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Or Go Down in Flame
A Navigator’s death over Schweinfurt
W Raymond Wood
Casemate, September 2014
Its blurb summaries this book well: [the author] “was just a child when his brother was lost in the Schweinfurt raid, and the minute details of this book is (sic) the result of his multi-year effort to illuminate “Black Thursday” … He not only reveals the experience of American flyers in this famous battle, but that of civilians on the ground and the enemy fighters who flew against the bomber stream, including that of the Me110 pilot who in all probability destroyed his brother’s plane with a rocket.”
So this is something of a journey for the author – there can be no stronger motivation for a writer than to find out more about such a close relative. Anyone who has done any family history research will empathise with this journey. The consequential thoroughness of Wood’s research is impressive. Less so is his prose style – for the most part it fulfils the job, but he can descend into flowery nonsense to describe a squadron take-off, for example.
Wood not only details his brother’s training, but also each of his six missions prior to his fateful one. The narrative is fleshed out with a good overview of the purpose and strategies of the Allied bomber offensive.
Wood died as a navigator on the second raid to Schweinfurt. The first raid, and others of that period, suffered horrendous losses, as the Luftwaffe fighter system reached peak performance. The commander of 2nd Schweinfurt said “in the months preceding the second mission to Schweinfurt, the future of an individual in the combat crew of a heavy bomber was a prognostic equivalent of a victim of deep-seated cancer.” A very sobering thought. The author points out that, with a loss rate of 10% per mission, the last 15 missions of a 25 mission tour would be on borrowed time. This disguises variability from mission to mission – horrendous targets such as Schweinfurt would be interspersed with softer ones near the French, Dutch or German coast.
Wood sets out both the economic and human cost of the fateful mission. 61 bombers shot down, 5 crashed on their return to England ($21m down the drain). But more importantly he points out its legacy: “air superiority was temporarily lost to the Luftwaffe, and it was the death of unescorted daylight bombing over Germany.”
The author has done an excellent job of reconstructing his brother’s last few minutes - helped by the fact that the rest of the crew survived. There are also several eyewitness accounts from those who saw the bomber crash near Geiselbach. Some of Wood’s fellow crew members endured very rough treatment from hostile German civilians after their parachute descent. Yet one of the book’s most touching moments is the postscript, with a picture of a memorial erected near the crash site in honour of the German farmer who was killed by the flaming bomber, a girl who was badly burned, and Wood himself.
Another image which tugs at the heartstrings (well mine, at least) was of Wood’s flying boots. These were removed from his corpse, just prior to burial, by the gravedigger, and used by him for many years until they were handed over to the author. Such a memento to treasure of the brother you never knew.
The last thirty pages or so of the book are devoted to the workings of the American War Grave Command, and the circuitous journey of Wood’s remains back to his hometown. Whilst one can understand how this is of intense interest to the author, it lacks lustre for the reader.
Some other quibbles: the print quality is poor. Wood is over fond of using inverted commas. His knowledge of Europe is a little sketchy – he refers to Rouen (a turning point on an early mission) as a village – it was and is the capital city of Normandy! He refers to Orfordness (a coasting-out point for the American bomber stream) as ‘Oxfordness’ (but then the same mistake was made in an American briefing chart). During 2nd Schweinfurt, the ‘second division’ (of Liberators) “encountered so much difficulty in assembling that it was forced to cancel its participation” – but Wood leaves hanging the cause of this difficulty.
So overall an interesting and diligent piece of work, suffused throughout by fraternal interest, but one which could have benefited from more ruthless and thorough editing.