In for a penny, In for a pound : The Adventures and Misadventures of a Wireless Operator in Bomber Command (1)

I haven’t written a book review before, but last week I was quite struck by this particular book, entitled “In for a penny, In for a pound : The Adventures and Misadventures of a Wireless Operator in Bomber Command” written by Howard Hewer. It is by no means a new book. My copy was published in 2000 and I bought a used copy from Abebooks. It was from a bookseller in Toledo, Ohio and the book had been a Library Copy from Greater Victoria Public Library at 735 Broughton St, Victoria, British Columbia, V8W 3H2, Canada.

With used library books, especially foreign ones, I always spend time wondering where the book has been, who borrowed it, what their lives were like and so on. I was most intrigued to find a till receipt still inside, detailing the book’s being taken out at precisely 10.41 am on June 16th 2001. Who read it? Did they enjoy it? And most exciting, did they get it back to the library on time by June 30th?

The book tells the story of a young Canadian who joins up and then spends the war in the RAF, mainly in Europe and the Middle East. He is in Bomber Command where casualties, of course, were enormous. There are, really, any number of such books. Some are written to be exciting, some to be poignant and some as detailed historical records. This one is a little bit different and tells the story from the point of view of a Canadian:

I just did not realise that the British would drag innocent young blokes half a world away from their homes to do their fighting and then insult them for their pains…

“We encountered the ‘colonial label’ usually with some snide remark. We grew restive and increasingly rebellious.”

Their reactions were pretty easy-going though, compared to one group. The Aussies:

“erupted in a near riot and refused to appear on parade or in class…Things reached a climax one day in the mess hall. This day the food was particularly inedible and one Aussie grabbed his plate and flung it against the wall just as an RAF air commodore walked through the door…this was not an isolated incident”.

Indeed, he speaks of the Canadian involvement in the “Cranwell Riot”, calmed only by the intervention of Canadian diplomats and Canadian officers. This may be what is being referred to in “The Cream of the Crop: Canadian Aircrew 1939-1945” by Allan D English (page 120) but I haven’t read that book yet. I could find nothing about the episode on the Internet.

We visited Cranwell in May 2010. It was a dull rainy day but here is the main building:

The gates are typical architecture of the time:

They are decorated with the superb badge of the RAF:

I read a lot about the RAF in World War Two but this book presents so much that is new to me. One intriguing footnote tells of the author’s neighbour in 1995 who told him of a fairly amazing incident. The Irish, always pretty anti-English at that time, were supposedly allowing U-boats to refuel in Cork Harbour, so, in late 1942 or early 1943, the RAF sent a force of 8 Blenheims to bomb the harbour “most bombs purposely landing in the bay.”

Well, I’ve never heard this before, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Some 20,000 Irishmen from the Republic were in the British forces, but there were a good few who were very sinister in their activities. In his book, “Clouds of Fear”, Roger Hall alleges that more than one RAF flyer was killed by Irish parachute packers who deliberately sabotaged their parachutes. The men murdered this way included a young man from the High School but that is, as they say, a story for another day.

Bombing Cork, even Blenheims would have been safe from the Irish Air Corps, who used Lysanders:

And the Fairey Battle:

Going back to Howard Hewer’s book, when he was posted to the Middle East, I was really surprised to hear for the first time, of the practice in North Africa of bombing targets which were so far away that the aircraft had to refuel both on the way there and on the way back. The book discusses the conditions at these stopover sites “situated on dried up salt lakes…We carried our bomb load from base, and had to land fully and lethally loaded…we slept on the floor of the aircraft in winter, under the wings during the summer months…we were not issued with sleeping bags…” Presumably, the advent of B-24 Liberators would have helped to phase out these stopovers which were unavoidable with the Wellingtons:

The Liberator had a much better range. Here is one of the first that the RAF received:

Next time, I’ll carry on with Howard Hewer’s adventures in Egypt. There are many more stories about the RAF officers that I had never heard, but they all have that ring of truth.


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, Canada, History, Literature, Politics

21 responses to “In for a penny, In for a pound : The Adventures and Misadventures of a Wireless Operator in Bomber Command (1)

  1. The way the British high command treated it own ranks was pretty bad as you say, but you rightfully comment on the way they treated the ‘colonials’. I think that young men from the USA who went to Canada ‘illegally would be even worse. especially in that horrible time before the Yanks came in.

    • You may well be right in that. I suppose what surprised me most about the book was the fact that the treatment of the ‘colonials’ was so blatant and so bad. Nobody seemed ever to think that we should be very grateful indeed t all these young men who had travelled so far to risk their lives for us…and in many cases to lose them.

      • Actually, after WWl there was a definite decision made that Australian troups would only be commanded by Australian officers. But of course, in the early years a lot of Australians flew in mixed RAF crews, along with Canadians and Kiwis.

  2. I know in my own research that I have had trouble finding Canadian, New Zealand and Australian contributions due to be classified as a whole, Commonwealth Nations, but not the amount of resentment on their part.
    I usually use Thrift Books to acquire used books, but I have used Abe – I’ve got to find this book, should know.

    • Good luck, I’m sure you’ll find it. It just seemed so different from the usual books about the air war. Like you, I had not previously found anything about the ‘colonials’ being resentful but you always have to ask the victim to get a clear picture of what went on.

  3. Interesting. Cork Harbour is a strategic place in both the Great War and in the Second World War…

    Sorry for the long link…but appears to be a book also quoting Cork Harbour bombing by Blenheim bombers…

    Bomber Command 1939-1940: The War before the War – Google Books Result
    Gordon Thorburn – ‎2013 – History
    The Blenheims flew right into their fire. … Either Pilot Officer William Murphy ( from County Cork) and crew or Flying …

    • Thanks very much for that. I will certainly take a look at it. The Irish were perhaps not as divided about the Germans as the French were, but they certainly had their moments.

      • It makes sense the Irish had been at war with the British only a generation earlier and for many more centuries of occupation before that. I’m glad you mentioned the Irish who came over and fought abroad in the war whether it be for Britain or the U.S.A. Many Canadians also went across and joined the war in Vietnam. When the Irish they were barred from getting jobs in the Armed Forces upon their return. This is why when the Irish Army goes as part of the U.N. to the Congo in the early 1960s there are no Veterans in their ranks.

      • I didn’t realise that Canadians went to Vietnam. There were something like 250,000 Irishmen in the British forces during WW1, I’ve read somewhere, presumably because the Irish weren’t all Republicans. The Easter Rising itself was disapproved of by many Dubliners. I have no idea how many men were in the IRA although I remember when I was younger that the British Army were convinced during the 1980s, I think it was, that only about 30 people were busy committing terrorist acts.

  4. Some nice little snippets John. Alternative war time history!

    • Thank you for your kind words. To be honest, there seem to be quite a few of these incidents which have been successfully kept quiet over the years. Thankfully, they do not seem to have been particularly widespread or particularly severe. More of the ‘drip, drip’ of long term, relatively bad, treatment than outright extreme behaviour. No doubt, though, they had their moments.

  5. The ‘colonials’ in British Guiana also contributed to the war effort. Here’s an article I found:

    • Many thanks for that. There were lots of very brave men and women from all over the Empire who did their bit, and in many cases were killed. A quick look at the names on the Singapore Memorial shows how many different ethnic backgrounds fought in what was then Malaya. My turn for a link.. MEMORIAL
      My Dad knew at least one West Indian pilot in 103 Squadron and another brave flyer, a Guyanese gentleman, Cy Grant, became very famous in England because he was on BBC TV a lot after the war. My last link, I promise..

  6. I too enjoy old library books, in fact many in my collection are from such a source. They hold a fascination, a mystery and secrecy all of their own. This sounds like a fascinating read and nice that is from a Canadian point of view.

    • Yes, it’s nice to hear a different view about the way things were done. I have a number of books which are memoirs by members of Hitler’s immediate staff. I’m not too sure I believe every bit of those, but one book that was fascinating from years and years ago was by Stalin’s interpreter who portrayed the Soviet view of the Americans and British at the Nuremburg trials. Suffice it to say that if the Russians had had their way, the rope makers of the town would have made a lot more money!

  7. I wonder if there were any British people fighting for their country, there we around 2.5m Indian soldiers also who fought in WW-II on Britain’s side as India was a colony then.

    • Absolutely. There were lots of Indians who served in the war against the Japanese, and in North Africa and the Mediterranean theatre including Italy. There seems always to have been a desire among many Indians to serve in the British Army. I presume that those same men would have been used to garrison India in peacetime, but not in such large numbers as in WW2.

  8. Pierre Lagacé

    I never got notified about your new post!

  9. Pingback: In for a penny, In for a pound : The Adventures and Misadventures of a Wireless Operator in Bomber Command (1) — John Knifton – Lest We Forget

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