Written by Martin W Bowman
Pen & Sword 2013, Pen & Sword Aviation Ltd, Barnsley South Yorkshire
£25.00, 236 pp, ill, footnotes, index
ISBN Number: 9781783831951
This work by the prolific aviation historian Martin W Bowman covers the careers of many men of the Royal Flying Corps who were forced to land or crashed in such a way that they became prisoners of war. The book gives excellent detail on the careers and events that led to the capture of these airmen and it also describes the setting in which prisoners of war found themselves. He quotes Captain Eckersley of the 8th Surrey Regiment who described being a prisoner of war as: "that gloomy general background of monotonous waiting and wasting", and it was undoubtedly a relatively mundane existence. No longer spending their time attacking the Germans, the men who were prisoners of war now had to depend, almost exclusively, on their foes for existence. Escape was not for all, but for many it was a dream and for some it was something they were determined to do. For many it served as a distraction, something to feel positive about, something to continuously exercise the mind over.
The book describes the planning, and execution of many escapes, and the recaptures of many men. Persistent escapers were seen as a bad influence on the men who would not consider escaping and were often sent to one of a number of special camps from which escape was considered almost impossible. What that did was to concentrate in one camp a number of men of like mind, determination, cunning and expertise. So these men would rise to the challenge as escape was seen as a duty. Officers who were prisoners of war sensed that it was a duty to try and return to military service by escaping, as being a prisoner of war had taken them away from the role of being able to strike at the enemy. Officers were not made to work like other ranks and were more likely to get red cross parcels. These parcels often contained small concealed items like a compass to aid escape. So officers were often found to be planning and executing escape attempts. If captured the punishment was usually solitary confinement but those who had taken part in the escape knew that it had caused much diversion of German resources in trying to recapture those who had escaped.
The book also looks at the incredible bravery of men bringing a badly damaged aircraft into land. This hopefully would occur on the allied side of the trenches but did happen in "no-mans land". Such an event would mean they had to try and land without injury so they could make a dash for the British lines and avoid capture. A downed airman was expected to take all necessary steps to destroy is aircraft - no mean feat when you have just crash landed and the enemy are taking pot shots at you.
The book is a delightful mixture of stories about famous names and Bowman manages to make the stories come alive with well researched and interesting snippets many of which I had never heard before. He describes how Harry Beaumot originally in the Royal West Kent Regiment and later the Royal Flying Corps, was injured and at some point was aided to escape by Nurse Edith Cavell and Beaumont was the 83rd prisoner she helped escape but only the 13th to make a home run. Edith Cavell was involved in some 200 escapes and Bowman devotes a whole chapter to her story, explaining how she was shot by the Germans for treason and not for espionage.
Later he writes about Billy Bishop VC and the events of the so called King of the Fighter Aces, Mick Mannock VC who was an incredible pilot despite only having one good eye. We hear about Andrew McKeever and his daring exploits; the adventures of Lawrence Wingfield MC DFC and his capture and daring escape covering 90 miles in ten days. I like the final quote by Wingfield "I was decorated twice once for being shot down and once for running away".
The book has enlightening descriptions of the impact the arrival of airships and aerial bombing had on the civilian population and how Leefe Robinson VC changed the game. Following his airship victory over the Schutte-Lanz (S L 11) he went on to serve in 48 Squadron and was shot down by Festre. He became a keen escaper but ended up being badly treated by the Germans and spent a lot of time doing solitary confinement which had a serious impact on his general health.
Canadian Raymond Collishaw DSC DFC DSO, who benefited for extra flying tuition by John Alcock, was shot down several times, managing to land in the British sectors. Once he managed to land in thick fog at German aerodrome and on realising made a quick get away!
James McCudden VC DSO MC MM was given more gallantry medals than any other British national in the Great War. His exploits were amazing, and well detailed in this book, sadly he was killed in flying accident.
Bowman goes on to describe the exploits of 8 USAF airmen whose stories and exploits are quite fascinating. These chapters are a series of stories that highlight the contribution of the Americans in the Great War and are stories that are somewhat neglected by many British authors. He covers the careers and fate of these men in detail.
Overall this is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed as it gave those little extra bits of information about what took place in the air and on the ground during the Great War. It reveals the true grit and determination these men had. They may have failed to escape once but there was always a second chance and they would take it, irrespective of the odds being stacked against them every time.
Martin Bowman continues to show he is a professional author who spends time researching, checking and verifying his facts.
My copy had a few proof reading errors but not enough to mar my delight and enjoyment of reading this book. I would consider this would make an excellent gift for anyone who has an interest in these events in the air and on the ground.
Reviewed by Peter Garwood