A five-minute interview with Andrew R.B. Simpson,
author of ‘Ops – Victory at all Costs’
The Tattered Flag spoke with Andrew Simpson, author of the acclaimed ‘Ops – Victory at all Costs’, a compelling and emotive account of the experiences of the crews of RAF Bomber Command (see Our Books page). Peter Davies of The Times wrote that ‘the human dimension to the struggle in the skies… is at the centre of the book.’
Andrew trained as an architect and has an Honours Degree in History. He served in the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve, while his great grandfather on his mother’s side was the oldest serving Royal Navy officer during the First World War and was awarded the OBE. A Friend of the RAF Association, he has been interested in aviation and the Second World War since an early age. His fascination with T.E. Lawrence led to his first book, Another Life: Lawrence after Arabia (2008), which formed a full length examination of Lawrence’s life after the First World War and his time in the RAF.
As a second book, Andrew set out to record his late father’s experiences as an Australian Lancaster pilot in World War Two. As part of his research, Andrew contacted over 300 veterans of Bomber Command and interviewed some 20 or so personally to find out more about their experiences. Here, he talks to us about his book.
The Tattered Flag: Andrew – very many thanks for agreeing to talk with us. Perhaps you can tell us what prompted you to embark upon such a major work as a book on Bomber Command?
Andrew R.B. Simpson: ‘Ops’ had its origins way back in the 1980s when I wrote an article on 460 Squadron, RAAF, for the Aeroplane magazine that was never actually published. I had a lot of talks with my father, Laurie, about his experiences in Bomber Command and as a POW, but I knew that because so many other veterans had similar experiences there was very little chance of a book being published.
I’d always been interested in writing ever since I was quite young and have, since about the age of nine, been an avid book reader. I can’t understand people who don’t read, for I feel that books enlarge the mind – a bit like travel.
If there was any inspiration for ‘Ops’ it was an American biographical war story called Flags of Our Fathers about the experiences of John Bradley’s father in the Marine Corps on Iwo Jima. Of course this was an entirely different subject, and a different theatre of war, but the type of research he was doing – interviewing veterans, using diary sources etc – was similar to what I ended up doing. The fact that it was a best-seller was incidental.
TTF: So when you eventually started writing, how did you find the process?
ARBS: The writing of ‘Ops’ was very haphazard as, initially, I had very little idea about how it was going to develop. The only real original sources I had were my father’s Service Diary from World War Two and his RAAF Flying Log Book, plus some taped conversations I’d kept. But these were hardly sufficient for a full length book. I was aware that there was a lot of competition ‘out there’, and so I felt there was, initially, little chance of it getting published.
The other main trump I had in my hand was the complete membership list of the RAF Ex-POW Association, of which my father had been the local secretary (nobody else wanted to do it). And so very early on I wrote literally hundreds of letters to as many members of this as I could.
TTF: How was the response?
ARBS: Well, of course, quite a number of them had died by then, so I kept getting letters from widows and sad relatives that only contained patchy biographical details. Of all the replies I received only one was acerbic: I was ‘besmirching the name of such great heroes for my own gain’ etc. I think the chap actually served in the medical branch of the RAF and so was on non-flying duties. Nobody else seemed to mind. But his assumption was entirely wrong: money didn’t come into my thinking at all at this stage; I simply wanted to produce a memorial to all the chaps who died, and record the great deeds they’d performed.
TTF: But did you manage to conduct personal interviews as well?
ARBS: Yes. I was fortunate that five of my father’s personal friends who lived locally were willing to share their experiences, which helped. Although many veterans sent me their own personal memoirs, there really isn’t any substitute for meeting people face-to-face, when you can get a better picture of what they experienced, and ask questions at leisure. The main problem was that time was getting short, as many of them were in their late eighties, so I had to find as many as I could before they passed on. In fact, unfortunately, five or six of them died after I’d talked to them. The other problem was a logistical one: I was restricted by geography, i.e. I could only visit those who were in limited range. Obviously the further away they were the more costly and time consuming it would be to visit them, and so I was not able to interview anyone north of Bristol really. I did make a special visit to London to talk to Les Whitton, who had written to say that he had been in Stalag Luft III with Laurie, and had known him personally. This resulted in a special moment for me; although Les’s memory was fading with age, he did know of two of my father’s second crew.
Andrew Simpson’s father, Laurie (third from left), with his crew at Binbrook in 1944
So, of course, the more I researched it, the more I was able to piece together a structure of sorts. Because my dad was Australian the majority of his crew-mates were from that country and, by then, all but one, Ron Searle, had died, so I really didn’t have any ‘live’ addresses. But Ron had been in regular contact and sent me a couple of lengthy emails which helped clear up some points. He had also kept a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings during the Battle of the Ruhr, which proved very useful. There was one character on my father’s second tour crew nicknamed ‘Schrocky’ whom I didn’t know much about. All I knew was that my dad didn’t really like him and that he had had a penchant for the ladies. But I knew he had originated from Townsville, Queensland and so, on an off chance, I wrote to the Mayor of the town to ask if he recognised the name. By good fortune his son, Arthur Schrock (Jnr.) was a partner in an architectural practice there and the Mayor’s office put me in touch with him. This led to quite an emotional exchange, as they were pleased someone was interested in Arthur Snr. who had died some years before. So I ended up digging up ‘ghosts’ before they all disappeared from memory. I was also able to contact one of my father’s pre-war girlfriends who gave me some insight into his character at that time. This is all detailed in the preliminary chapters of the book.
TTF: Tell me about when you came seriously to think about a book and your experience of the publishing process.
ARBS: Although I was able to produce something to send to publishers after about two years, initially I received four rejections, mainly because the material was too similar to what was already ‘out there’. Thus I became quite disheartened, and decided to print off 90 of my own A5 copies of the book and get them ‘perfect bound’. This I did, and sold them all within two weeks (all to veterans). I realised then that it wasn’t that bad. Things picked up a bit after that. I got an offer from a firm who said they were interested, but they would have published it very quickly, by the end of that year. Also my editor at The History Press (who’d published my earlier book on T.E. Lawrence) told me that the firm didn’t have a very good reputation for quality, i.e. ‘they will do it’, but it won’t be very good. That left me on tenterhooks a bit: obviously I would have accepted this if there was no other outlet.
Then I had a bit of luck. Through the RAF ex-POW association, I was contacted by a policeman who had written a book on German night fighters who wanted to talk to me about Bomber Command. I took a very rough copy of ‘Ops’ with me when I went to see him. He sent this on to Robert Forsyth, owner of Tattered Flag Press who, as I understand it, was knocked out by it. Anyway, as a result of this, I received an offer of a contract almost immediately. So I was very lucky.
Laurie Simpson’s Lancaster photographed at Breighton during the Battle of the Ruhr in 1943
TTF: Given the highly personal link between you and the subject of the book, did you feel any sense of catharsis in the writing process?
ARBS: I suppose you could say that I tried to inject my own experiences of ‘real life’ into the book. I questioned veterans about what it was really like to live in a prison camp day in, day out with other men for long periods. Howard Pearce said he simply went into ‘a shell’ to get away from things. Relationships in crews could also be difficult: if members of a crew didn’t ‘get on’, which occasionally happened, the crew was split up and they went their separate ways. Also I’d served in the ranks of the TAVR for a short time. Admittedly this wasn’t as tough as the Regulars, but it was still pretty tough. I met a number of quite ‘hard’ people, which opened my eyes to a way of thinking I hadn’t experienced before. I realised that Hollywood and the movies tried to ‘glamorize’ things that can in reality be quite bestial and horrific. This made me question what it was really like to serve as aircrew.
There was also the question of the memoirs. Apart from interviews and archive files, my main sources were letters I received and the memoirs that many veterans had written for their grandchildren – the common sad finding is that the majority of ‘the general public’ isn’t interested in these because they are all so similar and sometimes relatively dull. I received a number of these from relations, the most notable of which were those of John Nunn, Lewis Parsons, and Derek Hodgkinson, who’d been quite high up in the command structure of the East Camp at Stalag Luft III. Many other veterans also sent me lengthy letters, such as Alec Marsh and ‘Sandy’ Rowe, and helped with my questions. I felt that if I could link the recollections in the memoirs together with other sources I would be able to produce something much more interesting, which was what happened. Also, amazingly, some veterans recorded the same event from different perspectives. There was one particular incident on 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds in 1943 when a bomb dropped out of a stationary Lancaster and exploded. ‘Sandy’ Rowe’s crew was bombing up immediately next to this and he had his own recollection of the event. But also, on the opposite side of the airfield, John Nunn’s crew was just about to take off, and he recorded his impression of it: this sort of thing happened in the text a number of times.
TTF: Andrew, very many thanks – most interesting.
ARBS: Thanks. I hope your rea