Bird's Eye View: Read An Excerpt

Today I’m departing from my usual format to bring you a chapter of my newly-released book, Bird’s Eye View. Briefly, it's the story of a farm girl from Saskatchewan who joins the air force, goes overseas in World War Two, and becomes an aerial photo interpreter. I hope you enjoy this excerpt and I look forward to your comments.

 

                     BIRD'S EYE VIEW

                              CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

“Rose, we have a serious problem.” I was roused from my concentration as Tommy Thompson, head of the target section, stepped up to my desk. He dropped a sheaf of photographs at my elbow. “I’m blessed if I know what to make of these.”

Lately I had begun to work more closely with the target section. Their task was formidable: whenever a bombing mission was laid on, they prepared a target folder for each of the seven men in a bomber crew. In a large raid, this amounted to thousands of folders. Each folder contained a map, an information sheet with every scrap of knowledge about the route and the enemy defences along the way, and a photograph of the target itself, sometimes using one of Sally’s models.

“What’s the matter, Tommy?”

“There was a raid last night on a factory manufacturing aircraft parts, located in a German town called Walburg. It’s a deucedly dangerous target, because the bombers have to run the gauntlet through a path of anti-aircraft guns. The town itself is well-marked by a bend in the Walburg River. The weather was clear last night, unfortunately, and the bombers were sitting ducks. Quite heavy losses, both going over and coming home.” He ran his hand through his thinning hair. “Now here’s the odd bit. The boys claim they dropped their bombs right on target. But today’s assessment from bomb damage says there’s no sign of an explosion in Walburg. The town’s still standing, the factory chimneys smoking, everything is business as usual.”

I thought for a minute before asking the obvious questions.

“There’s no chance the recce aircraft took photos of another town instead?”

“None whatsoever. You know the recce pilots are far more reliable than the bombers. They don’t even need landmarks. They just set their instruments and fly straight to the target like a bullet.”

“You’ve checked with the darkroom — could bomb damage have gotten an earlier batch of negatives?”

“That would probably be a hanging offence, but I’ve confirmed with them, yes. This was the film they were given this morning, straight out of the magazines.”

“And there’s no chance the bombers missed the target altogether, and tried on a bit of a cover-up.” I hesitated. “You know how they do sometimes.”

“Who can blame them, poor chaps?” Tommy shook his head. “But in this case, I don’t think so. Dozens of aircrew have the same story — they reached the target, dropped the bombs, and headed for home. If somebody’s fudging, they usually spout tales of fighters coming out of nowhere, or unexpected lightning storms, or some other excuse. Besides, even the Pathfinders agree: they arrived on schedule, identified the target, and dropped the flares.”

When Fowler returned from lunch, I requested permission to devote the rest of the day to Walburg. First, I studied the early photos included in the target folders: they were months old, and not the best images, but perfectly readable. There was the bend in the river, and the tall, distinctive smokestacks of the aircraft factory visible on the northern edge of town. In the town square was the graceful spire of a church.

Then I lined up the photographs taken the morning after the raid. As I studied them, pair by pair, I noted the bend in the river and the smokestacks. The church spire was clearly visible.

I lifted my head from the stereoscope and rubbed my eyes. Well, bomb damage was correct: there wasn’t a sign of destruction. The roads, the roofs — even the grey tones of the grass and trees, usually the first to show any change resulting from exploding bombs — were absolutely intact.

Sometimes if I left things alone for a bit I could see them with fresh eyes. I pushed back my chair and went downstairs to the model section.

Unlike my own section room, this was a lively and colourful place. Pots of paint and rolls of paper littered the room; the floor was dotted with bits of plaster.

Sally was at work, looking quite at home. Her sleeves were rolled up and her tie was crooked. Wisps of hair had come undone from her coronet of braids, and there was a smear of green paint on her chin. She was bent over a huge model, holding a tool that resembled a cake decorator.

“Hello, Rose! Hang on, I’ll be finished in two ticks.”

Today she was completing a model of Berlin, eight by ten feet on a plywood base with contoured hills, buildings, and miniature trees. The skin of the model — photographs of the area, shot to scale — were glued over the contours; then the model was delicately painted by hand. Since the photos were black and white, the colours had to be guessed, based on tone and texture.

“What on earth is that thing you’re holding?”

Sally flourished a canvas bag with a nozzle on one end. “We call it the hedger. We use it to squeeze green paint onto all the hedgerows. We were jolly grateful when some bright spark came up with this one, I can tell you! I never knew there were so many hedges in Europe until I had to paint them by hand.”

She leaned over and gave the hedger a gentle squeeze while I strolled around the model, making admiring sounds. “It’s good, isn’t it?” she asked. “See those wee sailboats on the lake? I couldn’t figure out what to use for masts until Tommy came along and I had a brainstorm and I said, ‘Yank out a couple of those gorgeous bristly moustache hairs and hand them over!’”

“Brilliant.” I envied her enthusiasm. Sally was often able to forget the war and pretend she was still in art school.

“Stay right there and I’ll show you something.” She ran around the room, closing the blackout drapes and shutting off the overhead lights, then flicking on a yellow floodlight in one corner. The golden light streamed over the model, filling the contours with shadows.

“That’s what our boys will see when they fly over the city under a full moon.” The model was eerie in the dim glow. I could almost imagine how the aircrews felt when they saw their target from miles above.

“This morning we ran a movie camera hung on a clothesline across the ceiling, as if it were flying through the sky, and showed the film to the air crews. We made it more realistic by using a smoke machine to fill the air with little black puffs of smoke, just like flak.”

I studied the model. “How much of it is guesswork? I mean, how do you know where the tramlines run?” The model showed tiny tram cars sitting on rails along the streets.

“We used photographs of Berlin, about two thousand of them, and we collected tourist snapshots, maps, anything we could scrounge. One fellow even brought in a couple of postcards from the 1936 Olympic Games.”

I didn’t answer. I was studying the model, lost in thought. Suddenly I headed for the door. “See you later, Sally, I must run. You’ve given me an idea.”

I dashed up the stairs and down the hall to the print library. “Do you have anything on Walburg, Germany?” I asked the reference clerk.

While I waited for her to check, I gazed around the room, marvelling at the vast quantity of printed information stored on the floor-to-ceiling shelves: maps, guidebooks, newspapers, and reference books. We had often been able to enhance our findings here — even an old theatre ticket, with a sketch of an opera house, had been added to a target folder.

The clerk handed me a slender file. “Not much here, I’m afraid. It was just a sleepy little town before the war.”

I thanked her, and took the file back to my desk. I opened it and began to sort through the scanty information. Here was a map, showing the town of Walburg. Nothing I didn’t already know — it showed the distinctive bend in the river, the town tucked into the curve.

Here was a brief description, cadged from some pre-war British textbook: “The village of Walburg was founded in the eleventh century. Like many others, it was settled near the river to allow for ease of transportation. Walburg was incorporated as a town in 1473, and has not grown significantly since that time. The population is around three thousand.”

I picked up the next sheet of paper. This was a newspaper advertisement for a winery, located on the edge of the town. It contained no useful information.

The fourth and final item in the file was a postcard of Walburg’s main street, taken during some sort of festival. The two-storey buildings with their dark crossed beams swept down to the river’s edge, where a narrow bridge supported by three stone arches stretched across the water.

In the foreground were two laughing women wearing dirndl skirts, and a little blond boy in lederhosen. I studied the postcard, wondering how the good folks of Walburg were coping with the bombing. On the other hand, perhaps they weren’t having to cope at all. If the reconnaissance photographs were correct, they hadn’t experienced so much as a scare.

I closed the file. Not much to go on here. I’d better examine the photographs again. I bent over my stereoscope.

By five o’clock my head was throbbing. I hadn’t found any explanation for the discrepancy. There were two options: either the bomber crews or the reconnaissance pilots were mistaken.

I knew the recce pilots were far less likely to make an error. They weren’t dodging flak, and they had time to do pinpoint navigation. The bombers must have dropped their loads on a town that resembled Walburg. But where?

I returned to the library and requested cover of the area around Walburg. It had been photographed months earlier, before the Germans had installed their heavy defences.

I pored over the photographs. The river flowed straight as an arrow through the countryside, leading to Walburg like a shining path. Another town called Neustadt stood on the riverbank, about twenty miles west of Walburg and closer to Britain, but it wasn’t located in a river bend.

It was inconceivable that the bombers weren’t even close to the target. Yet that must be what had happened. They must have bombed another town — in another part of Germany, perhaps even another country, heaven knows where.

I walked slowly down the hallway to the target section. Tommy looked up when I came in. “Anything?”

I shook my head. “Afraid not. I can’t come up with a single reason except pilot error. If you like, I’ll go over to the airfield with you when you meet Fanshawe.”

“Would you, Rose? I could use the moral support.”

We went down the broad mahogany staircase and hailed a transport vehicle parked outside. On our way over to the recce unit, we didn’t speak. The atmosphere was heavy with dread.

Within minutes we entered the office building next to the main runway where two men were waiting: Adrian Stone, and the formidable Group Captain Albert Fanshawe of bomber command. Fanshawe was an officer of the old school: full military moustache, medals pinned across his barrel chest, spine as straight as a plumb line.

Hesitantly, Tommy explained to Fanshawe that photographic interpretation concluded the bombers had missed the target. The captain’s face darkened.

“Balls!” he shouted. “Are you trying to tell me that even the Pathfinders missed the target? Followed by more than one hundred skilled pilots and navigators? What the hell were they aiming at, then?”

Tommy’s voice was tense. “We’ve examined the photographs at great length, sir. We haven’t been able to find an alternative target. There’s nothing in the area that resembles Walburg, not even slightly.”

Fanshawe literally bared his teeth in a snarl. “Then obviously it must have been Walburg!”

“No, sir. The reconnaissance photographs are quite clear on that subject. Not a blade of grass has been disturbed.”

The group captain began to pace back and forth, hands behind his back. He appeared to be struggling to get a grip on himself before he spoke. When he did, it was in a low voice.

“I don’t think you people quite realize what’s at stake,” he said. “We must take out that factory unless we want the whole bleeding sky filled with German fighters.

“But there’s something else, something I feel even more strongly about. I have three hundred airmen under my command, and every one of them goes through a daily struggle — with emotions which I won’t even attempt to describe — in order to strap himself into that aircraft when his name comes up. The one and only thing that keeps him in the war is the conviction that he’s making progress! Do you understand?” Fanshawe stopped and glared at each of us in turn. His gaze rested on me longer than on the others.

“If I inform them that sixty-seven of their mates lost their lives in an absolutely futile gesture, a navigational error or some other balls-up, I’ll tell you what will happen. Those men will be angry and bitter. Within a week, some of them will lose their nerve and declare themselves unfit to fly. Or, if they want to avoid the shame of court martial and spare their families, they’ll ditch their kites over the Channel and we’ll cover up by calling it an accident.” Fanshawe’s voice was rising. “I cannot, and will not, tell them — contrary to the evidence of their own senses — that you so-called experts sitting over there in your ivory towers have come to the brilliant conclusion that they dropped their bombs on a town that doesn’t exist!”

The room was hushed. Adrian spoke first.

“Group Captain, I don’t know how to explain the mystery, but I will personally volunteer to fly another mission over the area to see if we can’t throw some light on the situation.”

Tommy rose from his chair and stood at attention. “Speaking on behalf of the interpreters, we understand your position, completely. All we can do is redouble our efforts.”

The meeting broke up with an exchange of salutes, very half-hearted on Fanshawe’s part. Darkness was falling, and the air outside the smoke-filled office was warm and scented with flowers.

During the silent trip back to the station, Fanshawe’s words repeated themselves inside my head. Once again, I was reminded that we were dealing with frightened boys far from home, risking their lives each night, eager to defeat the enemy, counting on us to send them in the right direction.

Had I been too quick to judge pilot error? Had I overlooked some tiny clue? I returned to the section room and began to study the photographs again.

*****

RAF Medmenham

August 10, 1943

Dear Charlie,

It was so nice to hear from you after all this time. I don’t write many letters. They keep my nose pretty close to the grindstone here. I wish I could tell you about my work because I know you would be interested.

My heartiest congratulations on getting the Distinguished Flying Cross. You’re a credit to dear old Touchwood. I read the account in the Times and it made my blood run cold. Please be careful and don’t take any chances, Charlie. I guess that’s a silly thing to say, but I mean it.

I don’t have much free time, but I love walking in the countryside. The hay fields are so lush, and the cattle are so sleek and fat. At least the animals aren’t suffering from the food shortage! The English farmers sure make the most of every last acre. I’d like to see what they could do in Canada with our farms. We have an embarrassment of riches.

I’m glad you’re happy in the new Canadian group. I hear the food is a lot better in the RCAF. Frankly, I never want to see another baked bean as long as I live! I don’t know how I would survive if it weren’t for Mother’s parcels.

The Americans here eat at their own mess. The Brits are still mad at them for coming into the war so late, but I think the real reason they resent the Yanks is that their food is so much better. The American mess even has steak and ice cream!

Jack’s been over here for a couple of months, but we haven’t been able to coordinate our leaves yet. June says her brother will be the next in line. Hard to believe he’s old enough to join up, he seems like such a kid. Well, I guess we are all a little older and wiser now.

As always, Rose

                           * * * * *

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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