Soul Editing Letter

Leaving a legacy

Book review by Linda Stewart for Scope

Reluctant Hero by John Hickman
Reviewed by Linda Stewart of SCOPE – The magazine of the Fellowship of Australian Writers Queensland (FAWQ) since 1956

‘Less than one in two survived.

These were the odds that World War 2 British bomber pilot, Bill Honey, faced for King, Country and 19 shillings and six pence a day.

His exploits are chronicled in his biography, Reluctant Hero, written by son, John Hickman.

Reluctant Hero is a realistic ‘warts and all’ tribute to a father. It is also the inside story of a working-class boy who became a Lancaster bomber pilot, the obstacles he overcame to achieve his goal and ultimately how he felt betrayed by the organisation he had worked so hard to join.

The author brings us inside the plane with Bill and his crew to reveal the dangerous, stressful and uncomfortable conditions under which pilots and crew operated and this helps forge a greater understanding and appreciation of these skillful, courageous people. At times, these men were literally flying by the seat of their pants, and Hickman skilfully takes the reader along for the ride.

The story also traces Bill’s relationships with his family, RAF colleagues and friends, and the fairer sex providing the reader with an interesting insight into the social mores of the day. Hickman has effectively captured the essence of the era.

His frank and open writing style gives the narrative integrity and honesty – whether describing a ‘knee trembler’ in a toilet cubicle or aircrew being incinerated in a plane – he does not shy away from confrontation, believing that the RAF’s high mortality rate is exasperated due to incompetence and indifference by ‘the powers’, a chain of influence which stretches from commanding officers to Churchill himself. Bill is fighting more than Germans.

The book has been well-researched, especially in the scenes dealing with technical matters relating to flying or bombing offensives. While some of these issues were ‘over the head’ of this earth-bound reviewer, many readers will find them informative.

Flashes of humour brighten the story and there are some colourful turns of phrase such as (when referring to an officer’s debriefing after a bombing mission): ‘Bill wondered if the officer shouldn’t hang a cup out of his arse to catch any excess.’

Relevant quotations at the end of each chapter reinforce content and leave the reader with something to chuckle over or ponder further.

Reluctant Hero is generally well-written. Occasionally, speech tags are repetitive and some sentences could benefit from better construction.

The manner in which footnotes are presented seems a little intrusive. However, these and other such issues are minor points and do not distract overall from the narrative.

This book should appeal to lovers of military history and memoir; to those with a specific interest in the Lancaster bombing squadrons as well as readers with a general interest in Britain during the World War 2 period.

The writer has achieved his purpose: a memorial to a brave, ambitious and sometimes too outspoken father, as well as an expose of the Establishment’s attitudes and end-justifies-the-means policies towards its fighting men. Sadly, these policies seem to survive in some form wherever people, power and politics collide.

I think Bill would be proud of his son’s efforts in telling his story.
Reluctant, he might have been .

Hero – he certainly was.’