From time to time, we’ll be talking to great Australian authors about their local history and what inspired them to start researching and writing their stories.
This week we talk to Peter Rees, author of Lancaster Men. Peter Rees was a journalist for more than forty years, working as federal political correspondent for the Melbourne Sun, the West Australian and the Sunday Telegraph. He is the author of The Boy from Boree Creek: The Tim Fischer Story (2001), Tim Fischer’s Outback Heroes (2002), Killing Juanita: a true story of murder and corruption (2004), and The Other Anzacs: The Extraordinary story of our World War I Nurses (2008 and 2009) and Desert Boy: Australians at War from Beersheba to Tobruk to El Alamein (2011 and 2012). He is currently working on a biography of Charles Bean to be published in 2015.
They were a highly trained band of elite flyers, yet their bravery has barely been recognised. More than 10,000 Australians served in Bomber Command in World War II, and although more than 30 per cent of them perished in the air, the survivors were greeted with scorn when they returned to Aussie shores. Accused of not doing their bit while the nation struggled with the possibility of Japanese invasion, their stories of battle went largely unnoticed. Peter Rees aims to rectify this with his latest terrific work. Told from the viewpoint of the aviators themselves, often through family memoirs, diaries and personal interviews, Lancaster Men is a compelling and engaging read.
A red mist formed as poppies tumbled from a Lancaster bomber flying low over London. As the flowers drifted down, more than 1000 airmen in their eighties and nineties watched and waited. They were Bomber Command veterans from World War II, and the poppies were deeply significant to them. Nearly seventy years after the end of the war, it is hard to comprehend the magnitude of the casualty figures for Bomber Command. More than 125,000 men from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada,
South Africa and Poland flew bombers against Nazi Germany. Almost half — 55,573 of them — were killed; poignantly, this was the precise number of poppies released from the plane.
Taken frrom the Prologue of Lancaster Men. Click here to read the full prologue.
IHM: Q. What inspired you to start researching and writing?
Peter: I saw the men of Bomber Command as having been marginalised by history. I wanted to explore why this happened, and what the effect of this had been.
IHM: Q. Which resources did you find most helpful?
Peter: b. Favourite library? The Australian War Memorial research centre.
IHM: Q. What resources did you come across when researching your book that haven’t been widely used?
IHM: Q. Was there any information you uncovered that stopped you in your tracks?
Peter: Two letters hidden away in the uncatalogued archives of the late Sir James Rowland. One was from a Frenchman and fellow captive in a Gestapo jail written to him after the war who played a key role in saving him from execution; the other was from one of the Luftwaffe officers who saved him from said execution by the Gestapo and written to Sir James in broken English decades later to congratulate him on his appointment as NSW Governor.
IHM: Q. Which stories affected you the most in the course of your research?
Peter: A poignant letter written by Flying Officer Colin Flockhart to his parents to be sent only if he was killed. The letter arrived after the news of his death. His sister described the family’s reaction to me.
IHM: Q. Which stories amused you the most in the course of your research?
Peter: The high jinks that the Australian airmen got up to when off duty.
IHM: Q. If you could track down one thing you haven’t yet managed to find out, what would it be?
Peter: To somehow get the go-ahead to crawl around inside a Lancaster aircraft.
IHM: Q. What’s your best tip for people wanting to write a history book of their own?
Peter: If possible, to talk to the people who lived through the event or period to help bring the story alive.
IHM: Q. How did you go about bringing the characters and stories to life?
Peter: By talking to those still alive, looking for little things about them; with those who had died, by drawing what I could from their memoirs, letters and diaries details that set them apart.
IHM: Q. How do you know when you’ve written a good book?
Peter: When there are no more loose ends to tidy up and the narrative feels right. The first paragraph has to make you want to read on by engaging the reader immediately. The narrative has to continue sustaining this, and the ending has to tie it all together.
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