Bomber Command stories blend heroism and humour
They Hosed Them Out Lancaster Men: The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Command
By John Bede Cusack Revised and edited by Robert Brokenmouth Wakefield Press, 359pp, $24.95 By Peter Rees Allen & Unwin, 425pp, $32.99
MAY 16 marks the 70th anniversary of Operation Chastise, more familiarly known as the Dam Busters raid, a high point in the history of Bomber Command during World War II. The attack on dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley succeeded thanks to a combination of audacity, technical prowess (the bouncing bomb invented by Barnes Wallis) and the courage of the RAF’s 617 squadron.
The raid was the subject of Paul Brickhill’s 1953 bestseller The Dam Busters, which in turn was one of the sources for the popular 1955 film of the same name.
Two newly published books explore the experiences of Australians in Bomber Command.
John Bede Cusack writes from first-hand experience, as an air gunner. His fictionalised memoir They Hosed Them Out was first published in 1965 under the pseudonym John Beede. It was hailed as a classic of Australian war literature and became a bestseller.
This new edition from Wakefield Press, which includes previously unpublished chapters plus a biography of the author by his daughter Kerry McCouat, has been edited by Adelaide war historian Robert Brokenmouth.
The title refers to the fact when tail gunners in the famous Lancaster bomber were shredded by enemy cannon fire, the way to remove their body parts was to hose them out of their gun turrets. This is described by Cusack in unsettling detail.
Yet this novel is also a comprehensive account of life at a bomber squadron station. Cusack captures the levity that was an antidote to the carnage of war. Partying was a distraction to the reality: men losing their minds, men paralysed with fear, men who chanced a firing squad for desertion rather than fly at all.
In terms of numbers, it is a sobering fact that Bomber Command had more casualties in relation to participation rates than any other service. In all, more than 10,000 Australians served with Bomber Command and almost 3500 died. Many were burned beyond recognition: as Cusack, observes, ‘‘ the only evidence being Australian buttons and dog tags’’.
While Cusack’s book is one of detailed personal reflection, in Lancaster Men, journalist and author Peter Rees adopts a survey approach, presenting several voices that, combined, offer pungent reminiscences of life in Bomber Command for Australians. While there is some attention given to the bombing raids, the book’s strongest appeal is as a social history. A good example is a chapter titled WAFFS and Other Girlfriends, which considers, among other things, the aphrodisiac effect of war.
In a chapter titled Stalag Time, Rees offers an absorbing account of life for captured aircrew in a German prisonerof-war camp. There is no romance here: poor sanitation, insufficient food and boredom were facts of incarcerated life.
There is much in these two books that presents understated heroism and informative description of weaponry, the respect for the Lancaster bomber and the uncertainty, indeed morality, felt by some aircrew over the purpose of area bombing. Serious examination of Australians in Bomber Command in both books is offset well with humour and not a little wonder.