This new edition of the Australian war classic They Hosed Them Out by Australian air-gunner John Bede Cusack is timely: ANZAC Day is coming around again next month and even though it’s not a commercial festival in the way that Easter, Christmas, Mother’s and Father’s Day are, bookshops are starting to display war stories to take advantage of interest in Australia’s military history.
They Hosed Them Out is quite unlike my usual reading fare: I haven’t read anything like it since as a teenager I read Paul Brickhill’s riveting story of Douglas Bader in Reach for the Sky and Eric Williams’ exciting The Tunnel (which became the film The Great Escape starring Paul Newman). These are very masculine stories about heroes of World War II, morally unambiguous and celebratory of courage, determination and loyalty.
First published in 1965 under the pseudonym John Beede, They Hosed Them Out is dedicated to ‘all Air Gunners who fought and died in the Second World War’. Although it is a novel, it’s based on the author’s own experiences in the RAF. However it’s not a gung-ho ‘John Wayne’ sort of story – as Ivan Southall says on the blurb:
‘ … it proves vividly what I think it sets out to prove – that war is degradation. That this is achieved not from the viewpoint of a pacifist but from the viewpoint of a man who despised the philosophy of his enemy, adds to its stature’.
It starts out in 1941 as ‘Johnny’ Beede and his mates set sail in convoy for Britain, and we can see Cusack’s style from the start. On the one hand there is the sense of adventure when they come under attack in the Atlantic, but there is also empathy for the crew of a small cargo boat that had failed to keep up, an appreciation of ‘the bravery and singleness of purpose of the fanatical Nazi pilot’, stunned horror at the loss of two vessels and irreparable damage to three others – and gratitude for the protection of Sunderlands from the ‘wonderful Coastal Command’. (p. 15-17) The tone changes again In Liverpool: there is humour about British beer and a typical Aussie’s surprise at the vivid green fields.
As you read on, the book offers the full range of emotion: there is fear because the casualty rate for air crews was appalling; there is the adrenalin rush of the air war; and there is relief at survival. With typical Aussie scorn for pomposity and rules, when they’re not on Ops Beede and his surviving mates play up with drinking, gambling and ‘wenching’. There’s rather a lot of that but the casual attitude towards women has to be seen in the context that these young men had built up a casual attitude towards people in general, in order to deal with the loss of so many of their comrades. The so-called ‘Committee of Adjustment’ dealt with it by promptly removing the effects of the dead from the barracks, and the men dealt with it with a drink at the mess and never mentioning the names of the Fallen again. It seems it was the only way to cope with getting back into the ‘kite’ and knowing that survival rates were shocking.
As you can tell from the title, there are some confronting scenes in this novel. One crash seems particularly cruel because the airman survives the raid only to die a horrible death at the aerodrome. To deal with the ever-present fog, the British had a system called FIDO, consisting of oil-filled pipes, spouting jets of flame to disperse the fog and light up the runway:
Everyone landed safely except one young pilot who hit the edge, skidded over into the soft stuff, then ploughed through the pipes, the plane finally tipping over on its nose. In ordinary circumstances this would have been only a bad shaking for the crew, but in a matter of seconds the fire from the shattered pipes climbed up the fuselage and the plane was a raging inferno. The two gunners, being smart boys, got out and departed the scene rapidly, escaping with a singeing. The pilot got out all right but stopped to see if he could help his navigator until being driven back, severely scorched. The navigator, trapped in the shattered nose, was roasted to death, his screams being heard for some minutes until the smoke and flame overcame him. (P. 221)
Cusack also tells us about his mate Smithy who survived terrible burns in a bad crash:
It was him all right, but a battle-scarred, battered Smithy. A jagged red scar which the plastic surgeon’s skill could not erase ran like a bolt of lightning from his forehead down over his nose to his lip, where it struck right across his cheek, lifting the side of his mouth in a fixed, sardonic leer. Even his cap pulled low could not hide the disfiguring burn scars which covered the upper part of his face and puckered the skin on his left cheek. He had no eyelashes and his eyes looked out from hairless lids. He was a stone lighter. Gone was that boyish charm that had rattled a hundred English feminine hearts. (P. 280)
These scenes, however, are balanced with humorous tales about time on leave, squabbles with senior officers, and a stint helping out with a harvest that humbled his pride. There are also vivid recounts of operations over Germany and the occupied territories. Cusack pauses to share his momentary concerns for the women and children below, but assuages his conscience by remembering who started the war, how the Germans strafed refugees fleeing the cities, and the stoic Londoners coping with the Blitz. He also shares with remarkable honesty the constant war within: wanting to go home and be safe, but wanting to do his bit in the battle against fascism and not let down his mates.
Overall, this is a a sobering story that reminded me how much we owe to the airmen of WW2.
This is another book that I think my father will enjoy. It’s an Australian war classic but it’s about service in the RAF, and my father was briefly in the RAF too. (I bet he looked handsome in the uniform!)
Author: John Bede Cusack
Revised and edited by Robert Brokenmouth, with a biography by Cusack’s daughter Kerry McCourt
Title: The Hosed Them Out
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.
Fishpond: They Hosed Them Out
Or direct from Wakefield Press.