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.

German Pilots POWs While RAF Pilots Lived to Fight Another Day

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 Wrecked German aircraft (Me 109E, He 111 and Ju 88A) in Britain, 1940

Source Dennis Richards: Royal Air Force 1939–1945. Volume I: The Fight at Odds; London, HMSO, 1953. (Official history of the RAF photo in the public domain)

One of the odds working in the favor of the Royal Air Force in the Battle Britain was the air battles were often fought over Britain. If their planes had been damaged too badly to stay in the air, RAF pilots bailed out over England and lived to fight another day.

Under British military escort, two captured Luftwaffe crewmen walk out of the London Underground, 1940 (Imperial War Museum)

German pilots who bailed out became POWs or in the acronym used at the time, “PWs.”  The pilots above would be taken to one of the interrogation facilities in London and later sent to a POW in Britain, or Canada or other places in the Empire. Germans and Allies followed the Geneva Convention protocol by notifying international Red Cross of name, rank, and identification number of men either taken prisoner.

However, if you were an RAF pilot (or German pilot) shot down over the English Channel and no one saw you go down or no ship came by, hypothermia killed within four hours give or take. The temperature of the water was about 57 degrees during the summer. (The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain)

Efforts were made by both sides to rescue pilots shot down in the English Channel but one man afloat in a small raft or just a Mae West lifejacket such as RAF pilots wore, was hard to spot. Both sides used high speed rescue launches operated by their respective air forces, float planes as well as naval vessels to rescue their men. While they would not search for the pilots of the other side, if they came across one, Air/Sea rescue of either side would rescue them.

However, a centralized and trained air/sea rescue force was not organized by the RAF until 1941. They did have float planes and some high speed rescue launches (operated by the RAF) in the Battle of Britain but without the command and control which was so much a part of the ethos of Fighter Command. It is a surprising oversight.

Obviously, the RAF had a steep learning curve to master to operate their rescue launches with any efficiency. In August of 1940, in a move of more desperation than anything else, the RAF passed control of their handful of rescue launches to local Royal Naval Commands on the Channel. Unfortunately, during the Battle of Britain pilots who ditched in the English Channel died in large numbers.

Prime Minister Churchill gave orders that German rescue float planes marked with a red cross were to be shot down over the channel or destroyed if they had landed in the water. I have not been able to determine if this were done or how often it was done.

Recycling Nazi Fighter Planes for Aluminum

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A huge scrap heap where German planes, brought down over Great Britain, were dumped, photographed on August 27, 1940. The large number of Nazi planes downed during raids on Britain made a substantial contribution to the national scrap metal salvage campaign. (AP Photo)

The German Blitz on London, 1940—1941

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This smiling girl, dirtied but apparently not injured, was assisted across a London street on October 23, 1940, after she was rescued from the debris of a building damaged by a bomb attack in a German daylight raid. (AP Photo)

Nazi Germany’s air force conducted a massive terror bombing campaign against London in what as know as “the Blitz.” 

Beginning on 7 September 1940, the German Luftwaffe bombed London fifty-seven nights in a row. By the time the Blitz ended in May of 1941, London had been bombed seventy-one times. German bombs destroyed or damaged more than a million homes in Metropolitan London and killed more than 20,000 Londoners.

 

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A shopkeeper in London displays famous British stiff upper lip by chalking “business as usual” on a piece of what appears to be corrugated paper or tin on the front of his shop. The windows have been blown out by a concussion wave from a bomb blast nearby. The two men in helmets are from the Air Raid Precaution (ARP), a largely voluntary group of Air Raid wardens. They would have been a familiar sight to Londoners during the war. (photo courtesy of AP)

Determined to show the world they would not succumb to Hitler, Londoners carried on in spite of all the destruction. Photographs such as the one above show their spirit of defiance which won them sympathy throughout the free world. And while many Londoners did carry on no matter what the Luftwaffe did, a goodly portion of those with the financial means decamped to hotels in provincial cities to get away from the bombing.

Those who stayed suffered from a loss of sleep, of energy. People displayed nervous symptoms of various sorts, drank a lot and were very scared. Yet there was a feeling during the Blitz that “we are all in this together” which united Londoners of all classes. That feeling did not outlast the Blitz.

Even during the bombing, however, class barriers remained strong. While shelters were theoretically open to anyone, that was not the case in actual practice. So, as you might imagine, there was a great difference in spending nights in the bomb shelters of the Savoy or the Dorchester, than spending them on cement platforms in tube stations–which often smelt like latrines.

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Firemen spray water on damaged buildings, near London Bridge, in the City of London on September 9, 1940, after a recent set of weekend air raids. (AP Photo)