book review barney greatrex Anzac Day

Another excellent and heartfelt post from Mr B about the fantastic Barney Greatrex. With a name like that, you are destined to be remembered……

Barney Greatrex. Some names you just have to say out loud! Barney Greatrex……

Michael Veitch’s biography of this unknown Aussie war hero is a fantastic read. Some of you may remember Veitch from his days as a comedian with TV shows like The D-Generation, Fast Forward and Full Frontal. Old comedians never die; they just write war stories…….and this one is a cracker!

It isn’t every day that I read a book in which the hero of the story lived in the next suburb. So in true Duffy style, I went and had a look at Narelle Avenue, Pymble. As you can see from my selfie, the area is green and peaceful. The tall trees would have been there when Barney was a boy. It was a world away from the war-torn towns of Western Europe.

where Barney Greatrex lived

Assume you were asked to write the life story of a person, a company, a school, a hospital or anything really. Having done your research, what do you do next? The temptation is to write what happened…………..and then what else happened………… and then what happened after that. You need to write it in a way that will inspire people to read it. You need to string together the key events in a way which will keep your readers reading right to the end. That is the key to writing compelling history.

Veitch has done this. Short chapters keep the reader engaged. He spends just enough time on Barney’s early family history, his schooling at Knox Grammar where the seeds were sown for his time in the RAF and his early training in Australia. I just would have liked to see more on Barney’s reasons for enlisting. But the real story for the story writer here is what comes next – one man’s survival against the odds.

Barney became a bomb aimer in the airforce. Most young airmen wanted to be pilots. Veitch reveals Barney’s reasons were entirely pragmatic (and prescient): “I couldn’t help noticing that the bomb aimer was in a marvellous position to get out of the plane”.

At the end of his training, he could have been sent to Europe or New Guinea. When an officer read out who was going where, Barney got sent to Europe. The two men standing either side of him got sent to New Guinea. How random life can be….

Barney finally got to the UK in January 1943. The Battle of Britain was over. Both sides were now set on bombing the other into oblivion. The RAF weapon of choice was the Lancaster bomber which could carry a bomb load of 22,000 pounds. By comparison, the American B-17 Fortress could only haul 5000 pounds into the air.  Barney’s job was to let all these bombs go.

Each Lancaster required a crew of seven. In what Veitch calls “a flash of British eccentricity,” airmen were told to “crew up” amongst themselves. Men from all over the Commonwealth who had hardly met were asked to decide who they would go into battle with: “You looking for a navigator?” or “Fixed up with a wireless op?”

It was 19 months since Barney had joined up in Sydney and he had completed 313 day and night flying hours. With his crew, he was posted to B Flight, 61 Heavy Bomber Squadron at Syerston, Nottinghamshire. Finally, he was ready for his first mission. 400 planes from Bomber Command were to attack Frankfurt. Veitch writes:

“In little over half an hour on this night in October 1943, it was engulfed, in the words of the city’s own report of the attack, in “a sea of flame”. The old wooden structures along the wide River Main burned like tinder, wiping out centuries of human habitation in minutes. Worse, in the basement shelter of a former hospital being used as an orphanage, a bomb – possibly even one of Barney’s – made a direct hit, killing 90 children and more than a dozen of the nuns caring for them.”

More missions followed quickly. I cannot begin to know what it must have been like cramped into one of those planes. Veitch describes it like this:

“Bomber Command operations were like nothing else in the world: seven men, flying in darkness, relieved only by the dim orange glow of a lamp over the navigator’s table or the faint green luminosity of the pilot’s instruments, five or six kilometres high in bitter cold with the thundering roar of engines shutting out all other sounds except the occasional metallic crackling of a fellow crew member’s voice in one’s earphones. Although each man was bonded utterly to every other, it was an intensely lonely experience. There was no single moment of security from take-off to touch down; instead, the terrible constant wait for catastrophe and death that would come in an instant, all while having to give one’s utter concentration to the job.”

His crew’s final trip came on the night of 25 February 1944. Barney’s plane was shot down over Nancy in France by a German Messerschmitt. The plane went into a death spin, but somehow Barney was able to force the escape hatch open (something the RAF authorities would later tell him they did not think was physically possible) and parachute to the ground. He was the only survivor.

For the next 7 months, Barney’s life was spent behind enemy lines. He was taken in by the French Resistance (the Maquis) and became “Jacques Clapin”, a deaf and dumb mechanic (really!). He hid by day and was on the run at night. Not only was Barney’s life on a knife edge every day, but the locals risked their lives by sheltering him. Trust was paramount

What I like most about this book is that it is a story of survival. We are not talking about Rambo here. I kept turning the pages to find the part where Barney took out an enemy bunker by himself, but it never came. In fact, I am not sure Barney ever took a pot shot at German troops. Why would he shoot at an enemy he was surrounded by?

Barney survived, but Veitch says Bomber Command’s actions in World War II cost the lives of 55,000 airmen. Too often we are encouraged to believe that every soldier’s death is a “glorious death”. One of my favourite war movies, “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” based on the book by James Michener, ends with Rear Admiral George Tarrant asking: “Where do we get such men?”

President Reagan even quoted Tarrant’s line in an Armed Forces Day speech:

The question implies that such men and women are exceptional. That they are extraordinary and that they did not die in vain.

Bur war is chaotic. Accidents happen. Mistakes happen. Terrible things happen to ordinary people. What about the airmen killed by collisions (on an earlier mission, Barney’s crew had just managed to limp home after a mid-air collision with another Lancaster) or because their plane was faulty or not properly maintained? What about those killed because of poor planning or bad weather? How many young airmen died because of poor safety standards or because they weren’t ready to fly? Veitch says that 2832 RAAF trainees alone were killed in accidents during World War II, often before they left Australia.

Did these men die a glorious death?

In 2010, I visited the grave of my great great uncle Private William McGuinness at a war cemetery at Grevillers in Northern France. My grandmother had given me his Victory Medal which her mother had received after The Great War. The Victory Medal is the medal most Allied soldiers were awarded for fighting in that war.

All I knew was that he died of his wounds on 6 May 1917. I didn’t know anything else about him. I still don’t know why he enlisted. Did he do it for the adventure? Did he do it for King and country? I wish now I had asked my grandmother what she knew of these things before she died. If you have a relative who went to war or who knew a relative who went to war, ask them about what they remember. Write it down. We cannot forget.

The war cemeteries in Northern France sit in countryside so beautiful it is hard to imagine this was the front line in one of the bloodiest of wars. The graves themselves are lovingly cared for. The Australian graves all look the same, but for the names. What I wasn’t prepared to see was that many of the graves around William were etched with the same date of death – 6 May 1917.

When I came back to Australia, I contacted the Australian War Memorial. They told me that it was most likely that William was wounded in the Second Battle of Bullecourt. You have probably never heard of the Bullecourt battles because they were a disaster for the Allies. The Second Battle of Bullecourt followed another less-than-glorious decision by a British General to attack the German line near the village of Bullecourt without artillery support. In the second attack, the Australian divisions of the British 5th Army broke into and took part of the German line, but no strategic advantage was ever gained. No strategic advantage was ever gained! In the two battles, the AIF alone lost 10,000 men.

Did William and his mates die a glorious death?

War, like everything else humans get involved in, is imperfect. Generals make plans, but battles rarely go to plan. People die.

Barney sadly passed away in February this year at the age of 97. He was an ordinary man who survived the chaos of war. Why him? This was a question he pondered his entire life. His survival made him extraordinary. But the vast majority of the war dead we remember on ANZAC Day were ordinary people – not great warriors. For whatever reason, they left these shores to fight a war. They had doubts, fears, moments when they yearned to be back in the bush or the leafy suburbs they came from. At times, they would have been hungry, weary, dirty, sick. They may have lost all hope. Some would have seen things nobody should ever have to see; before meeting their own (sometimes excruciatingly painful) death. They were ordinary people thrust into circumstances we cannot comprehend today.

I will be at the dawn service at Hornsby in Sydney on ANZAC Day watching my 15-year-old son march with his army cadet unit.

He will be wearing the medal of his great great great uncle under his uniform.

The cycle continues.

I just hope the futility does not.

Buy Barney Greatrex here Just $11.50 on Kindle, or if you like a good old-fashioned paperback buy it here, but get in fast, they are selling out!

SEP 26, 2017 | 9780733637230 | RRP $35.00