The Last Navigator by Paul Goodwin

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Reviewed by Rod McLary

Gordon Goodwin – the last navigator of the title and father to the author – was born in 1918 in Queensland.  His own father Ralph saw his three children ‘as mere chattels to give him the lifestyle he deserved’ [2] and treated them as ‘Indian coolies’ [2] with heavy use of the strap for even minor misdemeanours.

The Depression – beginning in late 1929 – brought out the worst in both parents.  The family was a loveless environment with both parents ‘distant and bitter’ [7]

At age twelve, Gordon was taken out of school and made to work fulltime on the family farm.  It was a loss that resonated through the years for Gordon as not only did he lose the only relief from the ‘tedium and repressive kingdom’ [2] created by his father but he also lost the opportunity for further study.  His lack of formal education is a theme to which he returns time and again through this story.

Fortunately, his mother’s brother – Uncle Stan – saw what was being done and brought Gordon to Bundaberg where he began work in the Bundaberg Sugar Mill.  As Gordon said when given this opportunity ‘my heart soared as I contemplated my release and dared to imagine this other life’ [10].  He undertook further study related to his job and realised that he did have ability and intelligence and it was this realisation which prompted him to join the part-time militia in 1939 as the premonition of war echoed around Australia.

In early 1940, Australia was committed to providing 28,000 aircrew over a three-year period to maintain the Royal Air Force in Britain.  Gordon volunteered and following a rigorous selection process was chosen and commenced training in Bradfield Park in October 1940.  By late December 1940, he was sailing to Canada for the second stage of his training.  In August 1941, he had successfully completed his training and was flying to England as a qualified navigation officer.

It is from this point in his story that Gordon recounts his experiences in war-time England. 

In March 1942, Gordon experienced his first operation in a Wellington Bomber and its target was the German port of Emden.  In all, Gordon undertook 32 Pathfinder missions – including nine over Berlin – and 65 missions with Bomber Command.  As the name suggests, Pathfinders had the onerous and dangerous task of leading the bombing raids into Germany. 

In June 1942, Gordon was commissioned pilot officer and became a navigation instructor; by October 1943, Gordon was promoted to squadron leader and then led the formation of a new Pathfinder Squadron.  The completion of 65 missions led to his being awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

There is no doubt that he was a highly skilled and resourceful navigator – in August 1942, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal by King George VI and received it at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

The level of training he underwent and his capacity to fully absorb the elements of that training allowed Gordon to not only survive the war but after demobilisation to move onto a successful career with Qantas.  It is in this latter career that he earned the informal title of ‘the last navigator’.  By the time he approached his retirement from Qantas, technology had advanced so much that there was a no longer a need for a flight navigator.  Radar and the inertial navigation system [INS] ‘sounded the death knell for [his] profession’ [297].

The Last Navigator provides a personal and at times quite powerful account of Gordon’s wartime experiences.  It is leavened to some extent by his recounting of his meeting and later marrying Joy.  Gordon and Joy were introduced in April 1942 and Gordon ‘could not account for the strong bond which formed between us after such a fleeting connection’ [83].  The trajectory of the relationship – culminating in their marriage in May 1944 – provides a welcome counter-point to the somewhat clinical description of the various missions which Gordon undertakes.

The shortcoming – perhaps – in Gordon’s story is his dispassionate recounting of events: whether he is describing his harsh and unhappy life as a child with his parents, the death of friends and colleagues shot down by German fighter planes, the heavy loss of civilian life as a consequence of the carpet bombing of key German targets by the Royal Air Force, or even the birth of his two sons.

Gordon describes one mission in the following terms – seeming to regret that the destruction would not be greater:

Wreckage, rubble, death and destruction came from our every expedition, but Berlin no longer contained sufficient close building structure to support the cataclysm of fire that had destroyed Cologne and Hamburg. [195]

He also says:

The mantra of winning at all costs had no room for morality or moderation if Allied victory was to be ensured and Nazi domination avoided. [246]

Maybe, at the end of the war, the moral questioning was just the propriety of politics at play.  [259]

Overall, The Last Navigator offers an insight into the challenges facing the individual airmen of the Royal Air Force as they defended Britain against Nazi Germany during the Second World War.  The considerable risks – which they faced every time they flew a mission – of being shot down over a foreign country and the outcome being either death or capture are set out for the reader.  Some readers may take issue with Gordon’s attitude to the destruction but this may be justified by his harsh upbringing and later by the vicissitudes of wartime and the very real threat that England would be invaded by Germany.

Gordon wrote his memoirs and completed them in 1997 when he was 80.  His son Paul – the author – says of the memoirs: ‘they were fairly emotionless as if he could not really allow himself the perceived indulgence of his good fortune’ [xx].  Gordon died on 21 July 2012 aged 94 years.  His wife Joy died two months later.

This book is a ‘collaboration between father and son’ but it is ‘written in [Gordon’s] voice as it is his story’.

The Last Navigator

[2020]

by Paul Goodwin

with Gordon Goodwin

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 1 74087 743 9

$32.99; 327pp

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