Bomber Com­mand sto­ries blend hero­ism and hu­mour

They Hosed Them Out Lan­caster Men: The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Com­mand

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Christopher Bantick Christopher Bantick

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.

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