Saturday, August 01, 2015

Wings Of The Dawn - Kate Johnson

The journey an airman takes to war is often familiar but always fascinating. One man’s path sometimes precedes, follows, mirrors or even intersects with another that you’ve encountered. It’s funny how regularly it does happen when you read enough of these tales but each journey is unique and there is always something new to learn. Bomber Command is the perfect example. Main Force flew from England so, for some aircrew, the journey from childhood to RAF to bombers could be quite straightforward. That’s a bit basic of course but when the bomber war was at its height, and aircrew were being consumed at a terrible rate, there were many who only had the chance to fly the heavy bombers. Some, however, were fortunate to have flown extensively before being drawn into the machine that was Bomber Command. One such man was Cyril Johnson. Some of his experiences are rare to find in the memoir of a Lancaster pilot. His journey, however, is one of a kind and it is has been recorded lovingly by his astute granddaughter.

Cyril was born in England in 1920 and grew up in and near the village of Ormskirk. Liverpool was only several miles away which was probably convenient for Cyril’s father who was a ship’s captain. His mother was the daughter of a doctor and, when Cyril was five, shortly after his father’s retirement from the sea, the family moved in to a house on Doctor Cooke’s property which included suitable grounds for a young boy to get up to mischief. Five years later he was packed off to boarding school and quickly learned to hide his loneliness under a cheery exterior. A sickly boy, having suffered rheumatism and tonsillitis by the time he was six, Cyril’s early years were plagued by periods at home recuperating. He was quite content to coast along at school but, after being read the riot act prior to his final year, managed to top the class.

Flying was never far from Cyril’s mind with models and the like consuming a lot of his pocket money. He was a student of the political situation in Europe and read Mein Kampf at an early age so as to understand the situation in Germany. His first application to the RAF was rejected due to a heart murmur (classed as unfit for any service), the legacy of his rheumatism, but he refused to be defeated. He worked his body hard to strengthen his heart and studied engineering to satisfy his appetite for all things technical. A second application, with some family assistance, was successful.

Cyril learned to fly the Miles Magister rather than the ubiquitous Tiger Moth. He was the first of his class to go solo and, to his ever-present surprise, excelled in the air. After a stint at No. 12 SFTS, Cyril was posted to RAF Kemble. There he flew a surprising variety of aircraft ranging from the Miles Master to the Harvard, Hurricane, Tomahawk, Blenheim and, because he had done schoolboy French, the Martin Maryland. He suspected he was being groomed to fly anything with little to no instruction. When he was posted to Africa, a month later, his suspicions were confirmed. His destination was the ‘armpit’ of Africa and the beginning of the Takoradi Route.

Rather than risk the Mediterranean passage, or the long voyage around Africa to the southern end of the Suez Canal, aircraft were shipped to Takoradi, in present-day Ghana, assembled and flown to Egypt and the war. The trip usually took four or five days and twenty flying hours. Cyril arrived in Africa with 31.5 flying hours in his logbook! The flights were over vast tracts of “Unexplored Territory” where flying a single engine aircraft was not the wisest thing to do. But, there was a war on, and Cyril began his first ferry, with several other Hurricanes and a Blenheim lead, in early November 1941.

In February 1942, however, he contracted malaria and confined to bed. He was back flying before the end of the month, not without incident, and it was in mid-March that he was detailed to fly a Blenheim to Iraq. His return to Egypt was hampered by the weather so he accepted the job of flying a Blenheim to Singapore. Singapore. In March 1942. Fortunately, given his destination, the formation got lost on the way to Karachi and he ended up landing on the coast where the Blenheim nosed over in soft sand and Cyril suffered a severe back injury that would leave him in almost constant pain.

The malaria returned in late June and Cyril was in and out of hospital until being ordered home in mid-September. It was while in the transit camp that he accepted the task of leading 25 RAF NCOs on board the Cunard liner, the Mauretania. They were to escort 500 German prisoners to San Francisco! Cyril, of course, continued across the US by train before boarding a Belgian freighter not suited for a North Atlantic crossing. He was flying Wellingtons by April 1943, Halifaxes in November and then Lancasters before joining No. 576 Squadron. He flew his first operation, to Berlin, on January 1, 1944, and on the night of January 5/6 he flew his third.

Cyril appeared to take to his new role like the proverbial duck to water but he was on borrowed time. After each trip, due to his back injury, it would take him considerable time to get feeling back in his legs and it was only the wait for the ride to debriefing that helped him straighten up. He was finally grounded in April and once again re-trained but this time as an Intelligence Officer. His first posting was Prestwick in Scotland where he met his future wife. He was then posted to Burma to help repatriate POWs and, more or less, tie up loose ends on behalf of the RAF there. On his return to the UK, in mid-1946, he married Elizabeth, re-commenced his engineering degree and eventually moved to Australia in the 1950s. Quite the journey.

Wings Of The Dawn is a flowing read that is much more than a memoir about a Lancaster pilot. This short period of operational flying is easily the most dangerous of Cyril’s wartime flying, and is a very popular subject at present, but the real strength of this book is the time spent in Africa. It is a rare account and to be delivered with so much detail, ably supported by excellent diary extracts, with equal effort given to describing the flying, landscape and the people, makes it almost feel like a privilege to read. Africa is still a wild place in parts and has now been crisscrossed by many aircraft but, in Cyril’s time, when the maps contained areas of “Unexplored Territory” bordered by accurate coastal details, to fly the Takoradi Route was akin to flying across the great oceans albeit with several fuel stops thrown in.

The African flying is what really drew me in to this book. However, the hook had already been set by the 100 pages of pre-war life. Not only was it the most entertaining and informative that I had read for quite some time but it was written in a way that it was easy to keep track of Cyril’s large family. It was a strict and structured home life but the Johnson family was supportive and loving and, from several discussions with the author, clearly remains so to this day. Such a welcome commitment to recording the years before the war is only ever seen in biographies that set out to lay a life bare.

The book has been written to be approachable to all ages but particularly to younger generations who are encouraged to ask after their older relatives and discover the lives they have led. Consequently, Cyril’s time as a Lancaster pilot section is effectively Bomber Command 101. All of the basics are explained from bomb loads and crew positions to Pathfinders, corkscrews and being chased by the sun home. It is all pretty standard stuff and perhaps the weakest part of the book because it feels more like an essay than Cyril’s experiences. It is, however, necessary if a reader unfamiliar with this form of warfare is to form some sort of an idea of just what was encountered at night over Germany. There are some superb gems from Cyril scattered throughout, though, and the most powerful is his description of the worst part of any op. It was not the flak or being coned or the risk of collision. It was that moment, after debriefing, when the crews shuffled in to breakfast. There, as they sat at their usual tables, they would watch and wait for other crews to come in. Some tables would remain empty and that was what got to Cyril the most, perhaps more so than the constant, almost debilitating pain from his back. The tables would not remain empty for long as replacement crews arrived but it was very much “There but for the grace of God go I”.

The review copy I read is the first edition of this book.  Several typos were found and some of the photo captions required more work or, quite simply, correcting. As each printing is sold out, the author orders more from Steve Lewis’ excellent Digital Print Australia in Adelaide. WOTD has sold so well that it is now in its sixth edition and with each printing the author and publisher have spent hours rectifying issues to the point that the current edition is about as spot on as a book can be. The Bomber Command section I read could also be tightened but to do so would only really benefit those familiar with the subject and that is not what this book is about. A thick, solid paperback printed on good quality paper, it is full of unique photos from Cyril’s collection that have been reproduced well. I would love to see this picked up by a publisher in the UK.

WOTD’s cover suggests this is another Bomber Command book and on that alone it will be read. In doing so, the discovery that it is more than that will be made. Most importantly, the life of a man, a talented but modest aviator, whose legacy is a family who shares his love of flying, is recounted with astute attention to detail in the hope his story, his history, inspires others to delve into their family’s past. Cyril, who passed away on his 95th birthday in January, will always be alive in this book and he will always be an inspiration.

ISBN 978-192120716-7

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