The trio of articles on the XB-70 Valkyrie has produced a number of very fine responses in the XB-70 Facebook page that warrant a reply, but would definitely take things off topic in that area – hence placing things here!
Some of you may or may not be aware that I’ve been messing around in the historical aviation sphere here in the UK since I was a teenager. I’m one of the founders of a certain aviation museum called Duxford in Cambridgeshire, was engineering director of the East Anglian Aviation Society (EAAS) – we owned and restored to fly an old De Havilland Rapide biplane – and have been a long-time supporter of the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden. 2015 will see our 30th consecutive year of trading at their summer airshows and I’m proud to say in that time we have not missed a single display day!
I’m one of the very lucky few who has managed to translate and interest into a hobby, into a job and that has only been possible with having a VERY supportive wife!
I went ‘full time’ as a researcher and author back in 1986, having been through the hell of power politics, lies, envy, jealousy and other assorted wonderful pleasures that the historic aviation field is prone to go through – if it was just ‘handbags at dawn’ it would be livable with – but at one stage there were allegations of fraud and theft aimed at me and my wife and a good friend of mine actually spent a night in police cells after fraud allegations were made at him! Doing my own thing and not aligning with any others meant that I had a better chance of controlling my own destiny as it were!
This ‘non-alignment’ over the years has been something of a double-edged sword – it has kept me clean from any commercial tainting (I know of at least one UK author who was covertly in the employ of one American aircraft manufacturer’s Public Relations Department and who used to write negatively-slanted articles on other aircraft manufacturers under the guise of being historically ‘correct’) – but has made things harder to research.
Having gained a lot of experience since 1970, I had by this point a set of standards in place that I would apply – ‘standards’ that over the years have gotten me in all sorts of trouble with others! The best way to describe these standards and how I apply them, is to look at how I put together one book – Memphis Belle – Dispelling the Myths.
Setting and maintaining a standard…
The Belle is and was probably the most famous Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress of them all. Everyone thought they knew the story – and were happy with what they knew. It was the most written about, the most photographed – and the one with the most garbage published about this aircraft and crew.
I found myself creating lists. Lists of books, magazine articles, newspapers, TV programmes and videos about the 91st Bomb Group in general and the Memphis Belle and her crew in particular that recorded all the errors I had discovered in each piece of work. Then I card-indexed, then computerised. Patterns emerged - I could trace back ‘errors’, and see how they got repeated. However, this was ‘negative’ non-productive work. If I could catalogue others ‘mistakes’ I could use the same process to catalogue what I knew.
There was only one course of action to take - to look at the whole Memphis Belle story as if I was conducting an archeological ‘dig’ - ignore all that had been written before and go back to look at as much primary source documentation and contemporary images as could be located, then use that material as a benchmark to peel back the layers of legends, myths, mis-quotes and piles of ‘Public Relations propaganda’ in an attempt to discover what really happened. I had to become part detective, part archeologist and part photographic interpreter as well as being an historian and author - then, and only then could I try to set the record straight and also place the Memphis Belle story into the wider historical context with as little as possible of our own personal opinions included in the document.
The Belle book was the result of about 30 years of archiving material – I think many envision my archives as being neat lines of shelves of material, slowly gathering dust – nothing could be further from the truth. My archive system is on the Hemerhoidic principal.
The ‘primary source documentation’ used as the foundation was a number of official documents. First and foremost is the Memphis Belle’s original Maintenance Inspection Record - the Air Corps Form 41-B. Then there are the individual daily logs of the four Bomb Squadrons that went to make up the 91st Bombardment Group - and that Group’s daily log. It was the task of officers designated from each Squadron and a representative from the Group to ensure that these logs were completed on a day-to-day basis to maintain the highest degree of accuracy possible by recording events as they happened.
The other record is the daily Operations Record Book - known as the ‘ORB Form 540’ - for RAF Bassingbourn, also kept by a designated officer, this time a representative of the Royal Air Force. Last and by no means least is Robert Morgan’s own Individual Flight Record as completed and certified monthly on War Department Air Force Form 5.
The Daily Logs themselves almost caused an insurmountable problem. The 91st Bomb Group Association has a transcription of the 324th Bomb Squadron log for the period the Memphis Belle was with the unit. Unfortunately, for whatever reason there were some missions ‘missing’ from this transcription. The 20th December 1942 mission and the 5th April through to the 17th April missions are simply not there. Luckily I had copied the 324th BS log-book and all the other documents relating to the 91st BG back in the 1980s when these details were present and so I have a complete set of files.
I was well aware that there existed the possibility that there could be errors in these contemporary primary source records. However, if one or more record matches with the item in question then I knew that by making use of this cross-checking that the likelihood of an error is remote. I had to draw a line in the sand somewhere and use something as a baseline - that baseline was and is the correlated contemporary official records. No doubt there are people out there who will say the official records are wrong and will claim that we have got this wrong and we have got that wrong because ‘...this book published in 1984 says this’ and ‘...this book published in 1998 says that’. To those people, after all the research I had conducted, I say this - prove it to me with matching contemporary primary source documentation and I will joyfully correct the historical record. However, just to tell us ‘...we are wrong’ with no contemporary proof to back up your point, is simply not good enough!
Then there are the photographs. The Memphis Belle was probably the most-photographed aircraft of the Second World War and I located hundreds of them! I freely admit that some are not of the best quality - yes, some are fifth or sixth generation copies, but all have provided vital information. Luckily, in some cases I discovered the original negatives. For the rest, slowly I worked back to obtain the earliest generation copies available, for there lies the best clarity and therefore the best possible way of extracting information. Often though, it is not the main subject of the picture that is of interest, but the fine detail of what is going on in the background. So we have reproduced images in profusion and of a sufficient size to aid clarity - and therefore prove our point!
The biggest difficulty I faced was to establish an accurate timeline as to events. In many cases two dates to a single event have been discovered. In some cases there are multiple dates. If it has been possible to determine exactly the date - this has been used. If doubt remains, then all information has been quoted. The same practice applies to spellings - many names have been spelt a number of different ways. Where known, the correct way is used. I also discovered - and cross-correlated to my own satisfaction - at least one major event where the official record and some photographs have been deliberately ‘amended’ to reflect events in a different time frame to what really happened!
That ‘methodology’ is how I have always worked. I did it with my first paperback book on the Rapide for Ian Allan Ltd, I did it with my first hardback book on the Mosquito for Arms & Armour Press. I apply these standards for my own publishing company, and I apply the same for my ongoing titles for Pen & Sword. I never speculate in the main body of the book – I always keep that for a chapter towards the end where I think the author is allowed to express his views and opinions in a separate area so the reader is very clear as to what they are reading. If there are contradictions, I explain them, if I do not know the answer to something, then I admit it – and if I get something wrong I’ll do everything in my power to correct it as soon as I possibly can!
In the context of the Memphis Belle, the final product of my labours was a 536 page hardback book.
Some people raved over it – others called it ‘a load of tosh’ to quote one reviewer. This often happens – any author that writes and publishes something is akin to putting your head above the parapet and having your teeth kicked in – it goes with the territory I’m afraid. The book annoyed and upset a lot of people – mainly, I think because in putting it together I punctured their ‘comfort bubble’ as to what they thought they knew – many could or would not accept that.
Another huge aspect of what I do is our Airfield Focus series of books. Way back in 1992 John Hamlin, Aldon Ferguson and myself met up to discuss the possibility of my publishing company producing a series of booklets, each one looking at the history of a particular airfield. They came up with a good sales pitch to present to a publisher - a 24 page booklet, similar to the old aircraft ‘Profile’ series containing much more information that the little ‘thumbnails’ as contained in ‘Action Stations’ but at the same time way cheaper than the specialist hardback airfield histories. I bought into it, and ‘Airfield Focus’ series was born!
We’ve produced over a hundred now – and no matter which one we do, it’s never the right one, with some people complaining most vociferously. My usual method of dealing with it is to call their bluff and say if you want a title on a particular airfield doing, why don’t you write it? This often works, but it has generated some ‘interesting’ incidents.
We had one ‘author’ who was doing a Focus on a particular airfield for well over two years – now when I do one, I can put it together in about eight weeks, but not this guy. After a year, I chased him up…. No, not yet finished. After two years, still not complete. 30 months…. Ah… yes, well… we was burgled he had, and the burgler took the manuscript….. yeah… sure… right!
Ho Hum! Life is full of fun and games!