Title: Barney Greatrex: From Bomber Command to the French Resistance – The Stirring Story of an Australian Hero
Author: Michael Veitch
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Published: 26th September 2017
Synopsis: The incredible untold World War II story of Australian hero BARNEY GREATREX – from Bomber Command to French Resistance fighter.
A school and university cadet in Sydney, Barney Greatrex signed up for RAF Bomber Command in 1941, eager to get straight into the very centre of the Allied counterattack. Bombing Germany night after night, Barney’s 61 Squadron faced continual enemy fighter attacks and anti-aircraft fire – death or capture by the Nazis loomed large. Very few survived more than 20 missions, and it was on his 20th mission, in 1944, that Barney’s luck finally ran out: he was shot down over occupied France.
But his war was far from over. Rescued by the French Resistance, Barney seized the opportunity to carry on fighting and joined the Maquis in the liberation of France from the occupying German forces, who rarely took prisoners.
Later, Barney was awarded the French Legion of Honour, but for seventy years he said almost nothing of his incredible war service – surviving two of the most dangerous battlefronts. Now, aged 97, Barney Greatrex has revealed his truly great Australian war story to acclaimed bestselling author Michael Veitch.
The legends, stories and tales that make up Australian history cover nearly everything about our country, and every Australian student is taught about the ANZAC legend, and the formation of this legend on the battlefields of Gallipoli and Word War One at various fronts throughout Europe, creating an image that has been carried through the decades since for each war, each battle and every serving member over the past century. In school, we learn in general terms about major battles, and about some important figures. It is the individual stories, – the heroic and the flawed aspects of the people they are about, that give our national story about our role in the wars an interesting colour and human face to them.
There are probably many stories that need to be told of the men and women that fought, but recently I read the story of Barney Greatrex, a RAAF/RAF bomber who, after being shot down over France, spent several months fighting the Gestapo in France with the French Resistance, striving to free France from German occupation and destruction – acts which would in the end, see him rescued and ultimately, France freed from German occupation at the end of the war.
Barney’s story begins in the leafy suburbs in Sydney Pymble, where he attended Knox Grammar in the decade before the war. During his time here and at The University of Sydney, Barney had been part of the cadets, something that prepared him somewhat for the rigours of military life. His training took him to 61 Squadron, and the task of bombing Germany during the Allied counterattacks. Facing enemy fighter attacks, and anti-aircraft fire night after night, each return to base, Barney was grateful to be alive. Until the aircraft he was in with six other men was shot down.
Barney was rescued by the French resistance, and joined the fight with the Maquis to liberate France from occupying German forces. It was to be many months before Barney’s family knew he had survived and was safe, and before he was able to return home, but not before endlessly recounting his experiences to the military.
Awarded the French Legion of Honour, Barney remained silent about his story for seventy years. In Michael Veitch’s latest book, he has done so. It is a story that should be read and taught alongside the stories of other heroes and battles, as it as much a part of the ANZAC story as they are, and gives a human face to a part of history that I have only ever known through statistics and facts, and that many more people may have only been exposed to through Fawlty Towers. Being able to read stories such as Barney’s when I studied Australian history in high school and at university would have made the far-reaching impacts of the war more interesting. We know the facts of much of the war, and the numbers of those who served, who died, through the Australian War Memorial and other books. These facts are, in general, not difficult to find, and are important to give background to the stories of individuals. As someone who has studied history, sometimes statistics and well known legends aren’t enough – sometimes it is the unknown stories, the stories that give the war a human face – whether on the home front, in battle or through people like Anne Frank, where war can really hit home for many people. These human stories allow people who may not have studied history, as I have to understand the war, and what people affected by it might have gone through during those years. This is why we need individual stories to be told alongside the facts. So that the ordinary people, not just the well-known generals and politicians, have their voices heard, their experiences understood.
It is a powerful story of the Australian spirit to dig in and never give up. Barney put his life at risk twenty times in the air, and then for months on end on the ground, before returning home to try and live a normal life – or as normal as he could for himself and his family. Those interested in history, military history, and Australian history can now know Barney’s story, and hopefully it is one that will be looked at in history class alongside other important battles and figures from Australia’s experience in the Second World War.
I found that the story was told sympathetically and without judgement, where Barney’s words told the story, and Michael Veitch was the vehicle that drove them out into the world. Eloquently told, and written so that it’s not jargon heavy, but terminology used can be worked out in context or looked up if the reader needs to, it is a gripping story of one man’s willingness to fight for what he believed in and keep himself alive.