Review of Serenade to the Big Bird

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Serenade to the Big Bird by Bert Stiles (4 stars)

I consider this book to be the best memoir of the American air campaign in Europe during World War Two. There are other fine memoirs but this is about the gut feelings of a young B-17 pilot and were I only going to read one memoir, I would read this one.

The reason? The author, First Lieutenant Bert Stiles, flew 35 bombing missions over Germany and German occupied Europe during the Spring and early Summer of 1944. After finishing his tour, he stayed in England and spent a month writing this extraordinary memoir.

Everything Stiles wrote about had just happened to him in the previous six months. His memories of fear, exhaustion, of boredom, German fighters and terror, of the death of friends and the subsequent sadness beyond words, of the drone of the engines on a B-17 and of how good a candy bar tasted after they were out of enemy territory; all of these memories were painfully fresh when he set them down.

And their effects on him were also fresh. He wrote about the time he came back from a mission during which he had seen at least a dozen B-17s from his Wing go down.

“…all those guys…all those good guys…shot to hell…or captured…then I came apart and cried like a little kid…”

This memoir has many virtues one of the most striking being that Stiles was a fine writer, a keen observer of human nature, and an extraordinary man with such a broad view of life that some of his observations seem out of place in not only one so young but in such a time as 1944.

Stiles was actually a pacifist but like many came to the conclusion that the Nazis threatened the entire concept of Western Civilization. This is a haunting memoir: amusing, ineffably sad, and brutally honest about the author’s emotions. At one point he was taking off active operations because he had become “flak happy.” That was the expression used in the day by the US Army Air Force for someone cracking-up from the stress.

From Serenade to the Big Bird:
“There are all kinds of people: senators and whores and barristers and bankers and dishwashers. There are Chinamen and Cockney’s and Gypsies and Negroes. There are Lesbians and cornhuskers and longshoremen. There are poets and lieutenants and shortstops and prime ministers. There are Yanks and Japs and poor whites…there are Germans and Melanesians and beggars and Holy Rollers…there are people.

And some day we are going to catch on, that no matter where people are born, or how their eyes slant, or what their blood type, they are just people…

They are not masses. They will not go on being slaves. They are just people, partly good, partly bad, mostly balancing out. And until we call them people, and know they are people, all of them, we are going to have a sick world on our hands.”
Bert Stiles had written a number of published articles and short stories before he wrote this memoir. He wanted to be a writer when the war was over. But that wasn’t to be. After completing his 35 missions in bombers, he could have gone back to the US as a flight instructor. Instead he volunteered to fly fighters which he did until he was killed in action on 26 November 1944 in a dogfight over Germany.

Stiles never saw his memoir published. He easily would have been one of the finest writers of his generation. Of the millions of small tragedies of World War Two and a lesson in how war kills men, and now women, indiscriminately.

If you want to buy the book you can click on the link in blue at the top of the page.

AVRO Lancaster–Best Four Engine Bomber of World War Two

 

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Avro Lancaster, best four engine strategic bomber of World War Two

Three Avro Lancaster B.Is of No. 44 Squadron, Royal Air Force, based at Waddington, Lincolnshire (UK), flying above the clouds. Left to right: W4125,`KM-W’, being flown by Sergeant Colin Watt, Royal Australian Air Force; W4162,`KM-Y’, flown by Pilot Officer T.G. Hackney (later killed while serving with No. 83 Squadron); and W4187,`KM-S’, flown by Pilot Officer J.D.V.S. Stephens DFM, who was killed with his crew two nights later during a raid on Wismar. (

Photo taken 29 Septmember 1942 and courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

posted by author Charles McCain.

 

Royal Air Force Pigeon Service: Bomber Command’s Emergency GPS

Homing Pigeons, the Emergency GPS of Bomber Command
Who Could Make This Up?

Yes, the Royal Air Force deployed homing pigeons or carrier pigeons on bombers as well as amphibious patrol planes in the event the planes had to ditch in the sea. Theoretically, the carrier pigeons served as a method of emergency communication to send the position of the downed plane.  

Checklist: Bombs? Check. Fuel? Check. Pigeons? Check.

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Crewmen of Consolidated Liberator GR Mark VA, BZ818 ‘C’, of No. 53 Squadron RAF handling carriers containing homing pigeons at St Eval, Cornwall, after a patrol over the Bay of Biscay. Sergeant J Knapp of Toronto, Canada, (in the hatchway) hands a carrier to Sergeant W Tatum of London, while Warrant Officer A Mackinnon of Auckland, New Zealand, holds a second carrier. (circa 1943. Caption and photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

RAF Pigeon service

The RAF Pigeon Service was established shortly before World War Two because RAF reconnaissance aircraft had begun flying longer missions and spending far more time patrolling over the ocean. If they got in trouble, radio communication from an aircraft worked relatively well as long as the aircraft was flying at a minimum altitude of 5,000 feet. Radio transmission was better the higher your plane was, especially if you were at the limit of your range.

If the RAF controllers in the emergency radio section received your transmission it was possible to get a good fix on your position.  But this only worked if the plane was in the air. Once below a certain altitude and most certainly after they hit the water, the aircraft’s long range transmitter would not work.

If the pilot announced he was going to ditch the aircraft into the water, then the radio operator began transmitting the position of the aircraft in Morse code using his telegraphy set as well as verbally transmitting “Mayday” in a constant stream. War made all of this more difficult.

In World War Two, British planes over Western Europe were often attacked by German fighters. If the RAF bomber had sustained critical damage in the engagement and could not remain in the air long enough to make it home, then the pilot would ditch into the English Channel.

Sources: Shot Down and in the Drink: RAF and Commonwealth Aircrews Saved from the Sea 1939 to 1945 by Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork (published by the National Archives of the United Kingdom in 2005) and from the Imperial War Museum.

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1942. Canadian PO (A) S Jess, wireless operator of an Avro Lancaster bomber operating from Waddington, Lincolnshire carrying two pigeon boxes. Homing pigeons served as a means of communications in the event of a crash, ditching or radio failure. (Photo and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. Official RAF photo)