Michael Veitch is an accomplished author who has written an absorbing account about one Australian’s experiences in wartime. In 1942, ex-schoolboy Barney Greatrex joined the RAAF in Sydney, trained as a bomb-aimer, then was sent to Britain to crew a Lancaster night bomber over Europe. After twenty arduous missions he was shot-down in Feb 1944 but survived. He was fortunate enough to link up with French Resistance fighters and found himself still alive, but now in a very different kind of war.
The book begins with a dramatic cameo of how his Resistance associates deal with a suspected spy, and then cuts back to a full account of how Barney came to be there in a French forest.
Half the book is about Barney’s preceding life as a wartime airman. Readers will gain a deeper understanding of the rigours and the personal confusion of daily life in the Empire Air Training Scheme, flying over Australian countryside in a variety of obsolescent aircraft. We then follow Barney’s circuitous route to England on one rusty ship after another, to finally get trained there on “powerful modern aircraft”. We also experience the odd teaming-up process of crew selection, followed by the fear of failure on early missions. The account moves on to paint a vivid picture of the grind and the numbing losses, the limping home after being damaged over Germany. Also described is the growing mathematical certainty that only luck would help them complete their “tour” of 30 missions, since aircraft losses were approaching 8% on each successive mission.
Barney was the sole survivor of his plane, having barely succeeded in bailing out. He found himself in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France, passed “like a parcel” from farmhouse to farmhouse until a local branch of the Marquis took him in. A fascinating account follows, as Barney survives winter in remote forest camps, goes on patrols and then the raids after the over-optimistic D- Day uprisings, until eight months later his Resistance group escapes the German roundup reprisals and makes the dangerous crossing of the combat zone to gain sanctuary with the advancing Americans.
The book then briefly follows Barney through his eventual repatriation to Australia, the return to his family, trying to adjust back, and much later his re-connection with the brave French who had sheltered and embraced him during those dangerous times.
This book arose from a NSW Knox Grammar School commemorative film documentary project. It is a surprising and very interesting account of one man’s unusual wartime experiences, well researched and illustrated by some unique photographs.
Reviewed for RUSIV by John Boice, October, 2017
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