Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
What makes a hero? Ralph Waldo Emerson thought that “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.” Tom Hanks once played the role of an ordinary man who fought behind German lines during the liberation of France: “A hero is somebody who voluntarily walks into the unknown.”
After successfully negotiating Sydney’s Knox Grammar and two years of Sydney University, 20 year old Barnaby Ryder Greatrex was faced with a dilemma. He could easily have continued his studies but he chose a different path. He volunteered for the RAAF. For in late 1941, the European war had arrived on Australia’s northern doorstep and many young men and women were enlisting.
Intelligent, reserved, quiet and slim – a man with self-control and a man to be relied on. After two years of training, travel and interminable waiting, on a clear October night, Barney and six airmen took off for Hamburg on their first bombing mission. The same seven were still together four months later in mid-winter when the foreseeable happened – their giant Lancaster was targeted and crashed in flames. Barney found himself uninjured but alone in enemy-occupied France. He could not even be sure which country he was in, let alone how to speak the language.
The next eight months must have felt like an eternity. Barney’s day to day existence was fraught, to say the least. Linking up with a French resistance group, he elected to stay and help them rather than retreat to England. Later, when allied officers were parachuted in to train the resistance fighters, he once again volunteered to assist.
Always outnumbered and outgunned by the Germans, Barney and his new colleagues managed to stay alive through one crisis after another and then had to endure weeks of shelling by the advancing allies who, for all practical purposes, were unaware of their presence.
There is no doubting the author’s credentials to assemble disparate scraps of information and make them coherent. In the last decade, Michael Veitch (aka Wayne, Fast Forward’s histrionic airline steward) has turned his considerable writing skills to five “critically acclaimed accounts of Australian pilots in World War II”. In the same period he has even found time to write two maritime books.
It is a straightforward account, unembellished by authorial deliberations about the nature of war. The book’s descriptions speak for themselves in that regard; replete as they are with dates, places, people and events.
The focus is unashamedly on Barney’s war service – and particularly the single year spent in, or over, enemy territory. The style is more like a prose diary, interspersed with facts about the war and backstories about some of his colleagues and new friends in France. Occasionally, his thoughts are shared:
“Barney had lost count of the number of times he had dodged disaster and oblivion, but at each realisation that he was still on earth, he had that nagging voice once again asking, ‘Why me?’ Still he was no closer to an answer, and at that moment he felt that if the power was his to change places with anyone of his crew, he would do so without a heartbeat’s hesitation.”
In the few pages devoted to his postwar years, Barney is an indistinct figure and we never really come to know how the war has marked him. Michael Veitch gives us some clues – a recent photo at the war graves; annotations in war records and insights from friends and family. An introspective person, the book has allowed the most central part of his war story to be told in the detail and style that he deserves. And we are the beneficiaries.
In a 2014 interview by his great Nephew, Barney said “the war turned me upside down in my view of life”. His thoughts were always with the many people he met – his best memories were the French people who sheltered him and worst was the loss of his crew. And he returned many times to be with them and to pay his respects.
These people – young and old, male and female, military and civilian – were thrust into life and death situations and seldom, if ever, shirked their responsibility or boasted about their courage.
On D-Day, General Eisenhower sent a message for all dormant resistance cells to spring to life and harass the Germans. When his French resistance leader began the round up, Barney was not obliged to help, but was in no doubt as to his duty:
“Orders had come to mobilise, and now was the time. Turning to Barney, he looked at him squarely with his dark and powerful eyes. ‘Will you stay here or will you march to victory?’
“Shaking, but without a moment’s hesitation, Barney placed his hand solemnly on his heart. ‘Je marcherai avec vous.’”
In one of his many debriefings, Barney recounts his escape from the Lancaster bomber to a trio of sceptical British officers:
“’What you are telling us Greatrex is quite extraordinary.’ The three of them looked at Barney now in silence, but at least, he could see, they believed him.
“’I guess,’ he added, ‘I was just very lucky.’”
Whatever it was that kept Barney unscathed for all that time, Michael Veitch’s timely account suggests that it was more than mere luck. Barney is a hero in a book full of heroes.
By Michael Veitch