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Literary Non-Fiction: Recording and Reconstructing the Air War of 1939–1945

  • Philip Neilsen


Accounts of the air war of 1939–45 still hold a fascination for many: any comprehensive second hand bookshop will have at least one shelf devoted to aviation or war memoirs. My own longstanding interest began with a childhood awareness of my father's involvement in the war. Born in Maryborough and educated at Brisbane State High, he had been a pilot, first in the RAAF, then the RAF. He had joined up on his eighteenth birthday in 1942, gained his wings in Australia, received advanced training in England on Blenheim bombers then Beaufighters, and volunteered for the Middle East. But even these scant details I only managed to interrogate from him in the past year or so. Fifty years after the war, he has just started to talk about it to me, though selectively. Most of his friends were killed, either shot down or in flying accidents. As well, the Beaufighter was notorious as one of the most difficult and dangerous planes to fly. One pilot in my father's unit sensibly asked to be transferred to a different kind of plane because he found he couldn't handle the twin-engined fighter; the response of the Commanding Officer was to have the pilot immediately classified LMF — Lack of Moral Fibre — a fate most aircrew considered worse than death. It is absurd incidents such as this — brave men condemned by inflexible superiors, and so many others killed in accidents, often in landing or taking off under extreme conditions of weather and weariness — that emerge in the accounts by survivors as an antidote to more idealised reconstructions of the air war.



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1 Charlwood, E.D., No Moon Tonight (1956; Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1991) x. McFarlane, Jillian, ed., Australia Remembers (Open Road Publications, 1995), 38.

2 Charlwood, ‘The Transformation of Experience into Literary Form in My Writings about the War’, ASAL Proceedings, 1994, 3.

3 Charlwood, ‘The Transformation of Experience’, 3.

4 Interestingly, in later years when Charlwood wrote short fiction based on his war experiences, the result was not always as successful. For example, ‘Journey Back’, a short story based on a visit he paid to the site of his old, now abandoned and overgrown air base in 1958, is weakened by a rather contrived plot in which an ex-navigator narrator accidentally meets the husband of the now adult daughter he unknowingly fathered with a WAAF during the war. This coincidence is less convincing than his earlier recording of the surrealistic bombing runs over Berlin with their horrific contingency.

5 Hilary, Richard, The Last Enemy (London: Pan Books, 1956) 27.

6 Hilary, 17.

7 Hilary, 63.

8 Hilary, 76.

9 Hilary, 85.

10 Dundas, Hugh, Flying Start (1988; London: Penguin, 1990) 2.

11 Dundas, 84–85.

12 Bennett, D.C.T., Pathfinder (1958; London: Panther, 1960) 131.

13 Charlwood, No Moon Tonight, 142

14 Bennett, 124.

15 Bennett, 7

16 Quoted in Max Hastings, Bomber Command (London: Michael Joseph, 1979) 253.

17 Hastings, 251.

18 Hastings, 350–351.

19 Bennett, 186.

20 Galland, Adolf, The First and the Last (London: Methuen, 1955); Gunther, Bloemertz, Heaven Next Stop (1953; London: New English Library, 1973) 117.

21 Bloemertz, 43.

22 Forrester, Larry, Fly for Your Life (1956; London: Collins, 1960) 15, 170–71.

23 Barclay, George, Fighter Pilot (London: William Kimber, 1976) 55; Dundas, 206–207, 57; Charlwood, 102-103.

24 Smithies, Edward, War in the Air (London: Penguin, 1990) 283, 279.

25 Dundas, 69; Dutton, Geoffrey, Out in the Open (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1994) Chapter 8.

26 Smithies, 285.

27 Charlwood, 115.

28 The idea of survivor guilt originally occurred in discussions of the psychology of surviving European Jews after the holocaust. In this context the syndrome is treated by Bettleheim, Bruno in Surviving and Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1979) especially 29–35.

Literary Non-Fiction: Recording and Reconstructing the Air War of 1939–1945

  • Philip Neilsen


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