The Hero Maker – a biography of Paul Brickhill
Reviewed by Ian Lipke
There must be some value in this biography of Paul Brickhill for the London Times, when writing about the author Stephen Dando-Collins, reports that “He set a standard in the telling of popular war stories which has never been surpassed”. For this reason I wanted to delve into the story of Paul Brickhill and determine whether there were any such grounds for such an accolade. I had read Brickhill’s books on the escape of fifty-odd POWs from a German prison, the story of Guy Gibson and his dam-busting raid on Germany, and the thrilling story of Douglas Bader. I had never read that Paul Brickhill’s own life story had anything in it that would trigger a biography. I was waiting to be convinced.
There was never any doubt that Brickhill was an exciting writer. He could tell a story that oozed authenticity. Checking his facts as he presented them supported the authority of his writing. One had to be an expert in a particular field to identify any insignificant detail where the truth differed from the telling. Dando-Collins has identified such discrepancies, some not insignificant at all. For example, “Brickhill failed to tell his readers that half Stalag Luft 3’s North Compound inmates wanted nothing to do with the mass escape, while many others had to be press-ganged into involvement” (376). Brickhill’s estimate that five million Germans were forced to leave what they were doing to search for the escapees has no basis in fact. Dando- Collins calls Brickhill’s book The Great Escape “a work embodying distortions and misrepresentations” (376).
Dando-Collins reveals that Guy Gibson grew big-headed after his success with the destruction of the Moehne and other dams, so much so that, on taking control of another command, his pilots stripped him of his trousers and tossed him out into the open. He was also a well-known philanderer. None of these incidents appears in The Dam Busters. The book simply glosses over unpalatable facts. According to one authority that Dando-Collins quotes, Douglas Bader was a psychopath. Brickhill did not hold back on the mental instability that Bader exhibited, but nevertheless there is a large slice of the British public who see Bader as a hero largely because of Brickhill’s book.
Stephen Dando-Collins did not set out to bag Paul Brickhill. The latter was a popular author whose life story before he became known for his books was full of interest. The book spends the first sixty or so pages tossing around setting backgrounds and introducing the players. When the reader’s frustration levels are at last gasp, Dando-Collins finally throws the light on the Brickhill story from about page 62 when his subject is assigned a place in the cockpit of a Spitfire. The story having gained pace the reader can now follow events as they unfold including Brickhill’s life as a POW. Brickhill’s contribution to the tunnel making is described in full and carries an authentic feel. The zeal with which Roger Bushell pushed ahead with major tunnelling work threw into focus that Bushell had his own secrets. Brickhill does not shy away from giving his heroes a standard to live up to. He does not retreat from writing that Brickhill had a fear of confined spaces and, at war’s end, could no longer fly an aeroplane. “[It] was so nerve-racking for Bricknell that he cringed in terror” (150).
Dando-Collins reveals that the grim news that fifty of his colleagues had been murdered by the Gestapo was the reason why Brickhill decided to ensure every aspect of their deaths would be investigated. This he proceeded to do. While Bricknell interrogated every aspect of behaviour with a judicious eye, he was unable to focus on the lives of people close to him. Del (a woman from his youth) carried a torch for him until his marriage extinguished it and his wife, Margot, was unable to persuade him that she needed him too. He appears in Dando-Collins’ book to be a man who could not deal with close interpersonal relations just as he could not reign in his tobacco and alcohol intake and his wild mood swings.
Dando-Collins reports on the hospitalisation of Brickhill in 1962 when he is in the midst of a divorce wrangle with his wife Margot. This narration is sensitively written. It is non-judgmental, but it is thorough. Brickhill leaves hospital on a cocktail of drugs and denies he had a medical condition, a response he remains with during the stressful divorce from Margot.
A major strength of Dando-Collins is his final chapter, a resume of his observations. This chapter is so well written that it stands among the greats. His final paragraph is one I wish were my own. The reader should buy the book and savour that summing-up chapter at the end.
The Hero Maker
By Stephen Dando-Collins
Vintage Books/ Penguin-Randomhouse
ISBN: 978-0-85798-812- 6