The following is an excerpt from Stonewall author Jim Shilliday’s latest book, My Brother’s Ghost: The Life and Times of a Missing Airman, which is a biography/ military history asserting that while fighter planes won the Battle of Britain, bombers won the war.
For more than six decades, the author lived a kind of who-dun-it puzzle, wondering what, or who, killed his brother one terrible night on a bombing run over Germany. Extensive research, log entries and the airman’s letters home, now provide an almost full account starting in 1943 and ending with his brother’s death, near war’s end, having no known grave.
A former editor of the Real Estate News, Shilliday is also the author of Canada’s Wheat King, published by the University of Regina, and winner of the $3,500 Isbister award for best book of non-fiction published by a Manitoba writer in 2008. In 2010, he published, A Memory of Sky: A Pilot’s View of Canada’s Century of Flight.
It is also a primer for — and defence of — the relentless bombing campaign against military and civilian targets in Nazi Germany’s cities. At the same time that his brother at long last “shed his ghostly shroud of mystery,” Bomber Command and its valiant aircrews at long last (they waited more than six decades) were officially saluted with the RCAF Bomber Command Clasp, and with a grand memorial in London, dedicated by the Queen, after being denied official recognition and commendation by Britain’s wartime military and political leaders, such as Winston Churchill.
There are several excerpts from the diary of a Polish airman with the RAF — untranslated for decades, and never published — who was in the same bomber stream as the author’s brother several times. These give the eye-witness account of terror in the sky while bombing Nazi targets that his brother never was able to provide. The book also points out the belated respect finally granted to the Poles for their brave contributions to winning the Second World War.
Included is an 11-year-old Berlin boy’s telling of surviving at the other end of the bombing raids; German night-fighter squadrons and their deadly electronic “battle of the black boxes.”
Wrote Shilliday: “I was well into the research when, on a spring morning in 2011, sixty-six years after my brother disappeared from our lives, an extraordinary coincidence! A voice from the past telephoned — a woman I didn’t know, who had known Bob as a girl in England, had traced me and called from her home in Massachusetts, U.S.A. I recognized her name from my brother’s letters. Now I knew that writing his story was the right thing to do.”
My Brother’s Ghost
For most of the war, the practice had been to give first-time bomber crews a “nickel run,” a short hop as far as the French coast and a light duty such as dropping leaflets, then a scurry back home (a second purpose was to fool German defences into believing this was the major raid, and divert night fighters away from the main bomber stream). But the bombing agenda was too demanding now for that. Just three days after finally joining a bomber squadron, Bob and his crew were stripped of their water wings and thrown into the deep end—a bomber stream’s ferocious engagement with the enemy, all the way to Dusseldorf and back, on Nov. 2/3. It’s difficult to imagine how my brother must have felt; a boy who had never faced anything more threatening than a mean word in his life, was now running one of the meanest gauntlets ever created in war.
The bombing runs made by Bob were recorded in the logbook of the crew’s electronics operator, Bert “Gramps” Crow.
Those bomber airmen who survived the war generally agreed that their first operational flight was the one whose every detail remained vivid to them, while most other raids had slipped away. It was the reason for all those months, those hundreds of hours of flying, of training lectures for seven young men who were about to put it all together and depend on each other as they took part in an adventure they had heard so much about and, yet, was a mystery about to unfold.
Despite being on an operational squadron, it was a jolt to see your plane and your crew’s names on the Operations Board this day. An evening raid is on the books. It’s a strain to take control of your emotions, to squint in the sunshine and wonder if you will be around to see it tomorrow. On seeing the order of battle, some of Bob’s crewmates try to joke, but it sounds like bravado. The challenge now is to think about what you must do, and hope that will calm your stomach. During an afternoon in-depth briefing where each aircrew sits together at a table, the target and expected weather conditions are outlined.
At one end of the briefing room, with tension mounting, a large map is uncovered and there it is: The Target — Dusseldorf. There is more chatter than groans from those who have gone through this before. If the target had been flak-hellish Berlin — the “Big City” — so far away and so fraught with danger, groans would have predominated. Bob’s crew is silent, it’s all so new to them, as it is for three other crews. They were wide-eyed as the operations officer stressed that a sharp look-out should be maintained while joining the circuit on return, enemy Ju-88s often were waiting and pounced on unsuspecting victims coming in to land. All gunners should remember to set the correct wingspan on the Gyro Gun Sight, and to be aggressive.
They are going through the same motions and emotions that bomber crews have followed for years now. There are about three hours to be killed and each airman does his own thing: some like to curl up in a comfortable chair with a book; others play pool, some listen to music, still more go to billets and stretch out to rest and think. The usual bombast and kidding is less apparent at this time, there are serious things to think about.
Later, a quiet night-flying meal: most had bacon and/or sausage — sometimes there was an egg — baked beans, and chips, all eased down with tea or milk. Then it was time to head over to flights and put on flying clothing, which could vary widely, reflecting personal taste, flair, good sense or whatever, beyond the basics of warm protection. Bob wore the aircrew issue silk-and-wool long underwear that most gunners wore, several pairs of socks, then electric socks. Now, he donned his electric suit and connected the electric socks. Over all this, he still was able to put on a shirt, battle-dress trousers, thick stockings over the bottoms of his trousers and into roomy fleece-lined flying boots, then an aircrew sweater and finally his battle-dress top. It was a struggle to put on his Mae West lifejacket and parachute. Now, the short journey to the waiting Lancaster, full fuel load, all bombed up, ammo on board, guns
attended to. When they meet below “Peg’s” widespread wings, they all have particular duties to perform.
(My Brother’s Ghost is available from McNally Robinson Booksellers, Winnipeg, or directly from the author Jim Shilliday, e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org By mail: Jim Shilliday, 325, 622 Centre Ave., Stonewall, MB, R0C 2Z0. Phone: (204) 467-2042. Payment ($19 plus post) is by cheque or money order: include your mailing address, and if you would like the author to sign your copy.)
(Next week: part 2)