Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two, by Daniel Swift, Hamish Hamilton RRP£20, 304 pages
The ripples of a death in combat passing through a family are expressed beautifully in Daniel Swift’s Bomber County. On June 11 1943, the author’s grandfather, Acting Squadron Leader James Eric Swift and his crew took off in a Lancaster bomber as part of an RAF raid on Munster in Germany. Swift was a highly experienced pilot, but that night his luck ran out and he was shot down.
Six days later, his body washed up on a beach in Holland. He was 30 years old and left behind a wife and a little boy – the author’s father. Daniel Swift turns to his own field of expertise as a critic and teacher of English Literature to tell the story of his grandfather in parallel with an account of wartime poets and authors.
Unlike the first world war, which produced the universally praised work of Wilfred Owen and others, the writers of the second world war seem to have agonised over the appropriateness of their literary responses – and in many ways this book proves they were right to doubt their abilities. Virginia Woolf and Stephen Spender find an abstract beauty in the blitz destruction that seems curiously callous. Swift quotes more successful writers of wartime poetry, but many of their descriptions seem needlessly elaborate in the wake of simpler, non-literary accounts. One of the most moving passages is written by the author’s own father. “Having always vaguely imagined as a child that my father might have survived the war,” he wrote, “shot down and memory lost – this idea firmly rooted itself in my mind when I moved to France. I had fantasies about the day I would meet him and recognise him. Sometimes he recognised me, and stopped me in the street.”
This image of a young man moving to France in the hope of bumping into his missing Dad lingers in my mind long after I have forgotten the more forced literary conceits quoted by Swift. Perhaps that is the intention of the author all along. As he notes in his description of his archival research for the book, the Operations Record Books of Bomber Command are “like the finest poetry, most moving when most precise”.
Inside a shoebox holding his grandfather’s Distinguished Flying Cross and other remnants, Swift uncovers a book called Air Force Poetry. It contains verse written by serving pilots. “I have never read a more mortal book than this one,” notes Swift. Of the 33 airmen who contributed to it, six had been killed by the time it was published.
Tim Newark is the author of ‘Highlander: the History of the Legendary Highland Soldier’ (Constable)