In For a Penny In For a Pound

Winter 2004 CSANews Issue 53  |  Posted date : May 16, 2007.Back to list

As a wireless operator, Howard Hewer never became a dashing pilot, the Billy Bishop that he dreamed of becoming when he enlisted in 1940. The adventures and misadventures that he shares in his book, In For a Penny In For a Pound, though, are gritty, compelling, infuriating and often funny.

Hewer writes in a conversational self-deprecating style: "I have never considered myself a brave man. But I was put into the company of brave men, and I could not very well have let them down."

He may not have considered himself brave, but he certainly survived a lot of close calls beginning right from his training period, when he fell out of a Fairey Battle and dangled 6,000 ft. over Lake Erie, with no chute. Only the heel of one flying boot, stuck in the gun right, held him on. Howard laconically comments that he was lucky that his buddy had strong arms.

Just doing his assigned job at the radio controls in the belly of Wellington or "Wimpy" bombers, as his squadrons flew night operations over Germany and North Africa – dodging enemy flak while dropping their deadly payloads – was certainly a hazardous occupation.

One briefing, before a raid, ended on the following cheery note: "In the event that you find yourself trapped in a burning aircraft, I suggest you lean directly over the flames, open your mouth and inhale strongly. The fire should scorch the lungs and cause almost instant death, much preferable to burning slowly. Well, good luck chaps!"

His comrades all knew that there would be fewer aircraft returning from missions than those which left. Howard is eloquent in describing the horror of watching a fellow squadron bomber go down in flames, wondering which names would be posted FTR (Failed to Return). Above all, he portrays the pervasive fear, dread and fatigue of life in bomber command. He agrees with General Patton who observed, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all," but he maintains that each man had to, "find for himself a way to manage his fear."

Although he hadn't volunteered to become a wireless operator, Hewer grew to take pride in his skill at navigation, guiding his pilots home when all systems were down and above all, detecting the false codes the Nazi operators used to lure Allied bombers into landing on enemy airfields.

Howard Hewer comes across as the Forest Gump of the Second World War. He was everywhere! When he didn't get weird postings, he volunteered for weird assignments. One example was driving deep behind enemy lines for the RAF in North Africa when he could hardly drive a car, let alone a truck. He got his head creased by an Italian bullet in this misadventure; on another assignment out of Suez, his legs were crushed against his radio when his plane crash-landed on the desert after taking flak.

Wherever he was, Hewer always managed to be in the middle of the action, and he certainly got some insight into The Big Picture of the hostilities, from the European Theater to North Africa. I found his observations on some of the so-called neutral countries particularly interesting. He reports rumours (later confirmed) that the RAF had had to drop some bombs in the waters outside the Irish port of Cork to discourage their nasty habit of refuelling German U-boats. Spain was no friend to the British either. While sightseeing on The Rock, Howard learned that a tall tower on a Spanish hill overlooking Gibraltar Bay harboured German observers who recorded Allied ship and air activity. Then, he ended up down in South Africa, where he drank beer with some rich Boer farmers who were suspected of stockpiling ammunition for a planned uprising against the British. They were, but they didn't!

Hewer really captures the ambience of being in London during the Blitz – drinking tea in the air raid shelters and going to shows at The Windmill Theatre (which never closed during the worst bombing raids). On one traumatic night, Howard was knocked out by German bomb shrapnel and recovered to spend hours carrying the wounded from a direct hit on a nearby dance hall. Howard was moved by the spirit, humour and sheer bravery of the British during this, "Their finest Hour." He agrees that, "For one moment in history, the nation felt like family, (very UN-British)."

The infuriating part of the book for me was the exposure of the pervasive discrimination displayed by some pre-war RAF officers against "colonial" aircrew. The term "colonial" was used as a pejorative and applied to Australians as well as Canadians, and finally ended up in a full-fledged mutiny in Egypt.

The rebellion started when weary air crew members, flying nightly ops and living in extremely Spartan quarters, were ordered to do rifle drill and humiliated in front of off-duty ground crew by "Louie the Rat," a non-flying RAF warrant officer. When an Aussie pilot told Louie where he could shove his rifle, everyone threw down their arms and marched off to join him under close arrest. This "mutiny" of course impacted upon the service records of all involved, but the squadron made history by flying operations against the enemy while under open arrest. Hewer isn't proud of this incident, but he makes it clear that he wouldn't do anything differently and neither would any of the other surviving "mutineers."

A "MASH"- like brand of black humour permeates In For a Penny, but the book itself could have benefited from some judicious editing. There is a lot of hearsay and irrelevant material (i.e. the First World War explosion in Halifax harbour).

All in all, In For a Penny In For a Pound is a gripping tale and an important tribute to the 40,042 Canadians who gave their lives to serve.