Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Guest Post: Paul Dowswell on Bomber

Another year, and another Countdown! We're celebrating brilliant books coming out on the 7th May (mostly, with a couple the week afterwards.) I'm thrilled to kick us off with Paul Dowswell, whose book Bomber is upcoming from Bloomsbury, answering a few questions about it.

Where did you get the idea for Bomber and how did you research it?

My book is about a Flying Fortress crew operating out of East Anglia during the Second World War. It was inspired by family trips to visit friends who live in a converted pub called The Green Man, in Kirkstead, Norfolk. During the war this pub was frequented by American airmen from nearby Seething airbase. 

Whenever I visit, I am haunted by the thought of these young men drinking their ‘warm’ beer on the nights before their bombing missions, when many would have been blown to pieces over places like Berlin, Stuttgart or Schweinfurt.

I like to walk the same streets as my characters, so where ever possible I visit the places where I set my stories. So last time I went to Kirkstead my friends took me to Seething. It’s an airfield now, rather than an airbase, but the main runway, and the control tower are still there.

The control tower at Seething in 2014. This is a museum now and it’s open to the public.

The view from the control tower during the war.

I also went to the RAF Museum in Hendon, London, to spend a fascinating afternoon looking at the Flying Fortress they have there.

Paul with the Flying Fortress at Hendon.

I watched the 1949 film Twelve O’ Clock High, staring Gregory Peck, to try to get a feel for how American airmen spoke, and also scores of You Tube documentaries and snippets on Flying Fortresses. Most importantly, I read many books about the air war over Europe, and the French Resistance escape routes used by downed Allied pilots.

What’s real and what’s made up?

When you write historical fiction the question often arises, what’s real and what did you make up? In my story the planes and airbase are at Kirkstead, so that’s all made up, but it’s very like Seething, which was home to Liberator bombers rather than Flying Fortresses.

In the story I wrote there are raids on Schweinfurt on August 17, 1943, and October 14, 1943. These are based on actual USAAF raids on that city on those days.

There’s also an episode in my book loosely based on the famous story of the Memphis Belle, whose crew were lionised by the American media when they completed their twenty-five missions in 1943. 

All my main characters are fictitious although I have tried to reflect as accurately as I can the thoughts and experiences of the United States Eighth Air Force crews in 1943, and the extraordinarily brave members of the French Resistance. I often feel grateful I have never had to conjure the reserves of courage required by the characters in my novels.

Why did you write about a Flying Fortress?

The B-17 Flying Fortress is a fascinating aircraft. Its Art Deco curves make it one of the most beautiful aircraft of the Second World War. Although it had a reputation for toughness and   durability, it never quite lived up to its name. Of the 12,731 B-17s built between 1936 and 1945 4,754 were lost in action. Over 1943, when casualties in the air war were at their highest, it has been estimated that a Flying Fortress crew had a one in four chance of completing their 25 mission tour. Not all of the 10 man crew would necessarily be killed, of course, when their plane was shot down. Many airmen parachuted to safety to escape from occupied Europe or spend the rest of the war in a German Prisoner of War Camp, but those are still daunting odds.

In the UK, you can see B-17s at Duxford in Cambridgeshire and Hendon on the edge of London. In the United States, there are at least 30 B-17s on display at museums, and several of these are still able to fly in air shows.

(Photo of Paul Dowswell, by David Rann.)

Thanks Paul for a brilliant opening post! Keep checking back here for the full schedule, updated daily, with tomorrow's post coming from Sarah Mussi at Luna's Little Library.

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