the retreating enemy. Many of the Italian division could do little else but surrender, since the Germans had taken all of their motorized transport.

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This week in the War, 12–18 October 1942: Occupied Paris & the Diary of Helene Pitrou

Dans Paris occupe: Journal d'Helene Pitrou-----by Paule du Bouchet (Gallimard Jeunesse, 2005) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Dans Paris occupe: Journal d’Helene Pitrou—–by Paule du Bouchet (Gallimard Jeunesse, 2005) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Readers of French children’s literature may be familiar with Dans Paris Occupé: Journal d’Hélène Pitrou, 1940–1945, the fictional and wonderfully vivid diary of a French school girl who reports on the affairs of the day as she lives life in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II. The book is the product of the imagination of French author, Paule du Bouchet, and conveys to present-day French children what it had been like to live in France during l’Ombre—the ‘Dark Years.’

Readers of my blog may remember my comments on Hélène’s entry for Wednesday 29 January 1941, when she describes how her dreadful teacher, Mr. Bourgeois, orders her friend Josette Goldstein and two others girls (Suzanne Weil and Marguerite Grumbach) to change their seats. From now on, they are to be seated at the back of the class. All three girls are Jewish, of course.

Checking Hélène’s entry for this week in the war, on 17 October 1942, we read the sad news that Josette and all her family have been arrested and sent to a camp in Germany. This does not bode well for Josette and those dear to her. Many Parisian Jews had been arrested in July and confined to the Vélodrome d’Hiver prior to deportation. It was a common story for the Jews of France: arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Drancy, thence to Germany and further east to the extermination camps in Poland.

Hélène’s mother (who is working for the Resistance) tells her daughter that when the war is over and she is married and she finds her diary and reads it again, she will remember how it once was, bad as well as good.

 

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This week in the War, 5–11 October 1942: US launches massive daylight raid against Nazi-occupied Europe

American B-17 Flying Fortresses [Public domain]

American B-17 Flying Fortresses [Public domain]

This week in the war, on 9 October 1942, a force of 108 B-17 Flying Fortresses launched a daylight raid against targets in and around Lille, in northern enemy-occupied France.

The Companie de Fives steel works and the Ateliers D’Hellemes locomotive factory, both located in Lille, were bombed.

Focke-Wulf Fw 190 [Public domain]

Focke-Wulf Fw 190 [Public domain]

This was one of the early massed air raids that the Americans staged in daylight. As the war progressed, the Americans would invariably attack by day and RAF Bomber Command by night.

The American planes took off from airfields in England between 7.30am and 8.15am. The air raid inflicted only light damage but was judged a success because of the large number (over 50) enemy fighters that the American gunners believed they had shot down.

The British had learned to be skeptical when debriefing aircrew. German files were to reveal that only two of their fighters, both Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, were lost during the raid on Lille.

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This week in the War, 28 Sept–4 Oct 1942: The Aleutian Islands

Adak and other Aleutian islands [Public domain, wiki]

Adak and other Aleutian islands [Public domain, wiki]

This week in the war, on 30 September 1942, the Japanese launched the first of a series of air raids against Adak, an island in the Aleutian chain which was and is part of Alaska and therefore US ‘home territory.’

Squadron of Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters, based at Adak in the Aleutians, 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

Squadron of Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters, based at Adak in the Aleutians, 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

Earlier in the year, the Japanese had attacked the naval base in Dutch harbor and had invaded and occupied the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska with a view to preventing the US from advancing towards Japan across the northern Pacific. The Japanese did not occupy Adak since it had no military installations. The United States did not respond immediately because of the remoteness of the region.

By August 1942, the Americans were ready to go onto the offensive by establishing an air base on Adak. American planes from their base on Adak raided the Japanese base on Kiska, and vice versa.

In mid 1943, the USA retook both Attu and Kiska. The Americans suffered heavy losses during the Attu campaign, which included a dramatic and large-scale banzai charge against their lines. The Japanese had secretly abandoned Kiska before the American (and Canadian) invasion force had landed.

 

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This week in the War, 21–27 September 1942: The Kokoda Trail

25-pounder gun of the Royal Australian Artillery being pulled through the jungle, Kokoda Trail, Owen Stanley Range, Papua New Guinea, September 1942 [Public domain, Australian War Memorial 026850]

25-pounder gun of the Royal Australian Artillery being pulled through the jungle, Kokoda Trail, Owen Stanley Range, Papua New Guinea, September 1942 [Public domain, Australian War Memorial 026850]

This week in the war, 25 September 1942, the Australians launched a counter-offensive along the Kokoda Trail, the path over the Owen Stanley mountains in Papua New Guinea, and attacked Ioribaiwa. Japanese forces were overwhelmed and, two days later, they began a rapid withdrawal.

The Kokoda Trail (or Track) campaign started in July 1942, when the Japanese landed in northern New Guinea and began their march southward along the Kokoda Trail towards the capital city of Port Moresby. The Japanese plan was to capture the whole of Papua New Guinea, thereby preventing Australia and New Zealand from receiving supplies and reinforcements from the United States. The campaign ended in November 1942 when the Americans and Australians attacked the Japanese beachheads in the north, at Buna and Gona—–culminating in the Battle of Buna-Gona.

The Japanese suffered a 75% casualty rate during their retreat, with starvation, typhoid, and malaria taking an enormous a toll. Many Australians at the time credited the Kokoda victory with saving their country from imminent invasion.

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This week in the War, 14–20 September 1942: Battle of Stalingrad approaches its dramatic climax

Stalingrad, September 1942 [Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1974-107-66/ CC-BY-SA]

Stalingrad, September 1942 [Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1974-107-66/ CC-BY-SA]

This week in the war, on 14 September 1942, infantry of von Paulus’s Sixth Army broke through the Soviet lines and into the centre of Stalingrad. The Battle of Stalingrad was approaching its climax.

The following day, hundreds of Stuka dive-bombers attacked the city but the Russians defended the ruins of their factories and continued to hold out. House-to-house and hand-to-hand fighting continued throughout the week and was reported in detail in Red Star. Russian women fought alongside their men, as had happened already in Leningrad.

By the end of the week, 20 September 1942, newspapers were making reference to ‘Heroic Stalingrad.’ That phrase, and likewise ‘the heroic defenders of Stalingrad,’ appeared in papers across the Soviet Union. Press across the world took up the call, comparing the battle for Stalingrad with such First World War epics as Verdun.

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