March 3 2015 Latest news:
Sunday, July 6, 2014
As a new book commemorates a special wartime relationship between American airmen and the people of Norfolk, Steve Snelling salutes one man’s literary act of remembrence.
It was an outpouring of raw emotion that would inspire an enduring aeronautical odyssey into Norfolk’s most memorable of wartime grand alliances. Peter Bodle recalls the moment with vivid clarity.
He had just taken over as chairman of Shipdham Flying Club and was preparing to ‘meet and greet’ a party of American veterans from the 44th Bomb Group who were making a sentimental journey back to their former base.
“At that stage,” he says, “I knew very little about their experiences. I was focused on my life and business, but it all changed when I was conducting these guys around.”
The memory of one veteran in particular has stayed with him. “I walked out on the runway with him. I’m only a little guy and he was 6ft tall and about 16 stone and when you suddenly find yourself trying to put your arms around a man like that and comfort him because he’s crying his eyes out with emotion, it cannot fail to get to you.
“You have to find out what it was that brought this on. What he went through. What his colleagues went through. Things just took off from there…”
That was ten years ago and, since then, Bodle, inventor, aviation industry entrepreneur and a man with a rare passion for flying and all things aeronautical, has been busy.
The 69-year-old founder of Swaffham-based SEG Aerospace, which manufactures and markets floor path lighting worldwide, has written 21 books in what he calls “quasi-retirement”. Almost all are aviation-linked and the majority are about the airmen of the United States 2nd Air Division whose presence was instrumental in turning large tracts of Norfolk countryside into a ‘Little America’ during the Second World War.
One of his first was a short, heavily illustrated history of the 44th Bomb Group at Shipdham. It was followed by another 13, recording in similar format the fortunes and misfortunes of the mostly B24 Liberator bomber groups that formed the great aerial armadas which took to the skies from a host of rural bases from Attlebridge to Wendling.
Originally intended for the tourist market and published under his own imprint, they all had their roots in that unforgettable encounter and emotion-charged embrace on the runway at Shipdham where he enjoyed 14 years in the flying club.
And now that aeronautical venture has spawned his latest book. Yank Bomber Boys in Norfolk: A Photographic Record of the USAAF in the Second World War has drawn together the myriad strands of individual airfield histories into a single compelling volume crammed with evocative images drawn mostly from the private archives of enthusiasts in East Anglia.
“Apart from one or two people in the States who sent me pictures, they all come from people who have spent years collecting photographs in honour of the airmen who flew from their local bases,” says Bodle.
“I don’t have a single picture to my name, but these people, without whom there would have been no book, opened their doors, their arms and their collections to me. I have just been fortunate enough to put the book together, to work out themes and linking words but I like to think that the pictures tell the story.”
And what a story it is.
In graphic detail, it tells of sacrifice and salvation, triumph and tragedy and lives lived to the full in the most testing of circumstances.
There are pictures of baseball matches at Attlebridge and cycle outings around Shipdham; pictures of burgeoning friendships and romantic liaisons; and pictures of narrow escapes and numbing losses that reflect the perilously thin line which separated thousands of young Americans from death and survival 70 years ago.
In one harrowing photograph, a striped Liberator, called Ball of Fire, is captured approaching the runway at Hardwick with a pall of smoke rising from the wreck of another B24 that has crashed and burned within sight of ‘home’.
In another, men are seen scrambling over the contorted and twisted remains of a shattered bomber come to grief in a Norfolk pasture. As Bodle’s caption puts it, “survival was often in the lap of the gods”.
Given the frighteningly high number of wartime crashes and the inescapable fact that each one represented a drama of life-or-death proportions it is hardly surprising that so many should feature in the book.
“It’s heartbreaking,” says Bodle, who has recently exchanged life in Stoke Ferry and Narborough for Penryn in Cornwall. “Time after time I was struck by how many of these crashes took place so very close to ‘home’, either on take-off or returning home with battle damage of all descriptions.”
The hazards facing aircrews were immense. “On take-off, these great bombers were ‘fully-loaded’, meaning they had a full load of fuel on board and if you lose one engine on take-off, you are going to crash. That’s it. There’s no way out of it. You can’t maintain the climb. You can’t maintain straight and level flight and you certainly can’t turn back.
“All you can do is try and chose somewhere ahead to crash land and trust to luck and skill.”
As an experienced pilot, he not only understood better than most the dangers, but was lost in admiration for the young airmen who faced the relentless grind of operational flying amid one of the most costly campaigns in the history of modern warfare.
“The risks of ordinary flying were bad enough without all that the Germans had waiting for them. I’ve got over 500 flights to my name in my own logbook and some of those were tough enough without some silly sod being extremely annoyed at my presence and throwing hot metal up at me. How these guys did it, I just don’t know.”
Among so many telling images on the ground and in the air, one of his favourites depicts a scene far less dramatic that nevertheless contrives to underline the particular dangers associated with the bomber war.
“It shows a long line of Liberators taxiing out,” says Bodle, “and in the foreground are lines of ambulances and ‘wreck wagons’ just waiting in case something goes wrong on take-off. That to me is so poignant. Yet these guys were doing that every day and when you talk to them about it, they are so modest. This was their job, just as it was the job of other men to cook the breakfast, write the reports or take care of the aircraft.”
Taken together, the hundreds of pictures offer a snapshot of their American experience in Norfolk, the good times as well as the bad, the memorable as well as the humdrum, which helped to forge a bond of friendship that has long out-lasted the conflict and which shows no sign of being broken.
Though hardly new, such themes have rarely been more movingly illustrated or more powerfully laid bare than here.
For his part, Bodle is unsurprised by both the strength of feeling that existed between local people and their ‘friendly invaders’ and the ties which persist to this day and continue to bind new generations on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Those men, by and large, came to England at the most impressionable period in their lives,” he says. “Many walked straight out of college into the recruiting office. They hadn’t had any life at all. And while they were here they learned to live, to love, to experience life and to cope with and sometimes encounter death.
“This was their growing up and it was done amid this tremendously difficult, laborious, frightening and scary war. Their learning curve was vertical.
“And in the process of all that, the English people they befriended became surrogate families to them. Their own mums and dads weren’t around. So when their friends didn’t come home, they couldn’t turn to their CO or even their buddies for support. They went down the road to the families they’d come to know and howled their eyes out in their front room while they made them a cup of tea.
“That’s why the bond, particularly among that generation which is now sadly passing but also among their children, was and still is so strong.”
He points to the various airfield museums and the efforts by people to memorialise the vanishing wartime bases as evidence of a link which he believes will endure and should never be forgotten.
Commemoration and remembrance are at the heart of an already prodigious literary output which shows no sign of drying up with further books paying homage to American ground crews and a Norfolk Bomber Command hero adding to an already impressive cv.
As he explains: “What these young Americans did was important. One way or another, militaristic extremism has, historically, spelt disaster for the world. It has to be countered, hopefully politically or economically before it gets to the ‘hot lead’ situation. But the youngsters who have no first- or even second-hand knowledge of such events must be reminded of what went on.
“When I was learning to fly, I was forever being told to listen to everybody with experience; listen to them about the mistakes they have made because you are not going to live long enough to make all the mistakes yourself.
“That’s why we have to remember - we must learn the lessons from history.”
Yank Bomber Boys in Norfolk, by Peter W Bodle, is published by Fonthill Media, priced £25. Don’t miss EDP Weekend on July 19 when Steve tells the story of how a wartime American bomber crash inspired a remarkable D-I-Y museum project in a Norfolk village.