Heroes all – the books you might have missed

As our book stack grows higher of review books, here are three books that have been waiting patiently for attention:

  • Heroes of Hamel by Stephen Dando-Collins
  • The Missing Man by Peter Rees
  • The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III – the memoirs of Bram Vanderstok

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Heroes of Hamel

The Australians and Americans whose WWI victory changed modern warfare
By Stephen Dando-Collins
Published by Vintage Books
RRP $34.99 in paperback • ISBN 9780143787600

The battle of Hamel was remarkable for its speed, the tactics employed, numerous acts of extreme bravery, and the fact that for the first time in history American troops fought under Australian command.

No other battle in the First World War can compare with Hamel in terms of its rapidity, concision and success. It lasted a mere 93 minutes.

The Battle of Hamel explores the preparations and ramifications for this blitzkreig and the parts played by six men in particular:

  • General John Monash who put his career on the line by conceiving and commanding the bold Hamel assault, implementing it despite the reservations of his British superior and the interference of American commander General Pershing and Monash’s own Australian prime minister, Billy Hughes.
  • Australians Private Henry Dalziel and Lance Corporal Jack Axford, who both won the Victoria Cross (VC) for their gallantry during the battle, and Sergeant Ned Searle (who is related to Stephen Dando-Collins), who set out to win a Victoria Cross during the battle.
  • Colonel Joseph B Sanborn, at 64 supposedly much too old for front line service, yet who, as commander of the American 131st Regiment, defied the orders of US commander General Pershing to lead his men into battle alongside the Australians. On General Monash’s recommendation, Sanborn was awarded the British Distinguished Service Cross (DSC).
  • American Corporal Thomas Pope, who won America’s highest gallantry award, the Medal of Honor (MOH), for his part in the Battle of Hamel, becoming the first member of the US Army to be awarded the Medal of Honor in World War One. Pope would live to 94, becoming the last WWI Medal of Honor winner to pass away.

Sydney Morning Herald reviewer Michael McKernan heaped praise on Heroes of Hamel, describing it as ‘a very good book. Its account of the men and the battle is comprehensive and thrilling.’

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The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III

The memoirs of Bram Vanderstok
Published by Big Sky Publishing
RRP $29.99 in paperback
ISBN 9781925675962

On the night of 24th March 1944, Bob (Bram) vanderstok was number 18 of 76 men who crawled beyond the barbed wire fence of Stalag Luft III in Zagan, Poland. He was one of only three not to be recaptured. The 1963 film The Great Escape was largely based on his experiences.

His memoir sets down his wartime experiences before being incarcerated in Stalag Luft III and then – with extraordinary detail – he describes the various escape attempts which culminated with the famous March breakout.

After escaping, Vanderstok passed through Leipzig, Utrecht, Brussels, Paris, Dijon and Madrid, before making it back to England. Each day, he risked capture and likely death at the hands of the Gestapo. He reported to the Air Ministry and two months after escaping and on 30 May 1944 he returned to the British no.91 Squadron. In the following months he flew almost every day to France escorting bombers and knocking down V1 rockets.

In August 1944 he finally returned to his home. He learned that his two brothers were killed in concentration camps after being arrested for resistance work. His father had been tortured by the Gestapo during interrogation. He had never betrayed his son.

Faced with the decision whether to continue with his military career, he chose instead to return to his medical studies which had been interrupted by war.

This is a story of incredible bravery and daring. It is a story of endurance and luck. It is the story of a hero.

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The Missing Man

From the outback to Tarakan, the powerful story of Len Waters, Australia’s first Aboriginal fighter pilot
By Peter Rees
Published by Allen & Unwin
RRP $32.99 in paperback • ISBN 9781760296414

Len Waters was Australia’s first Aboriginal fighter pilot, he flew multiple sorties during Australia’s World War II Pacific campaign, and he should have had a world of opportunity ahead of him at the war’s end, but Len Waters became the missing man in the country’s wartime flying history.

Len Waters was a Kamilaroi man. Born on an Aboriginal reserve, he left school at thirteen and by twenty was piloting a RAAF Kittyhawk fighter with 78 Squadron in the lethal skies over the Pacific in World War II. It was serious and dangerous work and his achievement was extraordinary. These would be the best years of his life. Respected by his peers, he was living his dream.

The war over, it should have been easy yet he was denied the opportunity of gaining a commercial pilot’s licence, the route taken by many former RAAF pilots, but sadly, closed to him. So instead, he became the missing man in Australia’s wartime flying history as Australia turned its back on his skills and he resorted to work such as sheep shearing.

Recognition came late to Len Waters as Peter Rees, and others before him, sought to unearth the role Australia’s indigenous population had played in defending the country.

Rees has produced a powerful and at times tragic examination of Len Water’s life. The RAAF salute by F/A-18 Hornets at his funeral would have been something to behold. It was belated recognition of his contribution to the Defence of Australia.

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