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Thinks He’s a Bird

From Postal Clerk to Pathfinder Pilot

(29 customer reviews)
Authors: Ian Campbell
10/Jan/2022
Military History, World War II
456
Paperback
153mm x 230mm
9781922615152
$32.99

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A remarkable and powerful story of indomitable human spirit, passion and courage.

In 1941 when Keith Watson, a teenage postal clerk from country Queensland, enlisted in the RAAF, he had absolutely no idea what he was getting himself into. The following four years were an adrenaline-filled ride of love, loss, mateship, ambition, courage and sacrifice, all recorded in an intimate 800-page diary.

This is an account of how war tests character and puts the young on an accelerated path to maturity. From childhood and his first inspirational flight to his emergence as an elite Path Finder Force pilot, Keith’s story is compelling and tragic, yet uplifting. He confronts constant death and injury, challenges authority, learns to skipper a crew and finds his trademark humility running headlong into ego and ambition.

Keith’s graphic accounts of Pathfinder missions bring a deepening sense of the relentless physical and psychological toll on the crews of Bomber Command. Counterbalancing these experiences are Keith’s relationships with wartime mates, the woman who loved him, and the UK families who sacrificed much on his behalf.

Based on material never before released, Thinks He’s A Bird is a stunning account of service, sacrifice and two enduring and competing passions – flying and Norah, the love of Keith’s life.

Ian Campbell

Ian Campbell

Ian Campbell has had a lifelong interest in military history. He has History qualifications from ANU. After a varied career in the government, private and not-for-profit sectors, he is now engaged in a range of projects. These include archival and research work at the Queensland Air Museum, with the RAF Pathfinders Archive in the UK […]

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29 reviews for Thinks He’s a Bird

  1. A story rich in detail and heart told with an authenticity all Australian aircrew deserve. Campbell is a biographer to watch.

  2. This is a wonderful read! An engaging story told with insight, detail, humour and a seasoned craft for seamlessly weaving back and forth between diary entries, letters and the author’s descriptions, knowledge and observations.
    Throughout the manuscript I was reminded that the airmen were not just pulled off the street for the air force. Their intelligence, skill, attention to detail, patience, nerve and determination to get it right made them a cut above. Keith’s description of the Darmstadt op is an amazing read even though it was devastating and controversial.

    So many thought-provoking, educational, mentally visual and factual reminders of why these stories are so important to record, remember and revisit.

  3. Members of the public, both old and young, are often hard pressed to name even a few of the great commanders of World War Two. Indeed, the major battles of World War One and Two are often confused. In many families, there may be vague recollections of members who served overseas. Movies and television can be useful, but a book such as “Thinks He’s a Bird” helps to remedy these gaps of knowledge. I believe the overall appeal of this book is the judicious narrative blend of personal, intimate anecdotes and detailed description of technical and operational material. Keith Watson may not have been a famous, great commander, but he served his country significantly in World War Two. I feel the public deserves the chance to read his life’s story.

    The author has compiled a most attractive book, whose logical course is remarkably easy to follow. Valuable extras such as photos, family trees, tables, a glossary, a bibliography and an index are provided. Readers will particularly appreciate the lively, passionate scholarship and obvious technical skill in its creation. These considerations are all important as the national Australian Curriculum makes the study of the World Wars mandatory for Years 9 and 10. Often, assessment calls for the creation of authentic materials such as diaries and dealing with the realia of service life. So much of this book is drawn from such sources! I can heartily endorse such a book, with its worthy goals and content.

  4. The author has managed to make Keith ‘live’. I feel like I know him. The author’s ability to meld Keith’s character with the minutiae of the operations is brilliant. For those interested in World War II history, or for that matter the psyche of personal development in extremely stressful situations, the book will inform and entertain.

  5. As an English teacher reading Dad’s diaries, I asked myself what motivated him as a young man to write in such a compelling way about his training and time as a Pathfinder. Most young men his age were too busy living and trying to avoid death to stop most nights to faithfully record their day as my Dad did. Obviously there was therapeutic value in recording his joys, fears and hopes for the future. I believe his intended reader was himself as he didn’t think he would survive based on the terrible rate of fatalities for pilots. Because of this perception of privacy, he was refreshingly honest and open about expressing his emotions and great love for the families in England who helped him survive the trauma. Dad shared his heart as well as his unique experiences.

    Ian Campbell’s research and writing about Dad’s wartime life, centred on his diaries, has faithfully captured Dad’s character, what he experienced and the challenges he faced.

  6. This is a great read, a wonderful book, beautifully written, and I couldn’t put it down. Ian Campbell has certainly captured the essence of the man. I finished the book feeling as though I knew Keith Watson.

    I have not read anything about Bomber Command with so much detail on the back stories of how they spent their time off with English families; very enlightening.

    The book will take a valuable place alongside other books in libraries committed to maintaining the memory and sacrifices of a very brave band of men and will become a great reference source.

  7. This compelling book is a revealing portrayal of the multiple facets of war – the heroic and unheroic, the exhilaration, exhaustion, fear, relief, loss, grief, love, the testing of long-held beliefs and the unconditional support given by many British families to young men fighting away from home.

    The stark reality of what these bomber crews faced day after day is very confronting. Yet the story is told with humour and a deep empathy with the young, elite pilot.

    Highly recommended.

  8. Like many families of Pathfinders, we knew little about our father. To me as a child, Dad was unremarkable: a kind, quiet man, with a strong sense of duty to the community. He always worked hard in the background but spoke little, overshadowed by our vivacious Canadian mother, except when he told us marvellous bedtime stories. He never spoke of the war until I was in my late twenties, when he started to tell stories about his war exploits. The memories he had dammed up started to seep out, first slowly, then in an ever-increasing torrent.

    We did not know though, until after his death, about his secret legacy of war diaries and letters, tucked away in a water-damaged, termite-eaten box, discovered and recovered by my brother, Ken. The research Ian Campbell has done, based on these astounding diaries, has uncovered an extraordinary story of our parents’ relationship and Dad’s journey as a Pathfinder – shocking, saddening and comforting at the same time. We find that our quiet father was a hero, operating at the peak of his powers at the close of World War II. Facing death and achieving remarkable feats of bravery and brilliance daily, this Keith, like so many other Australian airmen, lived an extraordinary and exhilarating life of adventure, savouring each precious moment, before returning to an ordinary life in Australia. Ian’s book is an invaluable legacy to our family and I hope it will give similar comfort to other Australian airmen’s families who, like us, had no idea of their fathers’ war experiences.

  9. Many aircrew in the Second World War, particularly those based in Britain, experienced a debilitating double life. When not on duty airmen were free to socialise in the community, yet within hours of leaving a social gathering, they would often be in a life or death operation in the air.

    Drawn from a unique diary of Australian Flight Lieutenant Keith Watson of his service with RAF Bomber Command in UK, this book lays bare a rare and engaging insight into the struggles of a young pilot to fulfill his role, and cope with a dual life.

    Ian Campbell has constructed a most revealing picture of how someone became a bomber pilot, the toll it took, and the price that had to be paid.

  10. With characteristic resolve, caution and wry interpolation, Ian Campbell’s skill in telling Keith Watson’s wartime story is exemplary.

    In peacetime or at war, Keith Watson was destined to be in the air. Campbell’s sensitive and compelling narrative of Watson’s enduring love of flying and the frequent juxtaposition of the young airman’s perilous experience ‘on ops’ with ‘the haven of normality’ away from base reveals a world most of us could barely imagine.

    The bitter-sweet paradox of ultimate success and almost certain death for him and his crew was not lost on Watson, the novice turned expert bomber commander. It is no wonder, then, with the constant ‘psychological and physical battering’ airmen suffered, that he relied so much on the sustained love of strangers on the ground, as well as the antics of young men on leave and the prospect of a beautiful wife-in-waiting, to save him from mental and physical disintegration.

    ‘Thinks He’s a Bird’ doesn’t celebrate the triumphs or ingenuity of war; it honours the resilience of the human spirit in ‘extraordinarily dark times’. It is a must-read for all, not least flying and aircraft enthusiasts.

  11. ‘Thinks He’s a Bird’ is one of those books that once you become entrenched you don’t want to put it down. The author has done a tremendous job capturing the story of a true life adventure of a young boy’s dream to become a pilot. To fulfil that dream he joined the RAAF in the hope of becoming a fighter pilot to help with the war effort of WW2 in the United Kingdom.

    The story has many branches – each of which gives you a feeling of being part of the journey. It is not just about how he became a pilot of the elite Path Finder Force of Bomber Command. The story is very much about his personal and social life and the emotional rollercoaster that went with it.

    Many of these brave young men who went to war never returned and those who did were reluctant to tell their stories as they thought no one would be interested. How wrong they were.

    Luckily some did record their stories and the subject of this book kept a very detailed record which makes this book such a great read.

  12. You think of war as a terrible thing – and of course it is. But reading the amazing story of Keith Watson, you realise that there are so many grey areas as well. Keith discovers not only his love of flying but the love of his life in Norah. The shocking loss of life around him is balanced by the bonds he develops with his mates. The impossibly dangerous and exhausting bombing operations he (sometimes barely) survives are balanced by the many British families that welcome him into their homes as though he was their son.

    Keith’s journey from a boy in rural Queensland to a highly qualified path finder pilot is beautifully told. Keith’s own diary entries and letters home are masterfully woven into the story so that you truly get a sense of the man that he was. The only thing that you have to keep reminding yourself is that he is still in his early 20s by the end of the war!

    I loved every page of this book. I thought it would be an interesting historical account of World War II, but it turned out to be so much more. What makes a person who they are? How do people react when put under extreme pressure? How does someone come back to a “normal life” when they experience the very best and very worst at such a young age? ‘Thinks He’s a Bird’ is a memorable book that I was sorry to finish.

  13. An extraordinary tale of a bygone era. Far from being a dry account of wartime heroics, ‘Thinks He’s a Bird’ is a beautifully written account of the juxtaposition of the wartime experience of a very young Australian lad from a strict Methodist rural community, transported to another world as an elite pilot in Bomber Command who just loves to fly.

    In all its graphic detail, the reader is given an insight to the incredible excitement of the wartime exploits of a very young pilot coupled with the meeting of the love of his life and also the very real mateship that developed with his wartime mates.

    This is also tempered by the reality of losing a third of his cohort not only in raids over Germany but also in flying accidents that were all too common. The unsung heroes that we have very rarely heard of is the generosity of the English families who took him and his mates in to their homes and their hearts.

    Ian Campbell brings alive not just a fascinating wartime biography but also the complexities of the wartime experience not just for the participants but also for the families back home in Australia, the families in Britain who took these boys into their lives, and the women who hoped that their sweetheart would survive the war and come back to them.

    A must read for all of us fortunate enough to have been born in an era of relative peace where the concept of another world war is inconceivable, yet brought all the more conceivable with the rise of the Chinese modern day aggressor now in our backyard.

  14. A great read about Flight Lieutenant Keith Watson’s service with RAF Bomber Command in the UK. My father-in-law John Goulevitch DFC also served with Bomber Command as a Lancaster pilot in 460 Squadron. Lots of parallels. I love the way you’ve laid out the book. I always look for a good Index and you have excelled by breaking it up into categories. And there’s a Glossary and I like the way you have laid out the Characters at the start and the Maps and the Appendices, End Notes and Bibliography. Well done.

  15. I am not a military history buff; in most of the books that I have read the emphasis has been on the detail, to the extent that the work becomes bogged down in facts, at the expense of the story.
    Not so with ‘Thinks He’s a Bird’, which to me is much more than that. As well as a flying story and a romance it is an amazingly insightful analysis of one man’s struggle to do his duty and maintain his sanity in the surreal environment that was Bomber Command in WW2. Towards the end of the war it appears to me that Keith was dangerously close to becoming a victim of PTSD. That he survived to make a success of his marriage and his post-war career is a testament to his upbringing and strength of character.

  16. This is a very rare book indeed! Based upon Keith Watson’s numerous and meticulously kept wartime diaries, Ian Campbell has managed to weave a story that will interest both the aviation enthusiast and those who love reading life stories.

    Keith’s character of quiet determination to always be the best evolves from his early years at home in Queensland, through his early, rigorous and demanding training on different types of aircraft to finally reaching the pinnacle of flying Lancasters for the elite Path Finder Force. His need to escape the stresses and strains of training and operational flying leads to many visits to local families where he develops a growing love of the British countryside and people. The frustrations and anti-climax of peacetime are clearly conveyed but his plans of bringing his bride-to-be Norah from Canada to Australia and their marriage of 58 years together provides a satisfying end to this engrossing tale.

    From my own perspective as an aviation researcher, I found Keith’s detailed descriptions and reflections of his training and operations particularly interesting in that his insights “added flesh” to many aspects of what the boys of their generation endured in order to serve their country in winning the battle in the air. I will heartily recommend Ian’s book to all; for me it stands alongside Murray Peden’s ‘A Thousand Shall Fall’.

  17. I find it quite rare for an author’s words to just slide easily into my brain, and often that not happening is a reason for me to put a book down. In this case ‘Thinks He’s a Bird’ was a joy to read and I went though it in two days…..! A heap of in-depth research obviously went into it, but most importantly I really enjoyed the style of writing and the verbal hooks at the end of lots of the chapters that didn’t let me put it down.
    The subject matter was right up my alley – I’ve always had an interest in all things aviation, and the intensity of Keith’s training and his experiences on his journey from novice to highly qualified and respected wartime bomber captain was astonishing. What hit me the most though, as he experiences the deaths of close friends and others around him, was the maturity of him as a 22 year-old. These were very different times, but at 22 I was barely learning how to stand on my own two feet in the wider world, let alone live a life like Keith’s.

  18. I am a WWII 460 Squadron RAAF Historian, the son of a 460 Sqn Bomb Aimer shot down as his aircraft was leaving Berlin on 23 August 1943 raid, becoming a Prisoner of War. My father died in 1963, aged only 42, due to the impact of his wounds and time as a POW. I had just turned 13 years old. He left me his logbook and a library of his war books.
    With the new millennium I started to research my father’s WWII experiences and published a book on his life. I now have a large library of Bomber Command and 460 Sqn books, including many autobiographies and biographies of Veterans.
    My most recent acquisition is Ian Campbell’s ‘Thinks He’s a Bird’, a wartime biography of his cousin Keith Watson. After reading the Foreword and the Introduction I was hooked; my ‘To Do’ list taking a back seat as I read the book in several sessions over the next three days.
    Keith left meticulous diaries of his time at war and retained his letters, so Ian basically had the story of Keith’s life in his hands – but – it shows his incredible skills as an author as it is a documentary woven into a wonderfully written story.
    Of the many biographies and the war stories I have read, I believe ‘Thinks He’s a Bird’ is right up there with the best both factually and as a story. At no stage did the story slow down, go off track nor get bogged down. It kept me enthralled right through to the end.
    ‘Think He’s a Bird’ will be a valuable member of my library and I am already recommending it to my friends and wartime acquaintances.

  19. I really enjoyed this book. I was surprised by the amount of training prior to active service.
    I appreciated Ian’s tackling the difficult (impossible) issue of Keith’s ambivalence about God intervening to selectively save some but not others.
    I have read about service personnel speaking about that period being one of the richest relationship periods in their lives and almost nostalgic about their war service time in terms of close friendships. This book helped me to comprehend that.
    The regular coupling of the spiritual lives with the practical and emotional help offered by families in Great Britain was an encouraging reminder of what it is to live Christianly in all circumstances and how important hospitality is.
    I appreciated the insights into the Methodist background as it’s one I’m very familiar with, though without the dominant father. It obviously proved to be a valuable heritage for Keith.
    I also enjoyed the familiarity with many local places mentioned, Traviston (Burrum Heads) and the cities and towns in Queensland.
    Overall, the book has given me something more to reflect on and an appreciation that I missed having to serve in the forces. I can’t imagine the generally unspoken terrors, fears and emotions experienced for years after.

  20. A young Australian man called Keith Watson enlists during WWII and eventually, after training in Australia, Canada and England becomes a pilot in Lancaster bombers. He survives, returns home and marries his wartime sweetheart.
    What makes this particular recounting worth reading is that it is a supremely personal and individual story. The author had access to all of Keith Watson’s journals and flight logs, family photographs and accounts by people who knew him, – a mass of material that must have been a challenge to work through and present in a coherent and interesting way.
    It is the actual stories told by Keith himself that provide strength and authenticity. He writes his first-hand accounts at the end of each operational flight. Keith is mad about flying and he attains his peak performance as a pathfinder pilot who flies ahead of the main bombing force to flare mark the targets. We experience these dangerous night ‘ops’ deep into Germany as though we were in the cockpit beside him. He sees the devastation created far below in the oil refineries, factories, rail-yards and cities. He sees his friend’s aircraft blow out of the sky and comes close to death himself on several occasions. We see and feel through his sensibility.
    This is the accomplishment of Ian Campbell: to provide the necessary bridging and historical explanations but to let Keith tell his own remarkable story. A labour of love, but not sentimental, full of detail, personal. A terrific read.

    Personal note: I had the advantage of knowing Keith. We visited Southport in our sailboat in 2000. I felt at the time that he alone really ‘got’ our experience of crossing the Pacific and the revved up state we were in. Perhaps he felt the same way about us. He took a special interest in our long voyage home to Canada. We had that feeling that many who have been challenged by extended danger, lived shoulder to shoulder with death, have had. It sets one apart from the average person and is difficult to transmit. This book touches that and the difficult come down that comes later.

  21. I read a lot of biographies because I am a curious observer of human nature, including my own. In addition to introducing the reader to the life and accomplishments of a subject, and inspiring the reader to do great things, a thoughtful, intelligent biography can act as a mirror held up before the reader, prompting self-reflection and personal growth. Ian Campbell’s meticulously researched biography of Keith Watson achieves all of these things. The accounts of Watson’s flying and his wartime service, particularly with the Path Finder Force are gripping. For me, the glimpses into Watson’s personal thoughts, feelings and self-contractions through his diaries and letters are equally compelling.

  22. I cannot recommend ‘Thinks He’s a Bird’ highly enough. I read it from cover to cover over three nights and was gripped throughout. The wonderfully engaging way in which Ian Campbell writes about Keith Watson and his wartime experiences works brilliantly at a personal level, but also as a universal reminder of the trials, tribulations, joys and sorrows of a whole generation of young men who volunteered to fight in WW2 and of the families and friends they left behind. The skilful interweaving throughout the book of the author’s warm narrative voice with extracts from Keith’s own diaries offers a deeply accessible and lasting insight into the stresses, dilemmas and challenges faced by these young men both during (and for those who survived, after) the war.

    I am not a military or aviation history buff but I found the chapters on the hugely demanding training which Keith underwent and the details of the ops he flew utterly compelling. The speed with which these young men were expected to become competent at different roles within a huge range of aircraft was extraordinary. They were so young and the odds stacked against them were so high. Within Bomber Command alone, the number of deaths and casualties is a truly shocking statistic.

    I was also profoundly moved by the resonances within my own family. My grandparents (The Rev Jack and Eleanor Mothersill) were one of the UK families who welcomed Keith into their home. Their first-born son had just been killed by a sniper in Africa at the age of 21, and their 19-year-old second son (my father) was away fighting overseas. Ian writes most beautifully about the time Keith spent in Kirkcudbright with my grandparents, and whilst I am proud of the many local families in the UK who befriended Keith and his fellow airmen, I also understand how important, and even healing, it must have been for those families to be able to provide a temporary home to such a thoughtful and engaging young man when their own sons or husbands were away at war.

  23. Thinks He’s a Bird is not your regular Bomber Command book although all the ingredients are there. Keith Watson’s pilot training under the Empire Air Training Scheme is examined in detail, culminating in his selection as a pilot in the elite Path Finder Force. Quite clearly, Keith Watson was a remarkable man. His daily diary survived the war and biographer Ian Campbell recognised it as the proverbial mother lode which demanded a book. Ian has done him great credit.

    Keith Watson’s story is a refreshing change from the usual post-war pattern of gets married, starts an airline, airline fails, marriage fails. Keith made the difficult choice between his two loves rather than trying to compromise and fail at both. This is an intimately personal story that vividly illustrates the waste of war.

  24. I am the eldest son of a fellow traveller with Keith Watson through the journey of Aussie boys volunteering for the war effort and finishing up in Lancasters in Bomber Command. His name was Henry Baskerville and he had a parallel journey with Keith, both great mates of David Sandell who did all the training with them but was lost on his third mission. (David and my father, known to his wartime mates as Alan, are in Ian Campbell’s book.)

    Keith and my father both met their future wives overseas, and both came home without them, but waited patiently until they came to Australia. I have written on my parents’ grave the following text: ‘Born on the same day, but worlds apart, yet in the midst of war, two people found each other and loved for a lifetime.’ As we children all got older, we began to understand and appreciate the decision Mum made to leave a loving Mum and Dad who had great plans for their daughter, yet while loving her Mum and Dad dearly, she chose to follow her pilot across the world.

    Thinks He’s a Bird has added to my understanding of the whole drama of the war effort and the mixing of young Aussie boys with British families while they were separated from their own families. As I read the story, all that Dad and Mum spoke about to us kids over the dinner table became alive and meaningful as I realised the whole story of Aussie boys going overseas and becoming men very quickly. At the end of Dad’s life when he was reflecting, he would show me pictures of his mates who did not come home, and with a tear in his eye, he would ask: ‘Why did I get another 70 years but my mates didn’t?’ It was only through his Christian faith that he ultimately found peace from the recollections of his war years.

    To hear Mum talk of her sacrifice in leaving her loving parents in England to be with Dad began to grow and impact me as I grew up, and I honour my parents along with Keith and his wife in the journey they did in the service of freedom for all of us children who heard the stories from their parents but struggled to appreciate all that they did to give us that freedom.

  25. Over the weekend I went to the Bomber Command Museum of Canada to watch them fire up the four Rolls Royce Merlin engines of a Lancaster Bomber – the same type of plane my Gramps [Keith Watson] flew with a seven-man crew during WW2. This coincided with me finishing reading the recently released book Mum posted over from Australia, ‘Thinks He’s a Bird’, based on Gramps’ forbidden wartime journals, kept secret until after his death. It was amazing to read in such detail the same stories he told me over 20 years ago, without it meaning much to me as a kid at the time.
    Thanks to the author, Ian Campbell who did a great job sharing of Gramps’ training in Canada, life and adventures in the UK, and operations as a Pathfinder pilot over Europe. Shocking to learn of his regular brushes with death from flak, enemy aircraft, friendly collisions, frequent mechanical failures, as well as the loss of lives to both the people around him and people below him devastated by war.
    Having spent time in the countries Gramps was in during the war, even having lived near where he bombed in Germany, I’m thankful I’ve been able to live and see the world in a time relatively free of war. The way I have been able to see the world is vastly different to his experience, and I hope for the end to senseless conflict impacting people around the world.

  26. Reviews by three members of Pinner Local History Society who were born before WW2. Pinner, London, was frequented by Keith Watson during the war.

    Jennie Youle – Pinner Local History Society
    May 2022

    I am so pleased to have been given the opportunity to read this book for many reasons:
    1. Having had a father-in-law, several uncles, family, friends, and relations in WW2 and peacetime RAF, serving the King and Queen and Country.

    2. Having stayed at RAF Coningsby and RAF Binbrook, with friends in the Service, in peacetime, mentioned in the book.

    3. Knowing the Pinner location frequently mentioned in the book.

    4. I am most impressed with the publisher’s printer’s layout, and particularly with the author’s layout of glossary, appendices, indexes, etc. for info and easy understanding for readers who may not be familiar with places, technical wording and RAF and Aussie jargon!

    5. What is astonishing, more than anything, is that in spite of severe war-time food, petrol and other rationing, and many hardships and difficulties in Great Britain, an Aussie pilot and his mates (some of whom sadly were killed) took part in bombing raids over Germany and Norway and yet managed to enjoy themselves and travel unhindered in our country, and they were able to make many British friends, who gave them unstinting warm welcomes and hospitality, including a Pinner family. Keith Watson’s personal diaries are a real eye-opener in their interesting and moving details.

    6. I have a huge vested personal interest in anything to do with the RAF because I was married in St Clement Danes Church, which is the official RAF Church since being rebuilt and re-consecrated after war-time bombing; our children were christened there; we are Members/Friends and attend many services and official functions.

    7. So it is with great pleasure and admiration I heartily recommend this book to readers of all generations, particularly to learn what can be achieved by a young unassuming Aussie far from home, and his mates, and thousands like them, serving our country. What an inspiration! Jolly good show, chaps!

  27. Anthea Boothman – Pinner Local History Society
    May 2022

    Pat Clarke has asked me, as a long-time resident in the parish of Pinner, with a fairly good memory of the area during the Second World War to write a critique of this book, which I was delighted to do. What Pat could not have known is that I have a remote connection to Bomber Command in that my uncle John Boothman was stationed in Lincolnshire Bomber Command in 1940 and that his son Patrick also served in Bomber Command. Patrick was an Air Cadet in 1939, hoping to make the RAF his career as had his father. He secured training in St Andrews, home of golf, before continuing and completing his training in South Africa. He would not have met Keith as, once trained he was stationed in the Middle East and North Africa. My uncle being a long-serving officer moved on from Bomber Command in 1941.

    With this background I found the information on training very interesting. I had no idea how many different subjects the trainees had to master, not ‘just’ the actual flying of an aircraft. I think the bomber pilots were to some extent overlooked when it comes to the adulation the Battle of Britain fighter pilots received. They were all so young to have the responsibility of not just an aircraft but the crew and the cargo as well. I had heard of Pathfinders but was not aware of the significant extra danger they were in and their role in pinpointing the target for the following ‘planes. The losses of crew are horrifying.

    I think Keith’s Methodist upbringing helped with his work ethic, thought for others, and moral outlook. He obviously wrote regularly to his family in Queensland and his short meeting with Norah in Canada was matured into a long standing romance by correspondence. He endeared himself to the various families he visited by his love of their children and readiness to ‘chip-in’.

    Chapter 18 mentions the excitement at the news of the D-Day landings. I remember the excitement too as here in Pinner we were woken by the drone of aircraft engines although we couldn’t see them. The eight o’clock news said nothing so I went to school excited but unsure. My mother listened to the nine o’clock news, when our suspicions were confirmed that, at last, we had returned to Northern France.

    I hope this book is read by a wider audience than those with a flying background. It shows the hard work both physical and mental involved in flying, the appalling loss of comrades through air accident and the constant worries of highly trained aircrews, so different from the often sanitised version in film and on television.

    Keith Watson and Patrick Boothman were born within a day or two of each other, served in Bomber Command and survived the war. Sadly, Patrick was killed in a flying accident in 1946. This book shines a light on the life of an officer serving in the RAAF, from his home country, his arduous training, zest for life and his growth from a late teenager to a mature man, ready to enter marriage and settle down. I am glad he enjoyed some home from home stays in Pinner.

  28. Patricia Clarke – Pinner Local History Society
    June 2022
    (Background: wartime evacuee from central London to Salisbury with some war-time visits home; father conscripted into the army, rising to rank of sergeant but no overseas service.)

    This is an account of the training and missions of an Australian pilot in WW2, based upon his own diaries, and set out very clearly by the author. There is extensive coverage of Keith’s air service training, almost too much, but it does illustrate a calm and thorough personality such as was obviously needed and such as he seems to appear in photographs. The diaries clearly were his outlet, though only occasionally does he raise excitement.
    The book is illuminating, astonishing almost, in many ways. There is the sheer cost and time of producing a wartime pilot, a good two years of slog and expense. There is the time, effort, expense and real good-heartedness of the very many, mostly English, families who welcomed Keith and his like into their homes in their off-duty time, a part of war-time activity hardly remembered these days. Keith’s diaries always refer to them very affectionately. For Poms who were children during the war and remember rationing, there is the constant wonder of how all those hearty meals – steaks, bacon, two or more eggs at a time – provided by their hosts were sourced. And the brief Leeds experience shows that, on leave, his was a solidly suburban and comfortable world, necessarily so, of course, because that’s where the spare rooms were and that’s where it was generally safer for valuable combatants – only generally safe though, because Pinner suffered some bomb damage during the blitz, and V-bomb damage later on.

    The book is good at showing the complexity of the bombers and their dependence on every member of the crew, though none more so than the man in the tiny cockpit atop the huge Lancaster. One can only wonder at his birdlike control of the machine during ‘ops’.

    Early post-war flights to carry POWs home reveal down below not only the well-known shocking devastation of so many German towns, but the surprising sight of the field of Arnhem still littered with hundreds of gliders after so many months.

    The maps showing the location of Keith’s hosts in UK, and of his ‘ops’ on the continent are very useful. I would have liked to be able to identify the insignia the fliers wore, especially the extra-special Pathfinders’ badge.

    Even if you are not mad about planes, it is worth reading through right to the end. But for after the war – deliberately kept private – I would so much like to know just how this particular young man, so desperate still to fly, managed to reconcile himself to Civvy Street.

  29. There have been a good many books on Bomber Command published recently, but not many good ones. Thinks He’s a Bird, by Ian Campbell, I am delighted to say, is one of those that is very definitely worth adding to your shelf.

    It tells the story of Keith Watson, a young man from Queensland, who after the usual pattern of training overseas ultimately arrives in the UK to join Bomber Command before volunteering for Pathfinder Force (PFF), the corps d’elite.

    Describing the story in such simple terms, however, immediately does the story a gross disservice, because it is so much more than the standard bomber pilot’s biography. It is both poignant and funny, sad and uplifting in equal measure. It manages to weave in considerable detail of what life was like for a journeyman crew in training and operations with a front-line squadron with what was happening outside of Service life, relationships both inside and beyond the station and how, for example, a chance meeting while hitching a lift by the side of the A1 can lead to a lifelong friendship being forged!

    For those who have little or no knowledge of Bomber Command, Thinks He’s a Bird is a great way of finding out more about what these brave men went through, and the often perilous training they had to undertake at the various AFUs, OTUs and HCUs dotted around the UK, often in some of the most inhospitable places. Factual detail is complemented by first-hand memories from Keith’s contemporary diary and subsequent interviews and is the stronger for it.

    Whereas some books are wont to gloss over the training, perhaps in fear of boring the reader or wishing (with understandable logic) to spend more time on their (‘more exciting’) operational flights, the author almost appears to take the contrary view and should be congratulated for it. Even as, dare I say it, an experienced author and – first and foremost – an avid reader of anything Bomber Command, I didn’t find myself speed reading to ‘get to the good bits’. The author’s easy style, helped by some intelligent editing, made this a very comfortable and enjoyable read from start to finish.

    What I particularly enjoyed was how – intentionally or otherwise – the book helps to explode some of the myths of Bomber Command generally and Pathfinder Force specifically. The way, for example, that the pilot rejected one of the crew as not being up to the mark, which flies against the generally held belief that every crew was an unbreakable unit like a merry band of modern-day musketeers. They were not: tensions among crew members could easily spill over into something worse; personalities often clashed; competency and skill were not a given. Some were not up to the job.

    Pathfinder Force, similarly, was not the well-oiled machine it is sometimes made out to be. Chaos and disorganisation were constant spectres at the feast, as evidenced by Keith’s own experiences in joining PFF.

    Having initially been identified as ‘gen’ crew in training (usually because of the skill of the pilot, navigator and air bomber (PNB) team), he did not go straight to PFF as was usual. (At one stage of the war, one third of new PFF crews were drawn direct from training, with the remainder taken from crews that were currently operating or those returning from a ‘rest’). Instead, he is posted to a Main Force squadron prior to being posted to the Pathfinder Navigation Training Unit at Warboys. But even when he does finally commence his PFF training, he is sent back to Main Force, owing to an administrative foul-up. It transpired that 5 Group had sent down too many crews for training – undoubtedly the result of a miscommunication between 5 Group and 8 Group (PFF), which was similarly no doubt a by-product of the enmity that existed between the respective AOCs – Cochrane (5 Group) and Bennett (8 Group).

    So is there anything wrong with the book? Nope. Not as far as I can see. It is long, which when your glass is half full means you’re getting excellent value for money. It’s a shame it’s not a hardback, or that the quality of imagery isn’t better, but that’s only a minor issue, and in fairness – as a paperback – I would argue the production is as good as you will find. There are a few very minor points I could take issue with, but to do so would be churlish. This is a thoroughly enjoyable, well researched and well-written book which deserves every success.

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