Half a world away from home, a young Sydney man who’d trained and gone to England to drop bombs on Nazi Germany finds himself a member of the French resistance movement, the Maquis. As the reader might expect, his story is somewhat extraordinary.
Barney Greatrex by Michael Veitch is an interesting yarn.
Barnaby Ryder Greatrex (known for all time as Barney) was born in 1920. He was a good student while attendingKnox, “…devouring subjects in both the sciences and the humanities”. He enjoyed life in the cadet corps, being entrusted with the keys to the armoury. Matriculating with ease, he entered the University of Sydney, studying engineering.
As the Japanese brought WWII ever closer to Australia, he joined the air force, one of the 37,000 young Australians trained under the Empire Air Training Scheme. Most expected to become fighter pilots but Barney wanted to fly in bombers, to train as a bomb aimer, an entirely pragmatic decision. The escape hatch in a Lancaster bomber was near the bomb aimer’s position. This proved a flash of prescience that saved his life.<
Arriving in England, he became part of a close crew of seven in a 61 Squadron Lancaster. They flew twenty missions over occupied Europe, four times the life expectancy of a bomber crew. On the twentieth flight – meant to be the last for their skipper, the brave, decorated Flt/Lt Wally Einarson, on his second tour of operations – a German night fighter shot them down. Barney was the sole survivor, parachuting and landing barely a hundred metres from the burning remains of the aircraft. February 25, 1944, was a date that would not fade from Barney’s memory.
With care and luck, he managed to find a house in a French village whose residents proved sympathetic. From this point on, Barney – although expecting to be passed through the underground into Switzerland or Spain and thence back to England – became a member of the Maquis. Papers were prepared providing a new identity, Jacques Clapin, a deaf-mute mechanic!
He became involved with a Maquis group near the village of La Bresse in the Vosges Mountains. They gladly accepted a downed Australian in their midst but were forever on guard against not only the Germans but Frenchmen with allegiance to the Vichy government. The group became uneasy about one man who seemed to have infiltrated them. Barney went outside to cut firewood while the interloper was dealt with. Such were the times, so great the risks, no leeway was possible.
The story continues with resistance groups growing in numbers and preparing to assist Allied forces, by now landed in Normandy. Air drops of arms and training personnel were meant to coordinate and organise the Maquis. Barney found himself an important part of the effort but it was only partially successful. Too many groups wanted to act independent of others, making unity difficult. There were a lot of stumbles along the way. Barney’s participation maintains our interest in the story. Finally, the Allies arrive, but not before the Germans destroy La Bresse.<
On 13 October 1944, seven months and 18 days after being shot down, Barney Greatrex was flown back to England and then, eventually, returned to Australia and family. His war had become something different to anything he may have expected.
Barney Greatrex makes for interesting reading, helped throughout by the clear, concise writing of Michael Veitch. I found the last couple of dozen pages of particular interest.