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Thinks He’s a Bird

From Postal Clerk to Pathfinder Pilot

(13 customer reviews)
Authors: Ian Campbell
Military History, World War II
153mm x 230mm

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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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13 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.

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