Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The 'canonisation' of an author

I read with growing incredulity the apparent ‘canonisation’ of the late English Eighth Air Force historian Roger A Freeman on Facebook.

It seems that many there think that the man could do no wrong, his writings should be regarded as delightful pearls of wisdom handed down to the uninitiated and uneducated masses from on high and that in his spare time he would walk on water. 

As the Engineering Director of the East Anglian Aviation Society, one of the three organizations that founded the aviation museum at Duxford (once home of the 78th Fighter Group) near Cambridge, England I came in contact with the man, and sadly having known him, I can say for certain that was not the case.

In the early 1970s – some 40 years ago now – Freeman produced three major works on the Eighth Air Force –‘The Mighty Eighth’, ‘Mighty Eighth War Manual’ and the ‘Mighty Eighth War Diary’, a trilogy of books that many have come to regard as being the ‘bibles’ of the 8th Air Force.

At the time of production they appeared worthy of that accolade, but for those who care to look deeper, they have not stood the test of time well.

In order to explain what I mean, let us look at how Freeman deals with one aircraft - possibly the most famous and well-documented aircraft of the so-called ‘Mighty Eighth’, B-17F 41-24485 Memphis Belle. 

When Memphis newspaperman and journalist Menno Duerksen was researching his ‘Memphis Belle - Home at Last’, one of the people he contacted was Freeman. 

In a reply dated February 6th 1987 to a letter from Duerksen querying mission completion dates between the ‘Memphis Belle’ and the 303rd Bomb Group’s B-17 ‘Hells Angels’, Freeman revealed some interesting information and made some even more revealing points about his own work. ‘ information as used in ‘The Mighty Eighth’ was based on squadron and group reports and PR handouts rather than an actual count of missions completed from the individual mission reports. In fact, that information was still restricted when I put ‘The Mighty Eighth’ together. Indeed, knowing the liberties that were taken by the PR people, nothing short of the examination of each individual mission record would satisfy me that the date was correct.’

So, it seems that the renowned The Mighty Eighth - first published in 1970 - was written using an undisclosed percentage of Eighth Air Force Public Relations material. This is clearly an admission IN THE AUTHORS OWN WORDS that he was well aware that some of the data contained therein was ‘suspect’ to say the least! In the same letter Freeman goes on to drop another bombshell and suggest what he thought was really needed. ‘... I have never had the opportunity to verify this, but it does show that to arrive at some hard facts on this subject it would be necessary to review the individual aircraft records of the three groups’ operations at this time’. 

Now it may well have been the case that much material was still restricted from public sight when the book was first published - but why had Freeman not made any attempt to get more accurate information in the ensuing seventeen years up to the time of writing that letter?

This is proof that in early 1987 Freeman had STILL not verified the mission dates. Yet less than a year earlier he had supposedly revised ‘The Mighty Eighth’, but the caption to a photograph on page 50 was still the same ‘...First B-17 in the 91st BG to complete 25 missions, she was also the first in the VIII BC to be returned to the USA with her crew’. Even at that time it was commonly known amongst aviation historians that both statements in that caption were incorrect.

As an author and historian who for many years has been involved with the historical aviation movement, I looked long and hard at what had previously appeared in both print and the visual media before deciding that leaving the material unchecked and/or not corrected simply did not do justice to the aircraft or the men involved. It was attempting to correct these ongoing ‘innaccuracies’ that drove me into writing.

A number of English aviation historians already knew that much of the information which had appeared was suspect - but the discovery of Freeman’s admission about his own work and the contradictions about what he had still not done regarding checking individual mission logs, despite making such a definite statement about the Memphis Belle, came as something of a shock to say the least!

If Freeman could allow such a caption containing apparently ‘unchecked’ information to appear - in not only the first edition which was understandable, but also the revised 1986 edition where he had a perfectly good chance and plenty of time to correct it, then what else was ‘in error’ in the trilogy of so-called ‘bibles’ of the American Eighth Air Force?

As it turned out, quite a lot was.

Even by 1994 when Roger Freeman co-wrote ‘Claims to Fame The B-17 Flying Fortress’ with Steve Birdsall which, according to the title’s own dustjacket in a paragraph relating to the Memphis Belle, was a method of ‘... correcting inaccuracies on the best known Fortress.’ Not only did they still manage to get the date of the King and Queens visit to Bassingbourn wrong but they also contradicted themselves. On page 78 they have the Memphis Belle crew starting the bond tour in Washington DC on 9 June. Further on, in one of the photo-sections they have a caption that states that the crew were presented to Generals Eaker and Devers at Bovingdon airfield in England on the same day!

Waiting for over 24 years and still not have found time to update the records goes beyond laziness!

Then, in 1999 I was in discussion with my then-publishers Cassels Ltd, who were overjoyed in gaining the rights to publish a paperback version of the ‘Mighty Eighth’ – I politely asked if they were going to revise it to knock out the many errors that it contained. ‘Oh no…’ I was told ‘…we want to get it out as soon as possible. We might paste over the occasional word, but that’s all’. 

That is exactly what they did and the evidence is still there to this day for all to see and spot for those capable of doing such a thing, for Cassels even used a slightly different typeface on the pasted text.

So, if so many errors appear in his work about possibly the most famous and well-documented of all Eighth Air Force machines what hope is there for lesser known and more poorly documented aircraft being correctly recorded?

Very little hope I think, especially given the man’s growing band of slavish followers. Today there are more primary source documentation records available on both sides of the Atlantic than there have ever been and yet Freeman’s vociferous ‘followers’ appear only interested in regurgitating 40 year old ‘facts’ as quoted by the great man and attacking anyone who dares to question what he recorded.

It concerns me that this blind acceptance is doing untold damage for future history!

Immediately after I posted it on the Eighth Air Force Historical Society (Official) Facebook page sure enough I got attacked - 'how DARE I say such things against the memory of such a man who cannot reply back?' 'It seems that I am jealous, bitter and twisted... etc etc etc. Funny thing though - not ONE person said I was wrong!