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Tales of great escapes preserved forever

Posted: 5am 23 Apr 2021

Bryn Evans' book about airmen’s incredible escapes during World War II not only preserves their stories for future generations, but also serves as a reminder of what was sacrificed for the freedoms we enjoy today. We chat with the Scarborough author.

His foray into military history, and desire to preserve the stories of those who protected our way of life, began with a eulogy for his father-in-law who had served in a British infantry regiment in campaigns through North Africa and Italy during World War II, where he was wounded but survived.

Bryn researched his story for the funeral and an obituary for his regiment’s magazine, and then started writing articles for the regiment.

“I thought I should turn this into a book,” he recalls.

One book turned into three and his fourth, Airmen’s Incredible Escapes: Accounts of Survival in the Second World War, has recently been released and was the result of a conversation with a veteran, who shared details of a miraculous escape.

“The genesis of the book occurred eight years ago with a request by a veteran of Bomber Command, Lloyd Leah. I met Lloyd while researching The Decisive Campaigns of the Desert Air Force 1942-1945, when he told me his extraordinary experience of being shot down over Germany,” Bryn recalls.

“He asked me not to write an article of his experience, but to put it in a book with others of incredible survival, and it was an obligation that stayed with me.

“Three years ago, I placed a public appeal in The Sydney Morning Herald, and invited responses from veteran Allied airmen of the Second World War, or from their families.

“I expected possibly a handful of replies. I was inundated, receiving more than 100 amazing survival stories. Of the 50 recorded in Airmen’s Incredible Escapes, 20 relate to Australian aircrew, a number of whom are Queenslanders.”

Crash at Scarborough

One of the airmen featured was Lieutenant Colonel Malcom C Sponenbergh, pictured, who was forced to ditch in Moreton Bay to avoid a collision with Lieutenant George L Austin during a training mishap in July 1942.

The pair had been flying P-39 Airacobra fighters, then based at a Petrie airfield, when one ditched in the bay and the other crashed into a Scarborough market garden near Scarborough State School.

Sponenbergh was rescued by local fisherman Thomas Larkin and his two sons. Austin died on impact.

It is just one of 50 stories recounted in the book.

“In one of the stories, Australian Flight Lieutenant Eric Maher (from Sandgate) lies supine on a Dutch beach on the North Sea, soaking wet, critically wounded and unable to walk. He would soon freeze to death,” Bryn recounts.

“Rather than allowing their troops to finish him off, or leave him to die, two German officers took off their winter greatcoats, covered him to keep him warm and alive, and with two of their men took him to a hospital for emergency surgery.”

War’s impact close to home

Bryn’s father served in RAF Bomber Command and spoke of looking at empty chairs in the mess each morning, of those who had been lost during the night’s operations.

“My mother told me of lying in bed in the months before I was born, and listening to the Luftwaffe bombers droning overhead. My mother-in-law worked for a time in an ammunition factory in London, where one night during an air raid she was blown off her feet into the road by an exploding bomb,” Bryn says.

“It was a nightmare everyone wished to forget. But we must not forget. The greatest generation left us a legacy, a priceless gift that we must always treasure.”

He says it’s a reminder, which is more important than ever, as the world faces a new challenge in the form of COVID-19.

“I think the importance is to try and put yourself in the place of the people in the Second World War in so many countries, whether it’s here, Europe, UK, Asia or the Pacific. They were in a situation in many cases they didn’t know if they would be still alive the next day or whether their closest and dearest would still be alive the next day,” he explains.

“They couldn’t plan for the future, they didn’t know when the war would end, they didn’t know if we were going to win or lose or if we’d be overtaken by the Japanese or the Germans.

“It’s things we should never forget. Because all of these people, and none of them think of themselves as heroes … they just say ‘we did what we had to do, what we were asked to do’ … but if they hadn’t done that, freedom, democracy, the rule of law wouldn’t have survived.”

Preserving history

For Bryn, the reaction of veterans and their families, and giving them a record to pass on to future generations, is what his work is all about.

“It’s a way of passing on that message. Everything we enjoy today is on the shoulders of those who sacrificed in the past,” he says.

The book is published by UK-based company Pen and Sword.

To buy a copy of the book for $35, email bryn.evans@ozemail.com.au.

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